"I Am What I Wear”


There is fierce competition amongst fashion companies to capture the consumer’s attention and bring more visibility to their respective brands in an abyss of ubiquitous products. Collectively, the top 200 advertisers in the United States spent a record $137.8 billion on advertising in 2014, up 2% year on year, according to Ad Age's annual "200 Leading National Advertisers" report. In such a competitive environment, companies are endlessly attempting to capture consumer loyalty by increasing the perceived value of their respective brands, convincing the customer that their products are unique, differentiated, and superior to the competition. Fashion designer Ryohei Kawanishi’s art installation, at the Fashion after Fashion exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, tested this hypothesis.

 Shokunin Ryohei Kawanishi

Designer Ryohei Kawanishi

Ryohei’s exhibit mimicked a real-life fashion brand’s showroom-setup. Each season, brands set up their showrooms to showcase their latest collections to potential buyers representing retail stores. In the exhibit, the visitors were treated as “fashion buyers” and were exposed to the buying process, and gained insight into the marketing-effort that goes into creating a brand’s image each season. Except, Ryohei’s setup the showroom with generic clothing sourced from myriad labels, and swapped out the labels with labels printed in his own name, “Ryohei Kawanishi”. The clothing was displayed in the “showroom” and visitors roleplayed as buyers to understand the workings of a fashion showroom.  To complete the experience, Ryohei even created “line-sheets” or order forms that listed the product offerings so visitors could “place orders”, just like at a real showroom.  However, the visitors were not informed of the fact that none of the clothing on display was Kawanishi originals.

Through role-playing, participants gained insights into the question, “What is the value of a brand name?” This simulation was telling as almost none of the visitors could ascertain that the designs on display were not Kawanishi’s but in fact a collection of generic clothing only bearing labels in Kawanishis’s name! This was a satirical commentary regarding consumers’ and brand followers’ sartorial claims that they can distinguish between a designer’s original creations and generic fashions sourced from a variety of indigenous brands. The visitors simply continued to role-play with the belief that the Kawanishi was the designer and all designs on display were his original creations!  

Fashion after Fashion exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design

Photo Credit: Photo by Jenna Bascom, Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

This interesting experiment begs the question, are consumers able to differentiate between the sea of ubiquitous designs once the labels are removed? In the fashion arena, where an Oscar De la Renta creation is designed to stand apart from and Ellie Saab, it is worth questioning how much loyalty the consumes attach to the label and not the vision of the designer?  A native of Japan, and a fashion graduate of Central Saint Martins and Parsons School of Design, Ryohei Kawanishi delves into the fashion system to offer new perspectives. Using humor as a method of inquiry, he raises questions about what we perceive and what we experience, how we make decisions, and what we value. Beneath his wit and intellect are serious questions about how fashion’s intimate entwinement with the culture of consumerism overshadowing the potential for individual expression and communication.

Fashion brands spend billions of dollars on marketing to create the perception of brand’s uniqueness and to differentiate themselves from the competition. The consumers in Kawanishi’s experiment are unable to identify the between designs and product offerings of indigenous brands simply trusting the labels. For us, Kawanishi’s exhibit brings up the following questions:

  • Is the current paradigm of seasonal product collections and launches, on a planet with over seven billion people and a finite amount of resources, viable?
  • How much clothing is enough and do we need a new wardrobe with new silhouettes and new colors every month to validate our sense of style?
  • Rather than brands telling us what, where, when and how we should use their products so that we can fit into their dictated idea of coolness and good taste, are we brave enough to reclaim our identity?
  • Please comment here as we really what to know your opinion and what do you value?

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