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Why kitsch is set to be a ruling aesthetic of 2018

Spoiler alert: irony

There’s a bag on sale at a gift shop in LaGuardia Airport that looks almost exactly like one from Balenciaga. It’s hot pink and reads “New York City” in purple script above a touristy, anatomically incorrect illustration of the city – one where all the major landmarks are smooshed into the frame together, so it looks like the Flatiron is right next to the Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty is somehow in Manhattan. The sole differences between the two bags are that the Balenciaga version is larger and more square in shape, made of top-of-the-line leather, and features the brand’s name subtly embossed in gold on the front. Oh, and it’s also $1,950, while the gift shop version couldn’t be more than $100. The grand irony is that in this case, you’ll pay significantly more for the knockoff than the genuine article.

At the French fashion house’s most recent show (the one with the giant graffiti-covered mountain, keep up) the brand showcased more totes, this time with retro illustrations of puppies cuddling kittens. One bag came stuffed with cow print faux fur, making for a sight you’d more likely see in a teenage girl’s bedroom circa 1999 than on a Paris Fashion Week runway in 2018. But this season, kitsch – the so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic union of nostalgia and tackiness – loomed large over the fashion week runways.

Take Stella McCartney, who adorned many of the garments in her AW18 collection with what are probably the most famous kitsch artworks of all time – pulpy portraits by 60s painter J.H. Lynch. Moschino went over-the-top as usual, transforming models into body-painted, pink-clad, bouffant-sporting Jackie O caricatures, while Tom Ford mixed loud, clashing patterns with oversized hoops, copious 80s influences, sequin t-shirts and dazzling pink handbags that spelled “Pussy Power” in silver gems. Balenciaga didn’t stop with the animal friends – the collection featured crushed coloured velvet, hairy fluoro knitwear, and some acid blue leopard print.

Rei Kawakubo was apparently inspired not just by the aesthetic, but specifically by Susan Sontag’s famed 1966 essay on the subject, Notes on ‘Camp’. The sculptural creations we’ve come to expect from Comme des Garçons appeared in neon pink leopard, polka dots and gold lamé, with one dress looking like it was made of lots of kiddie fairy costumes, and topped off with a heavily distressed sweater featuring an image of Betty Boop. The idea was to expound on the importance of camp – defined by Sontag as a joyful, artificial, naive expression of low-brow tastes – in creating something that feels new and distinctive.

“Susan Sontag wrote about a creative movement and sensibility, CAMP. I can really identify with this vision. Camp is not something horribly exaggerated, out of the ordinary, unserious or in bad taste,” said a post-show statement issued by CdG (a rare occasion – usually just one or two words are given to sum up a collection). “This collection came out of the feeling that, on the contrary, camp is really and truly something deep and new and represents a value we need. For example, there are many so-called styles such as punk that have lost their original rebel spirit today. I think camp can express something deeper and can give birth to progress.”

As Kawakubo notes, camp and its similarly zany cousin kitsch aren’t necessarily “horribly exaggerated” or “out of the ordinary.” Quite the opposite, in fact. They represent a heightened version of normalcy for a large swath of people who haven’t been brainwashed by notions of so-called good taste. Anyone who grew up with a grandmother that hoarded Precious Moments figurines or an aunt that dressed like the mum in Matilda or in a house where the toilet seats had furry little covers on them, likely has an inherent understanding of the aggressively lower-middle class aesthetic we’re talking about.

Irony and kitsch are frequent bedfellows, and while kitsch can also be rendered in earnest – as with Kawakubo – when it’s being appropriated by an artist or designer, this isn’t usually the case. Take Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol, famous purveyors of kitsch – with the wildly inflated price tags attached to their work proof that their aesthetic is self-aware, rather than naive. Likewise, the Balenciaga tourist bag, for example, operates on two levels – one, as a bag decorated with touristy motifs of New York, and two, as a pastiche of bags decorated with touristy motifs of New York. This allows the wearer to feel the ‘in-on-the-joke’, an ironic distance between the cheap, lowbrow thing imitated and the expensive, highbrow imitation.

This kind of irony, and the self-awareness that comes with it, feels like the best explanation for the sudden explosion of kitsch on the runway. After all, we’re living in a culture that’s steeped in irony – from our politics and entertainment to the way we consume food and even interact with each other. We watch TV shows that purport to present us with “reality” but actually show situations and personalities that are just as heavily scripted as those classed as fictional. We pay big bucks for gourmet food not necessarily to eat it, but to photograph it in order to show we ate it. These things are so commonplace that we don’t even realise how deeply ironic they are anymore.

“This season, kitsch – the so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic union of nostalgia and tackiness – loomed large over the fashion week runways”

Good, thought-provoking, timely fashion soaks up aspects of culture and then regurgitates them back to us. In the cases of Demna Gvasalia and Rei Kawakubo, this is in the form of highly consumable product and wearable art. Balenciaga putting Animal Ark-esque illustrations on a bag that will cost a month’s salary for people on the Living Wage feels decidedly more cynical than Kawakubo’s wearable sculptures, which are an intellectual, aesthetic exploration of camp rather than borrowing its style so someone can ironically wear a bag with a kitten on. Still, both are valid, and both deserve the space they take up in our fashion landscape today.

Because really, Kawakubo is right. What Sontag wrote of camp in 1966 still feels so applicable in today’s world. “Camp... incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” Is there anything more 2018 than that?