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Why we get so angry over $500 faux-distressed clothes

Fashion has long had a thing for intentionally beat-up clothes. Here’s why that’s a problem.

Distressed clothing paired with Christian Louboutin shoes in Hamburg, Germany.
Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images

Sometime last week, the denizens of the internet noticed that Nordstrom carries a pair of distressed, dirty-looking sneakers. The shoes, by Italian sneaker brand Golden Goose, look like a pair of beat-up old Converse — or, maybe more accurately, a pair of formerly white Common Projects that have seen better days — and can be yours for the low price of $530 plus tax.

One Twitter user called the shoes “awful” and “insensitive.” Another said they’re indicative of the “absurdity of late capitalism.” Scores of critics accused Golden Goose, which has sold similar shoes in the past, of fetishizing poverty. Local news affiliates across the country latched on to the story. Orlando Sentinel writer Shannon Green referred to the shoes as the “latest ridiculous example of trashion,” the “fusing of trash and fashion.”

Golden Goose’s Superstar Taped Sneaker
Nordstrom.com

It’s not hard to understand why in this time of growing income inequality, people were upset by a pair of calf-skin, $530 shoes that are supposed to look dirty and worn. After all, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 would have to work two forty-hour weeks to cop a pair of Golden Goose Superstars.

This is hardly the first time that a capital-F Fashion label has sold dirty, used-looking products at a markup — and it’s not the first time distressed-looking designer goods have generated this kind of backlash. In a 2017 essay for Politico, art historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell pointed out that, during times of vast income inequality, wealthy people tend to dress down in an ill-fated, oft-mocked attempt to blend in with the masses.

Sometimes the goal really is to cosplay poverty, like Marie Antoinette famously did when she modeled her royal wardrobe after the dresses worn by rural peasants. Other times, the point is to convey a sense of authenticity by looking like they aren’t trying too hard, even if they’re paying a lot of money to do so. No matter what Golden Goose’s intentions were, the reaction to the shoes is indicative of the growing divide between those who can afford to drop upward of $500 on a pair of worn-looking shoe and those who can’t.

Fetishizing poverty or commodifying authenticity?

This isn’t the first time Golden Goose has come under fire for its faux-vintage offerings. In 2016, shoppers criticized the brand for selling a similar pair of sneakers, this time in pink, for $585. That time around, the company said in a statement that the shoes were a way of “pay[ing] homage to the West Coast’s skater culture,” the Guardian reported.

Charlene Lau, a fashion historian who has taught at Parsons School of Design, said that the backlash towards Golden Goose stems from the fact that where some people see an homage to West Coast skater culture, others see “an appropriation of marginalized and disadvantaged people, and an aestheticization of their hardship.”

“In this sense, such ‘authenticity’ can be commodified and purchased,” Lau said. “A view that these shoes glamorize poverty illustrates a longstanding, historical and very real dissonance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’; it is not just about a current growing awareness of income equality on the part of the privileged.”

She continued: “At the same time, distressed, tattered and dirty clothing also tends to work against middle-class norms of cleanliness and propriety. In this sense, they are symbolic of rebellion — whether real, contrived, or imagined.”

High fashion dresses down

Golden Goose is by no means the first luxury retailer to sell expensive, pseudo-distressed goods, or to be criticized for doing so.

Adidas made headlines in 2014 for selling muddied sneakers for $175. Three years later, denim brand PRPS was criticized for selling jeans caked with fake mud for $425. And those are some of the less egregious examples.

Last year, Maison Martin Margiela graced us with a shredded-up pair of their Future sneakers, which retailed for $1,425, and Balenciaga dropped a $2,145 ripoff of a cheap IKEA tote, made of lambskin instead of plastic. Kanye West’s Yeezy line is known for its ripped sweaters and expensive, largely unflattering basics.

Marita Sturken, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, said Golden Goose’s shoes and similar faux-worn products are an example of a brand trying to convey authenticity.

“I don’t think these are supposed to look poor,” Sturken said in an email. “I think they are supposed to look worn and personal (and hence perhaps sentimental or “loved” ) — all qualities that vintage and pre-work goods aim to capture, which makes them seem more authentic, more real, less artificial.”

The point of these faux-vintage, faux-distressed goods isn’t to look dressed up — it’s to convey an air of authenticity by dressing down, even if you’re paying a premium to do so. But as art historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell noted in her analysis of Balenciaga’s fake IKEA bag — which she called a “sign of the apocalypse” — the difference between ragged-looking designer duds and, well, actually raggedy clothing is in the details. Golden Goose’s shoes may look like shit, but they’re still made of expensive Italian leather.

If the Golden Goose had come at a lower price point, Sturken suggested, it’s likely that there wouldn’t have been any backlash at all. “I think it’s pretty easy to understand why people are offended by this, but the question is, at what price tag are they not offended by faux-aged offerings?”

Ripped jeans and dirty shoes for everyone

This aesthetic, like all things couture, has trickled down to the masses.

“There is a real market for distressed clothing, especially as we look at recent cycles in fashion and what people are wearing on the street and on the subway,” Lau, the fashion historian, explained. “Ripped jeans, whether DIY or mass produced, have had a place in fashion for the “cool” factor since the nascent days of punk.”

A quick Google search will lead you to much more reasonably-priced distressed offerings by fast-fashion retailers like Urban Outfitters, Topshop, and H&M. At Forever 21, you can put together an entire intentionally disheveled look for less than $50. The problem, then, might not be that Golden Goose is selling pre-stained, unnecessarily duct-taped shoes, but the sheer amount the brand is charging for them.

This distressed aesthetic is most appealing to those for whom wearing stained sneakers and sweaters full of holes is a choice. In an essay for Racked, writer Marissa Higgins described how her poor upbringing made her want to dress like she was anything but. “Class signifiers often operate as unspoken rules. Of course you’ll understand what ‘business casual’ means,” Higgins wrote. “Of course you own clothes you would buy and wear just to work, have the funds to create this other self just for the sake of fitting in and wearing the part.”

Golden Goose’s destroyed sneakers convey class in a different way. Just like the people who can afford to buy $500 sneakers ostensibly know when to dress up in business casual, they also know when to dress down. Even as the rich try to dress down by dressing in literal tatters — and the rest of us try to get the look for less — there’s something inherently classist about this fetishization of decay.

The entire point of derelict chic is that you’re wearing torn clothing and stained sneakers because you want to, not because you have to.

The backlash to Golden Goose’s shoes, Balenciaga’s expensive take on an IKEA bag, and everything Yeezy has ever put out isn’t about design, it’s about inequality. It’s easier to express outrage about a $500 pair of shoes that look like they got run over by a car than it is to break down everything that’s wrong with America’s economic distribution.

For Golden Goose, though, the publicity generated by the outrage cycle seems to have paid off. Despite — or perhaps because of — the backlash, the shoes are now sold out.