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The State of American Fashion

Amid the final days of terrible 2020, there was a row on Twitter about the value of well-known American fashion brand Michael Kors.

“Someone posted a MK purse for Christmas talking about shes spoiled,” Twitter user @Lanazattitude posted Christmas Day. “1st of all MK been played out and thats not being spoiled.”

The lone tweet received around 1,000 replies and over 9,000 quote tweets, sparking a Black Twitter debate about luxury fashion and elitism. But no matter one’s personal opinions on Michael Kors, it is easy to see how quickly people are to undervalue American fashion brands compared to foreign titans like Chanel, Dior, or Balenciaga, to name a few.

The New York fashion scene has never enjoyed the grandeur of its sister fashion hubs London, Milan, or Paris. Many believe that this is due to New York’s lack of large heritage brands. According to former Wall Street Journal fashion and style columnist Christina Binkley, European fashion brands have historical roots in the luxury business due to their origins as artisanal houses. For example, the current French luxury industry owes much to King Louis XIV, who supported French luxury systems until his death in 1715, 61 years before the United States was founded.

This isn’t to say that the U.S. lacks a fashion heritage altogether. Since New York first established itself as a major international fashion force at the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show, the American fashion identity has been characterized by its free-spiritedness, prioritizing casual-chic practicality and comfort.

“Americans have a tendency to dress toward the middle,” Deirde Clemente, fashion historian and curator, told Fashionista’s Maria Bobilo in 2017. “Starting at about the 1930s, dressing like you had money became uncool.”

This American way of “dressing towards the middle” helped make brands like Halston, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren influential. This free-spirited attitude can still be seen in American fashion brands today with the rise of athleisure, activewear, and streetwear, which are becoming increasingly popular among international markets. In particular, streetwear has become a powerful force within the industry, as seen with the appointment of Off-White founder Virgil Abloh to artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear in 2018 within the collections of luxury brands like Céline. Brands like Supreme have transformed the way consumers view luxury, reflecting a “bottom-up” trickle of influence in which consumers dictate trends rather than celebrities or traditional fashion industry authorities.

Still, it occasionally feels as if America’s fashion industry is on shaky ground. Even before the pandemic, which forced designers to move shows online or cancel altogether, New York Fashion Week had been labeled a relic that no longer aligned with the way Americans purchased clothing. As fashion trends came and went due to the influence of fast fashion, designers were drained creatively because of the excessive amount of collections produced each year. Foreign buyers and magazine editors often considered skipping New York to avoid the resulting tedious collection from overworked designers.

The ongoing crisis has only made things more uncertain. While stores like Neiman Marcus and J. C. Penney filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2020, other brands were forced to contact suppliers to cancel orders, creating financial uncertainty among overseas garment workers. But while specific categories have suffered because of government-mandated lockdowns, others — namely streetwear and athleisure — have only grown stronger. Though the money spent by Americans on clothing has steadily declined since 2018, online sales of leggings, hoodies, and sweatpants have boomed since March, according to Quartz.

Like any other industry, American fashion exists in a constant flux state due to internal and external forces. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the fashion industry must brace itself for more inevitable changes and perhaps some much-needed evolution. Perhaps Business of Fashion’s Lauren Sherman said it best in 2019:

“…let’s stop pushing an outmoded model of what an American fashion model should look like and embrace the entrepreneurial, outside spirit at the heart of Americanness, inspiring a new generation to shake things up.”

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