It's Back: J.Crew Catalog Theater

Now that the FashFilmFest is over (but will return in 2013!) I'm back to blogging! What better way to get back into the routine than with a favorite? By request and popular demand, I've got a new edition of J.Crew Catalog Theater, from the April catalog... The models are sad, sassy, confused, and wearing things we've seen before. But don't hold that against them! They're models, they can't do any better...

J.Crew Spring Catalog Theatre!

It's been a very long time since the last episode of J.Crew catalog theatre and the only reason I can give you is that the stylists at J.Crew have seriously upped their game of late. I'm not going to lie - they've done a great job at making their pages both appealing and shoppable. That is, until now... (I hope my sister and her New York crew enjoy... I hear they love it when I get sacriligious.)

I was so happy to find this issue in my mailbox full of odd, ackward poses, models who are both pale and hungry, and very very strange styling choices.

There's a lot of ground to cover here, so indulge me. And yes, I edited out a few pages too - there was just too much good stuff...

Influences: The Elizabethan Fashion Moment?

Taylor & Burton in a relaxed moment, 1960s.

I know that everyone has been thinking of Elizabeth Taylor since her death last spring, so I suppose an expectation for Taylor-flavored styles this fashion week isn’t too surprising. The fashion world loves an icon, and a recently-deceased icon surely needs her homage. But having just finished reading Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger’s biography of the Taylor-Burton romance, Furious Love, I find the rumors of a Taylor-flavored influence a little interesting.

It began with Vanessa Friedman’s piece for the FT two weeks ago entitled "Liz Taylor's Gift of Glamour", calling out the particular brand of Elizabeth Taylor’s style & glamour as a likely fashion influence for this Fall. Even V Magazine is sending out its September issue (on newsstands this coming Thursday,) with an homage to Taylor in over 70 pages of images styled by Carine Roitfeld. It seems the Elizabethan moment is verified, so I wonder if the predictions for this week’s runways will be true. I also wonder if these fashion insiders will get it right.

Cathy Horyn’s piece "An Alluring Beauty Exempt from Fashion’s Rules", from the New York Times last March 23rd - the day Taylor died, is the best (and truest) summation of Taylor’s relationship to fashion.

"Because of Ms. Taylor’s physical effect, which audiences surely registered in “Butterfield 8” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” when she appeared at her most dangerous, in a slip or a stolen fur coat or an unchaste white sheath dress, you tended not to notice the particulars of her wardrobe.

Instead you noticed the heavily penciled brows, the lipsticked mouth, the riot of hair crowned with fresh flowers or jewels (typically the work of Alexandre of Paris) or the head scarf when she was on a beach or relaxing with her family, oblivious of the chaos her star presence was causing."

Given this, I found it odd that while discussing the V Magazine spread, Carine Roitfeld is quoted as saying “She [Taylor] had the kind of elegance that went far beyond clothes.” Elegance? I don’t think that’s correct. That is so like the French to call everyone "elegant", even when they don't deserve it.

Elegance is a “refined quality of gracefulness and good taste” whereas glamour is “an attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people seem appealing.” I don’t know that anyone has ever described Elizabeth Taylor as having good taste in anything but jewelry.

Elizabeth Taylor wears the 69.42 carat Taylor-Burton diamond (Krupp diamond) with Richard Burton at the 1970 Academy Awards.

While Taylor truly enjoyed the finer things, excess, food, drink, and a general fun frolic, she didn’t put much in mind for clothing. She did take a lot of chances (for better or worse), but between the furs and jewelry and extravagant hairstyles, the end result was mostly loud, distracting frivolity. It is almost as though she pursued a vulgarity in her look so that people would no longer see her ever-present beauty. This was certainly the case in her private language and manner. According to Furious Love, Taylor loved to swig beer, belch, and swear with the best of them, thereby downplaying her beauty and femininity by pointedly not acting like a lady.

Taylor (with Burton) challenges the notion of "good taste" with white hot pants and go-go boots. 1971

She was consciously vulgar; she tried to be, and succeeded. She knew that flaunting millions of dollars in jewelry was a bit outré, but she appreciated their beauty for themselves and wanted to share it with the world. According to Furious Love, she wrote: "One day somebody else will have them...and I hope that new person will love the jewelry and respect it as much as I do...I've never, never thought of my jewelry as trophies. I'm here to take care of them and to love them."

As Vanessa Friedman said in her article:

“…She was the id unleashed, with an unapologetic joy in consumption that those tired of today’s hair-shirted mea culpas may find truly thrilling…Her sense that fashion and sparkles are for fun, and that there is value in that fun, helped make her so compelling as a style icon, then and now. She didn’t ask for anyone’s approval and she wore her diamonds with great joy, even in her hair.”

This earthiness contributed to her allure, because instead of being ephemeral and untouchable (and elegant) like her contemporary Grace Kelly, Taylor was firmly planted on solid ground; it was just the looks that were goddess-like. (According to Furious Love, Burton “usually felt awkward around Princess Grace, whom he described as rather dull and in the class of people who are ‘in a somewhat false position and know it…’”)

The taste of Taylor: In the world's most expensive fur coat & a bikini, with Burton, Look Magazine, 1970.

Taylor’s fiery glamour and passion is what is more appropriate than any “elegance” she may have shown. Her love of jewelry far outweighed any love for fashion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that fashion maybe made her feel a bit insecure. Taylor always reverted to classic designers such as Halston, but for her red-carpet events she usually asked Edith Head to design something for her. Other than a designer, she chose a costume designer – she was dressing to fit the part of a movie star and went right to the top. But a costume is not fashion.

Vanessa Friedman asserts that the Taylor influence will translate into jewel tones, belts, metallics, and touches of tweed and fur. To me, this doesn’t sound too far away from what's normal, but we’ll see what happens. Aren't we already expecting an emerald-green trend for Fall?

An Elizabeth Taylor trend in beauty, makeup, and styling is one thing, but fashion? Beyond an increase in furs and bosomy-necklines (which we’ve already seen swelling, ahem, in the past few seasons,) I’m not sure that a true style influence that translates to the runway is entirely apt. If it can be done creatively and with Taylor's own brand of shock and humor (and even a touch of vulgarity?) then perhaps it will be correct. But designers are so very conscious of what's in good taste that I think it will be stretch for them to let loose and take a cue from La Taylor.

Cathy Horyn said it best at the conclusion of her piece on Taylor, saying “this kind of style had nothing to do with luxury or imprisoning taste, but it had a great deal to do with living.”

Images: 1) from Movie Morlocks, 2) Vanity Fair, 3) Shoe Blogs, 4) Internet

Speculation: Miss Middleton's Wedding Dress

I’ll confess that the matter was on my mind long before Little Augury threw me the gauntlet that asked me to weigh in on the hottest topic on the blogosphere: Catherine Middleton’s mystery wedding dress. I typically shy away from subjects that are so mainstream, but the question is interesting to me. The whole thing has such a significance, a symbolism that is rare in the modern sartorial language. It needs to make a singular personal statement while maintaining some time-honored rules and regulations.

For the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, the design will need to balance modesty with grandeur. Because of the location, the dress demands a “covered up” style, which will make anything strapless completely out of the question. (Now that’s a rule a girl can get behind. Dress designers, consider yourselves on notice: a lot of people actually don’t like strapless. Deal with it.) Because of the scale of the Abbey, the design will need to be bold, but tasteful.

Princess Margaret in 1963. Gown by Norman Hartnell.

Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, with Prince Edward and Lady Sarah Armstrong in 1973. Gown by Maureen Baker.

Luckily, there is a long precedence of beautiful royal wedding gowns that Miss Middleton can use for inspiration. My personal favorites are Princess Margaret's from 1963, and her niece Princess Anne's from 1973. Both are extremely simple and elegant, very regal, and entirely within the styles of their own eras.

I sincerely doubt the Bride will choose anything remotely flouncey or princess-shaped. The connotations of Princess Diana’s gown by the Emanuels in 1981 would be too prevalent to ignore. To reiterate the 1980s excess, there is also Sarah Ferguson’s outrageous, bling-y and embellished gown by Lindka Cierach just five years later. I think it’s obvious that Miss Middleton will avoid anything that resembles either of these designs. Besides, giant silk taffeta or duchesse satin cream puffery just isn’t her style. Bows of any shape and size are doubtful.

And what is Kate Middleton’s style? Classic, romantic, and for lack of a better word, safe. Not that this is a bad thing – she always looks incredibly chic and stylish, but nothing she wears is ever too very different or surprising. Miss Middleton is a classic Sloane Ranger, to use the popular parlance. This term is applied to a stereotype of young, upper-middle class women and men who are seen around the Sloane Square neighborhood of London, located in a the very well-heeled area surrounded by Knightsbridge, Chelsea, and Belgravia. (Diana, Princess of Wales was one of the original Sloane Rangers back when she was merely Lady Diana Spencer.) In France the same group is called a BCBG, while here in the US we call them “Preppies”. In the 1980s, Peter York and Ann Barr created The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook and The Official Sloane Ranger Diary, both of which were published in partnership with Harper’s and Queen magazines. (I wonder if Michael Williams has a copy?)

Marchesa, Fall 2010.

So what does trim and tidy sartorial precedence mean in the context of a royal wedding gown? I would venture that with so much on the line, Miss Middleton might just pull out a few surprises. My guess is that the Bride will go more romantic than strictly classic, with a slim, simple and floaty style that has both elements of luxury and sophistication.

Monique Lhuillier, Spring 2011.

Because of her interest in art history and the Renaissance, Miss Middleton may choose the type of Tudor simplicity seen in Princess Anne's gown, but updated for the 21st Century. It would need to be very updated, of course, but I can see her looking to such a classic gown style which is in keeping with her romantic nature. A simple gown topped with an embellished blazer piece for the ceremony could be just the thing, but with the private dinner-dance happening later in the evening, I'd bet that Miss Middleton will have a second, party-ready dress to wear.

Alexander McQueen, Fall 2010 & Spring 2011.

For the last ten days or so, Sarah Burton’s team over at Alexander McQueen have been incredibly silent. Yes, the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Gala which is honoring the late Mr. McQueen is coming up on Monday evening; that camp is undoubtedly busy creating couture for the many party patrons that are sure to attend. However, I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of the house taking care of the royal wedding as well. Miss Middleton may be classic, but she is modern and in this vein there is no one to match the house of McQueen.

The designer’s final collection for the Fall of 2010 was perfectly regal in every way. The rich fabrics, hints of Tudor details, vivid reds and blacks, as well as sumptuous gold embroidery are all ideal for Westminster Abbey.

A design from Libélula's Bespoke Wedding Gown collection.

But Miss Middleton is also democratic in her fashion choices, going with everything from Top Shop to Issa London in the past few years. Therefore, Yvonne Yorke’s prediction in The Huffington Post stating that little-known designer Sophie Cranston of Libélula was chosen to create the dress is entirely believable. Believable, but a little too much of a dark horse for me to have a lot of confidence in this selection. Also, Miss Yorke’s annoyingly shrill, self-righteous tone on this “scoop”, plus the blatant effort to out this designer (if it is her) when so many are respecting Miss Middleton's privacy and desire for secrecy, makes me dislike the Libélula notion just on principal. I also question why no other news outlet has picked up this rumor as fact.

Libélula’s designs are pretty and yes, modern, but they’re also a bit ho-hum. Perusing the lookbook, I’m having a difficult time imagining any of these soft, floaty confections gracing the nave of Westminster Abbey with any kind of presence. Yet it could happen: The Emanuels were young unknowns when Lady Diana Spencer phoned them with a special commission.

Audrey Hepburn as "The Quality Bride" in 1957's Funny Face. Gown by Edith Head.

Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, 1956. Gown by Helen Rose.

A lot of people are speculating that Miss Middleton's gown will be very Audrey Hepburn in it's classic, simple style or perhaps reminiscent of Grace Kelly's "ice princess gone frothy" wedding gown designed by Helen Rose in 1956. It's easy to draw comparisons to Hollywood in the case of a royal wedding, but I think these opinions are a bit simplistic, and totally unrelated to Miss Middleton's taste.

Again, I think Miss Middleton will choose a slim, simple style with a lot of movement and none of the poofy stiffness of her predecesors. She will probably be very natural, with her hair loose, and possibly a nod to Queen Victoria with a crown of orange blossoms instead of a tiara. A hint at the romance and luxury of the Tudor era is indeed a possibility, and I think the house of Alexander McQueen will serve the task perfectly.

As I looked through some family pictures this evening I found some of my parents' wedding photos, and remembered why I love the Tudor styles for weddings. My Mom wore something similar when she married my Dad in 1973. The dress was purchased off-the-rack at I.Magnin here in San Francisco. In fact, my Mom claims that the dress was so cheap that the veil cost more just to have the lace matched. They will be married 38 years next month.

Hamish Bowles talks Balenciaga & Spain

Opening on March 26th, Mr. Hamish Bowles' new exhibition Balenciaga and Spain brings over 100 pieces of priceless haute couture to the de Young museum. Expanding the retrospective from its showing at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York (that exhibit offered only 50 pieces), the exhibition will highlight the master couturier's work through traditional Spanish themes.

As Mr. Bowles' was in town this week to prepare for the exhibition, I was lucky enough to sit down with him and learn more about the inscrutible designer and Mr. Bowles himself.

Balenciaga, Bolero jacket of burgundy silk velvet and jet passementerie embroidery by Bataille, winter 1946.

Collection of Hamish Bowles, photograph by Kerry Komer.

P&C: Allow me to begin by reading you this quote from Francine du Plessix Gray's novel October Blood, which is overall an enteraining satire on Carmel Snow...

"In the center of the living room there sometimes sat Cristobal Balenciaga, Mother’s best friend in Paris, dolorously sipping chamomile tea. Infrequently exposed to clothes other than his own, he mostly came to curse at the vulgarity of the costumes being paraded in Mother’s suite. He was a thin, depressed, nomadic Spaniard with perennial dark glasses and some twelve houses spread over the map of Europe, all of which he hated. He would spend a few days at his hacienda in Seville and leave it, complaining of the noise, go to his chalet in Switzerland to cure his sinuses and sell it the following morning, complaining of the insects. His only passion besides his work was looking for antiques, and he could spend a month piling up Renaissance tables and Persian rugs to furnish a flat in Barcelona which he’d leave after a night because he disliked the Gaudi building across the street. He traveled everywhere with a long-haired dachshund called Zurbarán and carried in his pocket several immaculate linen handkerchiefs with which he wiped the dog’s bottom after each sidewalk performance. When he and my mother greeted each other every summer he would scrutinize her dress with a tragic air, hands on her shoulders, to be sure that she was wearing one of his originals, and then tug at different parts of her collar, sleeves, waistline to show that she was not wearing it properly.”

Is this an accurate description?

Hamish Bowles: (Laughs) Bettina Ballard does describe him as obsessed with antiqueing, piling up antique rugs... yes, that he was constantly working on apartments in Madrid, and then not being able to sleep there because of the noise… It is very true to say that he could not understand the clothes produced by his contemporaries. By extension, couldn’t understand why his friends & clients would choose to wear them.

There is a story in Bettina Ballard['s autobiography In My Fashion] – about an occasion where Balenciaga was accompanying Ballard to an event and she asked him to do up the back of her Dior dress, which had 30 buttons up the back… He kept muttering "Christian est complétement fou!"- "he's completely mad!" So, there are some very funny resonances. But he (Balenciaga) disdained from involving himself in the public side of the house, focusing on the technical, behind the scenes work & producing the clothes themselves… For special friends he would be involved in the fittings.

In fact, it was sort of a nightmare! He shared with Chanel this obsession with the way a sleeve was set. He would sort of torment his tailors – they would have to take sleeves in and out time & time again. Bettina Ballard has a funny story about this suit that she was having made, [it] was so battered & bruised by his constant thing, that she ended up wearing the perfectly made, line for line copy that was made by Ben Zuckerman – one of the very high end 7th Avenue copyists – she wore HIS suit, and Balenciaga never noticed.... He was a fastidious technician.

Cristobal Balenciaga circa 1952, copyright Bettmann/CORBIS images

From your description in the intro, it was more about how reclusive he was; I find that’s so common when you read about Yves Saint Laurent, or Chanel, - these people were sort of crotchety, and known for being in their own bubble of a world. Is that a factor for being a design genius in a way?

I don’t think so. I think a lot of Balenciaga’s contemporaries were extremely… they flourished in social situations. Jacques Fath gave endless parties, Dior even. I certainly think that Chanel in her day was extraordinarily social, and sort of a lynch-pin of a certain kind of artistic society in Paris in the old days. (I mean she did become sort of a crotchety old woman late in life,)… Saint Laurent had his own demons to contend with.

Balenciaga was naturally quite shy. He had an intimate circle of friends, mostly people he was involved with through his work. He just didn’t have time for a mundane life really, or the inclination for it. His great partner in life – D’Attainville, died in 1948, and Balenciaga became sort of increasingly retiring after that.  But I think his focus was just on his work, perfecting & honing his craft.

I loved what you said about how he would use his client’s physical quirks to develop a specific design detail…shortening the sleeves, doing a special collar. Today, when you see designers work on Project Runway for instance, they’re stumped when faced with a "real" body type. Do you think that that is something that can be learned, or did Balenciaga have a natural talent for it? Can you practice at that and learn how to design for your clients in a more specific way, using not the standard stick-figure model?

I think that Balenciaga’s whole apprenticeship and training was as a tailor and then as a dressmaker. In that capacity, his entire working life would have been one-on-one interactions with clients. Day-in, day-out he would be making clothes to fix specific body types, and you know for clients that would each have strong opinions about what their physical assets (and debits) were, and they would conspire together to enhance or minimize those as the case might be. That was his whole training.

When he opened his own couture house in Spain, he would go to Paris to buy the sample garments of the designers whom he admired, and he would bring those back to his couture establishments in San Sebastian and Barcelona and Madrid, and he would adapt those to the needs & demands of his clients. So I think that he’s constantly aware of different body types, and I think that in his collections he was careful to put in things that would suit, that would be adaptable to clients with different needs and looks and body types.

It’s a different world today. He was making – he was doing couture. Each garment that he made was made specifically for a client. So, it’s like made-to-measure.  In ready to wear, it’s not so easy to do that. And I think also body types have changed in a way, but it’s just a different craft; it’s bespoke and ready-to-wear and they’re just worlds apart.

Balenciaga, house photograph of evening ensemble.

Dress of black silk crepe with "chou" wrap of black silk gazar. Winter, 1967. Balenciaga archives.

What do you think about the end of couture? Do you think it will ever disappear? There’s a lot of fear about that today, I know that Chanel has been buying up a lot of the different craft houses like Lesage and opening the schools…Do you think that there will always be a couture market?

I think there will always be clients that want very special pieces and can afford to acquire them. I think that couture, like everything, will mutate. I think there are a lot of younger designers who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be couturiers per se, who’re certainly using couture techniques and maybe a couture approach in their work. And, I certainly think that, now more than ever there’s a real interest in embroidery and embellishment and the possibilities of pleating and all those kinds of techniques that are very very couture-based. I think there are lots of young people who are very keen to learn those crafts. It’s very striking to me, going into couture workrooms now, and going to Lesage and those great couture suppliers and seeing how many young people there are there that really want to learn those crafts, and that might not have been the case a decade or two ago. So that kind of gives one hope for the future.

And I think just the general kind of global engagement and fascination with fashion now that’s come thru the kind of television programs you’ve spoken to – and just the instantaneous dissemination of information through the internet I think has really widened the world of fashion and I think made people more intrigued by all kinds of different areas of fashion. I certainly think haute couture and special pieces are very much a part of that.

Balenciaga. Detail of cocktail dress of fuchsia silk shantung, black lace and black silk ribbons. Summer, 1966.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Eleanor Christiansen de Guigne Collection. Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

Even with the expense of those kind of details? I remember in the Valentino documentary where he was going through his archive and he found this beautiful piece that had been done by Lesage and he said “You’d have to sell the bank of Italy to make that now”! The expense of it is getting astronomical, it seems.

Yes, it is. But there will always be women who just want that special thing and can afford to pay for it. You know, it’s like a custom sports car, or a rich-person’s toy…or art. So, I think there’s always a place for it, yes.

It is of course a very costly thing to do. Despite the cost of these garments, it’s a major loss-leader for any house. I think there are new ways of doing embroidery. I think there are incredible embroideries coming out of India that will change some of the pricing levels of that particular craft. And China, and so on. There are all kinds of approaches. And the wonderful thing about fashion is that it constantly mutates and reinvents itself – that’s the point of it. I think an approach to couture is something that will change like that too.

With that in mind, I was thinking about what you said about how long the shows were for Balenciaga. There were 200 models and they would take about 2 hours. Whereas today, there’s a maximum (usually in ready-to-wear only) but a maximum of 35 – 40 looks, they’re on and off the runway in 15 or 20 minutes, and then the line gets edited further before it ever goes to market. So, what do you think about that? Is there room for these designers to create and develop given the constraints of the season?

You have to think that in a Balenciaga show like that he’s basically showing his collection, his pre-collection, he’s showing everything that would be today in a designer’s showroom. It would be the options for the buyers that exist in the showroom off the runway, but he’s just showing the entire collection.

It’s so funny watching the videos of some of those shows, which luckily exist from the 1960s – I think 1960 – 1968, because clients get up in the middle of a show. You know, they have a hair appointment or a lunch at the Plaza D’Athénée, they leave and then sometimes come back…you know, for evening dresses or something. Or they’re just there because they need a coat or something, so they don’t need to stay for the cocktail dresses. It’s really funny – they sort of come & go. But you know there was no music. It was very austere, certainly couldn’t take photographs, you couldn’t sketch. You could just write down the number of the dress the mannequin was holding in her hand.

Gruau for Balenciaga, 1949.

I was thinking about the sketching and fashion illustration…I’m a big fan of Gruau, and he did a lot of wonderful images of Balenciaga; I feel like fashion illustration is something you don’t really see any more. It’s still taught, and it’s something that people dabble in, but it’s not really the art form used the way it was 50 years ago - as a commercial art form. Everything is photography-based now. So do you think that could ever come back – the fashion illustration?

Ah…I think it’s unlikely myself. I think great fashion illustrators will emerge and hopefully their work will be showcased in an appropriate way. I think that in the 20s & 30s often a detailed line drawing was a much more exact and precise way of describing an outfit than a photograph that might have had indeterminate reproduction in a magazine. So, informationally it had a different weight. We just live in a different world. I love illustration, fashion illustration myself – I’m very excited to see it.

I come out of the luxury fashion world, and I wondered what you think of this new world of the corporate fashion of LVMH and PPR group, and would a brand like Balenciaga have survived that?

Well, Balenciaga always resisted any kind of licensing agreement. Where Dior, Balmain, Jacques Fath all had licensees in America doing sort of high-end American ready-to-wear lines, he refused ever to do that. He refused any kind of endorsement. But still, his business was run along remarkably sound lines, so he just didn’t feel the need to do it. So I can’t imagine that he would want to be involved in the kind of corporate structures that now exisit, but he certainly had a very keen business sense and his business was very very well run and very profitable.

He had a hard-scrabble background, he was very pragmatic in the way he set up his companies. You know, clearly careful and scrupulous with money, to where it managed the way his businesses were run. He had business partners early on. The histories of those relationships are not that well documented…

Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard", 1963

I was recently watching The Pink Panther, and I found out that Yves Saint Laurent did the costumes for the principal characters.

Only for Claudia Cardinale. I think Givenchy did Capucine, and Saint Laurent did Claudia Cardinale...

I was wondering if Balenciaga he had ever received movie offers? Because you’d think he would be ripe for partnering with Luis Bunuel, or …

He did the costumes for Arletty in a 40s movie called Boléro, and...a couple of his actress-clients wore his clothes in their movies rather than him actually costuming them. It just wasn’t something it seems to have interested him. It was something Dior and Balmain did, Jacques Fath did, Chanel did. I think he just wasn’t interested, really.

So, what film do you go back to over & over for inspiration that you find interesting each time?

The Leopard – I love The Leopard. As sort of fashion movies, I really like The Red Shoes – it has great costuming. L’Année Dernière à Marienbad… I could always watch The Women...

Do you have more film projects yourself coming up? I know you were in Marie Antoinette, and Gossip Girl most recently…

And Wall Street 2… I don’t have any plans, but it’s always fun to be asked.

Do you ever think about writing or directing?

That would be intriguing, yes. Both of those options would be intriguing, yes.

And what about Oscars? Do you watch them, at home, or do you go?

I certainly watched the Golden Globes, I was much engaged. I’ve never been no, but I enjoy watching them.

What about the Royal Wedding coming up in April? Any thoughts on Kate Middleton? Are you a fan…?

I think she’s played it all very well, indeed. She’s stayed inscrutable which is a great challenge this day and age.

Do you think she’ll go with the Emmanuel’s?

No. I can’t imagine she would want to associate herself that closely with her late future mother in law. You know, it will be interesting to see. I think she’s made very sensible choices so far. So it will be intriguing. I wait with breath baited.

As we close, what do you recommend for any kind of a young designer, or even a writer, who writes about fashion & culture and things like that…What’s a good way to develop your visual sense, or your aesthetic sense? What’s a good way to gain exposure?

I think it’s just sort of saturating yourself in what’s going on in contemporary culture and going to museums and art galleries, and going to the theatre if you can, and certainly going to the cinema. I think it’s just being open to all kinds of cultural influences and zeitgeist – that’s how the zeitgeist is created. So, just being sensitive to that.

Balenciaga. Suit of mustard yellow linen; Summer, 1950. Collection of Hamish Bowles.

Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

And what was your first exposure to Balenciaga?

My first exposure, well, I was aware of him, and then the first piece I bought for my collection I was about 11 or 12 I think, was an early 60s Balenciaga suit at a charity sale. And, at the same sale there was a bolero – it was for a ballet company. A bolero had been donated by Margot Fonteyn, the great prima ballerina, and it was auctioned and sold for 60 pounds which was far more; it was 120 weeks worth of pocket money – so I couldn’t afford that.

But, incredibly enough, about 5 or 6 years ago I went to a vintage store in Los Angeles and found the same – I found the jacket there, and it’s going to be in the exhibition. It’s a wonderful matador-inspired bolero and a detail of the embroidery is the dust-jacket for the catalog. So you’re going to see it in all its glory!

Balenciaga and Spainopens at the de Young museum on March 26th.

Nice Shoes, Bitch

Candy Stud Pump by Christian Louboutin

She wasn’t supposed to be there, in front of the bagel shop a few blocks from my house. It was ten in the morning and this was the hour for young mothers overwhelmed by large strollers, construction workers grabbing a snack, or post-workout people stopping by with their dogs. I was part of the last group – still in running tights, a ballcap, and layers of sweaty performance wicking. I also had my dog Bonnie with me, who was at that moment giving me her best (and most unseemly) sad-eyed begging routine for a bit of whole wheat bagel. It was crowded. The day was warm and blue. The kids were loud. I was happy.

No, she was definitely not supposed to be there.

And yet she entered my vision and I thought she was lovely. A tall, elegant Asian girl in a soft gray charmeuse blouse with a knotted silver scarf and crisp black trousers. A lush black leather handbag was carried daintily in one hand, while large black sunglasses hid her eyes most mysteriously. She walked with a man in business clothes – they were together, but not together – like colleagues. Clearly he had never noticed a thing about what she (or anyone else for that matter) was wearing. I thought they were bankers or real estate agents or something. They were both completely out of place. I noticed she smiled a little to herself, in a quixotic, Mona Lisa sort of way. I admired her style but thought she was rather done up for the heat of the day. Why not loose that scarf, sister? Then I looked down.

The profile of the spiked toes hit me first. Shiny, sharp, and ferocious, they looked like Medieval maces for the feet; weaponry. These shoes were not to be fucked with in any way at all. One swift kick to the nether regions and that would be the end of that, Charlie. A perfect paradox of messaging, the toes sent out a warning while the stiletto heel sent out a come-hither. And the lacy sides barely peeked out from below the perfectly tailored trousers. I couldn’t look away.

Damn. Those shoes are fucking rad. Who is this girl and why is she here?

Amid a sea of snotty-nosed neighborhood kids, mothers gossiping, and the double-wide strollers steamrolling the sidewalk, she moved like a cloud of cool success and refinement. But those shoes belied something else: something dirty, captivating, and fabulous. No wonder she was smiling. Metal, leather, and lace. Phew! I was thinking this way as a fellow woman. Jesus, what kind of affect would these have on a man? I pity the poor fools.

As she walked further on I noticed the shockingly vivid redness of the signature soles, cementing the level of fearsome that I had anticipated. Dollar amounts started to pop into my head. Do I hear $950? $1050? $1100? With that kind of detail on a Louboutin namesake, who knew how high things would go? She kept walking, and I kept watching. I marveled how daintily she stepped. She was a pro; despite my years of practice I always feel like I still lumber a bit in stilettos, but not this girl. All of her weight was forward on the ball of the foot, which came down gently first, followed closely by the fall of the heel with only the slightest pressure. She could have been in pointe shoes. True, she walked slowly and a bit mincingly, (two things my long strut will not accommodate,) but she was graceful.

She was graceful, and she had a new pair of Louboutins that probably cost close to my monthly rent. I hated this bitch on principal.

She walked like someone newly in-love, except she was clearly in love with her new shoes. She moved pretending not to notice the insane luxury going on south of her own ankles, meanwhile every step magnified the evidence. These shoes were meant for the bedroom, or if worn out of doors at all, a cocktail party. They were definitely not ten-AM appropriate, nor work-appropriate, but she still wore them like any self-respecting woman who’s just spent a small fortune on high-fashion footwear.

Outwardly I seethed with jealousy, but inwardly I applauded the action. Outwardly I was completely cowed, but inwardly I wanted to commit assault and grand larceny.

Yes, I know how it feels to be this girl, but it’s been a very long time. It's a heady feeling to walk like sex on a stick, and its power is undeniable. I too know what that Mona Lisa smile is all about. So, is it the shoes I want or the feeling they'll surely give me? It's a question for lovers - of fashion and of life. And we're all fools in love, no matter how great the cost.

Candy Stud Pumps by Christian Louboutin - $965 at Saks Fifth Avenue

Derek Lam Talks Chicken...No, Really!

Derek Lam, image from Teen VogueDid you know that Derek Lam and I went to the same high school? Yes, it's true. A few years apart, but the same school. St. Ignatius College Preparatory launched both of us on paths of creativity, fame, and stardom. (Okay, clearly one more than the other, but you get it.) So when the St. Ignatius alumni magazine Genesis asked me to interview Derek Lam for an upcoming issue, you can imagine that I got a little starstruck at this idea. Like...would he even talk to me? Well, he did.

How did I do it? I emailed someone and asked very very very nicely, and kept following-up. You know that adage about the squeaky wheel? It works. But be sure to squeak very softly and sweetly. Then, a lovely PR person will email you with the message that you get 20 minutes TODAY at 5PM Eastern.

And that, boys and girls, is all there is to it. Like Conan O'Brien said: "If you work really really hard and you're kind to people, amazing things will happen." Actually, it probably came together because Derek Lam is just a genuinely sweet person, full of fun, ideas, a love of fashion, fashion people, and his hometown of San Francisco. I send a thousand thanks to everyone at Derek Lam, and my good friend Jill Lynch for thinking of the whole project in the first place!

Published here with permission from Genesis magazine.

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Derek Lam Fall 2010, from Style.comPart of your development began in your grandparents’ garment factory here in San Francisco. Was it understood that you would enter the family business from the get-go, or did your family try to encourage you into other directions?

I was only about 5 – I was a child. So there was no opinion about that. I just liked the familial atmosphere of the place. I knew it was great to be in a place surrounded by relatives working together. It was very comforting.

So when did you really begin to learn about garment construction?

When I went to Parsons.

Did you go to Parsons right from SI?

I went to Boston College for a year and a half and then transferred to Parsons.

High school is usually a time best forgotten for most of us (myself included.) But, is there something about your years at SI that you think helped to shape who you are today? Was there an experience there that really helped to shape your creative side, or was there an activity you were a part of that helped move you in the design direction?

There were two classes. The first was what was then called “Social Studies” – about people, what makes them do what they do, culture, defining who you are, with analysis and history. The second were my art classes. I had one teacher – Ms. Wolf? – Yes, Katie Wolf, she’s still there. – She is? Wow that’s amazing. I loved her classes. The last time I came home, my Mom asked me if I wanted my SI yearbook and I started flipping through it; I was like “I remember this person, and this person…”

I also really loved my English classes. They gave me a great love of literature and writing, and all of that contributes to the arts. (Notice I didn’t say science?)

I enjoyed the experience there because while SI is very academically motivated, they’re very good about educating “the whole person”.

Tod's Shade Bag, designed by Derek Lam, image from BagSnobIf there are high school students at St. Ignatius, or anywhere, who are interested in fashion design, what suggestions do you have for them? Is there anything they can do at a young age to help cultivate their eye for design? Or anything they can do to get into the practice of design?

I’m not sure how you could cultivate it - I didn’t know what a fashion designer was at that age. I went to Parsons in New York City to study art. I had a curiosity about art and culture which then led me to fashion design.

Being in a place like San Francisco, there’s so much culture that gives people curiosity, the city reveals culture everywhere, which is all a part of art and design.

I know that film has inspired your collections in the past, such as In the Mood for Love in 2004, and Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud in the Fall of 2009. One of my efforts here in San Francisco is organizing a bi-monthly film screening called Style Cinema SF. We screen fashion films, or films that have some sort of a strong aesthetic. Do you have other favorite films that you return to again and again for inspiration?

Barry Lyndon – that’s amazing…The Shining…I love Chinatown. For me it’s about the cinematic quality, the story told with costume and atmosphere. I like to think of my collection as a movie with no parts. I want to create mood, desire, and fantasy - that same cinematic quality, and also prompt people to think “I can have that in my life as well.”

I also know that a lot of your collections are influenced by place; I wondered if you had a San Francisco collection cooking in your brain somewhere. And, what era of San Francisco history really speaks to you?

That’s an interesting question because my collection for Fall [2010] I called “The Myth of the West”. I was thinking about the people who settled in San Francisco, who created a European city in the wilderness of the West. They were from the East, bringing their culture, values, etc., and created the mythology of “The West”. Cowboys, gold mining – our western legends. It’s clearly not an eastern, pilgrim culture in that setting.

I know that you worked for Michael Kors for years and you both are the capital-S in American sportswear. How do you see sportswear responding to the times right now? Is there still a place for luxury in American sportswear?

That’s interesting because a lot of Europeans say “why do you call it “American Sportswear?” because to them sportswear is what we would call “activewear”. Sportswear is made up of items that are easy to mix, and yes, have a basis in sports. (Riding, hunting, etc.) When you explain that there’s suiting, sportswear, and evening, then the Europeans begin to understand what it is. For me, it’s the most valid point of view on how to dress. Ultimately it’s the consumer who makes it work for them – how they use it in their wardrobes.

How do you incorporate the luxury? Is it in a design detail, the material, the fabrication…?

Yes, all of those things. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate luxury into items. I love to incorporate hand-work into pieces. I love working with modern mills - those who make bonded, technical fabrics. But I also love working with the couture mills. For me, luxury is a new point of view with a taste of the past.

Derek Lam Fall 2010 from Style.comName one garment that you will never get tired of designing/interpreting.

Trench coats – I do a trench coat every season. They’re sexy, mysterious, and in New York, or I guess San Francisco too - you can throw on a coat and you’re dressed.

How do you define or compare the “Derek Lam girl” and the “Tod’s girl”? Are they the same person or is it a different personality, a different style?

Derek Lam is personal, it’s what I want to say – a dialogue with my customer. For Tod’s, it’s thinking about their brand. Tod’s is modern classic with Italian flare and a modern “pep”. I suppose the customer for both is looking for my signature. How is Derek interpreting something, what is perspective is Derek offering? (By the way, I’m saying this as one of my customers, I’m not talking about myself in the third person.) I design for both brands but filtered from within my own point of view.

Do you feel the pressure to create a popular “It” bag every season, such as a YSL Muse or Balenciaga Le Dix?

No…no, that’s a lot of marketing. Every season is a fresh start. I’m trying to determine what intrigues, what’s desirable to the customer. I think about what’s missing in their wardrobe. This is much more important than any commercial endeavor.

Plus, there’s really no science to it.

No there isn’t, or, that’s not my role. There probably is a science to it, but it’s someone in marketing who determines that.

Derek Lam & Vanessa Getty at Foreign Cinema, from 7x7I read in Women’s Wear Daily last fall that when you came to San Francisco for a visit, you asked your Mom to cook up some abalone with shitake mushrooms. What are some of your other favorite San Francisco flavors? Which places or neighborhoods do you always love to visit when you come here?

I ask my Mom for a “usual” home meal – whatever we would usually eat at home. So, while I really don’t have a specific request, I just leave it up to her. I love to visit the Ferry Building; I’ll go down there and have some oysters or just walk around. I love to see what’s going on down there.

The last time I came to San Francisco Vanessa Getty hosted a party for me at something Cinema?Foreign Cinema, yes, it’s one of my favorites.I had never been there and it was great. When I visit, I’m kind of like a tourist, rediscovering the city I grew up in. I also like the place that has California cuisine – up on Market Street and I can’t think of the name. Zuni?  Yes, the Zuni Café. They have the best chicken! Yes, the chicken with croutons? Yes! Their food is so good! It’s always my first lunch or first dinner when I arrive in San Francisco.

The next time you visit you should try NOPA – it was founded by some of the people from Zuni. What’s it called? NOPA – N O P A – their roast chicken is amazing too. Where is it? It’s at Hayes & Divisadero. Oh – it’s close to Zuni, sort of. Yes, Hayes Valley-ish. Their chicken is divine – I sort of embarrass myself I enjoy it so much. That’s how Zuni is for me!...

J. Crew Fall Catalog Theatre!

Okay, you knew it was coming. The new J. Crew catalog arrived in mailboxes last week, which of course means that Poetic & Chic has to do something about it. Interesting to note that the expensive atmospheric shots are gone and almost the whole thing is shot in a studio...maybe they got my message about the Spring issue?

As usual, there's a lot to love and a lot to question. But, that's the fun of J.Crew Catalog Theatre... I'll let the pictures tell the story! All pictures are from J.Crew and scanned by me from the catalog. They're thumbnails, so feel free to enlarge...

Subscribers! Please click through to site for best viewing.

J. Crew "America" - Chilly & Boring

J.Crew America - Yr Doin It WrongSubscribers - please click through for best viewing!

The first of a guaranteed plethora of spring J.Crew catalogs arrived in my mailbox this week. I immediately paused because of the cover, screaming "America" in red and blue, across a plain black field.

I thought: "Wow, J.Crew is really brining home the Obama-economic stimulus-bring it to retail-optimism in a big way..." I mean, gorgeous couple in a vintage convertible, iconic panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge, and then... "AMERICA" - red A. The first true retail page-turner of 2009 has arrived in my mailbox and I can now breathe a little easier. Nothing has changed, we all still shop, and nothing says American happiness like classic stylings of J.Crew...right?

Nice work, J.Crew! Way to work that fading heartbeat of retail into a stylishly patriotic consumerism. Why not just light up each issue with a neon sign saying: "Spend your stimulus dollars here in red-A America...with the American brand of all-American style: J.Crew". In fact, they probably should have titled it "AMERICA*" with the asterix explained in the footnote as: "J.Crew is not a bunch of crazy right-wingers, we're just preppy, icon-loving, national retailers looking to capitalize on the current new-administration optimism. Don't blame us, we're trying..."

I dunno, I'm just sayin'.

Compelling, but not exactly original. In fact, I'd expect this kind of thing from L.L. Bean, Kenneth Cole, or even DKNY - brands that have always gone after the American heartbeat like a Big Three car company, but J.Crew? Hmmm.

What I found inside the catalog was an equally unoriginal grouping of "iconic" fashion spreads, made all the more disappointing for me because they were shot in San Francisco. Within the front cover, they try to explain the shoots by saing that San Francisco is the "all-American city" while the other spreads were equally American-themed. Unfortunately, the five-oddly disparate "stories" composing the catalog don't live up to the narrative generated by the "AMERICA" cover.

FYI: This girl is freezing.

Can this model get a jacket please?She ain't from around these parts.

But back to the San Francisco story in particular - the reason this shoot fails is because the light, summery, tropical clothing and sherbert-hued palette is totally lost in the perpetually frosty mid-winter air of the city by the bay. March catalogs are shot in November-December, and while San Francisco doesn't have snow on the ground, the temperature isn't exactly spring-ish. So, the models look forced and uncomfortable throughout. We San Franciscans don't run around in sleeveless tops (at least not without a handy jacket nearby,) or short shorts and tank tops, especially not on the wind-swept peaks of a cable car or the Marin Headlands.

J.Crew March 2009

Vogue June 2008There are two shots that were particularly familiar: one below the Golden Gate Bridge, and another on Highway 1 up in Mendocino, overlooking the ocean. Both these locations have featured prominently in previous editorials over the years, in fact, they're kind of the go-to spots for ubiquitous San Fran/No-Cal imagery. These were particularly familiar because of Vogue's editorial last June featuring Pierce Brosnan and Daria Werbowy in a "James Bond-meets-Hitchcock" spread.

The images are so similar that even the clothing looks alike, the cars are the same, and the gestures between the figures is almost identical.

J.Crew March 2009

Vogue June 2008The inclusion of these locations and shot set-ups here begs the question: is there really nothing new to do in the catalog world other than ape the big publications? It is indeed sad that J.Crew couldn't come up with anything more uniquely attuned to their particular brand of sportswear.

The section that I did find interesting and original (and easy on the eyes) was the "Great American Road Trip" section showcasing the new menswear. (Sadly these beautiful spreads crop up after this first incongruous San Francisco one, as well as multiple pages of recycled material from previous issues.) The Route 66 landscapes and classic menswear fits perfectly with the story arc begun on the cover with the two gorgeous folks in the vintage convertible. Too bad the story got stopped and then started again so many pages later when I'd already lost interest.

J.Crew March 2009 - The road trip is the best part.

So what's my point? J.Crew began this catalog with an interesting concept: create a story and merchandise around it. Since magazines and retail are both feeling the bite of this economic downturn, I think it only makes sense that retailers start to be more editorial, while magazines start to be more product-focused. The sooner the retailers get this format correct, the sooner they can start mixing entertainment with sales, and the sooner they will get a sales lift.

Too bad J.Crew's attempt is so mixed up and ubiquitous it looses it's stylistic punch.

All images scanned by Poetic & Chic.

TV: Rachel Zoe Gets Me Party-Ready

The real Rachel ZoeThe scene: My room, fifteen minutes before I'm due to leave for a party... the chant “Ihavenothingtowear” is repeating in my head. I take the latest unsatisfying option to the mirror...

“No. No no no.” The voice is deep, throaty, and no-nonsense. I spin around in terror to see blonde curls, gigantic sunglasses, a venti cup of Starbucks, and a Birkin bag - all being held up by a pile of fur.

“Ohmigod, Rachel Zoe?”

“Hi baby.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Obv – I’m here to get you dressed.”

“Ugh. At this point I think I’m wearing this.”

“No, you’re not wearing that. That’s jeans and a t-shirt.”

“Yeah, but it’s a Marc Jacobs t-shirt.”

“I know baby, but you can’t wear it to a party. It’s the holidays, it’s festive, it’s sparkle-time. You NEED to be in full regalia. Let’s do an edit...It’ll be fast and painless. What do we have on the racks?”

“I have nothing.”

“Not true. What’s this blue knit dress?” I try on the dress in the bathroom. “Come on out baby, I want to see you.”

“It’s okay. I usually put on my black Vuitton boots with it.”

“I gasp. Very sexy, but I think that’s more for date-night.”

“I agree, I’m not feeling it tonight.”

“Let me get in there and look. I’ll see it and I’ll want it, and I’ll want you to try it.” Rachel dives into my closet. All I can see is her perfectly bouncy blonde curls. How does she see in there with those glasses on?

“HUUUUUUUUH! I diiiiiiiieeee! Where did you get this vintage Pucci from 1968?”

“Um. How did you know the year?”

“Ohmigod. It’s signed. It’s a vintage Pucci shirtdress – and look at those sleeves! I gasp for air. That. Is. Bananas.”

“I think I bought it online years ago. I’m so afraid to wear it – it’s really fragile.”

DKNY Fall 2008“Oh. Ohmigod I die. Okay, too fragile. Let me look....What about this one?” Rachel pulls out my new DKNY dress – short, strapless, with an empire waist, and a cute full skirt in bronze brocade.

“I love that one! It’s a little dressy though, don’t you think?”

“This is the hero dress. I love the little bow-belt at the empire line, and the fabric is so cool: metallic, but sophisticated. I’ll accessorize you for the perfect look. How have you been wearing it?”

“I wore it once with my grandmother’s fox fur stole around my neck, and a high pony tail.”

“Vintage fur? I die.”

“But that’s too much – I’m just going to a house party.”

“Okay, we’ll do the strapless dress with a crisp black tee underneath. The black will balance the metallic brocade, but it will be perfectly dressed-down for a house party. I want you to do a really deep part at your bangs and pouf up your hair in the back – very 1960s, and lots of black eyeliner. Now what shoes?”

“I have these huge black patent oxfords that are pretty awesome, oh, and black tights.”

“Huuuuuuhhh! I gasp for air. Those. Are. Bananas.” I smile. Rachel thinks my shoes are bananas. “And those tights are great - really opaque - whose are those?"

"I just found them - their my new favorite thing, from Ellen Tracy. I think they were at Bloomingdale's..."

"Okay, jewelry. What about that ring from Marc by Marc Jacobs.”

“That’s what I was thinking too – it’s really big and fun.”

“And the perfect touch of sparkle to be festive. Now let me look at you... I gasp. You’re so confident in it too, I can tell how comfortable you are. Donna will be so proud.”

“Wow, I’m dressed! I can’t believe it! Thank you!”

“Ohmigod, you’re shutting it down.” Rachel picks up her Birkin bag and her venti and starts to head for the door.

“Thank you Rachel!”

“Alright baby, give me a kiss... I’m gonna go shop like a lunatic.”

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For the record, no, Rachel Zoe did not *appear* in my room to help me get dressed. This post is a work of complete fiction. That being said, I do hear Rachel Zoe's voice in my head as I get dressed sometimes..."

A New Millenium Werkstatte

Pendant, Josef Hoffmann c. 1905, silver, gilt & semi-precious stonesTo quote the great Shirley Bassey: "It's all just a little bit of history repeating..."

One of the reasons I left the luxury goods industry a few years ago had to do with the way it made me feel overall. After years of excitement in the fashion fast lane, I found myself overwhelmed by its shallowness that left me increasingly empty. Even the "luxury" brands were losing their core of craftsmanship and selling out to the mass-market, driven by the need to satisfy stockholders. In the storm of marketing, messaging, editorials, and bling, I started to feel sick. When you witness someone splitting an "it" bag across three credit cards for the hundreth time, it starts to get to you. I asked myself: "How long can a brand remain "aspirational" and "white hot" before it burns iself out?"

The question still hangs over me when I take a look at the luxury fashion world these days - from a lot further out, happily, which usually gives some great perspective. Perspective, or common sense?

Consider the current unpleasantness of the economic world; there are a lot of people in big, expensive homes all over the country, homes full of clothes, electronics, cars, shoes, and it bags, who are wondering if they're going to have jobs next week. This, is a big portion of the "new" luxury market, and the rose-colored glasses have been lifted recently. Now comes the dawn of perspective: is any of that stuff really lasting and fulfilling, or is it just stuff?

Belt Buckle, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, opal & rubyLast week, The Cut by New York Magazine published a post entitled " 'It' Bags ARe About to Be So Embarrassing". In it, there is a quote from Claire Kent, a former luxury analyst from Morgan Stanley who now works as an industry consultant, from a speech at the recent London Luxury Briefing conference. Kent mentioned a "luxury fatique", that people were afraid of debt and that customers would be steering clear of aspirational brands. She also said "An 'It' handbag will become an embarassment - a clear sign that you don't have your own view of fashion." Well, we all knew that was the case...

Today, Jezebel published a post about "Luxury Shame" - the phoenomenon of rich people feeling bad about throwing money around. They cite certain luxury shoppers telling others that their gown is an "old Phillip Lim" as opposed to a new Balenciaga - because that makes it okay. (I say, if you have the good stuff, wear it proudly! Don't lie to people, just maybe...buy a little less?) Jezebel also cites ecommerce sites like Gilt Groupe whose big appeal is the discretion of anonymous delivery boxes - so no one will know you're dropping your now-diminished 401K on Jimmy Choos. Yes, assuage your shopping guilt and extravagance in a nice brown wrapper...it's shopping porn!

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann c. 1910, silver & semi-precious stones

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1908, silver, partly gilt & semi-precious stonesBrooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1910, silver, gilt & semi-precious stones

All of this guilt about shopping and high-priced products has put me in mind of one of my favorite periods of art and design: the Wiener Werkstätte. Also known as the Vienna Succession, this brief period of design began at the beginning of the 20th Century and continued until just before World War II. Vienna was the epicenter of the arts, being led by a group of artists that wanted to fuse graphic and applied arts - seeking a union of form and function in design. The Werkstätte was formed in response to increased mass production of products and overall industrialization. They sought to return art and design to fine craftsmanship, logic, beauty, and usefulness. The most famous Werkstätte artists are likely to be Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, but the group included hundreds of artists across all aesthetics.

Left - Emilie Floge in 'reform' dress & necklace by Kolo Moser c. 1910, Right - Necklace, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, white chalcedony & carnelian (This necklace was given to Emilie Floge by Gustav Klimt.)I have been thinking of the Werkstätte lately because of their jewelry; it perfectly suits our current climate and I'm sure it will be only a matter of time before we return to this kind of aesthetic. Simple, elegant, modern, colorful, and beautifully crafted.

The most significant Werkstätte jewelry was designed by Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser. While most worked with silver and gold, the focus of the work was on the metal designs and the unique arrangements of semi-precious stones. You see, during the early part of the 20th Century in Europe, times were tough. Economic depression, wars and revolutions... It was all pretty unsettling, and it was considered to be in bad taste to wear real gems. (Remember, this was also the time when CoCo Chanel invented costume jewelry too.)

Does any of this sound familiar?

Luckily for the patrons of the Werkstätte, their pieces were usually custom-made by hand as individual art pieces, which made them beautiful, tasteful, and lasting. Luckily for us, they are still as modern and wearable today as they were then! Perhaps with all of this luxury guilt going on, designers will take some cues from the Wiener Werkstätte and make things that move away from mass-market bling and into hand-crafted, wearable art... After all, history is repeating these days.

All images scanned from "Wiener Werkstätte - Design in Vienna 1903-1932" by Christian Brandstätter

The Anthro Effect

The Anthropologie "Presents 08" CatalogLast weekend I let myself spend some time at Anthropologie. Now, this can be a highly dangerous activity for normal women, but I've found that the danger comes when rushing through the store and buying indiscriminately. This time, I took control of the situation and recognized the cute-overload for just what it was: and evil ploy to rid me of my money. In so doing, I could take a deep breath, slow down, and take it all in.

The masterminds at Anthropologie have distinguished their brand by its sheer girlishness. A brand that exploded in the early 2000s, it popped onto the scene when the dot-com crowd was young, stylish, and had full pockets. It was the perfect product line for the "cool job" and the new economy which distinguished itself from the old by accepting casual offices, youth, and femininity. Anthropologie was the darling of the hour and hasn't quit since.

While Banana Republic says "we're mod, lean, kinda boring, and perfect for work, " and Zara says "we're Euro and cheap, but totally dashing," Anthropologie practically screams its validation for just being a girl. It says: "we're here, we're cool, we're girls." It says it so loudly that the nob must be turned to eleven.

From the "Presents 08" catalog...Anthropologie knows what we like: knitwear, floral patterns, delicacy, buttons, monograms, appliques, stripes, ribbons, flounces, embroidery, sashes, vintage, bright colors, bedding, romance, tea cups, and scented soaps. They tell us that it's okay to light candles during the day, just because, and that dressing a vintage chandelier in Spanish moss and twine is not only chic but totally normal. They tell us that we too could live life on the cusp between a World War II era kitchen and a Paris flea market. They tell us that if we were truly creative we'd recycle our old junk into clever visual props that would make everyone go gooey with delight. In fact, "gooey with delight" is really the whole point.

After twenty minutes in the store my head begins to spin. Dizzy from the sensory cute overload, or that scented candle that's meant to evoke laundry drying in a French lavender field... I'm not sure which. I notice "the boyfriend" section is completely full with obviously uncomfortable men who are trying very hard not to put their hands anywhere, while they are also trying very hard not to make eye contact with anyone. Yes, it's the look common to caged animals and those enduring torture.

The sale section is crammed to the rafters with redlines and the women who love to buy them. But what do they really buy? My theory is that everything at Anthropologie always looks better on the hanger than it does in real life. Or, as to quote this fabulous post from Decorno:

"How about something that fits? How about something that is not an empire waist? Anthro clothes are for women who no longer want to get laid, or who are already dating a boy who isn't interested in sleeping with girls anyway."

Um, yeah. (And Decorno is my new favorite thing. I also found the beautiful blog called Breakfast at Anthropologie which is just as lovely as the brand, but that blogger too frequently expresses her own frustration at the brand in her posts, despite her love.)

True, the visual merchandising is truly amazing. Opulent, clever, and pitch-perfect each season. Take a look at the gorgeous holiday windows photographed by Platinum Blonde Life at Rockefeller Center. I definitely do give props for creating the atmosphere most girls want to fall into and never leave, but still, how well does that translate to reality?

Much like the fit of the clothes, my feeling is that the Anthropologie brand doesn't quite suit the current climate, and it will probably only get worse. While this is always a store I love to visit, it's rare that I actually make a purchase; the items are too specific, too styled, too detailed - it's like they wear you instead of the other way around. They're nice to haves, not need to haves, and as we all know, the luxuries are definitely back burner these days.

So, despite overall adorable-ness, charm, and girlish appeal, can Anthropologie survive this new new economy? How does a brand founded on cute suddenly become more serious and hard-working? I guess it's time for the Anthropologie girl to grow up...

The Miss Dior "Cherie" Campaign

I must say, the darling Miss Dior "Cherie" advertisements have been the highlight of my magazine flipping lately... A girl with beret on a bicycle with be-ribboned Dior boxes - because it's so charmant to shop the Avenue Montaigne on a bike. Or, the pastelled balloon bouquet lifting Maryna Linchuk high above Paris which puts the ending of Le Ballon Rouge in mind, but for chic, grown-up, fuschia-pink bubble dress-wearing big girls.

Sigh! Le irony, le insouciance, le charm, le tongue-in-cheek...

Then, tonight I was in the middle of Gossip Girl... wait, what's that? Why is Brigitte Bardot singing one of her ye ye songs on the television? Chestnut trees, a vintage magazine, a girl with bangs, white cyclamen, and balloons...either it's my favorite era of French style or... Ohmigosh! It's the Sophia Coppola ad for Miss Dior "Cherie"!!! I was so flustered with delight I didn't know what to think. But, my first notion was: "Damn, I should have gotten that DVR box forever ago! Please rewind!"

The perfume was launched in 2005 - as a commemorative for Christian Dior's 100th bithday by John Galliano. A review of the perfume is available on the Now Smell This blog, which cites Galliano's inspirations as Stevie Wonder's "My Cerie Amour" and a vintage Dior gown from the archives called "Cherie". However, while the scent may be reminiscent of the classic 1947 "Miss Dior" perfume, it is entirely modern. So, a modern ad campaign with the modern, simple glamour of Ms. Coppola is entirely appropriate.

Pink, pastel, soaring, and with a 1960s French girl-pop soundtrack - what's not to love? Also, as a film student, I love that this one little 30-second bit of film totally fits in with the greater body of Sophia Coppola's work. The look is very similar to the decadent pinkishness of Marie Antoinette, while the Diana-camera saturated cinematography is perfectly in tune with The Virgin Suicides. It shows a knowledge of Masculin Feminin and Un Homme et une Femme, with a little dose of Roman Coppola's CQ.  The chain of aesthetic influence makes me giggle with delight!

Overall, the whole campaign is pitch-perfect, full of ladylike optimism which is sorely needed right now. Unfortunately, there's no clip yet on YouTube, but visit Fashionologie (and its fabulous OnSugar capabilities) for a taste of delicious.

My Eco-Tote, My Identity

BCBG eco-tote, Spring 2008One of my favorite stories of young professional girls is the classic soapy novel The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. (Trust me, if you’re someone working your way up in a company, it’s right there with Valley of the Dolls.) What made me fall hopelessly in love with the story was the author’s description of the young ladies of the typing pool carrying their lunches in defunct Bonwit Teller shopping bags...

Don’t we all do this? I love buying just a little something (usually a cosmetic) in order to get a small shopping bag to take for lunches! What I love more is spying the girls on bus and seeing their lunchbags in turn. The whisper of a Neiman’s butterfly, the stately lettering of Marc by Marc Jacobs, the mod ovals of Jonathan Adler, the white-on-black of Barneys, or the elegance of Diptyque – I’ve carried them all for lunches at one time or another. It’s the air of “purchase mystery” that everyone loves to play up for another day, even if the bag holds nothing more exciting than tuna salad with a side of grapes.

A classic Fauchon tote - eco-chic for years!Of course, these little paper gems convey a lot more than one’s purchase power; they’re a walking passport of one’s shopping travels. The chocolate-ivory stripe of Henri Bendel or the whimsical blue-and-red of Fred Segal show that one has gone coast to coast in the pursuit of style. Then there’s the famous bags of Fauchon, the Paris gourmet shop whose re-usable bags have been gifted and carried for decades. More than a shopping memory, all these little bags have been resused and recycled into fashion caché for years! In the case of Fauchon, carrying their tote meant you'd travelled to Paris (or 5th Avenue,) knew the non-touristy neighborhoods there, and probably had a sophisticated palette - not to mention a tin of fois gras at close hand...

Kenneth Cole "Use Me" toteNow we have our “eco-tote” craze... In the name of eco-chic, designers are now bringing us coveted bags to carry within our bags, just so we have something handy and equally chic to carry home mundane items from the neighborhood grocery or Walgreens. Still, the simple canvas totes are rife with implications of status, location, and income, as they serve as a walking billboard of a person’s demographic.

Yesterday, my Dad dropped off something I’d forgotten on a recent visit to my parents’ house. My Mom had packed it up in a canvas tote, and I didn’t even notice what it said during the hectic few seconds of getting it from my Dad’s car and running back into the office… No sooner had I returned to my desk than my colleague (a native New Yorker) made a comment…

Colleague: “Oh, what did you get from Clyde’s?”

Me: “What?”

Colleague: “Your bag – it’s from Clyde’s…”

Me: “Oh – it’s my Mom’s. What’s Clyde’s?”

Colleague: (turning away with a raised eyebrow) “It’s a pharmacy on Madison at 74th…”

Me: “Oh…yeah, I think my Mom likes that place.”

YSL tote as a fashion-show gift bagWithin five seconds, my borrowed eco-tote conveyed a message that someone (me, ostensibly,) had been to New York and shopped at a very exclusive (and expensive) pharmacy shop on the Upper East Side.

Just like the witty upside-down logo totes being given out for free at the upcoming Yves Saint Laurent fashion show (Eric Wilson's NY Times article), the tote conveys a message of being an insider, being exclusive, being in the right place at the right time to get the right eco-tote. So much more exclusive than a mere Muse bag, don’t you think?

Last year, Anya Hindmarch’s “I am Not a Plastic Bag” totes flew off of store shelves and became a hotly-bidded eBay commodity thereafter. According to The Bag Snob, Hindmarch stated at the beginning of this effort: “Our aim with this project has been to use our influence to make it fashionable not to use plastic bas. 'I'm Not A Plastic Bag' was designed to be a stylish, practical, reusable bag that would raise awareness of this issue and spark debate." I would venture to guess that everyone that bought the Hindmarch bag knew about the pitfalls of plastic long ago, but they simply wanted the latest must-have item. Personally, I hate it when someone says they're "raising awareness" - who is some designer to say I'm not aware? The rhetoric just smacks of smug superiority, especially as it concerns something as simple as "plastic is bad for you." Duh! The reason the bags sold out wasn't because of their enlightening abilities, but because everyone wanted to convey that they too cared about the environment while looking exclusive doing it.

Whole Foods/Lauren Bush Feed toteAt Whole Foods, you have one of two branded options to purchase there: the standard reusable green bag, or the famous Lauren Bush “Feed” bag – the proceeds of which go to feeding children in Rwanda. Now this is an effort whose awareness needs raising. For just $29.99, you can feed 100 children. Talk about a great product: affordable, well-designed, results-driven, and coveted. Everyone’s happy with this bit of brilliance, and it even zips up into a compact carrying case so your bag isn’t floating around in your handbag causing traffic jams among the wallet, cell phone, and eyeglass case.

But charity aside, what does the “souvenir” of your munificence say? This “Feed” tote tells the world that not only do you a) shop at a rather expensive grocery store (Whole Foods), but b) are a conscious, philanthropic being, who c) cares about the needs of children in under-developed countries. Now that is quite the message to send!

As with any trend that starts at the street, designers are now capitalizing on these eco-chic totes by designing into the trend and creating new “It” bags. A search for “canvas tote” on Etsy yields over 4,000 items, all made by small-production crafters and artisans. Not one to be late to any party, Target has an entire section on their website entitled “Reusable Shopping Bags” with totes priced from $9.99. Other retailers start out in the market inexpensively, such as the $20 “Use Me” bag from Kenneth Cole, or the $38 “Be Chic Buy Green” tote from BCBG last spring. But now, Marc by Marc Jacobs is putting out screened bags upwards of $100! Other designers are making limited editions, using the classic luxury brand method of creating a must-have item. Luxury branding in a canvas tote? Does that even make sense? Isn’t accessibility the whole point of this trend?

Continuing the thought, aren't designers setting themselves up in competition with themselves by creating low-end carry-all totes and high-end luxury handbags? Which bag will attract more attention and draw more covetous envy?

Marc by Marc Jacobs "Save My Pole" toteApplying Beaudrillard’s thoughts on semiotics, this trend in eco-totes is really just another way for us to express ourselves. They’re our outward representation of what we stand for, where we shop, and what we want to support. By being conscious of our ecology and ridding ourselves of plastic bags, we have generated a replacement that is literally a blank canvas waiting for expression – preferably a designer one.

Of course, if I really want to carry an eco-chic tote with a label, I’ll keep packing lunch in a stylish paper shopping bag like I have for years. Those babies are chic, and free with the purchase of something you're buying anyway!

Angels Wanna Wear My...

There is an old saying that goes "red shoes are only for children and whores..." Well, I'm neither one nor the other but I still love me some red footwear! In fact, the statement runs entirely contrary to the mindset of a true fashion-lover; why be so limiting and so judgmental in one single statement? This sounds like one of those mid-century fashion dogmas a la "no white after Labor Day" and "handbags and shoes must match"... Ugh.

When I browse shoe stores I am instantly drawn to the red pairs. Maybe it's because red is my favorite color, or because I'm unafraid of wear it, or because I'm kooky and use my colors as neutrals, but there it is and I can't help it. There is just something about red shoes. Is it because they're sort of childish and impractical? Or is it the taboo of being so vampish and attention-grabbing on a body part rife with fetishistic implications? Or perhaps we were just brought up to love them? 

"Oh I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused. But since their wings have got rusted, you know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes." -Elvis Costello

YSL Rive Gauche, Fall 2003Not one single woman I know would turn her nose up at the ruby slippers, for instance. Talk about the shoes that launched a thousand ships! From the moment the Wicked Witch of the East's striped legs curled up and her shoes found their way onto Dorothy's feet, we all sat up and paid attention to our shoe wardrobes. Sadly, our own collections do not transmit in such technicolor glory, but every pair of red shoes we own lends itself to this fantasy. By the way, did you know that the magical slippers in the Wizard of Oz were meant to be silver, like in the book? The legend goes that Louis B. Mayer paid a visit to the set and realizing the power of the new technicolor format, he made the slippers ruby instead. Mr. Mayer, if you only knew...

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of this classic film and to celebrate it, twenty fashion designers have been invited by

Warner Brothers and Swarovski 

to design  recreations of the famous ruby slippers. I'm never a big fan of these kinds of "redesigns", especially where they concern something so classic and iconic - it's just never as  fabulous as the original. But, when I read about this

in last week's

New York Times,

I started to think about the far-reaching influences of the ruby slippers in particular, and red shoes in general.

Jim Fixx's Onitsuka TigersOf course there's blue suede and black patent, but the most iconic shoes are the red ones. It makes sense since most every culture in the world uses red for celebrations and as a symbol of luck and happiness. It is thought that as humans, the color red encourages us to action and confidence, while it protects us from fears and anxiety. Add all of this to the power and confidence inherent in a well-made, beautifully-designed pair of shoes and you come up with a heady cocktail indeed.

But it's not just "fashion" shoes that are iconic; Jim Fixx launched an athletic revolution with his cherry red Onitsuka Tigers on the cover of The Complete Book of Running- a seminal work in the world of personal fitness. Think about it, without those sleek red beauties, would there have been Jazzercise or Jane Fonda Workout or spin class or bootcamp? I grant you it's a reach, but I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the world's current health and well-being is owed to a pair of red sneakers from 1977. 

And then there's The Red Shoes. This stunning Powell and Pressburger film from 1948 has probably inspired most of today's professional dancers and performing artists. Based upon a Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl who sees some red shoes in a shop window and has to have them, only to learn too late that the shoes are possessed and she will never be able to take them off again. Or, as Boris Lermontov explains in the film:

""The Ballet of The Red Shoes" is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on."

A metaphor for one's commitment to their art and passion, with more than a soup

ç

on of a warning from Doctor Faustus. The story presents a choice: do you choose art, or do you choose life? As Lermontov sternly tells one of his dancers: "You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never."

Christian Louboutin Feather Ankle-Wrap D'Orsay for Fall 2008So what is a girl to do? On the one foot, red shoes are powerful and glamorous while on the other foot they're troubling and leading the wearer into mischief. The beauty of this connundrum is that red shoes carry both messages; they're beauty and beast in one. Totally intrepid and not for the passive wearer, they demand attention, action, and daring, even if that daring can cause some problems. Above all they require a certain amount of commitment to oneself and one's fashion prowess. You want to wear the red shoes - you don't want them to wear you.

Red shoes make me happy. It's all of the messaging and metaphor of innocence, sex, art, glamor, and life rolled into a single pair of shoes. But more than that, they seem to just smile at you from the shoe box as if to say "you know when you put me on you're going to have a fabulous day..." A box of promise just waiting to happen. Isn't it nice to know you own a pair?

Louis Vuitton: Schadenfreude

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Louis Vuitton's Richard Prince Motard Firebird Bag from the Spring 2008 Runway.So we all know that I have some history with the house of Vuitton. My emotions surrounding the brand are in equal measure love and hate. Since we’ve parted ways I have continued to watch LV with mild interest and respect of a certain kind; respect for the creativity and quality that is still at the forefront of the product offering. In the past few months, however, I am sad to see the mighty house embarassing itself in more ways than even my jaded spleen could imagine. The Luxe Chronicles posted a similar essay on this subject last month, but with even more mea culpas in recent weeks, I am glad I delayed in writing a response...er, agreement.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the world can tell that the heyday of luxury must-haves has cooled off considerably, especially given the current economic and social climate. What is the use of a $2500 or even $500 handbad these days when it costs a fifth of that amount just to fill up a gas tank? Isn’t it a little gross to have something like that on your arm when millions of people have been displaced due to the earthquake in China, and not to mention America’s own mid-west? I don’t know any metrics off hand, but I would venture to guess that luxury sales are probably NOT comping against last year, never mind five years ago.

Bernard Arnault seems to be having a difficult time closing a deal these days, and Dana Thomas’ book Deluxe has probably blown the roof off for the true fashion insiders – the ones that actually care. For those that aren’t inside, it’s hard to see what the brands are doing to draw in that mass market like they did before. The notion of hip-hop stars blinging it up with labels seems incredibly stale. The same stars are wearing the same leggings and tops in every gossip magazine, and the latest crop of tastemakers isn’t appearing and everyone seems to be waiting around for the next luxury trend. Will it be of the Fendi Baguette or Jimmy Choo variety? No one knows. But if there is one house that is trying a bit too hard to make it happen for themselves it’s Louis Vuitton.

To be clear, I think Marc Jacobs’ continual creative leadership of the brand remains strong and exciting. It’s what the Vuitton executives are doing with it that is becoming an embarassment.

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Don't laugh...this is war!This April, Vuitton debuted the “Monogramoflage” – a new collaboration between Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murakami. While the collaboration is always fun and proved very successful for the house in the past (especially in its first edition in 2003,) this pattern proved to be a bit of a let-down. Where was the vivid whimsy of the usual Murakami humor? Apparently it’s time to get serious. Meant to be a symbol of the “war against counterfeiting,” the “Monogramoflage” was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with an installation of very real-looking counterfeit shops that “sold” actual authentic bags. The concept sounded interesting, but after the initial novelty wore off it just seemed very smug. Here’s this big, fancy, luxury brand fabricating a dirty, illicit scene for the elite art patrons to gain a sense of street. Aren’t we witty, clever and funny? Um…no.

As imagined, the monogramoflage has gone over like a lead balloon. No one’s really mentioned it since.

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The Coppolas for Louis Vuitton's "Core Values"The brand did create a beautiful, well-received film advertisement that took the arthouse cinema world by storm, and followed it up with some new print images. Equally beautiful, one can easily see that Vuitton is trying very hard to get back to its classic “goods for the luxury traveler” image that has been lost recently. The campaign is rightly called "Core Values." While I do enjoy and appreciate these images, the attempt feels incredibly self-conscious. The fresh riskiness that used to abound in older campaigns isn’t apparent here. Choosing such artistic icons as Keith Richards and the Coppolas doesn’t make the brand edgy, it just brings it back to where it should have been in the first place: the true luxury market. Just as a "core values" campaign ought to do! (ThreadTrend and StyleFrizz)

The Sex and the City Movie was yet another debacle, with the most over-the-top Vuitton bags gracing practically every frame – even gratuitously. Granted, the whole film was really nothing but one big product-placement storm, but no one could overlook the prominence of Louis Vuitton. The brilliant and spot-on New York Times review by Manohla Dargis even went on to say “Louis Vuitton co-stars.” She finished her review by saying: “There is something depressingly stunted about this movie; something desperate too. It isn’t that Carrie has grown older or overly familiar. It’s that awash in materialism and narcissism, a cloth flower pinned to her dress where cool chicks wear their Obama buttons, this It Girl has become totally Ick.” Right in the middle of the Ick? Louis Vuitton’s Motard Firebird Bag – probably the most memorable moment in the film, for better or worse.

This week’s latest is yet another dose of the proverbial omelette in the face of LV. The brand was forced to close its flagship in Hangzhou, China since “its products did not meet quality standards.” (New York Magazine, and StyleFrizz) Apparently this has something to do with swatching or some other technicality, but still. Something shady is going on here. Surely the Chinese government could have worked out an arrangement with the house to fix the problem rather than all the public embarassment? Better question: Didn't Louis Vuitton know about these technicalities? I guess not, or maybe it was beneath them to comply? The government seized all of the handbags in the store, forcing the company to close its doors there temporarily.

I have to wonder what everyone’s thinking over at the Pont Neuf headquarters in Paris. Is Vuitton’s current stream of misses making up for its many years of hits? Is this just an indication of the market’s growing impatience with the gimmicks of luxury brands? Or, is it Jean Beaudrillard’s fourth order of similacra wherein the copy has come to replace the original?

Could this be the beginning a teutonic shift in luxury fashion? Or is it just slipping?

Louis Vuitton Spring 2008 Runway Detail from Style.com by Davide Gallizio, "Monogramouflage" by Takashi Murakami, Louis Vuitton "Core Values" image - copyrighted by Louis Vuitton,

Your Luxury 101 Textbook

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It's funny how things are like kismet in the blogosphere...I was just finishing my post about this subject when Chic & Charming scooped me! Regardless, we both agree: Dana Thomas' book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in fashion. If you have more than a passing interest (and you probably do if you're reading this,) then it's a prerequisite. Then there are all of those interested in business, modern economy, product sourcing, power politics, hostile takeovers, history, style, and juicy gossip, then this is a book for you too.

I loved every moment of Dana Thomas' Deluxe, finding so many passages resonating with my personal experience in the fashion industry. My copy is now dog-eared and underlined - there's wisdom in these pages! In fact, I've become a little bit obsessed, telling everyone I know how much they need to read it. It surprises me though because it seems that a lot of people in the blogosphere still haven't given this work the time of day. Sure, they might mention it in passing, but have they read it? (I always find it so funny when people cite references that they haven't read. It didn't work in college, and it doesn't work now.)

Ms. Thomas has entree to interviews most fashion writers could not imagine. She asks Miuccia Prada directly about how many times she's filed for IPO, she asks Fred Hayman about his sales per square foot totals at Giorgio Beverly Hills in the mid-80s, she talks with Elaine Wynn about how Las Vegas has changed the luxury and retail industries forever. She also talks directly to LVMH's Bernard Arnault and Louis Vuitton CEO Yves Carcelle, who, it is rumored, "uninvited" her to the Fall 2008 Louis Vuitton fashion show because of her candid remarks about the brand in Deluxe.

I loved the passages about visiting the one rose grower in Grasse who harvests the Centifolia rose exclusively for Chanel No. 5, the part about the history of the iconic Hermès handbags, and the chapter about shopping at Daslu in São Paolo (which sounds like heaven...an expensive heaven.) Dana Thomas' intrepid candor comes throughout the work, providing first-hand glimpses of the "fashion gods" that are usually kept so high on their pedestals. For instance, this is her description of Miuccia Prada:

"She had moral objections to taking over the business: she was a feminist and a communist, albeit an Yves Saint Laurent-wearing, haute bourgeois feminist communist who had never worked a day in her life."

I laughed out loud reading this, and appreciated that even with this background, Miuccia Prada does "get it" when it comes to the inherent essence of luxury. This is how Ms. Miuccia puts it:

"To fake luxury today is easy. You put some details from the brand's past, you put a little bit of gold, and that's it. I can't bear that...Real luxurious people hate status. You don't look rich because you have a rich dress. When you look at a person, do you see the spirit or the sexiness or the creativity? Just to see a big diamond, what does it mean? It's all about satisfaction. I think it's horrible, this judgment based on money. It's all an illusion that you look better because you have a symbol of luxury. Really, it doesn't bring you anything. It's so banal."

I think banal is the perfect word for the state of "luxury" today. I think that's the word I was after when I wrote my post on the ridiculous notion of "Affordable Luxury" a few months ago - the post that brought Dana Thomas' new book to my attention via the flurry of discussion that followed.

Ms. Thomas' book cooled my own fires of disappointment about the industry which was indeed a relief. I'm not going crazy, it seems, it truly is the brands that are doing it to themselves. The moment fashion changed into the beast we know it today was when the large conglomerates took over from the families of designers and craftspeople, and decided they had to satisfy shareholders and boost stock prices. The easiest way to do this, as we've seen, is by catering to the indiscriminate middle-market, which has now been stretched into a true mass market. The luxury industry has now become it's own worst enemy, a source of its own demise.

Ms. Thomas concludes Deluxe with a hopeful note, however, by alluding that the true luxury customer will always exist, will always buy the true product. Cristiane Saddi, a Daslu customer confides to Thomas:

"Daslu clients don't need the logo entry-level handbag or to wear labels or logos. We buy from luxury brands, but not ordinary products. Special items. There's always something special. You can see what is mass and what is special. Luxury is not how much you can buy. Luxury is the knowledge of how to do it right, how to take the time to understand and choose well. Luxury is buying the right thing."

I'm not sure that the luxury brands know what the right thing is any longer, even if their better customers do, but Dana Thomas' book certainly leaves that optimistic idea open. Perhaps things will again get back to what they once were: exclusive items, small productions, hand-craftsmanship, and the true customer...not merely the mass buyer.

The Fashionable Oxymoron

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Oscar de la Renta Fall 2007 - This bag is not "affordable"...as it shouldn't be!A post for Coutorture Salon on Luxury and Accessibility... 

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” - James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

Affordable luxury: two words that really don’t belong in the same description. In sixth-grade English class we would have learnt that this was an oxymoron – a paradox of two words, or the bringing together of two opposites. Sometimes oxymorons are successful, such as in the case of “eloquent silence” or “eccentric elegance,” however “affordable luxury” just doesn’t work.

Luxury is also the opposite of “necessity” – no one really needs a $2000 handbag when the free paper sacks from Whole Foods have convenient handles and lots of cargo space. Our modern consumerism has us brainwashed into thinking that the “It Bag” featured in Vogue actually is a necessity, but that’s just the magazines and marketing people getting into bed together to the detriment of our bank accounts. Once we turn the page and breathe normally again the intelligent person realizes that said “It Bag” falls under the “nice to have” category rather than the “need to have.”

True, no intelligent, style-minded, self-respecting person would actually use a paper bag to carry their everyday items, but the notion is worth considering.

During my tenure within LVMH, I learnt what luxury really meant, both concretely and abstractly. Concretely, the term has to do with design, craftsmanship, and quality. Abstractly, “luxury” is ethereal, aspirational for 99% of the population, and a semantic carrying the caché of exclusivity. I appreciate both sides of the coin: I understand the incredible beauty endowed in these products, while I also know the thrill of possession.

Ownership of luxury products should always be a privilege. By creating an “affordable luxury” market, the privilege becomes less thrilling, less exciting, less luxurious. Luxury brands used to be limited to the rarified air of Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Post Street, Worth Avenue, and the like. Everything inherent in a "luxury brand" connotes something that is hard-to-get, limited, and rare; today, luxury houses are popping up everywhere, even secondary and tertiary markets like suburban malls.  This then begs the question: if it’s so easy to get, is it really luxury?

Yes, the internet and ecommerce has widened the market – average Jane housewife in northern Minnesota can order up some expensive confection and have it delivered to her door, but what is this kind if accessibility doing to the brands? Some would say that due to the expense the items really aren't accessible, which therefore leads to the counterfeit industry. It's nice to know that for the sake of crappy knock-offs (ie: "affordable luxury") people are supporting child labor and terrorism. Doesn't that make you all warm inside?

During my time in luxury fashion I also saw the dangers of the maddening “must-have” mentality of consumers. I witnessed customers splitting the cost of a handbag across three and four credit cards, counseled the sobs of teenagers who were thought “uncool” because they didn’t have the bag that all their friends had, and heard the frustration of time-honored customers who vowed to never buy the brand again because they were sick of seeing it on every girl in the country. You see, to them the brand once meant “something” – it meant that they were privileged, that they were the “haves” and the others were the “have-nots”.

Sorry to make this a class issue, but when you get right down to it, that’s what luxury is all about – it simply isn’t mass-market, it’s exclusive. Let’s go back to the 1% of the population for whom luxury is NOT an aspiration, it’s a way of life. They have multiple homes, private planes, Bentleys and Maseratis. These people know luxury inside and out – they have the best of everything: clothing, hotels, toys, vacations, services… THIS is the luxury demographic, and it’s not for everyone.

If the luxury brands want to preserve their power and caché, I suggest that this is the group they target. Stop opening so many stores, stop targeting teenagers, stop dressing pop stars, stop being affordable. Already, some luxury brands are so watered-down that they are losing the affluent customer base that made them so aspirational in the first place. Is this what the brands want to happen?

“Watered-down aspirational” – now that’s an oxymoron!

Luxury: Our Stinky Semiotics

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I am often asked where I get the inspiration or ideas for my posts. I'm never organized enough to keep a notebook or anything, so I rely memory, and this is usually fine because my ideas come together in layers. I think about one thing, see something else, and then another thing comes along and all three of them seem to just come together in a (more or less) good way. Of course, sometimes things get sent to me too, and then by the mystical powers of the universe something else comes along almost immediately and the two marry perfectly...hence this posting.

This morning my friend Randall forwarded me a car crash of an article from the London Daily Mail, (I say "car crash" only because it was altogether fascinating, funny, messy, and disgusting at the same time...and I just couldn't look away) entitled "The £23,500 Handbag". The article concerns the obscene amounts of money designer handbags are costing these days, and how having enough money to actually collect them seems to mean one loses all reason in the bargain. Discretionary incomes and intelligence quotients seem inversely proportional where "It" bags are concerned. It is indeed a frightening state of affairs.

This afternoon, I read Julie Fredrickson's latest (and totally brilliant) post honoring the death of Jean Beaudrillard - the French philosopher best known for his work on semiotics, and Western culture's "procession of simulacra". (Don't worry - I looked this up...Julie is way out of my league on this type of thing! No wonder she's my blog-crush...) I don't pretend to have a fluent comprehension of post modernist philosophy, but from my limited knowledge of Beaudrillard, the irony of his passing during the season of our most expensive arm candy trend cannot be overlooked.

Just what does a £23,500 handbag looklike? View the Louis Vuitton "Tribute" bag - a patchwork hodge-podge of different handbag pieces from other Louis Vuitton collections. Looking at it, it doesn't really seem that much design was involved in this item at all, that the pieces were merely thrown together and a chain attached. The Bag Snob wrote a post about this very bag this past February, stating: "Is this a joke?...Tribute to what? Marc (Jacobs)'s insanity?" I love it. Finally, someone other than me thinks that Marc Jacobs is the sometime equivalent to the Emperor's tailor. Twice-yearly, I am convinced that Mr. Jacobs knowingly sends unflattering, unwearable designs down his runways because he knows that no matter what he sends out, people will buy it in bulk and call him "a GEEEENious...", and he can then laugh about our consumerist myopia in the privacy of his Paris apartment. And now we have a Tribute Bag costing, as the Daily Mail article stated: "nearly £3,000 more than a Mercedes C180 Coupe SE."

Because what kind of status symbol is a fancy car these days anyway?

Enter Monsieur Beaudrillard. Our fashion objects (mainly handbags, shoes, and other accessories,) are more invested in symbolic communication than ever before. Past societies relied mostly on costume to define the social distinctions, yet in our era where ready-to-wear and contemporary brands are affordable by all, (and designers have lines at Target,) it is left to the accessory items to carry the weight of symbolism. Today we call someone "well dressed" if they have an important handbag and shoes - never mind the bespoke. Even still, most people can scratch together enough funds for your less-expensive designer pieces such as your basic Louis Vuitton Monogram bag, so those that can afford the more exclusive items pay a pretty penny to acquire them - just because they can. Then they buy another, and another, and another. Consumptive society isn't just consuming, it's acquiring. If you buy one of what I have, I'll buy five others in different colors.

If you push this far enough, the fashion trend trickles down to the late adapters who cannot get the must-have item, either because it's too expensive for them, or it's no longer available. Enter the counterfeiters, and Beaudrillard's four orders of similacra:

  • the era of the original
  • to the counterfeit
  • to the produced, mechanical copy, and through
  • to the simulated "third order of simulacra" whereby the copy has come to replace the original.

Of course, by the time we get to the fourth order, the fashion is generally two seasons ahead and no one notices that much. It's like street fashion becoming high fashion, and vice versa. The whole thing creates that wonderful creative soup known as style, individuality, and trend - don't think Marc Jacobs doesn't know this!

I believe in the original; call me a Luddite, but as an artist I firmly believe in the beauty of hand craftsmanship. As someone who knows luxury goods inside and out, I know they are worth their high prices, especially if one appreciates this kind of beauty. The Daily Mail article was upsetting to me (and to the seventy-odd people that left comments) because it was about people acquiring these objects not for their beauty, but because of their symbolism as compared to their fellow consumer. It's as though the handbag is talking, saying, "My owner must be doing something right if they can afford me...and yours? Well...best of luck!" The inherent communication is brutally frank, and comes across with little appreciation for the object - just appreciation for the acquisition.

What can one do? This seems to be the way business gets done in this industry - and this isn't exactly new. Costume and adornment have always been the way society divides itself, it's just that now the division is a little murky due to the indiscriminate power of the almighty dollar, or Pound, or Euro... But there it is, the internationally stinky semiotics of modern fashion.

Image from The Bag Snob