In London’s commercial topography, Regent Street forms a border between the debauched voyeuristic gratification of Soho, and the elite Mayfair hemisphere. Many 19th century voices protested John Nash’s gleaming, Portland stucco paradise, seen as a paean to a superficial, luxury-obsessed capitalist metropolis. If only they could see it on “Fashion’s Night Out,” now in its seventh year. This September celebration of capitalist prosperity was launched by Anna Wintour with the impulse to ‘restore consumer confidence,’ as described by Condé Nast. To that ostensive end, FNO is semiotized as Vogue’s gift to the ordinary consumer. Fashion shopping here becomes a Bacchanalian party, a carnival of commodity abundance, replete with balloons, popcorn, costumes, live music and goody bags.
From 6.30pm, September 10th, the iconic Regent Street embodies a modern version of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. For one, fleeting night, the hierarchies of fashion consumption are revoked through signs. Indeed, Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman weds the excitement of the event to its “mix of designer and high-street brands.” Anyone can participate in this extravaganza, which thrives on freebies offered by high street retailers and designer boutiques alike. These include: Juicy Couture’s popcorn machine, manicures at Café Royal, free mindfulness sessions at Akasha Spa and mocktails at Burberry. Virtually every store streams with Prosecco. Most have installed DJ sets, not necessarily run by those in the music industry, such as model Amber le Bon taking to the decks at Boss. For the ordinary guest, proximity to such celebrities connotes empowerment. Accessibility is the explicit code of this populist world, in which everyone- equal under the law of the queue- can be pampered and ‘papped’ in a way typically reserved for the stars. What makes it worth queuing for 40 minutes to receive a free manicure, or to be photographed on Guess’ counterfeit red carpet, is the known ephemerality of one’s status elevation through commodity signs. Tomorrow, having washed off their complimentary makeovers and recovered from the Prosecco deluge, regular folk have only their photo-booth snaps left to sustain the image of their aspirational selves. Through inviting all to transiently partake in FNO, Vogue is coded as both the reserve of the haute monde, and the benevolent patron of fashion’s mere mortals.
FNO is fashion’s Disneyland. Here as in the theme park, the acquisition of an intricately illustrated map is the first port of call. ‘Plan your route,’ Vogue commands, linguistically reinforcing the impressions of consumer empowerment and autonomy attached to the event, as well as pre-emptively coding one’s experience of the marketplace as a unique, personal story. And personalisation is crucial to each store’s offering, from the choice between free hair braids and cheese toasties(!) at GAP, to J. Crew’s Swarovski adorned apparel, to the corsages handcrafted from fresh flowers at Guess. If these floral accessories had been pre-made, the approximately half-hour waiting time they demand could be dramatically accelerated. But then there would be no customisation, and this would be just another free product, lacking an exclusive claim from its consumer as co-producer. More significantly, the queue is fundamental to the optical consumption on which FNO thrives. Queuing is essentially enforced store browsing; additionally, the labour of the act invests its rewards with augmented value. The sprawling queue itself becomes a powerful signifier of sheer desirability. My friend and I have been in line for hand massages at Crabtree & Evelyn a good ten minutes before the couple next to us shyly asks: “Sorry, but do you know what this queue is for?”
The seasonality of this annual event, given its own ‘countdown’ by Vogue, confers fashion with a sense of supreme purpose. Yet the eccentricity of the night’s provisional products (Juicy Couture popcorn, Karl Lagerfeld fortune cookies) reveals the versatility of fashion as a conceptual vessel, one able to attach itself to any commodity it pleases. Fashion’s harnessing of ‘mindfulness,’ whose rhetoric of living in the moment seems far discrepant from the narcissism and exhibitionism associated with clothes shopping, perhaps best demonstrates this. FNO epitomises the transformation of shopping as a mode of preliminary ‘event planning’ to an event itself. This has been happening for decades, of course, as shops themselves become social destinations, incorporating frozen yoghurt bars and often resembling nightclubs. In the age of millennial marketing, such apps as Instagram have sparked consumption rituals that interweave brand and consumer identities, under the guise of self-expression. In Karl Lagerfeld’s fitting rooms, #selfieready iPads enable guests to project their aspirational selves onto social media, without having to buy the clothes. At FNO, selfies are the laurels of one’s hard-earned freebies. As the broken Prosecco glasses are swept up and the balloons start to deflate, we take our aspirational self[ies] home in photo-booth prints, cosmetic goodie bags, and limited edition totes. The permanent anchor for each signifier of self-identity is ultimately the brand.