Balenciaga, Kanye West and A Moment of Meme Culture


Image: Balenciaga

Balenciaga’s official Instagram account, @balenciaga, has 5.2 million followers and follows exactly zero accounts. On February 1st, the label released ten images over the course of ten hours on the social media platform. The subjects, including Stella Tennant, Marjatta Nissinen, and Raphaele Godin and her son, are dressed in an eclectic array of clothes, including tartan pants the color of Big Bird and shirts covered in a newspaper print. The last image features Alek Wek in a voluminous puffer jacket/denim vest combo, obstructing the camera with her hand. Behind her and just out of focus, block letters spell out the word ‘Balenciaga’ across the limestone wall of the label’s newly opened Avenue Montaigne store in Paris, revealing the images to be part of the brand’s Spring 2018 advertising campaign.

On the same day paparazzi images surfaced on the internet of Paris Hilton and a few lesser known celebrities, including Sarah Snyder (Jaden Smith’s ex) and Sami Miro (Zac Efron’s ex) wearing platinum blonde wigs and streetwear, pretending to be Kim Kardashian dressed in clothes from Kanye West’s fashion label, Yeezy. Once the internet recovered from its confusion, it was revealed that these photos were also meant to be part of an advertising campaign. This time they were promoting the latest season of Yeezy. The punchline: These images referenced photos of the real Kim Kardashian wearing similar clothes, shot by paparazzi in December of last year. Both campaigns have all the makings of Internet fame. Not only do they both poke a sly tongue out at our image- and celebrity-obsessed culture, they are also trolling us. Most importantly, they are deliciously meta, and self-reference their own self-referencing.

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Advertising has long been considered a barometer of culture: the minute someone starts to use a pop culture moment to sell something back to you, it’s gone mainstream. In As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising, the fashion historian Daniel Delis Hill may have been writing about last century, but his comment still stands true: “Advertising materials are documentaries of American history.” If advertising is going to reflect who and what we are today, then, it was inevitable that the industry would eventually turn to memes.

But what makes a meme a meme, as opposed to simply an image with a few lines of witty text in an ugly, brutalist font? The term was first coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a former professor for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford who has since retired. In 1976, he wrote The Selfish Gene, a book about evolutionary replication. In it, he says: “We need... a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being relate to 'memory', or to the French word même.” He adds: “It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'.”

In The Selfish Gene, what separates a meme from genes is their ability to not only be reproduced, but also to mutate. In 1994, Mike Godwin, who had created Godwin’s Law while a student at the University of Texas, Austin, and had gone on to practice as a digital rights lawyer, wrote an article for Wired: “A ‘meme,’ of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a ‘viral meme’) may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.” In 2013, Dawkins revisited his own creation at the Cannes Advertising Festival, saying in a speech that “the very idea of the meme itself has mutated and evolved in a new direction. An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance and spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity.” The internet meme, in other words, as a mutation of the original idea of a meme, had itself become a meme.

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By the time Dawkins said this, we had already entered the post-Internet age. In ‘The Image Object Post-Internet’, the artist Artie Vierkant outlines four attributes of a post-Internet object: “inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.” If these define our current culture, then internet memes are where they all meet: the original author is often irrelevant; they exist purely on the internet; and the only limit to how much we can reproduce them is our attention span (which, to be fair, is limited). Most importantly for advertisers, memes can be measured, through shares and likes, and even correlated with sales numbers to prove their ef cacy and return on investment. To sum it all up: your addiction to @fuckjerry or @ thezenpig is a cultural moment that advertisers are using to sell you stuff.

In 2016, Gucci hired the creators behind a few meme-themed Instagram accounts with signi cant followings, such as @gothshakira (59k followers), @champagneemojis (241k followers), and @ textsfromyourexistentialist (428k followers), to create a series of memes to sell their Le Marché des Merveilles watch collection, tagged #TFWGucci. The images played off popular tropes doing the rounds on the internet, including the ‘starter pack’ meme, complete with everything needed to become a stereotype (in this case, aviator glasses, embroidered patches and a Gucci watch for the Gucci groupie), and the ‘Me vs the guy she tells me not to worry about’ meme, where the latter section also included a Gucci timepiece. It didn’t matter that the images were trying to sell you something, they were funny; the captions, on the other hand, read cold and awkward, like a robot trying to make human conversation at a dinner party. They also came with detailed, dull explanations of each meme, which anyone under the age of 60 would be able to tell you goes against both internet and humor 101: if you have to be explain a joke, you shouldn’t be telling it.

The Balenciaga and Yeezy images are different. Whether you think West is a genius or just slightly mad, there’s no denying that both him and Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, have an intimate knowledge of pop culture. Since the release of The College Dropout in 2004, West’s list of references has included but is not limited to: Steven Soderbergh’s breakout film Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Forrest Gump; Napoleon Dynamite; the Jimmy Fallon Show; the Cosby Show; blood diamonds; former CIA director George Tenet; Nina Simone; Emmett Till, and the Cheesecake Factory. He even shines as a meme star in his own right—one of the most popular memes created of him pairs the text "I love Kanye more than Kanye loves Kanye" with what is essentially his resting bitch face. He is also the subject of much pop culture analysis: the New Yorker termed his acceptance speech at the 2015 Video Music Awards a moment with a capital M; that year, a student at Cornell wrote a blog post titled ‘Kanye West: the Game Theory Master’ for a class on network structures.

Balenciaga, on the other hand, has risen to become a cultural moment under Gvasalia’s tenure. In 2009, the Georgian-born war refugee, who studied fashion the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, founded Vetements, a label known for deconstructing and appropriating quotidian clothing. Six years later, he took over as creative director of Balenciaga, the Paris-based luxury fashion label originally founded as a couture house by Basque designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. This heritage notwithstanding, Gvasalia brought his irreverent, subversive mindset to Balenciaga, using fashion to play with, question, and critique the fashion industry and pop culture. In 2016, he sent a squat, oversized bag crafted in brilliant blue leather, down the runway. It looked uncannily like an Ikea tote. Was it a scam designed to take consumers’ money, or was it a vindicated view on logo obsession and global capitalism? Given Gvasalia’s track record, it was likely both.

Vetements and Balenciaga are now the subject of their own memetic fashion brands, Vetememes and Boolenciaga. When the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman questioned Gvasalia about this, he replied via email: “Vetements will not be ling any lawsuits over the Vetememes raincoat and hope that he has enjoyed making his project as much as we do making our clothes.” If anyone knows how to play the never ending cycle of memes that pop culture has become, it would be Gvasalia and West.

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Both sets of images are the result of an inevitable culmination of advertising, fashion and internet culture hitting a point where there was nothing left to do except for go meta. Limor Shifman writes in The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres that contemporary advertising was forced to head down this route in an effort to beat an increasingly cynical audience and stand out in a media-bombarded world. Fashion, too, has struggled to make its voice heard, and turned to self-referencin in an attempt to stay relevant; in Fashion: A Philosophy, the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, who has also ruminated on subjects such as loneliness, fear and boredom, writes: “Like art, fashion has become ever more self-referential... That is why a good deal of fashion is characterized by a desperate attempt to say something. If one is to sell symbolic values, these symbols must be made to represent something.” What better way to give the people what they want than by orchestrating a shoot that simultaneously lauds yet shakes its damn head at our obsession with pop culture? (As further proof of the Yeezy images’ meme value, Diplo has posted his own spoof images on Instagram of himself walking around the Hollywood Hills in black leggings and a belly-length blonde wig, #YeezySeason6). The proof is in the commercial pudding: items are already sold out on the Yeezy site, where West used the paparazzi-shot images in place of a lookbook.

When Roland Barthes wrote Système de la Mode in 1963, he set out to break down fashion and its signifiers. But clothes, which carry multiple layers of meaning and signify different things to different people, proved a dif cult topic to pin down. In Svendsen’s opinion, what Barthes was actually trying to do is “unveil the myth as myth, so that we can become emancipated from it.” Gvasalia and West have done the former; for the latter, however, they’ve dangled in front of us like a ghostly carrot in front of a horse without actively pursuing it, likely because it would not be in their best commercial interests. (Well, Gvasalia has to eat; nobody knows about West.) There does, however, seem to be something oddly poetic about knowing that by exposing the fantasy, we could be free from it—but only if we wanted to be.