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Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.
Gayil Nalls Ph.D.
Freudian Psychology

High Fashion Has A New Mantra: Summon the Masses

Fashion corporations keep "the masses" consuming.

In the press surrounding New York Fashion Week, there was a curious and repeated use of the term "the masses" by highly visible people of the fashion industry. For example, in the September 7, 2010 edition of The New York Times, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Lincoln Center's first director of fashion, stated what sounds like the industry's new official consciousness transformation mantra: "Fashion, ultimately, is for the masses. The more that we can open it up to the people who, before, were only seeing it on television, or seeing it in the magazines, the more it becomes real life to them. Exclusivity was something we want to get away from." When translated, this idea, which has been repeated in closely replicated words by many others in top industry positions, means that the fashion elite are now going for the whole market, top to bottom, and to implement the latest psychology of fashion retailing, the old ropes and guards must appear to be pulled back so the masses can be summoned.

In keeping with the week's populist theme came images of Tommy Hilfiger's 25th Anniversary party at the of Metropolitan Opera House where hundreds of identically dressed male models, he called his "clones," stood symbolically outside the A-list event, frozen in formation, wearing one of America's uniform looks and a Hilfiger best seller -his version of the navy blazer with kaki pants.

It seems the economic turndown has caused fashion's top ranks to organize the appearance of toppling its traditional aristocracy of the famous and influential, and the hierarchies of high-end luxury, as an approach to revving up fashion sales. Many top designers, such as Vera Wang, say they no longer want to create only luxury couture for the super rich. There is a clamoring amongst them to harness the collective wallet power of "the masses," by translating their brand power into lines for the QVC, Home Shopping Network, Target, Kohl's, Wal-Mart and almost any other mass retailer. Some of biggest name designers that have gone down-market with Target include Isaac Mizrahi, Jean Paul Gaultier, Sonia Rykiel, Zac Posen, Proenza Schouler, and Erin Fetherston. Despite the challenges of budget constraints in manufacturing branded mass-fashion, taking priced-right fashion to the largest number of people in the fastest time has become the name of the game.

A major player is the multi-national, multimedia retailer QVC, which took to the TV airwaves in 1986 selling Sears products. The company has become a powerful force in the fashion industry with a big presence at this year's NY Fashion Week. At the QVC Runway Shows, virtual attendees had "front row seats" to its group of "signature celebrity designers" a list of which includes Isaac Mizrahi, and all of the fashion on the runway was available on As the exclusive multimedia retailer for Fashion's Night Out, Fashion Week's launch evening, QVC's consumer pop-up shop and broadcast studio at Rockefeller Center featured live programming of its "brand personalities" and sold fashion via its latest interactive shopping platforms, including smartphone and iPad apps to desktop and TV widgets, which allows viewers to be activated into consumers by connecting them with internet content while watching TV. QVC reported that it was its largest broadcast and media event ever, accessible to more than 98 million U.S. homes with "viewers really responding to the inside experience." During Mizrahi's call to "Keep on Shopping" a "special valued item" sold out in no time.

Making record fashion sales from its multi-platform live television programming and e-commerce media, the company now advises the fashion designers it features about what to design for their QVC lines to maximize sales, based on its advanced data mining capacity of its consumer sales and feedback. "The masses" may not be aware that media companies such as QVC not only gather extensive personal information on them; they also use it to shape their future fashion choices. QVC's multi-tiered, multimedia, technology-driven mass-marketing business structure is one to which many corporations aspire, like Karmallop, a global leader in street fashion, that recently announced it is in the process of creating it's own 24-hour cable channel and multi-platform e-commerce world.

Where Vivienne Tam's computer totting models represented technology as accessory, fashion corporations see technology as access to consumers. They want them to inhabit their media fashion social environments where they can meet, socialize, be entertained and consume. Social media and networking apps have exploded. For NY Fashion Week, Apple launched a dedicate Fashion App section for the iPad and iPhone called ‘Fashion: Apps for the Clothes-Minded." Joining the world's largest global fast-fashion retailers Inditex (Zara) Gap and H&M with iPhone apps are the high-fashion houses of Channel, Gucci, Fendi, Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg, D & G, Norma Kamali, Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren Collection and Polo Ralph Lauren Rugby. All have iPhone apps that offer shopping, sharing, blogging, fashion news, and send video trailers of their new collections. Anyone with web access and a credit card can buy the clothes as the models struts the catwalk. In this business dynamic to reach the throngs by casting the largest net possible, many of the great fashion voices will surely become more about plurality than the individuality they have represented.

Where Fashion Week (at Bryant Park) was once a tradeshow for presenting American fashion to the press and buyers, Fashion Week 2010 (at Lincoln Center) was largely about fashion houses producing spectacle and creating media routes to push runway hot fashion directly to "the masses" in an effort to circumvent the middle man. In what the NY Times dubbed, "public-access high-fashion" even Burberry was streaming its live runway shows for "Add to Cart" shopping, using the human appetite for novelty and show, and its seeming desire to enter the exclusive domain of high fashion, even if virtually.

As Americans devote more and more time to networking sites and blogs (22.7 percent of a day, according to Nielsen), much of it on smartphones, more fashion corporations will come up with more ways to bait, engage and bring in the crowds for in-hive consuming.

Is this all about good business in a global environment? The idea of "the masses" is, of course, not new, and these days it is easy to see that society has entered an era where all sorts of organized collective behavior and actions, in synthesis with technology, is the norm. However, with the speed by which people can view, buy, and dispose of fashion apparel, the ramifications are dire, from societal health to sustainability; The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the average American discards 68 pounds of clothing a year. It's more important than ever that we look at how we got to this point.

Over the last hundred years the American people have been taught to be consumers of excess, to buy for desire, not need. Back then, Wall Street banker Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers, lead the charge with his lofty call that, "we must shift America from a ‘needs' to a ‘desires' culture. People must be trained to desire; to want new things even before the old ones could be entirely consumed."

At this time of convergence, it's never been more important for "the masses" to gain awareness of the history of psychology and propaganda, and how present day public relations and marketing evolved from the two fields. The next time you are on your computer, iPad or smartphone and pull out your credit card, take a moment to Google and read about Edward Bernays (1891-1995), the nephew of Dr. Sigmund Freud, who is known as "the father of public relations." Bernays understood the significance of his uncle's psychoanalytical research on subconscious desire and combined it with the ideas of two pioneering theorists of crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter. By bringing together concepts of the power of unconscious desires, herd mentality, and marketing, to manipulate the public, he developed the current ideology that now shapes, influences, manipulates and controls "the masses." When the minds of masses have been captured and modeled to the point that they think they desire to spend a quarter of their day merged with other "like-minds" in an artificial consumer hive, cajoled into acts of over-consumption, it may be as Bernays said towards the end of his life– corporations are now abusing their influence over the masses at a very great cost to society.

Christine Poggi, Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out in the 2006 book Crowds: "Today's virtual crowds, which communicate through electronic media ... must be seen as linked to the rise of new industrial forms of culture and mass subjectivity."

About the Author
Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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