A Deep Dive into Fashion’s Penchant for Controversial Creations

Luxury brands employ controversy marketing methods to capture attention in an overly saturated market and to remain competitive, with some even being successful in netting more profits.

May 07, 2024 | By Larissa Fay Wong
A Deep Dive Into Fashion's Love For Controversial Creations
Photo: Miu Miu

In the fashion industry, the concept of “controversial marketing” is nothing new, but in a world where social media is king, brands are getting increasingly more daring and unconventional. In its current state, luxury brands are constantly pushing out controversial items to compete for the public eye in an overly saturated market. A brand using controversy-led marketing intentionally creates a product that has the ability to be the subject of debate, garnering more attention, more engagement, which translates to higher revenue. However, some brands have missed the mark, sparking ridicule and hate from misinformed and insensitive messaging, thus negatively impacting a brand’s image.

The unusual quality of a controversial garment often leave the internet divided. Despite negative reactions, it is always successful in garnering more views and instilling an element of curiosity. Here is where social media influencers play an integral role by satisfying the public’s intrigue. Social media users look to them for a more realistic opinion, given that they live a more relatable lifestyle as opposed to a celebrity. Thus both the brand and influencers stand to benefit from controversy marketing from being able to reach a larger number of potential consumers and followers.

An example can be seen with Italian fashion house Miu Miu and their SGD7,700 sequined underwear. It sold out at the height of its craze despite the high price point and impracticality, thanks to influencers’ viral content of it on platforms like TikTok and Instagram. The bedazzled undergarment although mocked unwearable by many social media users, still performed well and even significantly contributed to the “No-pants” micro-trend. Perhaps, the major pull of the big brand name Miu Miu has on the current fashion industry swayed the perception of consumers but this product was ultimately a successful result of controversy marketing.

A Deep Dive Into Fashion's Love For Controversial Creations
Photo: Jordanluca

New York-based label, MSCHF was also successful in controversy marketing with the viral Big Red Boots — which upon their release, sparked an uproar of ridicule for its cartoonish appearance. Yet its first release sold out within minutes post New York Fashion Week 2023 where the unique footwear was spotted on celebrities like Diplo and Lil Wayne as well as popular TikTok fashion influencer Wisdom Kaye. Its surprising success led to different variations, including a Crocs collaboration starring hotel heiress Paris Hilton. A more recent example is London-based label JordanLuca and their “Stain Stonewash” jeans that debuted at SGD1,100 during the Fall/Winter 2023 show. Dubbed by the internet as “Pee-stained jeans”, the controversial garment had reached its viral status in April and has since sold out. This led to a 15% increase in sales between 2022 and 2023 for JordanLuca, as reported by Vogue Business.

Ultimately with “controversy marketing”, it is imperative that brands evaluate the potential negative impact, ethical considerations and the relationship the brand has with its consumers. Therein lies the risks of the strategy with some brands misinterpreting these key factors. Some miss the mark in the name of innovation, creating a product that is so outrageous, it misaligns with a brand’s identity and price point. For example, Bottega Veneta — a brand known for expert leather craftsmanship and their “quiet luxury” aesthetic — caused a stir with the release of the telephone cord necklace. The accessory made with sterling silver and enamel, retailed for over SGD2,000. Subsequently, influential fashion Instagram account Diet Prada, was quick to react to the controversial creation — comparing the designer necklace to inexpensive plastic phone cords. This later prompted an inflow of mockery and discontent within the community. Most had argued that the product did not align with its exorbitant price point and the identity of the brand, deviating from their well-loved aesthetic. Furthermore, with the internet’s evident disdain towards the product, it failed to translate its virality into sales in spite of successfully gaining more social media attention.

More recently, Balenciaga was also subjected to similar criticism after unveiling their Fall/Winter 2024 collection. One accessory particularly stood out — a SGD4,400 bracelet resembling a roll of scotch tape made with resin and polymer. The controversial bracelet went viral after fashion page, Highsnobiety shared a video of it, garnering over 8 million views — with the majority of viewers chiming in with negative criticism. Controversy marketing is not a new strategy for Balenciaga, with creative director Demna often using it as a method in his designs. This was seen in multiple previous releases where the shock factor has been served — the leather trash bag, pre-destroyed sneakers and Crocs-inspired stilettos. However, after their controversial 2021 ad campaign, the brand’s unusual creations — like the SGD 1,360 towel skirt — have not been well-received by the public. Thus the products intended to create the shock factor do not pack the same punch liked they used to. This could be attributed to the tarnished relationship that brand has with the public and its consumers, hence controversy marketing in this context came with high risk but little reward.

All things considered, when it comes to controversy marketing, there is an evident domino effect — trickling down from brands, to media to influencers and lastly, to consumers. It could be argued that consumers are indirectly being coerced into purchasing products amongst the craze of controversial releases and that these products are simply a tactical money grab.

However, at the end of the day, what brands all have in common, is their main objective to generate revenue in an industry that is more competitive than ever. This might explain why brands are getting more bold with their creations and resorting to controversy marketing and unconventional products. In a world of ever-changing micro-trends, brands need to adapt by continually innovating garments to differentiate themselves from their counterparts. It looks like fashion’s love for controversy is here to stay.

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