how tourist kitsch became a trend
Cheap, gloriously tacky, kind of throwaway but also sentimental, souvenirs have been a ubiquitous part of consumerism for decades. Now they're in fashion.
Balenciaga, Gucci and Vetements
The rise and rise of ugly fashion has been discussed and dissected at length and is now a solidly cemented landmark in the fashion landscape. We have arrived at a place in which it’s devoid of shock factor and is embraced by the high street. Even the Daily Mail seems to have tired of wondering What Wacky Fashion Will They Come Up With Next?! It’s become the norm, or at least a norm. And if there is one thing fashion does not abide, it’s a norm. Meaning, of course, normal for fashion, not the Regular World.
We might just be headed for an existential aesthetic crisis: what even is ugly now? Do we need to go back to something sleek and sexy, a glam rebellion against the flattened out jolie laide. How do you even ‘do’ glam when it feels like we’re living through the apocalypse?
A lot of ugly fashion has played with the ugliness of everyday items that serve the boring but totally wonderful function of comfort. Pool slides, chunky dad sneakers, big and cosy hoodies, shapeless jeans, the bum bag -- practical and easy have become synonymous with cool and luxury. The answer to why consumers would pay lots of money for ugly has largely been answered with reference to comfort.
But what we need now is a fresh ugly angle. Not unattractively comfortable, but something that revels in pure, ugly mundanity. And there is a source of inspiration out there that is ripe for exploitation. Cheap, gloriously tacky, kind of throwaway but also sentimental, souvenirs have been a ubiquitous part of consumerism for decades. A diamanté covered fridge magnet in the shape of a country; I <3 Any City t-shirts; tote bags decorated with wistful illustrations of the skylines. All ideal for co-option by fashion. Tourist memorabilia is inherently kitsch, and kitsch has a long history of being appreciated in an ironic way, and irony is the currency of much luxury fashion today.
Demna Gvasalia knows it. An early pioneer in ugly fashion, he’s moved on and has been mining tourist kitsch at Balenciaga and Vetements for a while now. First came the deconstructed Antwerpen T-Shirt, and then a hoodie emblazoned with “Ich komm' zum Glück aus Osnabrück" for Vetement's autumn/winter 17 show, which explored exactitudes and stereotypical ways of dressing.
More recently, Vetements have been running through plenty of Switzerland references -- the brand’s new hometown. For spring/summer 18, Demna shot the collection lookbook on the streets of Zurich, featuring models cast on the city’s streets. In one shot a hoodie comes with a Vetements Zurich logo, a little play on those “Made in Italy” and “Made in France” tags.
Demna continued his Swiss fashion odyssey at autumn/winter 19 show in Paris, with a Swiss scarf, employing the varied font shapes and sizes for each word -- ‘Switzerland’, ‘Zurich’, ‘Suisse’, ‘Locarno’, just like a much reproduced souvenir from insert-any-country-here. There were also the Morocco market-stall baseball hats, boots made out of passports, and a Russian flag T-Shirt.
"A souvenir from a trip displayed at home on a fridge, or on a keychain or a t-shirt used to be the main way to signify where someone had been, holidays they’d taken, how well-travelled they were. You don’t need those items now, they’re superfluous."
Flags were all over the latest Vetements collection too; which was an autobiographical-geographical journey through Demna’s life and included jackets made to resemble Georgian, Ukrainian, Russian, Swiss and American flags, places that all have resonance for the designer.
Gosha too has been utilising flags in his work, presenting them as pluralistic post-nationalistic totems. Gucci covered a sweater with a huge Union Jack for their resort 17 collection, something that can only be seen as deeply ironic in the current political landscape. Saint Laurent has a bomber jacket covered in Eiffel Towers made of crystals that can be yours for £12,885. The LV x Koons Masters collection was ostensibly about great works of art, but that imagery was of course intended to play on a sense of banal tackiness, which Koons’s work has long been known for. The imagery on the bags was more like something you’d see at a tourist shop near the Louvre than a well-reproduced Da Vinci.
The pinnacle of recent tourist kitsch is of course Balenciaga’s New York City tote bag, that looks exactly like one you can pick up at JFK Airport for around $20. As has been widely reported, City Merchandise, the souvenir company behind the original, was not flattered and intend to take Balenciaga to court. But there were also the souvenir-esque items the label isn’t be sued for mimicking — trinkets on chains hanging off bags and skirts, and models wearing postcard-perfect sunrises on their legs. More straightforwardly, there’s the Paris hoodie “inspired by a souvenir t-shirt”.
At his menswear shows in June, Per Gotesson gave us broken bits of porcelain Royal Wedding memorabilia turned into brooches. And when spring/summer 19 Vetements ready-to-wear hits the shelves you can stride around with a pink eiffel tower for a heel -- one that looks just like a cheap ornament you could pick up any Parisian tourist trap again (the Eiffel Tower proving popular -- perhaps the most endlessly reproduced touristic emblem). It’s ugly, it’s tacky, but it’s quite a sexy shoe too. Could sexy-ugly be the new ugly-comfortable? It would work well with the wave of 00s nostalgia.
Beyond the brilliantly tacky aesthetic of the souvenirs, there is something else at work. “The tourist-kitsch move is borne out of the dawn of the ‘multi-local’,” says Hannah Craggs, a trend forecaster at WGSN. “With millennials and Gen Z in particular feeling increasingly at home in multiple locations, and drawn to multiple eras. As we rethink street culture and its influence for a global age, we will see a more open-sourced sense of culture, community, and history.”
A souvenir from a trip displayed at home on a fridge, or on a keychain or a t-shirt used to be the main way to signify where someone had been, holidays they’d taken, how well-travelled they were. You don’t need those items now, they’re superfluous. Anyone can see where you’ve been thanks to your social media feed. Tourist tat is a reminder of a time and mentality that’s gone. “With culture and history now so easy to share globally and instantaneously through Instagram and Snapchat, the past is a space that seems safer and more inviting than the often unstable feeling present -- especially a past related to holidays, offering a sense of escapism, fun and familiarity,” says Hannah of the rise of souvenier-esque designs. Sara Idacavage, Fashion historian and Adjunct Professor of Fashion History at Parsons, agrees. “It may serve as a form of nostalgia for anyone who grew up associating these pieces with the excitement of travel.”
While tourist kitsch may trigger wistful feelings, it’s got something else going for it. Recreated in a fashion context it feeds into the high/low culture blurring that’s running deep in fashion right now. With its double-edged commentary on consumerism it comes ready-made for ironic expression without relying on the ugly-as-desirable factor. The product that no longer serves a purpose. Cheap, mundane and mass-produced items that can be pulled into a new frame of reference through fashion, elevated to become a signifier of luxury while simultaneously calling to mind its everyday inspiration. “I think that the tourist kitsch trend is related to the idea of possessing a certain level of cultural or subcultural capital, which Susan Sontag describes as ‘something of a private code, badge of identity even’ in her 1964 essay entitled Notes on Camp,” says Sara. “Therefore, these pieces of fashion may be seen as typical souvenir gifts to the average person, but have an entirely different connotation that is only to intelligible to consumers who are “in the know”, or aware of the actual price of these seemingly cheap objects.”
Actual tourist souvenirs are strange objects in the first instance. They mean to gesture at authenticity, representation of a real place, a culture, an experience. But they inadvertently signal falsehood -- tourist kitsch revels in cliched visions of place, a sparkly idealised image stripped of context, boiled down to an emblem. They’re often made in large quantities by a large company probably based somewhere else entirely. Maybe all of that is what makes souvenirs the ideal iconography for today. The perfect aesthetic for a world stradling an obsession with genuineness on the one hand, and a looming awareness that things are too far gone towards the ridiculous, that we’re post-satire.
“Designer Sander Wassink expresses this souvenir-mashup mindset perfectly, in saying: ‘Creating something from scratch would be a waste of time in our super-fast society’,” says Hannah. “As collab culture and branded bootlegging continue to evolve, real and fake will continue to meld together in fresh and fun ways.” Ugly fashion is dead. Long live ugly fashion.