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...