The recent riot outside of American Apparel in London gets Julia Robson thinking about why the fashion industry incites chaos in so many ways
Fashion: what a riot
I've studied the factors that led to the American Apparel "rummage sale riot" in London recently and I'm surprised that only 10 police officers were injured. Thank goodness the 2,000-strong crowd were fashion-mad teenagers and not fully fledged professional fashionistas. If this had been the case, then who knows what the consequences might have been? The combination of bored youngsters, a dull, wet day in the school holidays and the promise of cheap designer clothing might very well have inspired the anthem I Predict A Riot by the Kaiser Chiefs.
Judging by the various YouTube "vlogs" the whole affair appeared to be more about hormonal angst than fashion hysteria anyway. Young men, well, one man in particular, seemed to be showing off to superficially screaming girls. The 2,000 were there because the brand American Apparel, along with Hollister, Franklin & Marshall, Abercrombie & Fitch and Jack Wills, is fashion gold to teenagers and students. And it's not cheap.
The mistake of these teenagers was not so much the rioting, although this was a pretty poor show, as the not actually getting in to bag their bargains - no one made it in on that first day. Riots, be they for rummage sales or fashion shows, are hardly a new phenomenon in the industry. Finding yourself in a rugby scrum-like baying crowd or having to squirm your way in to some fashionable event or other is par for the course in this industry.
Pushing your way into a rummage sale is where a fashion novice hones basic skills for more important functions such as gaining entry to a fashion show without a ticket. How much does it take to start a rummage sale riot? I'd estimate a 40 per cent, perhaps 50 per cent discount on a famous designer brand. Less if there is hype about certain items being included (a Chanel 2.55 handbag for instance).
Designer sample sales, an insider event at which fashion media employees traditionally stock up their wardrobes, frequently generate frenzied scenes. Although I've never seen an actual riot occur, the threat of one always lingers in the air. Consider a combination of discounts of up to 90 per cent (if you happen to have size three feet and your dress size is zero), the meagreness of fashion media salaries and the knowledge that fashion folk judge each other by what they wear, and you can imagine how important these sales are.
The difference between the American Apparel sale and say, the legendary Burberry and Chanel sales, is that the invitation does not come via Facebook. The latter are often three-day events with a hierarchy involved. Day one (or a preview sale) is strictly for editors and company chairmen. On day two, leading fashion editors get to fight it out, literally. On day three, the fashion assistants, editor's secretaries and best customers get the leftovers.
I went to day three of the Burberry sale in December, which involved queuing for an hour just to be in with a chance of first pick. Polite chitchat inevitably began while we stood in the queue, as we apologised to each other for being shoved by the constantly lurching line. But the second the front doors were thrown open it was a case of every woman for herself. Shoulder pads were raised, handbags clenched. Some women who had dared turn up without a ticket (fraudsters!) got nasty with the bouncers, but name-dropped enough to worm their way in.
Once in, the first rule of a rummage sale is: scan the rails. Next, scan what everyone else is carrying. When they put something down pick it up. Try it on. I've witnessed catfights and hair-pulling, mainly over shoes. The shop assistants become referees and there are frequently tears. This is where the most placid editor becomes the Incredible Hulk. Sale etiquette requires you never acknowledge a soul, not even workmates. Nor do you discuss anything as you queue to pay. Post-sale, if you spy a colleague wearing something you know was bought at a sample sale you don't mention it. And you never put anything on eBay.
I did once make it to day one of a sample sale. As a young assistant, I was taken along to the Ralph Lauren sale by an editor to serve as a human hat stand for her piles of cashmere cardigans, jackets and items for her children. I was granted a minute to find something for myself and, driven by sheer exhaustion, pulled a pair of grey marl jogging trousers from a bargain bin. Remarkably, 20 years on, these still look brand new. The same goes for anything I have designer-rummaged and, I might add, occasionally fought for. Worth the aggravation? Abso-fashion-lutely.