Rethinking the Price of Fashion

Jessie Mathewson 30 November 2015

Sometime in the idyllic, sunny week that preceded last Easter term, a friend and I found ourselves walking through Knightsbridge. After a visit to the V&A’s Savage Beauty, we were at a loss at what to do – for a laugh, wandered into Harvey Nichols. Only it was something more than the slightly-high-end-Selfridges we expected it to be. Picture the scene: two girls of Sheffield and the wilds of Aberdeen respectively, both with a strong interest in haute couture, faced with the real thing. Here were Valentino runway dresses I’d seen on my Tumblr dashboard suddenly hanging before my eyes. And, even more surprisingly, the shop was full of women who actually seemed to be buying these clothes.

Well, okay – of course I knew before that people bought these clothes in real life. And, stocked though it was with £5,000+ coats, the shop also featured items at more familiar prices. Perhaps it was the contrast between the McQueen exhibition – where his designs were shown as pieces of art, rather than wearable clothes – and this overtly commercial context. But I was disturbed to find myself disturbed by a thing I thought I loved. Unless we treat couture and high-end fashion as art (and I am certainly in favour of doing so), we have to face the reality that significant numbers of incredibly wealthy people regularly pay thousands for their clothes.

Are these people actually getting value for money? There’s no doubt that high-end fashion houses put an enormous amount of effort into their design process, and use materials of the highest quality – but that still leaves a huge premium paid for the label alone. And what about practicality? ‘It’s aesthetic!’, you say But unless you’re heading to the Met Gala, clothes do serve a purpose – to enhance and express, yes, but also to cover and keep warm. A women’s shell jacket from Arcteryx (a high-end outdoors clothing retailer) can cost up to £550, but ultimately it has the technology to protect you in a ‘severe alpine environment’. So why pay £3,000 for a Burberry trench when you could buy something that would actually keep you warm? Kensington, I suppose, is not noted for its severe weather conditions.

But it’s a free market – people can spend their money on whatever they like, whenever they like, including high fashion. It’s a free market, but it’s also an unfair one. Perhaps there’s a certain degree of naivety here; what else should I have expected in Knightsbridge? The flagship store for More Money Than Taste, aka Harrods, was just around the corner. But the real-life transactions between real-life people in the heart of London really brought the disparity home to me.

Crisis, a national charity for the homeless, reports that 7,581 people slept rough in London in 2014/15, over double the number of 2009/10. These people aren’t absent in Kensington. They’re right outside the luxury department stores – right outside, but worlds away.

The passivity of a high tax, a non-optional giving, is not good enough. Active donation should become the norm. Inevitably, I’m speaking from a left-wing point of view. I believe that those with such excess of money should be compelled to share it. I’m also speaking from an incredibly privileged point of view, where luxury fashion is something I can think about, peruse online, and even dream of owning in the distant future.

But there’s a disparity here – how does all this apply to students, who certainly don’t have, let alone spend, this sort of money? It’s a matter of scale. Living in Cambridge, where homelessness is a constantly visible problem has made it clear to me: just because we’re students doesn’t mean we don’t have the responsibilities that come with privilege. It’s okay to splash out – but it’s about time we made giving something back a natural part of that process.

Ultimately, I don’t understand how people can walk out of a fashion retailer like Harvey Nics with a large Burberry shopping bag without giving just a fraction of the money they’ve spent to the people who sit right outside. As McQueen himself said: ‘it’s only clothes!’