3 June 2011

The Accidental Bricoleurs

I’ve always thought that Forever 21 was a brilliant name for a fast-fashion retailer. These two words succinctly encapsulate consumerism’s mission statement: to evoke the dream of perpetual youth through constant shopping. Yet it also conjures the suffocating shabbiness of that fantasy, the permanent desperation involved in trying to achieve fashion’s impossible ideals. The 21 posits that age as a fulcrum, tenuously balancing the teenage idea of maturity grounded in the uninhibited freedom of self-presentation against the presumptive regrets of everyone older, who must continually be reminded of when it all began to go wrong for them, the day they turned 22.

Forever 21 began in 1984 as a single store called Fashion 21 in Los Angeles. After expanding locally, it spread to malls beginning in 1989, but it has only truly proliferated in the last decade. It now has 477 stores in fifteen countries, and projected revenue of more than $2.3 billion in 2010. The worldwide success of Forever 21 and the other even more prominent fast-fashion outlets, like H&M (2,200 stores in thirty-eight countries), Uniqlo (760 stores in six countries), and Zara (more than 4,900 stores in seventy-seven countries) epitomize how the protocols of new capitalism—flexibility, globalization, technology-enabled logistical micromanaging, consumer co-creation—have reshaped the retail world and with it the material culture of consumer societies.

Though retailers have long employed trend spotters to try to capitalize on bottom-up innovation, fast-fashion companies have organized their business models around the principle, relying on logistics and data capture to respond rapidly to consumer behavior. With small-batch production runs and a global labor market to exploit, fast fashion accelerates the half-life of trends and ruthlessly turns over inventory, pushing the pace of fashion to a forced march. Fast fashion’s accelerated rate—and its unscrupulousness about copying branded designs—means that luxury houses and name designers, which once dictated fashion seasonally, now must increasingly adapt to the ramifications of fast fashion’s trial-and-error approach.

Despite apparently democratizing style and empowering consumers, fast fashion in some ways constitutes a dream sector for those eager to condemn contemporary capitalism, as the companies almost systematically heighten some of its current contradictions: the exhaustion of innovative possibilities, the limits of the legal system in guaranteeing property rights, the increasing immiseration of the world workforce.1 Their labor practices are in the long tradition of textile-worker exploitation, offering paltry piecemeal rates to subcontracted suppliers and overlooking how they treat employees. For instance, before the GATT Multifiber Agreement lapsed in 2005, allowing Forever 21 and other garment-makers to outsource much of their manufacturing to Asia, the company’s domestic labor practices generated lawsuits filed on behalf of workers who alleged sweatshop conditions. In a press release, the Garment Worker Center, a California-based workers’ rights group, noted some of the conditions that prompted the suits: withheld wages, long hours without legally mandated breaks, rat and cockroach infestations, and a lack of bathrooms and access to drinking water. The plaintiffs’ lead lawyer claimed that companies like Forever 21 “create and demand these conditions. They squeeze their suppliers and make it necessary for them to get things done as quickly and cheaply as possible, no matter what the cost to the workers.”


But why would the companies create these conditions? What logic drives the imperative to accelerate, regardless of the toll on workers? The all-purpose excuse for sweatshop practices once was the overriding need to offer bargain prices to Western consumers who have come to regard inexpensive clothes as an entitlement. Fast fashion has added the justification of better responsiveness to consumers’ fickleness. The companies overheat production schedules abroad so that they can constantly provide novelty and variety to customers who have come to expect it, who count on the stores not necessarily to meet their wardrobe needs but to relieve ennui. Shoppers come to witness and partake in the spectacle of pure novelty. On the chaotic retail floor and in the frantic dressing rooms of Forever 21’s stores, amid the disheveled racks and the items abandoned by shoppers distracted by something else, creative destruction ends up being staged as semi-prurient guerrilla theater, in which an endless series of hurried consumer costume changes is the essence of the performance.

As the fast in fast fashion implies, the companies’ comparative advantage lies in speed, not brand recognition, garment durability, or reputable design. They have changed fashion from a garment making to an information business, optimizing their supply chains to implement design tweaks on the fly. Zara “can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days,”2 and this flow of information is by far the most significant thing the company produces, far more important than any piped pinafore, velveteen blazer or any of its other 40,000 yearly items. The company’s system of constant information monitoring allows it to quickly spot and sate trends and at the same time largely avoid overproduction boondoggles and the need for heavy discounting.

Unlike earlier generations of mass-market retailers, like the Gap’s family of brands (which includes, in ascending order of class cachet, Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic), companies like Zara and Forever 21 make no effort to stratify their offerings into class-signifying labels. They also don’t adopt branding strategies to affiliate with particular luxe or ironic lifestyles, à la Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie & Fitch. Instead they flatter consumers in a different way, immersing them in potential trends on a near weekly basis and trusting them to assemble styles in their own images. Clothes reach stores with practically unspoiled semiotic potential, and consumers are invited to be expressive rather than imitative with the goods, to participate more directly in fashion. We become the meaning makers, enchanting ordinary cardigans and anoraks with a symbolic significance that has only a tenuous relationship to the material item. We work in lieu of advertisers to reconfigure trends and remix signifiers, generating new and valuable meanings for goods. The more new clothes come in, the more creative we can be.

Fast-fashion retailers reap the fruits of that creativity by capturing our preferences in successive generations of products and nearly synchronizing to our whims. Thanks to the rich data we generate as we select, reject, and recombine the items fast fashion offers, the companies need not develop their own brands so much as seize upon customers’ ingenuity, distilling their choices into easily replicable trends and rushing the resulting products to market. If fashion functions like a language, then the fast-fashion firms are mainly interested controlling the underlying system and leave the meaning of the “words” to interchangeable designers and individual consumers. As long as customers are willing to speak fast fashion’s language, the companies aren’t particular about the specifics of the vocabulary. They are concerned only with the rate and volume of change.

In some ways, the fast-fashion companies are developing into post-brands—the apotheosis of the democratization of the designer label and the ready-to-wear revolution. Their lasting contribution to consumerism may be that they have excused themselves from the increasingly clamorous public sphere, already teeming with advertising, to make way for the budding personalities of their customers. Fast fashion itself is perhaps best understood as a kind of social medium, a communication channel that the companies attempt to administer in order to extract regular profits.


Facebook and other social-media companies have a similarly parasitic business model. They also appropriate the content and connections we generate as we recreate our identities within their proprietary systems, and then repurpose that data for marketers who hope to sell tokens of that identity back to us. Much as fast-fashion companies are routinely accused of pirating designs, Facebook continually oversteps once sacrosanct norms of privacy, opting users in to data-divulging mechanisms by default and backpedaling only when confronted with public outcry. It offers a space akin to the fast-fashion retailer’s changing room for the ritual staging of the self, inviting users to seize upon “stylistic elements” from wherever they can be grabbed. We become involuntary bricoleurs, scrambling to cobble together an ad hoc identity from whatever memes happen to be relevant at the time.

Like fast fashion, social media have brought with them a profusion of means and ways to reshape and display our identity. Constantly given new tools to share with, always prompted to say something new about ourselves (“What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks thoughtfully), we are pressured to continually devise ingenious solutions to our identity, which suddenly appears to be a particular kind of recurring problem: one that can be solved by replenishing social media’s various channels with fresh content. Just as fast fashion seeks to pressure shoppers with the urgency of now or never, social media hope to convince us that we always have something new and important to say—as long as we say it right away. And they are designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear. One can easily fall out of fashion with the algorithms Facebook uses to select which content users see out of the plethora of material friends in their network contribute.

Social media teach us to seize potential signifiers of the self from any available source and spend our energy promoting them as attention-worthy. In this way, they actually abet and are abetted by the insidious creep of design ideology—the assumption that we can choose a desktop image to express our inner being or that housework will be less like drudgery with a tasteful dustpan and broom set. By coating consumer culture detritus with an aesthetic veneer, design ideology helps makes the idea of a self anchored in fonts and Uniqlo tolerable. Armed with the auric criteria of design, we can regard goods and ads and memes on websites as a rich source of inspiration (“Hey, these old Newport ‘Alive with pleasure!’ T-shirts are neat, think I’ll riff on that logo for my Facebook profile picture!”), not as an inescapable blight.

In social media, where everyone can employ design ideology, the persistent messages of advertising—that magical self-transformation through purchases is possible, that one’s inner truth can be expressed through the manipulation of well-worked surfaces—become practical rather than insulting. Not only do the methods and associative logic of advertising become more concretely useful, but its governing ideology no longer seems conformist but radically individualistic. Social media encourage us to appropriate whatever we want and claim it as our own without feeling derivative or slavishly imitative. On Facebook, if I link to, say, a YouTube video of Bob Dylan singing “I Threw It All Away” on the Johnny Cash Show in 1969, I am saying something particular about myself, not merely consuming the performance. I am declaring that video clip to be essentially equivalent to an update I may have written about a trip to Philadelphia or to pictures of me at a party that someone might have tagged. It is all bricolage for personal identity building.

With social media’s sudden ubiquity, it’s plausible that all other sorts of immersive knowledge by which we might invest our identity with meaning will become subordinate to the practice of clever sign manipulation, to adeptly choosing material and affixing it to one’s persona online. Like fashion in its administered, industrialized form, social media seek a monopoly on the expression of individualism; they hope we will think of ourselves only in terms of the mechanisms they facilitate. Facebook wants to be the place where you feel most yourself, with the most control over how you are regarded. But in return, it wants you to think of yourself only in terms of what you can share on the site. It implements freedom of choice as a mode of control; our identities are “unfinished” but contained by the site, which ensures that more and more of our social energy is invested in self-presentation—selling ourselves like we are consumer goods.


The personal brand, in its concatenation of fame hunger and dismal self-exploitation, is the evolutionary end point of a tendency implicit in fashion since the rise of consumerism. As fashion strayed from its pre-capitalist role of expressing established hierarchies, it helped usher in a reflexive sense of self, set in terms of constantly shifting social meanings. It reconciled people to the idea of an identity not foisted upon us by birth and circumstances, but one for which we must hold ourselves personally responsible. Since then, fashion has been a form of institutionalized insecurity. It yokes us all to the zeitgeist, eradicating the orienting effects of tradition and leaving us all more vulnerable to existential doubt.

Once the nature of our identity can no longer simply be assumed as a function of our inherited place in the world, it becomes imperative to justify our conviction that we are somebody and prove it to the world. Sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky argued in his 1987 study Empire of Fashion that people rise to the challenge presented by the destabilization of the self by embracing fashion more thoroughly. Having “generalized the spirit of curiosity, democratized tastes and the passion for novelty at all levels of existence and in all social ranks,” he argues, “the fashion economy has engendered a social agent in its own image: the fashion person who has no deep attachments, a mobile individual with a fluctuating personality and tastes.”

Lipovetsky’s “fashion person” sounds like an embryonic version of the sort of worker now required by neoliberalist capitalism, in which firms focus chiefly on the short-term, draw on a global workforce, and use technology to automate away manufacturing and clerical positions. Workers cannot expect a stable career with one employer. Instead, as the late-1990s business bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? sought to instruct, middle-class workers (likened unapologetically to mice in a maze) have to accept economic insecurity and respond by becoming even more cooperative with their masters. Neoliberalism demands that more and more of the working population tolerate a lack of job security, evince flexibility, and revise customary ways of doing things. Workers must be comfortable living off short-term projects secured through whatever means necessary—ceaseless networking and bootlicking, ruthless leveraging of friends and family contacts, spinning a series of half-truths on a résumé—and they must be more or less self-motivated to produce, to regard themselves as creative forces, to generate economic value in every aspect of how they live, instrumentalizing it all.

If one side of 1990s management discourse threatened the worker with the fate of becoming a helpless and confused laboratory animal, its optimistic flipside depicted precarity as a kind of liberation, with workers as “free agents” cut loose from burdensome corporate bureaucracy. The personal brand was part of that ideological offensive: in 1997, management guru Tom Peters wrote the definitive treatise on the concept for Fast Company: “The Brand Called You,” which advises, “You’re not a worker . . . You are not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description. Starting today you are a brand”.3 Self-branding is “inescapable,” Peters claims, so he encourages us to ask ourselves, “What have I accomplished that I can unabashedly brag about?” and “What do I do that I am most proud of?” and then promptly put these achievements up for sale, inviting capitalists to exploit them. He admonishes that we must be eternally vigilant about our personal brand strategy: “When you are promoting brand You, everything you do—and everything you choose not to do—communicates the value and character of the brand. Everything from the way you handle phone conversations to the email messages you send to the way you conduct business in a meeting is part of the larger message you’re sending about your brand.”

Assessing Peters’s article in One Market Under God in 2000, Thomas Frank found it almost self-evident that personal branding was a form of coercive self-surveillance that corporations were anxious to induce. He heralded “The Brand Called You” as “a terrifying glimpse of the coming total-corporate state, a sort of Dress for Success rewritten by Chairman Mao.” But with the advent of social media, which frankly invites us to “unabashedly brag” about ourselves and to take pride in even the most mundane of our accomplishments (“I just became mayor of Whole Foods on Foursquare!”) and broadcast them, many of us now take that sort of self-branding behavior for granted and engage in it not with trepidation but with glee. By mobilizing all the qualities of the self as factors of meaning production, Facebook fuses Lipovetsky’s “fashion person” and Peters’s “personal brand,” inextricably intertwining marketing with selfhood, so that having a self becomes an inherently commercial operation. Somehow, while we were optimizing our Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, building up our LinkedIn contacts and building out Farmville empires, the total-corporate state may have arrived without our really having noticed it.


How did this happen? By seeming to mitigate the problems that neoliberalism creates by shifting economic risk onto workers, social media has been able to colonize the collective consciousness. Facebook, fast fashion, and the like provide new mechanisms of solace, quantifying our connections and influence (and thereby making them more economically useful to us) while enhancing the compensations of consumerism by making it seem more productive, more self-revelatory. Though we may be only one of a thousand friends in everyone else’s networks, that never seems especially important when we’re in the midst of posting new pictures.

In turning to social media for comfort, we’ve become happily dependent on digital devices, as we have come to rely on the accelerated rate of communication and exchange they facilitate. They offer us chances to articulate, evaluate, and augment who we are while archiving our identity-making gestures as a collection we can later fawn over and curate. The archiving makes the self seem richer and more substantial even as it makes it more tenuous. Our identity can never be so strong as to render any particular gesture negligible; it is cumulative at the same time that it is totally discontinuous. This has the effect of allowing everything we do to seem either significant or irrelevant, depending on which view suits our needs. The online repository has gradually become the privileged site of the self, the authorized version that redeems the frustration and desperation incipient with the provisionality of work life, that corrects the errors and discourtesies we commit in our confrontations with the physical world.

As this idealized online self becomes more articulated, recommendation engines and tracking databases begin to know better than we do what we want, what we should see, what we are going to do, and what sorts of choices we would like to have presented to us to give us a welcome sense of control over the actual surfeit of possibilities. The automated filters allow us to consume more, faster, which means we are producing more data, securing more opportunities for recognition within the social-media sphere. They can direct us to those niches where we can feel important, where we can dominate the hierarchy. In that realm of quantification, the self can score points by innovating new ways to gain attention and by enhancing the value of various other branded goods (including one’s friends, who in social media have become brands themselves). One is never far from a scoreboard for one’s personality (number of Twitter followers, number of comments on a recent Facebook update, number of reblogs on a Tumblr post, et cetera) and because there are so many, we can cycle through them in search of micro-validation. Who needs ontological security when you can be repeatedly “liked” all day long?

With social media’s rise, self-branding seems inescapable, as the stream of numerical data about our popularity makes it nearly irresistible to calculate our brand equity and devise ways of enhancing it. This becomes the price we pay for that delicious sense of autonomy that the consumerist emphasis on freedom of choice promises. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we like it. When identity serves explicitly as a capital stock to be risked in ventures as opposed to something that exceeds or exists outside the dynamics of the market, we exist only insofar as we see ourselves profiting, we see our brand equity growing (or, alas, shrinking). We don’t exist when we refuse to see how our brand plays in the market-driven world. This, of course, is a triumph for neoliberalism, as it suggests it has succeeded in imposing a fundamentally entrepreneurial subjectivity in its subjects to help rationalize its pitilessness.

Personal branding marks a striking departure from the prevailing norms of even a decade ago, when such bald self-promotion as one typically encounters on Twitter and Facebook would have been in questionable taste, and the idea of explicitly leveraging one’s network of friends in order to maximize one’s notoriety would have seemed preposterously alienating. Widespread ambivalence about the effects of commercial social media on intimacy suggests that the alienation is real, as a surfeit of weak ties suffocates stronger bonds yet stronger bonds seem available only through the online tools that have diminished them. The receptive, supportive community that recognizes you for who you are mingles uncomfortably alongside the host of advertisers that hope to persuade you to be something more, that are eager to hijack the self you share and make it a partner brand to help sell product. Such corporate identity expropriation can drive the quest for new, untainted ways to present oneself—the real me, not co-opted, not sold out, the one pushing trends rather than conforming—though these merely lead to fresh appropriations and perpetuate the cycle. Online, the reciprocity of friendship can start to seem indistinguishable from brand synergies; building trust can seem just another self-aggrandizing solo project in disguise.

We need a sympathetic community within which to realize our individuality. Social media tends to turn that effort to preserve that community into the pursuit of fame. And when we pursue fame, our behavior devolves into the familiar forms of self-commodification. We replace the pleasure of what we do with fantasies about the measurable notoriety we imagine we’ll reap. Social-media companies don’t facilitate community any more than fast-fashion companies elevate style; they cater to the fantasy of being a celebrity, the impossible dream of a mass audience for everyone. With that we either beat a retreat into vicarious fantasy or end up squarely in the realm of the creative class and its fiefdom of cool. To dissolve the creative class into universal creativity, the tyranny of “cool”—fashion as a mass-market business; trend spotting as an entrepreneurial vocation; friendship as a quantitative measure; influence as an end in itself—would have to be abolished, not universalized.

The pressure that sustains self-branding, it turns out, ultimately comes from ourselves, everyone on everyone else. We circulate the meanings, we empty out or alter their meaning, we grant the suddenly measurable attention that makes identity salient. We have more capability to share ourselves, our thoughts and interests and discoveries and memories, than ever before, yet sharing is in danger of becoming nothing more than an alibi that hides how voracious our appetite for novelty has become. It becomes harder for our friends and ourselves to figure out what really matters to us and what stems merely from the need to keep broadcasting the self.

And so we vacillate between anxious self-branding and the self-negating practice of seeking some higher authenticity: we have to watch ourselves become ourselves in order to be ourselves, over and over again. This futile process crystallizes in the irrepressible ideal of youth, the time when all that reflexivity seemed like second nature, was authenticity itself. When we were young, when our self-awareness was innocent and our curiosity was pure, our dreams were unsullied and our lives limitless—the memory of it remains vivid even as our self-scrutiny insensibly becomes anxious and narcissistic over the years, as calculating as youth was guileless. In social media, amid all the high school and college friends reconnecting, and the eager meme adoption and trend tracking, and the reawakening sense that the bands and books and clothes we like are of critical importance to the rest of the world, the great consumer promise of a return to the days of youth is perpetually reborn. Forever 21, indeed.

1 Berfield, Susan. “Forever 21’s Fast (and Loose) Fashion Empire.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek: January 20, 2011.
fn2. Ferdows, Kasra, Michael A. Lewis and Jose A.D. MacHuca, “Rapid-Fire Fulfillment.” Harvard Business Review: November 1, 2004.
fn3. Peters, Tom. “The Brand Called You.” Fast Company, August/September 1997.

Image: Forever 21, Times Square, New York. August 2010. From Eric Demarcq.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »