The loss of aura through collaborations between haute couture and high street brands in the case of h&m and viktor & rolf interactive media in society cs6031 nora o’murchu 0617237

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This essay seeks to discuss the theories proposed by Benjamin in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with particular reference to his concept of ‘aura’. Firstly, Benjamin’s theory on the mechanical reproduction of art and the simultaneous loss of aura is discussed. Secondly these theories are examined in terms of fashion design as an art form. This is analysed in the context of the growing trend in the collaboration of haute couture designers with high street super chains, exemplified through the merger of H&M and Viktor & Rolf. The resulting loss of aura suffered by the haute couture designer as a result of such a partnership is examined. The subsequent creation of a simulacral aura is also considered here.

Benjamin (1935, I) argues “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible”. He continues by proposing that the “Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new”. Benjamin used the word ‘aura’ to refer to the sense of awe and reverence one presumably experienced in the presence of unique works of art. According to Benjamin, this aura inheres not in the object itself but rather in external attributes such as its known line of ownership, its restricted exhibition, its publicized authenticity, or its cultural value. As Benjamin conceives it, the aura of a work of art is a function of two qualities: its presence and its cult value. The aura signifies all that is eliminated when “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition”. Aura is thus indicative of art's traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and its further association with magic and (religious or secular) ritual. With the advent of art's mechanical reproducibility, and the development of forms of art (such as film) in which there is no actual original, the experience of art could be freed from place and ritual and instead brought under the gaze and control of a mass audience, leading to a shattering of the aura. “For the first time in world history”, Benjamin (1935, IV) wrote, “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual”.
While Benjamin seems to celebrate the destruction of the constituents of aura, ‘the parasitical dependence on ritual’, it is argued here that the maintenance of aura is imperative in terms of fashion designs, whereby fashion is viewed as an art form. Fashion constantly strives to evolve, driven by the continual compulsion to move on and create new, more striking images. The seedy excess of “heroin chic” has been superseded by a feeling of decadence, a desire to create styles that are opulent and extravagant, which combine references to the high style of the 1980’s with a continued fascination with decay and ambiguity. Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the modern age was a vision of hell. Fashion was placed in the premier role as the signifier of the ceaseless repetitiveness that he saw as its chief characteristic,
The image of modernity as the time of Hell … deals not with the fact that
‘always the same thing’ happens … but the fact that on the face of the oversized
head called earth precisely what is newest doesn’t change; that this “newest” in
all its pieces keeps remaining the same.
Bertsch (1996, p.10) highlights that in Benjamin’s essay “Photography and, above all, film are the media that best express the destruction of the aura that once surrounded works of art. This aura exemplifies what is lost as more and more aspects of daily life are subjected to the inexorable force of capitalism”. Fashion is hereby discussed as a medium of artistic expression which is shown to suffer a loss of aura through a similar subjection to capitalist motivations. This is argued through the example of the merger between Dutch haute couture designers V&R (Viktor & Rolf) and the high street fashion outlet H&M.
According to the official H&M website the company has been a fixture on the retailing scene for almost 60 years, and has been steadily opening stores internationally since the 1960s. The company currently employs 50,000 people in 24 countries. In a venture to “bring haute couture to the masses” the company looked to infusing their staple lines of fashion with haute couture from sources such as Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and V&R. The original philosophy of H&M “is to give the customer unbeatable value by offering fashion and quality at the best price”. This collaborative venture with V&R sees H&M moving away from their original philosophy and entering into a market which strives to create fashion under a new regime. Viktor & Rolf have gained attention and critical acclaim specifically due to their artistic, concept-driven catwalk presentations, and their contemporary take on fashion classics. To mention a few: they presented a collection of balloon-filled clothes based on the atom-bomb, and organised models wearing large, porcelain accessories which they smashed on the floor during the show. In 1997, before any but fashion cognoscenti knew who they were, Richard Martin, then curator of the MoMA’s Costume Institute declared: “The hybrid of art and fashion that Viktor & Rolf so uniquely make cannot be measured against art or fashion alone.”

The collaboration with V&R is thereby arguably H&M’s attempt to infuse an aura into their clothing lines. This relates to Benjamin’s concern with “the contemporary decay of the aura”, which is interlinked with the mechanical reproduction of art. The underlying principle of such a merger is to raise the status of H&M by uniting with designers enjoying notoriety, such as V&R. While this appears to make practical business sense it is argued here that consumers are effectively being duped into believing that they are attaining a product, which to them represents exclusivity and individuality, owing to its origin as a designer work of art.

If we consider the original design by V&R as an example of a piece of art, Benjamin’s (1935, II) argument relating to the reproduction of a work of art becomes most relevant:

In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus--namely, its authenticity--is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.

Benjamin (1935, II) furthers this argument stating,

Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

This leads to his (1935, II) discussion of the loss of aura through mechanical reproduction: “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term "aura" and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”. Therefore, Benjamin argues that by reproducing artwork for the masses, the original authenticity and value of the piece is eroded. Traditionally, V&R designs are highly expensive and thereby limited to those within a high earning consumer group. Speaking with Vogue Magazine, V&R stated “fashion can feel very exclusive, reaching a tiny audience. But this is an opportunity for us to communicate our vision to a huge audience”. Therefore, the designers are seen to change their original business practice pf designing for an exclusive market. This directly contrasts with Benjamin’s argument that “the aura persists so long as its guardians—priests or their secular doubles—maintain their privileged access to the work of art while keeping it from the majority of people” (Bertsch). V&R are effectively transferring control of their art by allowing their designs to be mass produced by H&M.

Benjamin (1935, II) argues that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition”. He supports this stating, “By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence”. Therefore, V&R’s endeavour to “communicate their vision to a huge audience” contradicts Benjamin’s explanation of how aura is sustained. Through the reproduction of their artistic designs, and the dissemination of their work to a large consumer market, they have essentially sacrificed the “unique existence” of their artwork for capitalist gains.

Simultaneously, V&R have compromised their artistic integrity by engaging with H&M’s philosophy of mass producing “Fashion and quality at the best price”, rejecting their original process of aiming towards exclusivity and individuality in their designs. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the status of V&R as exclusive fashion designers has been compromised. They have essentially contributed to the destruction of their own image as artists.

Bertsch (1996, p.12) suggests “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is less one-dimensional than is generally supposed. For all its concern with the destruction of the aura, it also suggests the emergence of something new that functions like it: the simulacral aura. This “simulacral aura” is what is produced through the collaboration between H&M and V&R. Consumers identify with V&R’s artistic aura, which subverts the traditional perception of H&M as a low-cost, high street fashion producer. However, as previously argued, this cannot be separated from the inherent loss of aura on the part of V&R as designers for a company that mass produces their artwork. Therefore this simulacral aura that has been produced is H&M’s attempt to dupe consumers into thinking they are purchasing original V&R.

Gregory states (1948, p. 69) in his essay “fashion changes results in monopolistic competition by differentiating the goods of rival sellers, and they create further market imperfections by playing upon and reinforcing consumer ignorance”. Gregory’s underlying theses argues that consumers passively accept what the fashion industry deems as fashionable. This arguably leads to a perceived aura, or a simulacral aura projected onto designs such as those produced through the V&R/H&M merger.
This essay discussed the theories proposed by Benjamin in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with particular reference to his concept of ‘aura’. These theories were examined in terms of fashion design as an art form. This was analysed in the context of the growing trend in the collaboration of haute couture designers with high street super chains, which see chains such as Adidas collaborating with haute couture artist Stella McCartney, and Puma with Alexander McQueen. In this essay the case of H&M and Viktor & Rolf was examined. The resulting loss of aura suffered by the haute couture designer was shown to be in the dissemination of their designs as a result of them being made available through the means of mass production and exposure to a more widespread audience. To summarise the essence of aura translates into the exclusivity and uniqueness of a particular piece of art, be it painting, sculpture, theatre or fashion. This aura is what creates the greatness and desirability of an artwork. By reproducing the artwork to a mere reproduction the aura becomes diminished in the reproduction. However, the original maintains its exclusivity. Marketing on the strength of aura dilutes the original itself and this diluting effect is damaging in the extreme to an artwork or a philosophy that contains true aura.
Benjamin, W. (1935). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Retrieved December 16, 2006 from
Bertsch, C. (1996). “The Aura and its Simulacral Double: Reconsidering Walter Benjamin’s "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Retrieved December 16, 2006 from

Gregory, P.M. (1948). “Fashion and Monopolistic Competition”. JSTOR. Retrieved on December 16, 2006 from

Benjamin, A. (1986). “The Decline of Art: Benjamin’s aura”. JSTOR. Retrieved on December 16, 2006 from

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