By Talia French

Upholding luxurious aesthetics isn’t as glamorous as it seems.

The sound of friends chatting on restaurant patios with overpriced mimosas echoes into the street. Porsches crawl up and down the avenues. People exit store fronts holding a dozen bags in each arm just like Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. Only this isn’t Manhattan, and this isn’t a movie set. This is Yorkville, one of Toronto’s most affluent neighbourhoods. A few blocks west, a second year student climbs out of the grimy steps of St. George subway station. Relieving herself from all of the questionable sights and smells of public transit, she steps into the refreshing mid-October Yorkville air. She navigates the sidewalk carefully to avoid anything that could scuff or stain her Rick Owens sneakers.

Her biggest weakness is just a few doors down. As she arrives, the floral smell of Twilly d’Hermès fills the room. Instantly submerged in her fantasy, a rush of ecstasy overcomes her as the employee wraps the leather of an Hermès Behapi Double Tour bracelet – an extremely coveted accessory amongst her fashion-forward peers – around her wrist. She looks in the mirror and feels successful and sophisticated; she knows everyone in her design class would recognize the hardware. The feeling it brings her is priceless. She leaves the store that day swinging the small orange bag, with her $465 bracelet inside, all the way home. Did she drain her bank account to make the purchase? Nearly. But for her, the bracelet is worth it.

She isn’t the only fashion enthusiast living in Toronto that’s willing to spend half a paycheck on a bracelet.

Fashion-conscious students at George Brown College and Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) say a cutthroat and harmful style competition exists within the fashion community, among those who strive to stay at the top of the fashion food chain. However, the rush of being at the top is short-lived. Once you post your newest outfit on Instagram, it soon finds its home squashed in the back of the closet with dozens of other garments, worn once or not at all. What’s in goes out faster than you can get to the store and buy it. According to Salma Gonzales, a Creative Industries student at TMU and Emuna Manolson, a Fashion Communications student at TMU, “flex culture” is ruining fashion by pressuring people to drain their bank accounts just to remain at the top of the fashion hierarchies in their communities. This suggests fashion is all about consumerism and competition rather than style or expression.

Back in her apartment on Queen West, she leans casually against the wall. She takes a long, tired draw from her cigarette. She is no stranger to the fashion rulebook. She is a Fashion Management student at George Brown College.  Yet despite being a low-income student in a city where the average rent is over $1500 ( 1-bedroom, March 2023), her closet continues to fill with designer pieces with hefty price tags. At times she has prioritized her wardrobe over rent and even groceries, postponing buying necessities to purchase dresses by Maison Margiela or LOEWE.

She describes fashion school as a constant competition.

“It can get exhausting,” she says. “I swear people care more about their look than what they actually learn that day.”

Her roommate says the feeling of competition exists on her campus as well. Mentioning student-run Instagram accounts posting the best outfits on campus like tmuarchives she says “It can feel like campus is more of a runway. That’s often a lot of fun … but it makes you feel like you have to keep shopping, keep spending, to stay on top of the trends.”

She walks through her grungy apartment. The only decor on the bare white walls was an eerie Halloween clown mask nailed in place. The dining room table is missing its tabletop and serves as a plant stand for a small monstera plant. The contrast between her wardrobe, fit for an A-lister like Jackie O, and the rest of her living conditions is very apparent.

The roommate sits in their shared living space, she explains that the fashion world is unsympathetic and that how you present yourself is everything. “If you don’t have your aesthetic perfected, you look like you don’t know what you are talking about.”

She shares stories of splurging on designer sneakers and eating ramen noodles for weeks as a consequence. In Toronto these days, she says fashion is less about expression and more about flexing. 

As she explains it, flexing isn’t about having big labels and brand names covering you from head to toe.  The more consuming “flex” within the fashion industry is the “subtle flex.” Proving your elite taste to earn your status.

Professor Ravindra Mohabeer, Chair at TMU School of Journalism points out that this kind of subtle flexing has been around for a while. Before it was called “flexing” it was called “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by American sociologist Thorstein Veblen. 

“If you bought a $10,000 handbag, you wouldn’t necessarily have a giant tag on it that said Prada or Hermès, and the only people who would know [how much it’s worth] are people who recognize how much that thing cost. You have to be seen in your social grouping as buying the right kinds of things, to say I belong,” says Mohabeer.

She said there was a time when she started resenting fashion altogether and that Flex culture has made Fashion more of a competition rather than a place of self-expression. 

As she put it the competitiveness drained her soul and her bank account leaving her feeling broke and uninspired. She adds she worries about her roommate because she knows how toxic that kind of mindset can be. 

Emuna Manolson, a Fashion Communications student at TMU, says she now avoids flex culture and anyone who participates in that kind of fashion altogether. 

“I realized that if you’re buying things to prove yourself to others, you’ll never feel satisfied. There will always be something else you think you need to buy and it will undoubtedly end in overconsumption,” says Manolson.

Romana Mirza, a Professor at TMU and expert in fashion, identity, and culture, links these toxic, competitive behaviours that exist within the industry to a deep-rooted sense of insecurity. “As you get older, you gain a stronger sense of self-worth,” said Mizra. “You don’t need clothes to add to that. That comes with maturity. Self-worth is a key piece of healing from this irresponsible importance on clothing.”

“A genuinely fulfilling way to consume fashion that I have found is thrifting. A great way to find clothing that will resonate with you is to have it be unique and fit with your personality and personal style.” Manolson suggests.

Back at her Queen West apartment, she knows things need to change. For her own peace of mind (and wallet), but also for fashion culture as a whole. She says flex culture makes fashion, which is her greatest passion, feel overwhelming, and even depressing at times. The rush and fulfillment she gets from shopping is short-lived, and she’s aware that tomorrow there will be something better, cooler. 

“This is not what fashion is about,” says the roommate, sitting on the floor, watching as she strategically pieces together outfits for the week ahead.