Fashion As “Consumer Entrepreneurship”

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen linked to this essay by Jason Potts about fashion, in which he likens fashion cycles to business cycles and argues that fashion is what allows consumers to assume risk the way that entrepreneurs do. It’s an interesting read, though for me it mainly sharpened my sense of which assumptions about fashion I accept and which I reject. I agree with this:

fashion seems to be an expression of risk culture on the consumer side, just as entrepreneurship is on the producer side of the economy. Could it be, then, that a rational, open society not only accommodates fashion, but actually requires it as a mechanism of competitive advantage and productivity growth?

But rather than claim that “a rational, open society” needs fashion, I would change that to “consumer-capitalist society.” Consumerism requires fashion to sustain growth. If consumers lack the will to “explore new consumer lifestyles” they may fail to spend and begin to save, thus crippling the demand necessary to fuel economic growth. Thus fashion — consumer risk — is necessary to make us discontented with what we already have and regard it as obsolescent.

Fashion is the “creative destruction” of our tastes in things. It undermines the cultural capital that exists in the tastes that currently reign, Potts suggests, and puts new cultural capital up for grabs.

When a fashion cycle comes to an end, those who placed unfortunate bets during it are put back on a more nearly equal footing with those who were successfully fashionable. To be fashionable in the next cycle, fashion victor and fashion victim alike must pay the price of tooling up again in line with the latest trends.

That sounds sort of egalitarian, which is not how I would describe the fashion world. Each turn of the fashion wheel does not wipe the slate clean. People who “bet wrong” on fashion don’t get to start fresh with the same amount of credibility. It’s not a roulette wheel. Fashion mistakes have a cumulative weight; misjudge trends and people will ignore you next time. If you keep changing fashions in an attempt to hit a winning one, you run the increased risk of digging a deeper and deeper hole, like a liar who is trying to maintain earlier lies by piling on new ones.

And people enter the fashion field with different levels of social and cultural capital to begin with; fashion is a means to leverage those differences and make them effective. Fashion allows a status difference to translate into being treated differently, preferentially. The process of making fashion change allows those with the cultural capital to have greater say in what form those changes will take — they can guarantee that they will suit their strengths in other areas or assure that fashion serves other ends they have, like making a profit. And fashion is programmed; the industry dictates when changes will occur and has professional consultants to determine what those changes will be. They may bubble up from the street or from amateurs, but amateurs cannot validate their innovations culturally. They need to be sanctified by the fashion industry; they need to become sellable.

It is easy to see how makers of fashion-oriented product are taking risks — people might reject the goods. But consumers shoulder an aspect of the risk involved in fashion as well — and what is at risk for them is status and, to some degree, self-esteem. Fashion, Potts claims, “a mechanism to periodically liquidate certain elements of a consumer lifestyle, triggering the incentive to learn about new things and to demand new goods.” Potts views this “social pressure” as an inherently good thing. As things go out of fashion we are prompted to engage with the world to discover what has become fashionable, thus expanding our “flexibility in consumer lifestyles” and allowing us to experience the “sublime pleasures of risk-taking” — kind of like what the subprime crisis did for the financial sector.

Potts’s bias is clear — he regards entrepreneurial risk-taking as good and necessary for everyone: “Fashion is part of how economies evolve, not of how they decay. It is another name for consumer entrepreneurship: and the more we have of that, the better.” But that assumes people are like businesses (the brand of self) that need to constantly grow, and that analogy is, in my opinion, false. The notion of an ever-expanding, limitless identity is a construct that suits consumerism, but is it not an inherent human capacity. We don’t naturally long for an ever-changing, ever-growing self that is perpetually unsatisfied with itself. Identity can and does have limits; recognizing those limits brings peace of mind. Potts argues that “consumers who opt out of social competition for the ‘quiet life’ fail to develop their ranges of experience and capabilities.” Perhaps, but nothing about a “range” of experiences makes it preferable to the experiences themselves, even if they be limited in number. Everything that Potts regards as positive about fashion pressure for the economy is probably not so good for individuals.

Fashion effectively functions as a mechanism to induce and accelerate learning in complex lifestyles, enabling these lifestyles to become more complex still, thus improving their productivity in generating valuable consumption services…. Fashion is good for the economy because it is a mechanism to promote experimentation, learning, and re-coordination.

The valuable consumption services come at we the consumers’ expense — our lives become more “complex”. In other words, fashion is the means by which we are exploited for surplus-value extraction as consumers, to complement the way it is extracted when we are wage workers. For consumers, fashion does not “promote experimentation” — it makes us the subject of experiments. It doesn’t promote “learning and re-coordination” so much as anxiety and confusion and disorientation that makes “learning” a desperate necessity.

Fashion tells you that you are a fool to prefer the experiences to the range, and it applies “social pressure” to make you change your view. By following fashion and disseminating its dictates and by innovating on its terms, we create additional value for the retailers of fashion-oriented products — a description that is coming to embrace virtually everything that can be bought and sold. All we gain for what we have risked is an enlarged but more tenuous sense of self — it’s an identity bubble, with an inflated value that’s rooted in a superficial expansion in knowledge of trends. But it could burst at any minute by a blast of existential angst. What does it all mean? Nothing. It means you have to keep changing for the sake of change itself or else confront the emptiness.