A Balenciaga outlet in California: off brand #1

In a Balenciaga outlet in the California desert, I watch a man try on some logo-stamped pool slides and boast about the size of his feet. His girlfriend, who is wearing athleisure, tells him encouragingly that he looks rich in them. She's wrong: he looks like someone pretending to be rich, if all they had for reference was Scott Disick’s Instagram. This is not where you come if you’re rich. It’s where you come to see what’s left.

What’s left in Balenciaga is the last two years of my Instagram feed. Much of it, I watched come down the runway the first time around. The viral blue ‘Ikea’ bag from the first men’s show that Ikea trolled right back, sparking sassy headlines about the Swedish retailer’s ‘perfect clapbacks’. The Triple S sneakers, from the following season, where designer Demna Gvasalia showed a deviant mash-up of Kering hoodies and Bernie Sanders rip offs. I browse the rails of sculpted tailoring, Joey from Friends jackets, kitsch animal bags. The SS17 boot/legging hybrids hang limply from a hanger. Even the platform Crocs are on sale, to the complete bemusement of the man and his girlfriend.

Outlet malls are like fashion mortuaries – they’re where you go to claim the remains.

That, though, would imply that these clothes had been alive at some point. Comatose is a better word: boxed and unboxed, hung on rails, briefly awoken to be slipped on and looked at in mirrors, selfied, and ultimately discarded on the floor for someone else to pick up. They’ve been waiting for a moment that never came. This, here, is their last chance – one step of humiliation from the end in a faux-rustic strip of shops that feels like a movie prop town, dropped out of the sky and into this dusty stretch of nowhere.

I duck into Calvin Klein and immediately feel overwhelmed. The walls are high, and every surface is covered with clothing, tables piled with branded underwear. I go there looking for traces of Raf Simons, but none remain. I do find him – or one of his CKNYC209W?? backpacks – in Barney’s. Stripped of its shop fittings, even the mannequins are for sale. They plead, headless, from the window. NOTHING HELD BACK!, a safety-yellow sign promises.

The general indignity of the scene is stunning and, because I have no nostalgia for this particular luxury retail institution and cannot understand why Twitter has transformed into a wailing Greek chorus over it, also kind of hilarious. If the gothic, all ruined mansions and undead aristocracy, was a way of aestheticising the fallen glory of a lost era, then a singular dirtied Vetements sock trainer in a trashed, air conditioned Barneys outlet in the middle of the desert feels like the late capitalist version of that. A new kind of haunted house.

Outlet malls tell some essential truth about the things people like me think are desirable: most of the time, we’re wrong.

People just want to buy Balenciaga pool slides and Calvin Klein branded boxer shorts.

I take some pictures to post on Twitter.

Outside, the sun burns higher in the sky. From over behind Gucci, the freeway is screaming. I stand there, squinting against the light, and for a moment, I see the ground open up beneath the enormous Dolce & Gabbana, great cracks running up its walls before they crumble, collapsing in on themselves. The faux Roman columns holding up nothing but blue are swallowed by the earth; the metre-high letters spelling out the logo soon follow them into the chasm. This place would make a nice Pompeii, I think – stone shoppers forever reaching for the discounted loafers just beyond their grasp. Maybe it’s a nuclear missile that will wipe it out, or the tsunami that follows, submerging all California beneath its depths. I imagine future divers silently exploring the mall’s ruins, the light from their torches drifting over the wreck that remains once all the contents of Prada have been lost to the tides.

I wonder where the nearest fault line is.

On the stretch golf buggy ride back to the mostly empty car park, the middle-aged driver plays songs from the 50s. A little breeze picks up, and blows an empty bag across the tarmac. How cinematic, I think.

‘Ask about our VIP program’ a sign says.