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Home arrow Geography arrow Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

Appropriating the Margins: Fashion and Cosmetics

Consumer advertising that employs or sublimates ruin imagery is not limited to companies that originated in Detroit, although ruin imagery often evokes Detroit. Such imagery is deployed by companies that trade on the allure of the safely dangerous and outre, embracing the negative in order to contain the anxiety it produces and transform it into something aesthetically pleasing and desirable. These forms of commercial imagery are produced in the public arenas of photographic display, from magazines to store windows and mall displays, from the Internet to television to the art museum, appealing to overlapping consumer audiences and becoming part of the global network of ruin images.

The cosmetics company Urban Decay, for example, has produced ads that suggest transgressive fantasies drawn from dark urban spaces. Urban Decay signals, by its name, imagery, and ad copy, a rhetorical identity profile that is fierce, rebellious, colorful, glittery, defiant, and trashy. Yet it also suggests an “ethical” identity by virtue of being animal friendly and “vegan.” Constructing a “wild creature” in the “urban jungle,” yet one that is responsible and socially conscious, Urban Decay transforms urban degeneration into the enticingly forbidden but safe. Offering Gothic urbanity and bold individualism, its cosmetics advertising becomes a way of taming an unsettling reality while simultaneously exploiting it.

The ads initially echoed the language of drug use, but this rhetoric drew online complaints from at least one recovering addict: “So, a few weeks back Urban Decay sent out this awful email through their mailing list that said, ‘score some blow and a big fatty’; and ‘urban Decay is your pusher’; to advertise their new lip plumper called Blow. I was a little upset to see that sort of thing in my inbox because I’ve gone through recovery and that is still a sensitive area for me. I thought it really crossed a line.”23 This advertising language, which Urban Decay has since dropped, cavalierly exploits the transgressive thrill of unregulated space and urban drug culture while ignoring the effects of addiction and overdose, a reality that is all too prevalent in the actual centers of urban decay, especially in its abandoned spaces. A 2011 ad offered “Beauty with an Edge,” featuring a young woman with a slack mouth and brightly colored eye makeup in greens, blues, pinks, and purples, some of which is running down her cheek. She looks over her shoulder at the viewer with her hands protectively at her throat. The image evokes tears, facial bruising, and a drug hangover, while the drips on the ad copy behind the model suggest the walls of a ruin.

Urban Decay was founded in 1996 and purchased in 2000 by the conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, the world’s leading luxury items group. It also became known as Urban Rot and became a “conspiracy brand” in the United States through Sephora, and later was sold through Macy’s. It was also sold as City Corrosion through Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, targeting restless suburbanites and appealing to their instincts for vicarious slumming and fantasized sex and drugs in dark abandoned warehouses.25 Making a marketable virtue out of frightening anxieties, such advertising fetishizes urban degeneration as a fantasy prerogative that may be freely donned or discarded. Similarly, Swatch Corporation appropriated a ruin image in the form of a clock that was partially melted in a fire at the old Cass Tech High School in Detroit and photographed by Marchand and Meffre as well as Moore. Evoking a sense of collapsed time, Swatch Corporation used it for one of its watch faces, employing the tag line “Melted Minutes.” Presumably it is meant to evoke the dreamily surreal melting watches of Salvador Dali, not the fires of abandoned buildings, the sensual and mysterious rather than the apocalyptic. And yet it retains a hint of that, too—a kind of end-of-the-world chic.26

In a local example, a high-end clothing store in the northern Detroit suburb of Birmingham capitalized on the thrillingly trashy allure of the dangerous city in its winter 2012 window display, reassuring its anxious customers of their secure status while distancing and othering Detroit. Expensive dresses and shoes were carefully arranged in an installation containing yellow police tape and an 8 Mile street sign, evoking the infamous border between Detroit and the suburbs, with jumbled pages torn from Julia Taubman’s Detroit: 138 Square Miles littered across the display floor. The staged “crime scene” became another way of titillating the well-heeled while taming a frightening reality for the affluent white residents of Detroit’s wealthy suburbs. Like the transgressive aesthetic of “heroin chic” popular in fashion in the 1980s, or the exhibition Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013, the edgy and provocative social margins are appropriated by the center, their terror defused and rendered sexy and safely consumable. The Urban Decay ads, Swatch’s melting watch face, and a crime scene window display in a high-end clothing store all vicariously engage with the anxieties of decline by evoking and exoticizing the allure of dark urban nightscapes through the modern ruin aesthetic of the deindustrial sublime.

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