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Distressed Clothing: Offensive or Just Fashion?


WHEN GOLDEN Goose sneakers first began sweeping Megan Saustad’s suburban Dallas neighborhood last year, the fashion blogger and mother of three hesitated. Launched in 2007 but more prevalent than ever, the Italian-made low-tops ornamented with sparkles and stars are “crazy expensive,” she wrote on her website, Truly Megan. The sneakers, which start at $425, come either chicly “pre-scuffed” or just plain dirty, depending on your ability to see flaws as endearing.

After trying on a pair, Ms. Saustad warmed to the manufactured grit on her toes. “The intrigue…is they’re not perfect,” she ventured. “People don’t want to see perfect clothes anymore. They want to see well-loved, tattered clothes.”

If overly crisp jeans or a stiff new jacket leave you feeling awkward, already-broken-in fashion is an antidote. “Having dirt on your sneakers, or holes in your jeans, kind of makes you look more blasé,” said Starling Irving, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and photographer.Judging from the scores of “well-loved” clothes on runways and in stores, she’s right. From torn Acne jeans to artfully beat-up Frye boots and R13 leather jackets whose sleeves appear to have been cat-clawed, there’s clearly a market for purposefully aged fashion. Designers including Junya Watanabe and Rokh have recently sent patchworked or frayed pieces down Paris runways. Search “distressed” on e-commerce site Net-a-Porter and hundreds of jeans, shoes, sweaters and T-shirts pop up. At this point, the concept of pre-ripped denim is rather long in the tooth, but ravaged pieces continue to trend, finding fans well outside New York and Los Angeles. Advocates of the style argue that it conveys a certain effortless edge. “It absolutely gives off a cool factor,” Ms. Saustad said. “If I’m wearing my distressed leather jacket and I get dirt on it, it just makes it more authentic and less stuffy.”

“People like seeing themselves through the lens of an old Polaroid,” Ms. Irving said. But breaking in a pair of high-waisted jeans or sturdy boots takes time, and in 2020’s on-demand, same-day-shipping culture, many people lack the patience or the skill to lop off their own denim hems in a compelling way. “We live in a need-it-now culture,” said New York fashion stylist and consultant Solange Franklin. “So, of course you want to fast-forward through the five years it takes to make that mold to your body.”

These self-conscious exercises in instant fakery offend fashion insiders who value authenticity. “Something that’s pre-dirtied and at a high price point does insult me slightly,” said New York fashion stylist and consultant Laura Zapata. She added that clothes blasted to look old can feel contrived. “These larger, mass-market brands are just trying to jump on the whole vintage bandwagon.”

Critics also find it unseemly to co-opt the look of poverty. Fashion can have a way of romanticizing grungy, struggling-artist types, and while Ms. Franklin noted that it’s hardly a crime to spring for Golden Goose sneakers, it can be “strange to seek humility in luxury items…when people who are actually struggling and who have holes in their jeans because they can’t afford to buy new jeans don’t think that that’s cool.”

Nor is it necessarily savvy shopping. For those seeking the weather-beaten look, Ms. Zapata advises springing for trendy, pre-distressed styles at lower price points and restricting big outlays to quality pieces that can age with you. “Ultimately it’s a smarter move, and a better use of your cash, to buy classic items,” and let them organically weather and develop personality over time. Yes, it’s a process that takes much longer, but earning your rips, tears and scuffs can be sweet sartorial satisfaction. “It’s like a little pride stamp on your clothing,” Ms. Zapata said.

Alternately, there’s always vintage, which boasts sustainability, a less contrived aesthetic and the bonus of human connection. “Each item has a history and former owners who made memories in them before passing them along,” said Ms. Irving, who prefers vintage to prematurely destroyed clothing for its authenticity.

Ms. Saustad has found, however, that her Golden Goose sneakers deliver plenty of warm fuzzies, and not just because some of the brand’s offerings come shearling-lined. When she wears the imperfect sneakers, they make her chill out, too. “I’m a little more relaxed in my distressed Golden Goose and leather jacket,” she said. Since they’re already aged, “I can be less concerned about upkeep. I can just be me.”

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