Commodification of Counterculture in Fashion Advertising

The year was 1976, when the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen went to number one and despite that fact, the band was refused air time by the BBC. Meanwhile, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, who were dressing the band, reopened their famous shop Let it Rock at 430 King Road offering transformed straps and zips of obscure sexual fetishism as fashion and the media called it “Punk Rock”. Today, forty one years later in 2017, an unsigned, self-funded musician Rina Sawayama is featured in the recent Versace Versus campaign and the media identifies it as “commodification of counterculture”.

Can such engagement of non-commercial artists and their music in fashion advertising campaigns be considered as a commodification of counterculture?

In order to answer the question, let’s look at the phenomenon from the postmodern perspectives of identity and materialism.

Jamie Reid’s cover for Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”

Identity

In the current discussion the ideological genesis of consumption is put in the postmodern context and viewed through the phenomenon of ‘colonisation’ of non-commercial music by brands, where the non-commercial music presented as a counterculture. The connotation of the word ‘counterculture’ in postmodern fashion is not as controversial and distinctive in relation to the world of fashion as it came to be in the 1970s, when it was associated as a rule with a confusion and diversity.

However, the concept is currently twisted around and decontextualized within cultural bricolage, where it has, together with other different objects, been given different meanings in accordance with hierarchical codes of significations. Thus, when non-commercial music leaves the alternative music scene and goes into fashion, it is still an object of non-commercial music but due to the transition it has acquired different value than on the stage. It has simply been reified in another socio-cultural and commercial fashion context, gaining a new function of the logic of signification and differentiation. Now it becomes a systematizable part of a concrete brand’s fashion identity and also a part of the consumption culture.

Today, in the times of “the Supermarket of Style”, when contradictory elements wrapped into a unique personal statement created by means of sampling and mixing predominate, to collaborate with top pop artists seem inherently inauthentic or “a bit of false economy”. In my view, it is also a result of the development of the postmodern consumer’s self-identity within the complex of social practises stipulated by political, economic, social and technological changes. In other words, the elements constituting the consumer culture have drastically changed during last forty years, modifying as well the consumer culture as such and giving the counterculture a new socio-cultural meaning.

Kiran Ghandi for Adidas. Photo credit: https://grammio.com/en/adidasoriginals/BZQ5_hPHmt0/

Seeing that modification from the consumer’s point of view (especially Millennials and Gen-Z), I would claim that the latter uses brands, for example Adidas or Versace Versus as resources for the symbolic construction of his/her own identity. The consumer acquires a concrete experience of purchase and usage of a concrete product, which, by means of advertising campaign with the non-commercial musician and his/her music, is, through the symbolic construction of the brands’ identity, intimately connected with the consumer’s own aesthetics (=identity), bringing an element of newness (=uniqueness) into that. Therefore, the purchase of any of the brands’ products and at least temporary possession of it makes the consumer feel complete and thus satisfied through the strategic positioning of the concretised meaning the brands created by penetrating the consumer’s self-identity zone.  That concretised meaning creates consequently the feeling/illusion that the consumer has attached something new and unique to his individuality.

Materialism

Fashion advertising is also reshaping alternative music in its own way, where I consider the alternative music to be a tool of materialism, which is used to create a marketing strategy and thereby get the consumer involved in the sphere of “real life” of the future created by the brands. The engagement of non-commercial artists into fashion could, in my opinion, be considered as a kind of “bridge of tomorrow”, used as a temporal orientation, where the fashion brands’ strategy is shaped by an attempt to create an “anti-traditional tradition”, giving their products a new forward looking change.

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I think, the strategy is used in order to endow the brand with the post-materialistic values in order to create a “displaced meaning” around its products by linking the customer’s interpretation of the brand to his/her psychological and non-psychological needs. Such strategy, where the non-commercial artist with the music she/he plays seen as “one of us” by the consumer, contributes to the feeling of involvement but within a different future reality – where everything is possible. The aim is thereby to create an illusion of possibility to succeed, what as a result brings the feeling of happiness into the mind of the consumer. The consumer is, thus, “going with the flow” – buying one of the brand’s products – acquiring an autotelic experience through feeling good, natural and happy, what in reality might be nothing else than an artificially constructed marketing effect searching to create an addictive and thus obedient consumer.

Futuristic Interplay

The engagement of non-commercial artists and their respective music in fashion brand advertising campaigns illustrates an interesting futuristic interplay between the consumer’s own identity and the identity of the fashion brand. Those two identities complete each other by creating new meanings for both each other and the consumer culture as such, giving legitimacy to the counterculture within the fashion as a part of the cultural newness. Meanwhile, materialism turns the counterculture into an appurtenance of the consumer’s participation in and belonging to the new futuristic reality.

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About TheStyleFibula

I am a lawyer, who all of a sudden has become a fashion and marketing student at Stockholm Business School. This is my free space, where I let my inner inspiration create a symbiosis with a genuine passion for art, scientific curiosity for fashion and profound interest in the anthropology of style.