Why Fashion Needs Cultural Cred

The way brands connect with their customers — established and potential ones — has changed drastically over the years and has redefined the way luxury and fashion brands interact with society as a whole.

“Cultural cred is intangible. It transcends geography and demographics and isn’t created by one group alone. It’s ambiguous and imbued with nuance, making it hard to define and put into practice,” said Highsnobiety Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency.  Morency hosted “What is Cultural Credibility today? And How to Build It?” a panel talk held during the 2019 edition of the Fashion Talks presented by the Belgian Fashion Awards.

Fellow panelists included prominent industry figures such as Glenn Martens from the Parisian based label Y/PROJECT, Stavros Karelis from the London-based concept store Machine-A, and Leila Fataar from the creative agency Platform13.

The debate was based on Morency’s cultural essay published earlier this year on Highsnobiety, in which he addressed the importance of cultural credibility, analyzed how streetwear brands have risen to the occasion, and identified which luxury brands are taking cultural cred lessons from streetwear brands in order to resonate among their next generation of customers.

So how can luxury brands remain culturally relevant? What does it take for them to have an authentic cultural value that goes way beyond marketing goals? First, according to Morency, luxury brands need to understand that they have to think out of the box and leave all strategic-related business tools behind.

“Brands that try to place themselves as authentic to youth culture via strategy alone are indisputably inauthentic,” Morency added.  In other words, the more corporate a brand’s philosophy becomes, the less relevant it is from a cultural perspective. But when did cultural cred become such a challenging and complex construct of pop-culture?

About 20 years ago — before the dawn of mass digitalization and its impact on retail — luxury houses and fashion brands developed their brand identities and philosophies in an introspective and insular manner. Unencumbered by marketing pressures, designers were mostly in complete control of their creative process and would eventually release their vision onto the cultural landscape via fashion collections, shows and advertising campaigns.

“In the past, luxury was dominated by one type of customer,” explained Glenn Martens during the panel talk. “This customer would rather be oriented by a very classical taste and way of thinking. The history of European fashion would dominate — and this has completely changed today.”

Today, as Martens mentioned, most luxury brands are no longer solely counting on the purchasing power of an exclusive, elitist clientele — they are de facto catering to a vast range of customers. To satisfy their targeted, multi-faceted customers, these same brands are counting on external cultural assets to nurture them — namely physical assets, such as influencers, celebrities, but also rhetorical assets, such as gender, society and environment related cultural shifts. The role of the designer itself has also been altered, as it has increasingly evolved from pure tailoring and design creations to marketing-conditioned creative direction. Mainly powered by social media, today’s constant stream of cultural content helps designers define their best position and integrate their vision into fashion’s ever-evolving cultural landscape.

The challenge in this context is two-fold: Brands are hard-pressed to keep up with rapidly changing cultural trends, shifts, and phenomena.  At the same time, brands are scrambling to understand which parts of these emerging cultural facets they ought to identify with the most.

Succumbing to this external cultural pressure comes at a price: luxury brands that make a haphazard attempt to satiate the public’s whims via green-washing marketing schemes, as well as overproduction and numerous designer burnouts eventually witness how such a strategy can backfire.

According to Morency, there are a few essential best practices that a luxury brand needs to respect in order to stay authentic: a brand should “speak through, not to its audience,” it should also “make products responsive” as in creating something that the younger generation aspires to wear; it should integrate actual values into its philosophy, as “without values, it stands for nothing” — and finally, a brand should “make sustainability and transparency the norm.” Defining what luxury means today in a context of cultural credibility remains a challenging conundrum.

Martens, however, may have already found the right formula. "At Y/PROJECT, we are never about creating straightforward products. My personal visions of luxury is about craftsmanship and a different intellectual or artistic take on a piece of clothing. Luxury and cultural credibility are a very personal experience."

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