When Taylor Swift stepped out of her apartment in Balenciaga's New York hoodie earlier this month she made headlines — but not for the reasons you might think. The hoodie features an airbrushed image of some of New York's most recognizable landmarks on the front, with "New York City" scrawled across them in cheesy loopy lettering, so it might not be immediately apparent as to why the style would cause such buzz, other than the fact that it looks like a hoodie you could buy at a souvenir shop for $19.99. (Balenciaga itself has actually said NY merchandise is what inspired the piece.)
In an article entitled "What Makes Taylor Swift’s $895 Balenciaga Sweatshirt So Controversial," Vanity Fair explains that the shirt style — specifically the airbrushing—"grew out of hot rod and graffiti culture before its star rose along with the New York hip-hop scene in the late '80s and early '90s in large part thanks to the Shirt Kings, a trio of artists who dressed the likes of L.L. Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and Grandmaster Flash." In other words, the hoodie is yet another glaring example of cultural appropriation within the fashion industry. As Vanity Fair writes, "Balenciaga wasn’t even the first to appropriate the look. It’s an appropriation of fashion’s appropriation."
What makes this offense especially irksome is the fact that Balenciaga's New York City collection (it also includes a bag and wallet) isn't just ripping off one culture; it's also ripping off a specific company. Earlier this week, Fashionista reported that New York City souvenir company, City Merchandise, Inc., is suing Balenciaga for copyright infringement, claiming some of the Spanish brand's new offerings are "virtually indistinguishable" from their own, as written in the lawsuit. The filing goes into descriptive detail about City Merchandise Inc.''s "whimsical and appealing layouts and arrangements, compilations and/or collages, skyline perspectives, depicted objects and environmental elements, color schemes and shading, highlighting and bordering, shapes and sizes," which do, indeed, look strikingly similar to those emblazoned on the Balenciaga products.
Balenciaga wasn't just inspired by souvenirs—they blatantly copied specific ones.
Demna Gvasalia, the mastermind behind both Balenciaga and Vetements, is known for his ironic takes on everyday styles, like his DHL x Vetements t-shirt and his take on the IKEA tote bag for Balenciaga. (Both items retailed for ungodly amounts, although neither prompted lawsuits.) But what I think makes this copycat collection so much more cringe-worthy, along with the fact that it's appropriative of hip-hop culture, is that in ripping off a single New York souvenir company Balenciaga is essentially ripping off all New York souvenir stores (many share similar aesthetics and buy from the same wholesaler) and causing people to buy things at an excessively high markup. To give you an idea, the brand's tote bag retails for nearly $2,000, whereas the souvenir bag will only set you back $19.99. Huh?! Why, Taylor Swift, would you think it was cool to drop what is more than half of an average New Yorker's monthly rent on a sweatshirt that you could get in China Town for a single crisp Andrew Jackson? It almost feels like a taunt or a grossly ironic display of wealth.
Then again, to play Devil's advocate, maybe Gvasalia intended for this backwardness. After all, he essentially popularizing styles that are accessible to the masses and can be bought in extreme likeness for very affordable prices by getting celebrities to buy them and make them trendy. The average consumer cannot afford a Balenciaga IKEA tote ($2,000) but they can afford the original IKEA shopper ($0.99) and feel like they're still part of the conversation and trend.
The bottom line is this: it's never okay for a culture to be appropriated within the fashion industry, especially when it's at the financial gain of an individual or brand. Because of this, the Balenciaga New York collection is certainly problematic. It's also never okay for a brand to blatantly copy the design of another company or designer. But I do have to ask, how many more pink New York City totes and hoodies do you think souvenir shops are going to sell this summer than they normally would have?