Should Clothes Be Local?
One of the things I've been struck with wandering around Paris (which I have done a fair amount of these last few days) is the sheer number of stores I've walked by that I could also frequent in New York. Where we're staying in Saint Germain, it's rare to stumble upon a storefront or brand whose name I don't immediately recognize. After I failed to strike gold on foot (the old-fashioned way), I tried to do some online digging for an authentic Parisian shopping experience- as in for French clothes that I might only be able to get in Paris- but the internet pointed me either to brands or places that carried international brands I could hypothetically get anywhere, many of which aren't even manufactured in France [with a few luxury lingerie stores being the notable exception]. Granted, my search was in English so I likely missed some key findings in French, but nonetheless, struggling to find special French clothes in France left me feeling unsettled. I got to thinking, is there such a thing as "French fashion" anymore? Or has globalization and corporatization spawned a type of international fashion industry that is no longer specific to place?
Culturally and historically, clothes have always been tied to place, and as such tied to a local identity. You couldn't see an image of one of the Maharanis of Rajasthan and accidentally mistake her for an Empress from the Qing dynasty or for a royal in Victorian England. Dress used to be a very powerful signifier of belonging; not to a global community, but to a local one. Today, as a point of comparison, if we consider as proxy for the locality of dress contemporary monarchs and the respective countries they represent, there is undoubtedly a convergence in physical appearance. We look less and less like we come from a particular place and more and more like we could come from anywhere. Here are three such monarchs, all representing different nations, with dramatically different cultures, yet wearing the same designer.
This convergence extends beyonds royals into the streets and into our closets, where our style is unquestionably becoming more homogeneous. Perhaps it's the result of some combination of our converging preferences about how we want to look combined with a consolidated fashion industry that has realized offering the same things in the same countries, and making a certain set of brands and celebrities global gatekeepers to fashion, is lucrative.
Walking around Paris in the shadows of the great, original, revolutionary artists and dreamers who have roamed these same streets did not inspire me to walk into a cookie cutter looking store and buy something I've seen in New York made in China. Actually, that thought left me feeling anxiously empty, like there must be something more to fashion than this. Instead, I dreamed of stumbling upon a little shop with that quintessential Parisian character. I dreamed of Chantilly lace, French silk, luxurious linens and maybe a few Breton stripes, tastefully pulled together in that charming Parisian way. Made in France still exists in the world of high fashion and couture, but shouldn't it also be an option outside that rarefied world? And even if something is Made in France, what is it, beyond that, which actually makes it French?
It's funny; despite being in its very midst, what I wanted was to find a shop that transported me to Paris. Not the one that looks like Soho. Not the one with clothes I could find in London. But the one with that singular French je ne sais quoi. If the cafes can do it, why can't the clothes?