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Unpopular Opinion: Golden Goose Footwear Aestheticize Class and Erase Labor

by Emma Reidy about a year ago in designers
First Place in Unpopular Opinion ChallengeFirst Place in Unpopular Opinion Challenge

Emma O’Regan-Reidy 3952 words

Illustration by Emma O'Regan-Reidy

As the world reached its second millennium twenty years ago, the West was in the midst of an unprecedented and exponentially increasing gulf between producer and consumer. As most assemblage and creation of clothing continue to move in large swathes from the domestic to the international sphere, customers purchasing garments experience a distance between these textiles and their own lives. This results in a desire for an individual story attached to these mass-produced clothes at the level of aesthetics in high fashion and materiality of ready-to-wear apparel. As we transition further into the 21st century, internet platforms widen this interaction between producer and consumer. Coupled with individual story-based digital architecture as well and a push towards secondhand buying due to climate anxieties, having a story behind the garments you’re wearing seems more important than ever, even if that story isn’t yours.

Pre-distressed clothing, particularly the faux-dirtied Golden Goose sneakers, can be traced through these socioeconomic pulses of the early 21st century. Rooted in cultural capital, these distressed smudges on Golden Goose footwear are aestheticized class symbols which demarcate acceptable artisan dirt for the affluent, distinguishing this dirt from that on the garments and footwear of the working class through a discrete GGDB-branded star.

Authenticity and sustainability are illusively created in the beige burlap aesthetics of popular multimillion dollar fashion retailers such as & Other Stories and COS, under their parent company of H&M. These ready-to-wear retailers translate the essence of haute couture for the average everyday closet, creating staple items for the demographic of urban millennials in the creative sector sporting these designs. In the context of the ‘experience economy,’ a term coined by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in a book under the same title, the material object being purchased is considered second to the lifestyle attached to it.

This rings true when reading the “Details” section of Golden Goose’s page on high-end retailer, Net-A-Porter’s, website. The section outlines that these shoes have “been made by Venetian artisans [...] The uppers and soles have been artfully distressed for a dose of the brand’s skater-inspired cool.” The words “artisan” and “artful” redirects the consumer from the irrationality of purchasing faux dirt by masking it under the umbrella term of art; something that should be appreciated first and explained later, or never. The combination of “artisan” with “skater-inspired” enhances the lifestyle quality of this shoe much like the studio apartment aesthetics of & Other Stories or COS stores. Consumers want to identify as an artisan/skater who lives outside the boundaries of their capitalist induced clockwork. This proposition of who they can become associated with by wearing the shoe, rather than the inherent materiality of the sneaker itself tantalizes buyers. Pop-culture theorist, Mark Fisher, wrote in his book Capitalist Realism that “a detached spectatorialism (has replaced) engagement and involvement in our current society.” Instead of wanting to voraciously live our fullest lives, we want to clinically observe them and others in the crystallization of our memories and actions on social media platforms. These lifestyles and the supposed authenticity attached to them coalesce in the chemically induced authenticity of intentionally distressed clothing and footwear.

We currently exist in the era of the digital copy, in which our physical self set in time and space must compete with digital avatars of ourselves and others. The increased amount of identities on and offline has caused a craving for authenticity and originality. We continue to demand cultural artifacts that Walter Benjamin would consider to occupy a unique “presence in time and space” in the physical world. Cultural theorist, Russell Cobb, observes that “[r]ather than destroying authenticity, globalization has created an ever increasing appetite for it.” Social, political, and economic globalization in the Global North after the Cold War has not flattened our tastes but rather made us crave heterogeneous originality more than ever. However, this authenticity still operates within systematic capitalism, which prescribes dizzying cycles of trends which allow for only certain types of authenticity to be celebrated in products. According to a Business Insider report from October 2019, Brooklyn-based designer, Caroline Pogue, observes that “[p]eople want design with more soul and personality. It's also fueled by a renewed interest in vintage fashion and an ethos for reusing items." This aesthetic interest in vintage and reuse has manifested from the 90s and early 00s preference for heroin chic-inspired garments to the torn, distressed visual language of ‘vintage’ in new clothing in the 10s and 20s. Intentionally distressed clothing expresses the limits capitalism places on uniqueness in order to make products—such as Golden Goose sneakers—still predictably profitable fitting into these acceptable niches and trends.

Our individual existence online is composed mostly of self-produced content, otherwise known as stories. Since digital architecture is mostly structured on profiles of the self, and therefore stories—quite literally, Snapchat and Instagram host daily update functions titled “stories”—it seems natural that people are inclined to view personal stories as indicators of identity. While production lines become more extrapolated from the consumer, the buyer also desires something more personal and unique, which is usually linked to a story. These stained effects on Golden Goose sneakers project a life that was lived through material signals. In her collection of essays Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino writes that it’s “because of the hashtag, the retweet, and the profile that solidarity on the internet gets inextricably tangled up with visibility, identity, and self-promotion.” Stories have punctuated social activist movements in the past decade such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, in which personal anecdotes and testimonies have created tangible shifts in recognizing how larger institutions in the West are encoded with silent but menacing hegemonies. The personal story has been key to unlocking these largely concealed widespread social issues. In this era where traditionally ‘privileged’ people and structures are encountering an upheaval, it seems natural for millennial consumers to desire a story behind what they’re consuming; marking them as socially a part of something greater than themselves, but that something being anything but capitalism and mass production which the clothes are most likely a product of. These large political and social movements, often based in liberal ideologies, are highly concentrated in urban spaces, where consumers of distressed clothing typically live. The faux dirt smudges on the Golden Goose sneaker can be interpreted as an imprint of stories on one’s apparel, fitting for this era of digital storytelling as a method of branding and self promotion.

Distressed garments aren’t exclusive to the Golden Goose brand. In Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 1 collection, earth-hued knits and cottons with scattered holes made a dominant appearance. These garments suggest obvious distress and deconstruction at a runway level, but when worn as ready-to-wear or streetwear, they become indicators of class. Intentional distress emulates moth-damage in forest green, oversized sweaters in the collection. Although ‘grand-millennial’ fashion as a term has only begun circulating recently, this Yeezy collection from 2015 echoes similar sentiments. The model, adorned in these faux-moth holes, looks dressed in heavily worn, secondhand clothing, rather than the pristine runways of high fashion. These garments additionally borrow visual cues of apocalyptic tropes. Fashion writer, Elizabeth Wilson, has called this style the “aestheticization of dystopia:” the symptom of twenty-first century restlessness. This 2015 collection once again points to current issues of climate crisis and real world examples of apocalyptic, dystopian imagery—such as Australia catching on fire at the start of this year and the desolate atmosphere of locked down cities due to COVID-19—in which the tattered attire metaphorically points to contemporary anxieties. Intentionally distressed fashion in the 2010s, moving into the 2020s, when considered through this lens, can be understood on the runway level as a crystallization of overarching social concerns on the level of artistic textile design.

Cultural writer, Zachary Leazer, states that “[n]ature is no longer a space to be conquered, but rather it is a source of fear” as we settle further into this new year. While the pre-dirtied smudges on the Golden Goose sneaker can be interpreted as a provocative statement of class entitlement, on the other hand, these controlled dirt marks could also be seen as an attempt to once again gain some agency over nature which seems to be pin-balling and free-falling out of our grasp; where it never was in the first place. Leazer observes that while “[t]he carbon economy cannot be changed [...] the self can be equipped to resist existential threats.” Individualization and the construction of identity casts the body as, what German sociologist, Georg Simmel, in the 1970s deemed “a final frontier of controllability, encouraging self-cultivation through the externality of objects.” Garments therefore are a method for managing catastrophic anxieties which are irreversible, emulated at this level through the apocalyptic nuances of pre-distressed clothing.

Clothing, especially in sprawling cities and strip mall gridded suburbs, has become one amongst many products in which the gulf between producer and consumer has vastly widened. The gap between direct cause and effect, enhanced even more so by the internet, has led consumers to search for another layer of meaning while buying. The identity economy—in which consumers buy goods which align with lifestyles they want to be a part of or associated with—additionally contributes to the sense of identity formation through purchasing. While clothing has always been about symbolic expression and deeply intertwined with identity, the fixation in the era of social media with illusive ‘authenticity’ has flourished. Although the faux wear on these garments and shoes are the opposite of “authentic” as they are precisely a “fake, replica, copy,” they visually connect the wearer with blue collar laborers, who are often portrayed by media as living more ‘authentic’ lifestyles than those who can wear white sneakers because they never are in positions to dirty them or keep them for long periods of time. The increased popularity of the Golden Goose sneaker in the past year can be seen as an evolution of the white sneaker trend which was catalyzed by Phoebe Philo and the comeback of Stan Smiths in 2015. Yet, the pre-painted dirt onto the sneaker pins it to this moment in which authenticity and ‘realness’ is held sacred.

Gentrification is similarly tied into the ebb and flow of production and consumption; or rather who is producing versus who is consuming. The anxieties about finances, housing situations, and climate crisis which surround the millennial workforces in western urban spaces highly impact not only what they are purchasing, but also the built environment around them. These permeating anxieties could be expressed in the homogenization and aesthetics of minimalism which champion clarity and cleanliness, which structuring many contemporary office buildings and home spaces, such as the designs of WeWork or the Magnolia Home x Target collection. Minimalism, however, is also highly intertwined with notions of class. As British anthropologist, Daniel Miller, explains “materialism, understood as a concern for increasing one's possession of goods often at the expense of a concern for other people, tend[s] to be strongly associated with poverty rather than wealth.” Clutter, whether it be in terms of physical objects or emotions, is viewed as a vice associated with laziness and instability; a consumer rather than a producer. By wearing culturally capitalized dirt, such as that on the Golden Goose sneaker, the wearer engages in ‘irony’ which is actually appropriation of the aesthetics of the working class encoded in a language largely inaccessible to many. Pansy Duncan, lecturer of Media Studies, states that “boredom is capitalist culture's other, the only emotion not on the market, the emotional economy's discard or waste-product: a kind of emotional trash.” Intentionally distressed garments then, rather than contradict minimalism, feed into this aesthetic value system presenting productivity adverse from consumerism which is now seen as symptomatic of lower classes. Furthermore, this creates the more hidden branding symbols of these brands, which necessitate cultural capital to understand the small symbols which display the brand, such as the cut-off star logo and ‘artisanal’ dirt of the Golden Goose sneaker.

As noted by sociologist, Elias le Grand, “the Global North has undergone a process of deindustrialization, neoliberal restructuring and economic globalization.” While all of these factors contribute to class appropriation in 2000s-2010s fashion, the most notable would be the process of “deindustrialization.” As factory work, especially regarding the production of textiles, has moved overseas cities have become distinctly less “industrial” however still emulate the qualities of the industrial. The faux-dirt smudges on the Golden Goose sneaker symbolizes a yearning for the past of unregulated industrial and economic expansion which was marked with oil and grease and coal. Deindustrialization and subsequent gentrification have located the centre of production, and therefore the middle and upper classes, in the city as the creative, financial, and business hubs. This atmosphere gave birth to the archetype of the middle class hipster which le Grand argues is “constructed, not only vis-á-vis working-class culture but also in relation to classificatory struggles of value between different generational groupings within the middle class.” The reference to generational groupings here coincides with the shifts to gentrification in cosmopolitan areas. Older generations would consider highbrow cultural capital built on “mastering canonized knowledge in highly consecrated fields.” Younger generations, conversely, are more likely to favor a “Anglocosmopolitan commercial culture that is appropriated with a certain ironical stance.” These emergent forms of cultural capital which divulge from cerebral concepts of highbrow arts and culture are located most often in the nexus of the city, appearing from gentrification of the spaces which these creative and financial sectors are saturating in their Silicon Valley streamlined aesthetics. Distressed clothing fits snuggly into this socio-economic situation in urban areas which places value on irony and a disdain for the stuffy sophistication of older cultural movements.

Pre-distressed clothing has been gaining traction for decades. Twin actresses Mary-Kate and Ashely Olsen were popular in headlines throughout the 2000s for what were considered to be their boundary-pushing looks, described by trend forecasters at the time as grungy or like “a homeless copycat.” Additional fashion reports in the New York Times from around the same time note that while “stylish young women used to wear Gucci or Prada head to toe […] These days you just feel stupid and shallow walking around with a $1,000 bag.” While shabby chic clothing and accessories often do still hoover around a hefty price tag similar to that of a $1,000 bag, the important distinction is that the wealth in the distressed clothing is not as flashy; it’s concealed in layers of cultural capital. Trends saturated in irony flip flop back and forth so quickly now as they’re steeped in social media that it requires time and knowledge to be able to keep up. The archetype of the hipster which emerged in the 2010s is enveloped in this grungy aesthetic in order to less overtly reveal wealth and opulence. In these decades throughout the early 21st century when affluence seems like an inherent vice because of all the destructive, dehumanizing layers embedded within the cogwheel of capitalism that that wealth, whether it be new or old, most likely came from, these codes to conceal it become a defense mechanism for the upper classes. Particularly in the late 2010s and 2020, when issues of race and class in the US and UK have become more pronounced due to the infinite communication stream of social media platforms, consumers desire products that virtue signal to others that they are not part of these institutions which have systematically oppressed others. Intentionally distressed clothing therefore has remained in fashion for the most part of the last three decades because of its disavowal with the institution of Western fashion which has always riddled and underpinned with issues of race, class, and environment and its attempt to position its wearer against these contestations.

The deconstructed fabric of these garments, such as the worn leather of the Golden Goose sneakers, are shown often in white cube-inspired store showrooms, divorced entirely from the “dehumanizing labor conditions and destroyed landscapes from which it is made,” quoting Leazer. Academic, Heather Swanson, observes that “white middle-class American subjectivities are predicated on not noticing. They are predicated on structural blindness: on a refusal to acknowledge the histories we inherit...For [sic.] the white and middle-class of the global North, the Anthropocene is so banal that they do not even notice it. It is the green front lawn, the strip-mall parking lot.” Purchasing clothing in the cityscapes of the Global North, when it does occur in person and not online, is punctuated by controlled areas of nature in shopping malls and store displays. These storefronts are miles away geographically and theoretically from the production sites of the items within them, contributing further to this “structural blindness” which Swanson mentions. As the late French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze notes, “[p]eople tend to confuse the quest for freedom with the embrace of capitalism” (Peta Malins, 179). Oases of pre-worn, but newly manufactured, clothing provide a semblance of authenticity and story in the otherwise barren, superficial landscape of the shop in 2020. Customers, more than ever distanced from these sites of production yearn for the sense of the handmade or diy, without hand making anything themselves as very few have the time or the skillset to do so.

Quoting the Wall Street Journal Magazine in 2016, Virgil Abloh, then creative director of Off-White and now that of Louis Vuitton Menswear, remarks that “[i]t’s the handmade, distressed touch that makes them [Golden Goose sneakers] unique” despite the “strange” $500-800 price tag. Regardless of a desire for the sanctity of the shopping space, further perpetuated by the often clean grid organization of online shop websites, consumers yearn for a trace of existence in their newly manufactured clothes, creating a market for pre-distressed apparel and accessories. Academic, Karen Hanlon, succinctly notes that “[w]hat is a necessity for the economically disenfranchised is a leisurely and discretionary choice for the economically privileged.” It is not possible to read off the social use of a consumer good from its physical properties—the good must be situated within its larger socio-economic system. While the materiality of the Golden Goose sneaker is important, it cannot be fully understood without considering its context of simultaneous globalization and deindustrialization in the Global North.

In economically dynamic contemporary capitalist societies such as those in the US and UK, sociologist, Dean Curran, notes that “there are powerful structural forces pushing individuals to increase their incomes and debt levels not necessarily to upgrade their lifestyle, but rather to engage in defensive consumption simply so as to be able to reproduce their existing social practices.” Curran outlines “defensive consumption” here as a human reaction to the treadmill of production. Consumers begin to defensively purchase goods, services, and increasingly lifestyles, in order to maintain the social, economic, and political tones of their current lives. Defensive consumption correlates to the arena of distressed trends in the fashion world because of the cultural capital which accompanies it. When citing the research of A.J. Pugh, Curran writes that “[m]any children suffer from not having certain goods, such as sneakers, and technological devices […] because without these goods they lack the ability to participate in discussions and social practices revolving around these goods.” Consumption of particular goods and the ability to discuss them therefore creates the inaccessible cultural capital attached to distressed clothing and links it as well to monetary value. Class is situated not only by income, but also by access to this cultural knowledge embedded in the strategic, fashionable dirt of the Golden Goose sneakers.

The prominent 20th century French sociologist, Pierre Bordieu, contested in 1984 that “[s]ociology endeavours to establish the conditions in which the consumers of cultural goods, and their taste for them, are produced, and at the same time to describe the different ways of appropriating such of these objects as are regarded at a particular moment as works of art, and the social conditions of the constitution of the mode of appropriation that is considered legitimate.” In this hefty quote, Bordieu is stating that intangible contexts surrounding objects creates their value, at times more so than the worth of their material properties. Take the Golden Goose sneaker. The Global West is now globalized and deindustrialized. Yet, there is a nostalgia or desire for hard work, or at least the aesthetics of it. This is displayed within the faux dirt smudges on the Golden Goose sneaker, which is emblematic of the desire for the look of hard work in regards to traditional forms of physical labour, but not actually doing the work which would acquire real dirt smudges. These faux smears mutedly scream ‘authenticity,’ a term highly prized and desired in our experience and identity-based economies at the present, however are doing so through class appropriation. Applying Bordieu, these Golden Goose sneakers could only conceivably be highly valued socially and monetarily due to the specific context surrounding them which glorifies the past and marginalized but does not want to walk in their actual shoes. Bordieu defines consumption as “a stage in a process of act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code.” Through this paradigm, the consumption of distressed clothing is intrinsically linked to class; one must have the cultural capital to understand that these Golden Goose sneakers were purposefully dirtied. While, arguably, these distressed items in high fashion are created in mass, their price point and the cultural capital attached to them distinguish them as part of “the subfield of restricted production.”

Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) presents that at the time of his writing in the States “it [was] becoming increasingly difficult to use work abstention and conspicuous consumption as a means of distinguishing upper class status.” It is now theorized that ‘lifestyle’ consumption—meaning here, as deemed by Hanlon: “an individualistic, self-expressive, and self-stylizing consumption”—has replaced more traditional forms of commodity consumption as a means of constructing social classes. Aesthetics of class appropriation further fit into the system of capitalism and productivity because, through the usage of “instant identities” and readymade stereotypes, “it minimizes work and time investments.” Fitting into the story-based framework of most internet platforms, the faux dirt of the Golden Goose sneaker becomes an instant identity for wearers to visually communicate to themselves and their followers. The cut-off star is an emblem of “Venetian artisans,” despite having purchased them from the Nordstrom shop at your local mall. As noted by fashion writer, Peta Malins, “capitalism thrives upon the capacity, and desire, of bodies to become-other. Through sites of capitalist consumption, for example, bodies are increasingly able to mutate.” This inherent aspect of capitalism pushing the consumer to constantly desire states other than the one they currently occupy has been hyper-accelerated through the overabundance of media interaction the average consumer encounters daily. The desiring of the other also is epitomized in the cyclical nature of appropriation within fashion—whether that be class-, gender-, or culturally-based —supplementing the nature of capitalism. The middle- or upper-classes infatuation with the aesthetics of the lower class is fueled by capitalism’s glamorization of “other” which fuels its economic systems of incessant demand for new products. Without appropriation in fashion, capitalism would not be able to flourish. Without this glamorization of the stories of others, now accelerated by the voyeurism of our online profiles combined with the deindustrialisation of the Global North, the Golden Goose sneaker would not be as widespread a trend in 2020. These pricey sneakers allow you to look like you’ve walked in another’s shoes without ever trying them on in the first place, emulating hashtag produced identities in 2020. Personal stories are not one size fits all, but the Golden Goose sneaker and its encoded faux-labour would tell you otherwise.

Emma Reidy
Emma Reidy
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