One of the hottest debates in the fashion world is whether fast fashion, despite promoting a more democratic adoption of trends, can be sustained despite its reliance on sweatshop labor, environmentally unsound practices, and possible encouragement of conformism. In April, we spoke with Gill Linton, the founder of Byronesque, a new purveyor of slow fashion online that hopes to edify as well as entertain with its editorial content and personal shopping service. Despite its highly personalized approach, Byronesque nonetheless uses one of the fastest mediums available – the internet – to reach its customers, and thus there are crucial elements of shopping, such as try-before-you-buy and seeing an item up-close in person, that may sometimes get overlooked. There’s nothing like an offline event to surmount these shortcomings. Byronesque’s //OFFLINE exhibit and boutique, which ran through last Saturday in an empty third-floor space of New York’s Farley Post Office building, furthered the website’s educational mission in addition to getting physical merchandise in front of potential buyers.
The educational mission was particularly palpable when we got close to the clothes. Being able to touch historical fashion pieces is an opportunity that few non-fashion mavens get. As my companion, a fashion school student, said, “High fashion makes so much more sense when you see it in person.” What looks bizarre and unrelatable on a six-foot-tall runway model can be admired for its craftsmanship up close. The designers included Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Vivienne Westwood, and Jean Paul Gaultier. Vintage pieces went back as far as the 1930′s, and there were some well-loved band shirts and artifacts from stores like Sex that were clinging to life. The lived-in pieces are a part of Byronesque’s aesthetic, which focuses on slowing down and enjoying narrative instead of buying too many clothes, too fast: “the scars that tell their unique stories have inspired and outlived landfills of imitations,” reads part of their manifesto.
A narrative coalesces around these “scars,” which you can see immediately in person. Conversely, they are generally not what you first see when you browse the website, though they are given their special place. Each boutique piece on the rack had a handwritten hang tag that identified its designer, the approximate year and place it was made, any other interesting historical tidbits, and a unique ID number that resembled a Dewey decimal number. The price – and these were luxury goods, after all – was mostly a footnote. The tags were accompanied by a Byronesque tag as well, reminding visitors of the overarching brand identity despite the multitudes of designers and eras that were included.
Other parts of the event playfully combined elements of a boutique and an exhibit. A room full of particularly exquisite and valuable items put them by themselves on mannequins; even though it looked solemn, you could still walk up and touch. The only protected item was a John Galliano’s “Les Incroyables” graduation collection, which hung dramatically in a cage that looked to be part of the abandoned space but had actually been designed as part of the exhibit by Craig Ward.
The price of the vintage items was out of the range of most people, but purchasing wasn’t the point. CEO Gill Linton discussed the importance of inspiration to company at the PSFK conference this year, and the idea of visiting a location just to browse – ‘showrooming’ in the parlance of fast fashion – is in fact central to this Byronesque exhibit. It’s a valuable tool for getting the customer interested in Byronesque’s mission and allied with the brand, even if the merchandise is out of their price range. Feelings of ‘inspiration’ have the power to change purchasing habits in the long term. Wired pursues a similar concept with its holiday popup stores, which are more like curated showrooms that allow customer and brand to develop shared interests in innovative tech.
Both the Wired and Byronesque pop-up shops are similar in that they don’t actually manufacture the products they exhibit. Wired benefits their sponsors by placing their products in the store, while Byronesque’s products, while not formally placed through sponsorship, accrue additional cultural cachet from their role in a curated exhibit and lift up Byronesque’s reputation at the same time. Nordstrom has approached similar territory with its Blue Nile booth at a Seattle location, which leverages the cost of floor space and in-person exposure as the units of exchange for the exclusively online brand.
By making the merchandise, and not the selling, the centerpoint of the exhibit, Byronesque allowed it to come alive in the imaginations of visitors as more than just kitschy background elements. Once, inhabited by members of various subcultures, the clothes made history, Gill Linton told us: “They all had a point of view and you were either with them or against them. It created diverse groups that creatively challenged and inspired each other.” It’s only by understanding such stories that we can keep them going.
Photos: Rachel Pincus