The Beautiful and the Brand

Judgements, acceptance and divisions of fashion govern campus life

It’s the beginning of summer and we’re handing out flyers on Eastern Ave on campus to convince everyone (including ourselves) that we love student politics. I’ve been standing near Honi Soit’s stall, for the past two hours and countless feet have passed me, trudging to their next class. One thing simultaneously sets each student apart and connects them all together — their choice of clothing. Every few minutes, a pair of Gucci sneakers, a Louis Vuitton bag, an ACNE t-shirt or pair of Golden Goose sneakers pass me by, draped not only over international students but an increasing amount of domestic students as well.

A few hours later, I’m crossing City Road, only to find a group of men branded with their own distinctive style. One is dressed in a long trench coat, and surprisingly, a class ring on their 4th finger. They’re carrying the newest collection of an Off-White tote by Virgil Abloh. Later, as I cross through the Business School, I see multiple students  with variations of accessories mainly Gucci’s Marmont — widely known as the Double GG, vintage motif.

Every day I see brands on people in real life and reinforced by Instagram influencers.  Hints of luxury abound, to the extent that I feel oddly insecure and materialistic. All I wear are worn out mom jeans — the  21st century’s code for high waisted comfortable jeans — along with a loose t-shirt, worn out Adidas Stan Smith’s, and a raggedy faux leather tote.

Little did I know, this trend has emerged from a massive marketing push to capture the young, aspirational luxury consumer. All I seemed to notice was high fashion lurking all around our campus, in the fruits of the gig economy, and in the elite nooks and crannies belonging to the heavily pocketed few.

The ‘Rich’ collective:

Hailing from different parts of the world, the University of Sydney (USyd) hosts over 60,000 students, and each person brings a unique narrative to life on campus. The lived experience of being on campus strings these differences together, ranging from belonging to a club or to a subculture subtly formed by the way people carry themselves as USyd students.

While individuality makes us all unique, the increasing influx of international students on our campus, and their associated wealth, brings with it a fair bit of baggage. Expensive, branded baggage, which is packed with anxiety for students on campus about the increasingly luxurious lifestyles and outfits that surround them.

Thanks to social media and pop culture, visual connections between unique personalities and equally unique presentation styles are more striking than what they were before. As a result, the campus has transformed into a showroom for aesthetic identity, often corresponding with typified degrees, classes and student backgrounds.

To further explore perceptions of on-campus luxury consumption, Honi conducted a survey of 111 students, finding that 80 per cent of students associated luxury clothing on campus to international students.

Dr Jolynna Sinanan, a research fellow in Digital Media and Ethnography at the University of Sydney, told Honi  “If one is an international student or a migrant and attending an institution with the prestige of The University of Sydney, you wouldn’t want to be looking shabby. You’re paying for the cultural capital and the prestige of the University of Sydney, so you want to look like you belong there.”

Dr. Sinanan’s view  seems to support the wide-ranging perception that corner international students, like those from China, as having expensive tastes. But such economic typification can often leave international students extremely conscious of the impact their fashion choices have on students across campus.

Lin*, an international student from China,worries that by wearing high-end clothing she will be judged by domestic students. “I do feel ashamed when local friends ask me about what brands I wear, because those brands are quite expensive”.

Perhaps, then, the anxiety stems from local students questioning where their international counterparts get the funding to buy luxury clothing brands. Without any dialogue between the two groups, the perception that rich international students make the campus their runway continues to dwell in the minds of local students.

The South China Daily reported that, according to industry insiders, Chinese shoppers, ranging from tourists to Australian born and based contribute towards two-thirds of luxury sales in Australia. This could potentially be linked to the  of elite fashion adorned by international students on similarly ‘elite’ campuses like USyd.

Some respondents told Honi that they have tried to hide branded logos so that people would not hold negative impressions of them, further proving that the judgement arising from wearing luxury fashion influences students across campus. In fact, 72% of respondents told Honi that they perceived an increase in certain elite brand representation on campus in the past year, such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Balenciaga, Coach and Versace.  But, at the same time,the blurred line where distaste turns into aspiration for domestic students can be increasingly seen

One respondent told Honi, “There have been times when I have been ashamed of my external appearance not matching beauty standards but this wasn’t entirely due to clothing. But it is a fact that seeing so much fashionable clothing does increase the pressure of a need to look good”

Luxury Alienation:

The widespread perception that international students are constantly clad in luxury brands is however, masking an important trend in the Australian luxury industry. A recent report has revealed that domestic households are increasingly willing to pay premiums for luxury, branded products due to their perceived superior quality. Also, their potential for resale, especially with the rise of luxury e-retailers that are increasing price transparency for  the younger consumer, is also causing a boom in the luxury industry.

But how far this reflects demographics on our campus is limited in nature. Domestic students often feel strongly about those who wear expensive products, often judging them because of the alienation that wearing luxury brands creates.

Respondents who shun the luxury fashion world told Honi that they  “find it really difficult to relate to people with high fashion and lux streetwear clothing as it’s not something [they] could ever afford.”

Another student told Honi that “sometimes feel out of place when people around me wear branded clothing. At other times it reminds me of the overwhelming materialistic culture society has.”

The presence of luxury clothing in learning environments can often be toxic in the reactions students mete out to fellow students,  as the highly visual campus environment obviously spells out the economic differences between students. One respondent stated, “One time I was in basically pajamas and the girl next to me in the lecture theatre was in head to toe Gucci… that felt kind of shitty, purely because I wanted to have clothes like that”, This can be a particularly difficult social environment to navigate, especially for first years.

The Easily Influenced:

The on-campus intimidation that luxury products breed are in no way simply related to just the exponential rise of international students on campus. Thanks to the pervasiveness of social media in our lives we have become sponges for information, branding and advertising.

In an attempt to capture the young customer, luxury brands are employing Instagram influencers to subliminally market luxurious products, from lucrative invites to exclusive launch parties to posing with their products as simple accessories or outrightly tagging branded products — we are constantly targeted on social media.  Such direct targeting, while meant to show an individualistic take on fashion, can result in extremely repetitive fashion choices where everyone who is inspired by the brand aspires to own it.

A 2019 Luxury industry report by IBIS stated that over the next five years brands are targeting young and cash-rich Australian consumers. In essence, brands are attempting to occupy a wider youth orientation regardless of whether they are domestic or international. This is can be seen in not only through the increasing use of social media influencers to market the same products  but also in the products themselves, which are comparatively cheaper and more accessible than before — an example being Gucci’s post-2017 line of releases. Often, it can even be seen that people spend a significant amount of their hard earned money to respond to the growing pressures of style on campus.

“As much as there is a relationship between increased brand-ness, increased presence of luxury items and increased visibility of consumer lifestyle orientations, there are also many micro-cultures and countercultures within student groups to counter what seems like normal pressures to have consumer lifestyle orientation,” Dr Sinanan said.

But, the emotional and socio-cultural impacts of clothing and accessory choices on the young and easily-influenced can be especially prominent in an insular campus environment. Systems of critique have also emerged on campus as well in the form of Facebook pages — the satirically sartorial “USyd Fashion Police” being a prime example of how campus fashion can illicit judgement and mockery on social media platforms.

Social capital — the currency of social media seen in likes, reactions and comments — begins online. Social media platforms like Instagram now reign supreme as the global fashion catalogue. Their design malleability, immeasurable number of hourly observers they attract, and inherent widespread connections they propagate make them the perfect incubus for the dissemination of high fashion. The presentation of luxury items on Instagram – visually rugged and everyday – suggests an authentic link between individual style and social identity, which is often a useful facade for the money-making brands.  

“Magazines used to be the go-to for inspiration and brands paid thousands of dollars for spaces of advertising” emerging stylist Isabella Mamas said. “Now you send a couple of thousand dollars to an influencer and it’s instant sell for those companies.”

Influencer marketing directly to online subcultural groups of youth and personal accounts allow brands to depict a personal narrative for the consumer, particularly amongst young people. It is as if they are saying this piece was designed specifically for you, even though each piece is mass produced. These kinds of interactive and personalised engagements through social media fashion groupings allow clothing choices to also represent a sense of belonging.

“I don’t think they (high-end brands) sell it for the individual. They sell it for the masses. At the end of the day, brands will say they represent individual identity but their main goal is to sell as many pieces as possible” Mamas said.

The ironic mass production of ‘unique’, handmade designer items, also sees individuals pulling away from recognisable branding and moving towards a less public, more disguised version of high end fashion. These trends are visible amongst domestic students of the Marketing or Media and Communications, or even elite clubs on campus, rather than engineering or other faculties, and what Dr. Sinanan says stands true for certain domestic students.“For disciplines like marketing and commerce, getting social visibility correct through consumption, branding and dress has always been important.”

The phenomena of influencer trend setting, the perceived sense of belonging by following such influencers has made online shopping an extremely lucrative medium for brands. Research shows that by 2025, online platforms and luxury shopping will claim 25 per cent of total sales globally, marking a significant positive growth area for the Australian market. So, if social media platforms are the 21st century’s catalyst for fashion trend setting, then campus — where we all are constantly swiping through social media — is its thriving hub.


*some names are changed for anonymity reasons

Filed under: