Guest Blog: Paula Varjack on the Desire for Fashion and Luxury Brands

In our latest Guest Blog, Paula Varjack writes about her journey exploring her love of fashion. Do not miss The Cult of K*NZO  as part of Big Bang at The Shape of Things to Come; two weeks of hot-off-the-press projects from CPT’s favourite artists, here Sun 26 Nov at 7:30pm. Click here for tickets.

Just over a year ago I had an experience that made me question my interest in fashion, and in particular my love for high end items I can’t afford. In case you don’t know, H&M does annual collaborations with luxury brands. Until last year they had never collaborated with a brand that mattered to me. Then, last summer they announced their latest partnership, with the label “Kenzo” .  Before I knew it, there I was the morning of the launch in November,  queuing for hours, outside in the cold, for clothes.

Five and a half hours later myself and twenty four others were given ten minutes to shop a cordoned off section of a store.  After paying for my items at a till staffed by cheering applauding sales assistants, I emerged from Westfield carrying the largest shop bag I had ever carried, in a complete and total daze. What had just happened?

The more I thought about it, the more I started to get curious about how fashion creates desire, and the mysterious allure of high end. I should make clear that in general I am not that fussed about wearing expensive things. The majority of my wardrobe was bought on ebay. What I own is determined by liking the colour (or print) and cut.  I don’t think too much about brands. So what was it about Kenzo? Why was that different?  What did it represent?

Apparently my first word, at the age of two, was not “mum” or “dad” but “shoes”. I think my grandmother found this amusing, and maybe it was some kind of sign. At the time of writing this, the growing number of pairs of shoes in my flat is threateningly close to needing their own room. In every room I have have had, it is my clothes and shoes that have taken up the most space.

I have been thinking a lot over the last year about my relationship with fashion, which has led me to all kinds of su- topics, the language of clothes, how we express ourselves,  how place and context affect how we dress, how we use clothes to align ourselves with tribes, and lastly the difference between fashion and style.

Over the last few months of research and development for my new show “The Cult of K*NZO” I have had residencies across the country. In each place I have paid attention to street fashion, shopping culture, and interviewed people about their relationship to fashion and local style.

I have learned that you can tell quite a lot about a place by its stores and  what people donate to charity (and to some extent what and how much ends up in sales in high street stores). Very quickly patterns emerge and create difference between places.; what labels are popular, the range ( or lack of ) size range, the quality and level of wear of what is sold, the existence (or lack) of a high street or shopping centers, what stores are present, in what size and where.

The very idea of luxury and high fashion and how people show an interest in it is also very place specific. In Brighton, which revels in a kind quirky anti-fashion, there were only a few very small boutiques with high end labels, but go into the charity shops and you will find loads of high quality vintage designer accessories and clothes, and high street clothes that are new with tags on. Looking at street fashion I never realised quite how affluent the city was, but the charity shops told another story, and loudly.

In, Stockton, where the high street is all but decimated, and most shop fronts are empty, I found the lowest sale prices, and cheapest charity shops, and yet Debenhams had a well stocked YSL makeup counter front and center, and the nails salons were full. (On instagram I also noticed a lot of Stockton tagged nail art). However, a short bus ride to Middlesborough led me to a three story luxury boutique that looked like it had been designed by a footballers wife. It was there that I found a massive selection of menswear by Kenzo.

In Exeter, a city with three shopping centers, whose town centre is probably about the size of London’s Stratford City Westfield, sales at high street stores revealed it was nearly impossible to sell bold prints. Looking at street fashion, colour was minimal, and the defining attribute of local style seemed to be comfort (Several local people even described local style simply as “boring”). One person I interviewed explained this further, saying it had a lot to do with it being too easy to stand out, as it was so rare to dress distinctively/unconventionally.

However in every place I have been to thus far, there is one conversation I seem to keep having that amuses me. People who are insistent they have no interest or consideration about the way they dress, revealing in conversation that they have actually put quite a lot of thought into what they wear. Herein I guess lies the difference in fashion and style.

The word “fashion” excites some and frightens others, but fashion is an artform you are forced to engage with, whether you want to or not. Because whatever you wear expresses something, even if what it expresses is that you don’t want to be seen to show an interest in fashion. Every article of clothing that is designed and sold is created in some part in relation to what is, or what was a trend, so everything you wear is part of that conversation.

When it comes to luxury brands, that language becomes laden in narratives, and status laden. And it is that language that I am trying to understand better and become fluent in by making The Cult of K*NZO.