The Pop-Up Flea: Criticisms And Rejoinders

November 25, 2009

Earlier this week Giuseppe, the proprietor of An Affordable Wardrobe, wrote a thoughtful critique of ACL’s Pop-Up Flea, which took place over the weekend in New York. For those who don’t follow the menswear blogs, the flea was not a proper flea market, but a sort of weekend-long bazaar of high-fashion men’s clothing in the “Americana” vein – an aesthetic championed by Michael Williams, a fashion PR exec and the proprietor of the (excellent) blog A Continuous Lean.

This is, in part, what Giuseppe wrote:

I get it, but I don’t. Sure, there’s beauty to be found in a well made piece of hard wearing, rugged clothing, but something about “designers” trying to sell me a wool flannel shirt for hundreds of dollars in a “trim cut” just rubs me the wrong way. How can you call this “design”? These things have existed for a century. Perfect replication at a high ticket is not design…its a marketing and p.r. game….which should come as no surprise, since the vast majority of the “too cool for school” hipster NYC blog clique has clearly been acting as a p.r. firm for the brands that produce this stuff since at least mid-Summer.

Giuseppe was very thoughtful, measured and reasonable in his critique, but if you take a look at the comments, you can see a lot of folks who didn’t go (I didn’t either, by the way) who are much less measured.  They’re not the only ones.

We’ve gotten a bit of the same sort of criticism for covering Rising Sun in our first episode.  “$500?  For jeans?”  People who would think nothing of paying $1500 for a higher trim level in their new car blanche at the idea of paying $500 for “practical” clothes like jeans.  A commenter on the on the Globe & Mail website called me a “closeted lumberjack,” and that was one of the more, uhm, charming comments.  People on MetaFilter proudly boasted they’d never spend more than $50 on jeans, and would the $500 jeans last ten times as long?

There’s clearly a clash of values here.  Maybe I can take a stab at starting to untangle it.

In my book, a renewed focus by the fashion world on quality and “classicism” is a good thing.  The fashion world has been looking backwards in addition to looking forwards for thirty or forty years now, and I’m glad that menswear is, at the moment at least, considering craft, tradition and practicality.  They will continue to charge a lot of money for their clothes.  They are driven by art and marketing, and will continue to be.  But I like what they’re doing.

This focus has trickled down to the mass level.  A few years ago, there was almost nothing I would be excited to buy and wear in the average American mall.  Now, stores like J. Crew and the Gap have a renewed focus on quality of materials and sharpness of cut.  They’re doing it with manufacture in the third world and huge volume discounts, and you may have feelings about that one way or another, but I’m happy to have mass-market options.

Class issues will always be a part of fashion in the United States, but I think respect for craft should be appreciated, not pooh-poohed.  People’s class issues will get riled up when you wear black tie, they will be riled up when you wear flannel.  I say that one of the great things about America is that our culture allows us to remix our aesthetics and class choices based upon our own values.  I’ve talked about my respect for my favorite dandies, Andre 3000 and Willie Brown, before.  These are men with deep understandings of the social history and traditions of the clothes they wear, who use that understanding to tell new stories about themselves.  And to look fantastic.  Here in the USA, we can all do the same.

Irony will always be the elephant in the room.  Particularly when affluent people (like those who shop at the Pop-Up Flea) are dressing in styles inspired by working-class people, there will always be a fear that they are doing so contemptuously.  Or that the narrative they’re offering is fundamentally contemputous.  I think that’s a valid concern, but I also get the very strong feeling that that is not what this particular movement (“Americana”) is about.  In fact, I think this movement is about a rejection of the trucker-hatted contempt for the poor and working class that ruled five or ten years ago.

Price will always be an issue.  Stuff made in small quantities is more expensive.  Stuff made in first-world countries is more expensive.  Stuff made by craftspeople, rather than industrial workers, is more expensive.  Stuff made from higher-quality materials is more expensive.  All of this is unavoidable.  So rather than reject it as something for the rich, spend some time thinking about it.  What will I pay for?  Should I buy used or on sale?  Is it worth it to me to have fewer things that are of better quality?  Until fifty years ago, middle class people had maybe 1/10th of the volume of clothes we had, but even working people had, on the whole, much higher quality clothing.  Suits made by tailors, work clothes made by a mill near their home.  What you value is your choice.

Second-hand will never be a mass movement.  You can’t market second-hand the way you can something new.  I can link to Ebay auctions and Giuseppe can post pictures of stuff he bought at the thrift, but that can never compete with Selectism posting a picture of something that’s immediately available in whatever size you want, as long as you have a credit card.  When someone emails me and asks where they can get X, “spend months going to thrift stores two or three times a week” isn’t an appropriate answer.  Heck, “wait until it’s on sale, then strike fast” barely flies.  We can help you get the skills, the vocabulary, to recognize quality and recognize what you like, but even in doing that, we’ll probably be showing you expensive new stuff.

Cultural groups will dress alike.  If you go to the Pop-Up Flea, the folks there will be dressed in flannel and denim.  If you go to a Fugazi concert, the people there will have t-shirts they made themselves.  These people have forged an identity of which aesthetics are a big part, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Neither is there anything wrong with learning from those aesthetics, whether or not you live in Williamsburg, or you have black Xs on the back of your hands.

That said, we will always be judged by the company we keep.  If you buy this beautiful trilby, you may be judged as a high-fashion guy who buys expensive clothes.  Or as a mass-market nobody who shops at the mall.  Or as a Bobby Bottle Service who wears a hat inside.  That’s reality.  But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a beautiful hat, thoughtfully made.  Put on a tie and people may think you’re uppity.  You should be aware of this, but you shouldn’t let it rule the choices you make for yourself.

I’m probably more like Giuseppe than I am like Michael Williams.  I don’t work in the fashion industry (well, I guess you could count making the PTO pilot).  I mostly shop at the flea market and eBay and thrift stores.  I own one piece of “reproduction” clothing (a pair of Flat Head jeans), and I bought it at a steep discount on a clothes forum.  But I love to look at Michael’s blog.  I love his absurd commitment to “America.”  I love Giuseppe’s absurd commitment to not paying more than $10 for anything he owns, too. I love how considered their clothing opinions are, and I love that they wear clothes that reflect that consideration.  I would be glad to see either of them walking down the street.

I hate the idea that men should hate their clothes.  Whether that manifests as hating anything aesthetic, or hating wearing a suit and tie, or hating fashion, or hating rich people, or mocking poor people, or anything else.  I hope your values are about appreciating the beauty and tradition of style, and not about hating something you don’t like or understand.