Balenciaga’s bag for autumn has just gone on sale at £975 – and thanks to social media it is fast becoming accessory of the season. It’s an age-old feeling: you’re shopping online and you come across something purporting to be this season’s It item. You laugh – both at its appearance (comic, ugly, absurd) and the price tag (three figures, possibly more). You forget about it, dismiss the state of fashion entirely and get back to work. But before long, you’re thinking about it, seriously thinking about it, and talking about it – competitively – lulled in by some sort of marketing osmosis until you decide you simply have to have it.
It happened with the Vetements DHL T-shirt, which appeared in all its corporate-logo-parodying glory, and sparked knock-offs on eBay and Instagram-hashtagged DHL vans – and it’s happening at Balenciaga this coming season, with their new It bag: a posh version of Thai Sampeng bags in which you may have carried your laundry. This bag costs about £975. While it’s less of a spin on the plastic rainbow-striped shopping bags than Phoebe Philo’s 2013 blue-and-red checked affairs for Celine, and Raf Simons plastic bags for Jil Sander in 2010, it will probably go viral. Why?
Ari Spool, formerly of Knowyourmeme and now at Giphy, is a scholar of internet virals. “Fashion, and especially fashion now, love the high/low context,” she explains. “While the logo and the bag are unremarkable in one sense, the battle between high fashion and low references are part of this appeal.” The DHL T-shirt – and in theory, the bazar bag by Balenciaga, which shares a designer with Vetements, Demna Gvasalia of the Russian collective – is precisely this: unremarkable and referencing something mainstream and mass, or at least outside of fashion’s net.
It also taps into the way the internet influences fashion, with the T-shirt’s success akin to a meme, or at least having a memetic quality, judging by the shift from product to hashtag. But, as Spool explains, it’s not a meme proper “rather it’s a forced meme” and testament to “the power of re-contextualisation”, wherein something – a logo, a print, an entire product – is taken, repurposed and reproduced, which in course changes its meaning and the message. It’s a time-worn tradition. The message, says Spool, is to have a laugh at our expense: “A few years ago, Dis magazine specialised in putting commercial, everyday objects into shoots with a fashion context” – things like Crocs, or medical equipment – “and before long, people were wearing them on the Lower East Side and Orchard Street,” she says. The same thing is starting to happen with this bag – real-life £3 versions of the bag are already on Instagram, hashtagged #Balenciaga, which, though knowing in their pursuit, are also perpetuating the trend.
Memes in fashion crop up periodically. Earlier this year, a teenager printed the entire script of Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee movie (already a Tumblr-generated meme) onto a T-shirt via copypasta. Normcore, argues Spool, was memetic for a brief period before being co-opted and diagnosed by trend forecasters. In the 1990s, John Varvatos propelled the babydoll dress into infamy but was probably inspired by Courtney Love, grunge and the dime-store dress look. These are memes in the purest sense because they happen organically, accidentally and without contrivance. “Appropriation is not mimetic, it is a marketing strategy,” says Spool. “By writing about it, you are playing right into their hands.”