Fashion Détournement

How brands can hijack mainstream culture and repurpose its symbols to fit a new context.

Key Takeaways

  1. In the sartorial realm, the reuse of culturally entrenched symbols, objects, myths, and vectors of mass-production into something packaged, branded, and marketed as entirely “new” has become pervasive.
  2. Utilizing instantly recognizable signifiers of the seductive, yet manufactured pop-cultural ideal of the American Dream—whereby, in a fairytale ending, one’s private fortune meets that of the nation—designers such as Ralph Lauren render it tangible, attainable, hermetic.
  3. Through irony, brands have taken more or less successful cracks at forcing the consumer to face the uncomfortable reality of their commodity fetishism.

“Je participe, tu participes, il participe, nous participons, vous participez…ils profitent,” read one of the many anti-capitalist slogans brandished by the infuriated Parisian youth of the May 1968 uprisings. While spearheaded by anarchists, socialists and Communist party members, the civil unrest—unlike, for instance, more recent history’s yellow vests’ protests—didn’t erupt from an enraged working class claiming its due, but from a stifled and disaffected bourgeoisie’s profound identity crisis: a collective quandary induced, at least partially, by what the Situationist doxa’s patron saint Guy Debord broke down as the “the decline of being into having, and of having into merely appearing”. 

Lamenting the participatory nature of this willful subjugation to moral, behavioral, and aesthetic uniformity, the ‘68 adage has aged well—all whilst undergoing its own process of semantic détournement, going from genuinely angry to (semi)parodic, manifesting the ensuing postmodern energy (and having today’s fashion microcosm gorge on it).

In the sartorial realm, the reuse of culturally entrenched symbols, objects, myths, and vectors of mass-production into something packaged, branded, and marketed as entirely “new” has become pervasive, with its iterations varying as widely as its purposes and meanings.


In its most oblivious, bucolic, and ineffable form, detourned pillars of Western culture can be found on American titan and luxe golfcore precursor Ralph Lauren’s glitzy runways, where direct Great Gatsby revivals (long before his Spring 2012 collection of the same name, Lauren designed the costumes for the 1974 film starring Robert Redford) meet country club, white-picket-fence, 1%-chic. Utilizing instantly recognizable signifiers of the seductive, if manufactured pop-cultural ideal of the American Dream—whereby, in a fairytale ending, one’s private fortune meets that of the nation—designers such as Lauren render it tangible, attainable, hermetic. Similarly to the neo-hippie utopian fresco of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, Lauren reifies the lived, the abstract, or the collective fantasy into a representation—simplifying it, evading its less appealing sides, while successfully preserving its shine.

“I SHOP THEREFORE I AM.” “WE ARE SLAVES TO THE OBJECTS AROUND US.” “PLENTY OUGHT TO BE ENOUGH.” “YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT.” In a somewhat confusing 2007 partnership with London-based luxury retailer Selfridges, artist Barbara Kruger seemed to preempt the movement of supposed institutional critique that was to sweep the luxury and couture spheres in the decade to come. In more recent years, designs such as Moschino’s McDonald’s’ clutches, or Telfar Clemens’ flared jeans emblazoned with the word “customer,” along with various anti-advertising ad campaigns echoing Kruger’s (dead serious) brand of irony have taken more or less successful cracks at forcing the consumer to face the uncomfortable reality of their commodity fetishism and culturally lobotomized psyche. In such instances, detourned symbols of capitalist frenzy prompt an accepted, and endorsed form of humiliation and self-degradation cloaked in a veneer of dubious irony. (The closer you look, the less funny it gets.)

Sure enough, there are other tactics of commercially and aesthetically repurposing the known which serve neither irony, nor critique or fantasy, but subversion, in its most literal sense.

Vivienne Westwood, "Portrait" collection, 1990


Today, we may think of Balenciaga’s accumulation of detourned elements’ intentional failure to arouse either laughter or indignation by alluding to a reworked original—instead, the collections (much like the label’s models, and associated artistic and musical acts) highlight our apathy and radical indifference towards an object that may have meant something once, yet whose meaning has been entirely forgotten. Such subliminally offensive sartorial takes aren’t new—let us remember Vivienne Westwood’s 1990 “Portrait” collection, reacting to the 1987 financial crash with corsets adorned with renderings of Boucher and Watteau, skirting the edge of both the ridicule and the obscene in a let-them-eat-cake gesture, simultaneously doubling as a subversion of constricting patriarchal symbols such as the corset into a feminist totem.

“I think fashion is something you can laugh about forever,” Franco Moschino has said. “But in the end, it’s the most difficult to laugh about because people take it so seriously.” As history progresses and sacred tropes wither, laughter isn’t likely to come any easier.