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: Last Year at Marienbad

Two posters for Last Year at Marienbad, 1961

As we approach the final list of films for the FashFilmFest, I’ve been screening and re-screening a number of different films to hopefully narrow some selections. One film I’ve always had in mind is Alain Resnais’ 1961 film, Last Year at Marienbad. It’s under consideration, but I’m hesitant. Certain films you love without question; this is a film I’m always forced to question. What is happening here? Do I understand anything that’s happening? What is this place? Why am I so uncomfortable? Do I even like it? When it comes to Last Year at Marienbad, at any given time the answer could be either yes or no. Even when considering writing about this film (which I have many times in the past) I've also hesitated. Is there anything new to say that hasn't already been said? Perhaps not, but I can still state the facts of this film as a significant influencer of style, film, and fashion.

Delphine Seyrig in Chanel in Last Year at Marienbad

One of the more obscure French New Wave films of the early 1960s, Last Year at Marienbad has none of the color or humor of a Godard film, nor the youthful angst of a Truffaut, but it’s a film that designers and cinemaphiles come back to again and again for its style and unconventional narrative. It’s lengthy hallway shots, endless interiors, strange landscapes, and languorous story line have influenced everyone from Stanly Kubrick (especially in The Shining) to David Lynch (especially in Inland Empire). Peter Greenaway cites Marienbad as the film that had the most important influence on his body of work. In the fashion world, everyone from Marc Jacobs to Diane von Furstenberg have expressed their love of film, and as recently as Spring 2011, Karl Lagerfeld used the film as the theme for his collection for Chanel.

For his Spring 2011 show, Karl Lagerfeld re-created the black & white gardens of Last Year at Marienbad in the Grand Palais, Paris.

Stella Tennant in Chanel, Spring 2011. Inspired by Last Year at Marienbad. (Image from Style.com)

Of course this is fitting because it was Mademoiselle Chanel who dressed Delphine Seyrig in the character of the woman, apart from two feathered gowns by production designer Bernard Evein. The clothing is impeccable. Alternating between light and dark, the dresses are either ephemeral or funereal. Resnais looked to the style of Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box for the woman, and even sought a special “silent film” film stock from Kodak in order to enchance the look of 1920s silent cinema. The look of the 1920s mixes well with the contemporary 1960s (both heydays of Chanel), or the 1960s looks are suited to the 1920s – either way, the seamless transition between eras creates some of the disorientation.

The famous mirror shot from Last Year at Marienbad.

Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box.

When re-watching this film, I gave myself over to the uneasiness that begins almost immediately. The whining organ music, empty hallways, sonorous voice-overs that fade in and out – the effect is like being drawn into someone nightmare from moment one, and in moment two you’re already looking for a way to wake up. The setting is elaborate and labyrinthine and the people posed here and there make them seem like bas relief figures on the side of a temple. People are silent or intensely focused, gossiping or watching. There seems to be a love triangle, but no one's actually very loving. There has always been a lot of discussion about a "rape" scene, and possibly a murder, but it's still difficult to tell what's really happening between the three main characters. Everyone else is socializing but no one’s really interacting. Drinks are imbibed, games are played, but it all has a menacing quality to it. There seems to be a lot of money around, but no one is happy and everyone is bored. Indeed, Last Year at Marienbad has been called one of the “most boring films ever made”, even as others hail it as a masterpiece for those very same reasons.

Seyrig in the white feather gown by Bernard Evein.

Carmen Kass in a blush-colored feathered dress from Chanel, Spring 2011. (Image from Style.com)

Beyond the time-warp-surrealist narrative and down-the-rabbit-hole-and-into-Hotel-California feel, this is a beautiful film to simply look at. Every frame is considered and composed, almost like paintings in their stillness and precision. A recent editorial spread by Outumuro in Spanish Marie Claire magazine capitalized on the look of Last Year at Marienbad in a gorgeous homage to the film. It's no stretch to see how the famous "broken shoe" scene translates to our modern love of footwear...

The famous "broken shoe" scene from Last Year at Marienbad, and...

...recreated in Spanish Marie Claire by Outumuro.

Outumuro images from Spanish Marie Claire from The Terrier and Lobster

I think it is this visual appeal that keeps drawing designers, photographers, art directors, and yes, film directors, back to Last Year at Marienbad. Strange and misunderstood, it’s confusing mix of narratives keep generations of people conjuring their own opinions, while its eternal Gothic style provides its own frisson that’s difficult to ignore…no matter how much you may want to.

So will it be showing at the San Francisco Fashion Film Festival? I'm still unsure. As much as it's influential and intriguing, my vote is still undecided.

Influences: Cleopatra

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemed Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel, 1887.

Over the past few weeks I've been deeply immersed in Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. Having finished its detailed, dense, and scholarly 300 pages, I'm intrigued by this powerful Egyptian queen, who wasn't really Egyptian but Greek. Not merely a seductress, as Schiff demonstrates beautifully, Cleopatra was a politician, a living goddess, a mother, a diplomat, a generous patron, a scholar, a strategist, a lady, and yes, a passionate lover. What is even more intriguing is her lasting influence over the millenia. From Plutarch to Shakespeare to Cecil B. DeMille, this woman's political savvy, allure, and style have inspired art, film, music, dance, and fashion.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1964. Massive sets, location changes, budget overruns, a solid gold dress, and Le Scandale - did anyone actually think this movie would turn out okay?

Claudette Colbert at Cleopatra in 1934. I don't care for Colbert's Cleopatra - she's entirely too smiling and too saucy to really be right for the role. Indeed, as one of the last pre-code films, Colbert plays up the "Cleopatra as sex vixen" aspect. However, her costumes are spectacular.

As Chip Brown mentions in his National Geographic article "The Search for Cleopatra" from July, 2011: "When not serving as a Rorschach test of male fixations, Cleopatra is an inexhaustible muse. To a recent best-selling biography add—from 1540 to 1905—five ballets, 45 operas, and 77 plays. She starred in at least seven films; an upcoming version will feature Angelina Jolie." Along with all of this are the many paintings and drawings of the queen, many of which date from the academic period of the late 19th Century, when all things ancient came back into vogue. The most famous film depictions of Cleopatra are of course the Elizabeth Taylor version from 1964, but also the Claudette Colbert version from 1934. Before filming, DeMille reportedly asked Colbert "How would you like to be wickedest woman in history?" It is this myth of wickedness that Schiff's book helps to dispel. Rather than relying on her feminine wiles, one can see that Cleopatra had true intelligence and an inherent diplomacy needed to calculate political risk, assert herself as a world leader, and protect her kingdom. The long-lauded affairs with Julis Caesar and Mark Antony are in truth, merely sidenotes to the real political intrigues.

The coveted Pegasus Necklace from Stella & Dot. $198

Cleopatra was also a calculated image-maker. She knew how to orchestrate opulence in order to woo a crowd, or even a Roman general. She knew what to wear, how to speak, and she spoke multiple languages. Her image as a wealthy queen, and as the living embodiment of the Goddess Isis, was part of her power, and one that was carefully maintained. Even the city of Alexandria maintained the standard with its libraries, technological advances, golden statuary, marble walkways, perfumes, and lavish meals. Schiff describes her dress as being bedecked with "plenty of pearls, the diamonds of the day."

She coiled long ropes of pearls around her neck and braided more into her hair. She wore others sewn into the fabric of her tunics. Those were ankle-length and lavishly colored, of fine Chinese silk or gauzy linen, traditionally worn belted, or with a brooch or ribbon. Over the tunic went an often transparent mantle, through which the bright folds of fabric were clearly visible. On her feet Cleopatra wore jeweled sandals with patterned soles.

But other than this, what Cleopatra looked like remains a mystery. The cover of Schiff's book shows a woman with her face turned away - perfectly appropriate considering there are no frontal views of Cleopatra's likeness. All of her portraits are in profile, showing a somewhat large nose and prominent features. It is understood that while Cleopatra was not beautiful, her allure, charisma, and intelligence developed enough attraction to hold many in her thrall.

Louis Vuitton's "Desert Goddesses" ad campaign from 2004, featuring Naomi Campbell and shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott.

Perhaps it is this alluring mystery that has inspired so many for so long. That, and the luxury of ancient Alexandria whose gold, silver, and pearls seemed to flow through the streets. Indeed, luxury fashion designers often return to Cleopatra and Egyptian iconography for inspiration. In 2004, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton developed his "Desert Goddesses" collection, with an array of black, gold, and turquoise looking like warm sands meeting the Meditterranean. In more recent seasons, Gareth Pugh sent gold and black striped looks down his runway for Fall 2011, offering a tough, almost robotic take on Egyptian motifs and headdresses.

Gareth Pugh, Fall 2011 collection.

Even more than mere fashion, the history of the age of Cleopatra lives on. HBO's series Rome offered a lush take on the relationships between the Egyptian queen and both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, while also showing a vivid portrayal of Octavian - the man destined to end the Ptolemaic Empire forever. Through many marriages and inter-marriages, both Octavian and Mark Antony's descendants were future Roman emperors including Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero. The histories of these emperors are celebrated in all their gory machinations in I, Claudius from 1976. Mark Antony's Roman wife, Octavia - sister to Octavian, comes out as the kindest and most generous of all, taking guardianship of not only her own children (3 by a first marriage), and her two children with Mark Antony, but also of the three children Mark Antony and Cleopatra had together.

At the end of Schiff's account of Cleopatra, she dispels the notion that the queen committed suicide by being bitten by an asp. Instead, she suggests that it was poisoned figs that did the job, killing Cleopatra and her two attendants almost immediately. Poisoned figs serve as a leitmotif for Octavian, who, 40 years later, after securing his empire and launching the Pax Romana, was rumored to be killed by his own wife Livia Drusilla with poisoned figs. (Peter Greenaway picked up on the poisoned figs in the 1980s in one of my favorite films, The Belly of an Architect. Apart from the main character Storley Kracklite's obsession with Octavian Augustus' tomb, he shows his growing insanity by accusing his wife of poisoning some figs.)

The famous Cleopatra Earrings by Wendy Brandes. 18K gold with 1.36 carats of diamonds. $9,000

So what can we expect as a trend response from Schiff's wonderful biography and the upcoming film with Angelina Jolie? Probably a lot of gold, pearls, and Grecian sandals, but perhaps with even more regal jewels. As with all bio-pics, there is usually a strong fascination that results in the general public. It was the same with Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and it will likely be the same here, with designers adapting classic Grecian draping to modern tastes. One of the best parts of the Cecil B. DeMille-Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra was the way the film's designers adapted the look for the sleek shapes of the Art Deco period of the 1930s. Not exactly historically accurate, but really great style.

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1896

One thing that will certainly change with upcoming depictions of Cleopatra is the charge that she was merely a seductress, not a leader. As Schiff concludes: "It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life...Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent."

Images: 1) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp 2) Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1963 by 20th Century Fox 3) Claudette Colber in Cleopatra, 1934 by Paramount Pictures - from Doctor Macro 4) Stella & Dot 5) 6) Fashion Gone Rogue 7) Wendy Brandes Jewelry 8) Public Domain

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.

Film: Après-Ski Chic from The Pink Panther

Fran Jeffries (left) sings "Meglio Stasera" in The Pink Panther from 1964.

To honor the recent passing of Blake Edwards, TCM played a number of his most famous films earlier this week. Among them was The Pink Panther from 1964. Although this is always an entertaining film (the exploding bottle of champagne still makes me crack up!), I had never really noticed how chic it is in all of its mid-1960s glamour. Sure, the two female leads are played by Capucine and Claudia Cardinale, but did you also know that those two were dressed exclusively by Yves Saint Laurent for the film? No, I didn't either.

But there's one utterly fabulous and diverting scene that doesn't present YSL's looks front and center. Instead, it offers one Fran Jeffries singing Henry Mancini's lesser-known standard "Meglio Stasera", or "It Had Better Be Tonight" as it's known in English. While sporting a fine vocal ability, Jeffries was primarily a nightclub singer who later made a splash doing not one but two different Playboy features; one at age 35 in 1971 entitled "Frantastic!" and one at age 45 in 1981 entitled "Still Frantastic!" Watching this clip you'll understand why...

Fran Jeffries swings this song right out of the chalet. It's an amazing three minutes that captures the essences of the sexy and stylish sixties. It's a cold night in Cortina d'Ampezzo with all of the well-heeled elite having parked their sleds (and Rolls Royces) outside in order to gather around the fondue pot. Jeffries, playing the character of the "Greek Cousin" gets up to entertain. Lucky for her, a cute group of jazzy Italians in fuzzy sweaters also plays percussion (and accordeon) and they're happy to keep the beat while she does her thing around the fire.

The first minute of the song is actually a great bit of directing. The singer dominates the foreground at left, while she serves to frame the main characters (David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine, & Claudia Cardinale) who are all seated at a lounge table at right. While she dances around, she interacts with the more "important" members of the cast, while they're all enraptured by her fabulous performance. Indeed, I think this was done in one take so the whole sequence is pretty amazing. She's energetic, hits her marks, and spurs the comedy ever so slightly.

Then of course, there's also the clothes. Fran Jeffries' main asset, her shapely figure, is shown to perfection in a skin-tight but mostly modest set of black pants with a beaded turtleneck sweater. To be fair, the beading on this sweater is something fantastic: black and red beads form stripes from shoulder to shoulder creating an eye-catching breastplate effect. Today I'd say it was something from Prada, but back then who knows? The rest of the scene is equally well-attired. Lots of cozy-looking stretch ensembles with big sweaters - à la vintage Bogner or Moncler - but the truly chic of the group are given pops of color and the right touches of metallics and baubles. The character called "Brenda de Branzie" is given a fabulous pant ensemble in cobalt blue accented chunky jade jewelry - a very fun and sophisticated color combination if I do say so! Cardinale's character, Princess Dahla, looks appropriately regal in a purple silk pantsuit with a jeweled neckline. There's also a lady in a great taupe and gold jumpsuit that wouldn't normally attact my attention, but at the end when she gets up to dance I spotted her gold boots which absolutely won me over.

This was still the early 1960s when it was still considered a bit risqué for women to be out in the evening wearing pants of any sort. I think that the costuming in this scene shows the perfect bit of European sophistication of casual elegance. It also makes the moment authentic and fun, like the audience is invited to the party, and that's how it still feels over forty years later.

Mancini's song "Meglio Stasera" is supremely catchy and comes up over and over throughout the score of the film, but this is the only time it's actually sung in full and in Italian. However, I'm sad to say that Jeffries' interpretation is not included on the original score. Over the years it's been recorded by vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Michael Bublé, but I love the version recorded by London's Blue Harlem group. It's fabulous! Either way, one cannot argue that Fran Jeffries' version from The Pink Panther is one of the very best out there: an impeccably chic bit of film with style, rhythm, and fun all in one!

Influences: Bauhaus

Givenchy Fall 2010

Even more interesting than the presence of the Arts & Crafts movement on the runways for Fall 2010, is the presence of one of its contemporary aesthetic movements: Bauhaus. Long a favorite and familiar influence across all tenets of design, The Bauhaus has been seducing fashion designers for decades. Most notably (to call out the obvious) in 1965 with Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian collection. So what more is there to say in 2010?

Meaning "House of Building", The Bauhaus was a German design school that pursued a unification of art, craft, and technology just after World War I.

Founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany in 1919, the school drew parallels to the Arts & Crafts Movement, expanding on William Morris' adage that "form follows function". It differed from Arts & Crafts however, in that The Bauhaus considered the machine to be a positive element, making industrial and product design important parts of the school. Likewise, the aesthetic of The Bauhaus style (also known as The International Style,) was a complete departure from that of Arts & Crafts; here the stylized details and natural materials gave way to clean lines and a complete absence of ornamentation.

Two designers on the Fall 2010 runways claimed influences drawn from The Bauhaus: Donna Karan for DKNY and Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy. Done in different ways, both designers have created crisp, modern collections that seem to celebrate The Bauhaus in its efficiency and practicality.

DKNY Fall 2010. Images from Style.com

DKNY utilized warm neutral shades and colorblocking to showcase The Bauhaus influence, creating glamorous and breezy pieces that look very wearable for all types of bodies. True, colorblocking in fashion is not new especially not colorblocked dresses with tendencies toward Mondrian. However this group looks sufficiently refreshed and kicky for this year's party girl.

(As a side note, I want to mention that Piet Mondrian was not, in fact, a "Bauhaus" artist per se. He did lecture at The Bauhaus, but his own artistic theory was Neo-Plasticism, more commonly known as the Dutch artistic movement of De Stijl - a contemporary of The Bauhaus.)

Givenchy Fall 2010. Images from Style.com

The collection offered by Givenchy turned up the Mondrian element even more with a stark mix of black, white, and bright red throughout. Riccardo Tisci specifically cited the Bauhaus palette, characterized by neutral grounds with pops of primaries, as his inspiration. While I didn't care for this interpreted in Fair Isle knits and oddly-cut lace, I believe the collection held together best when the strong colors were paired with strong, architectural silhouettes.

While The Bauhaus' influence on Fall 2010 isn't nearly as whimsical and lush as the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement, it does offer some interesting ideas. Perhaps in our world of fast fashion and new media we can incorporate more art and craftsmanship? I'm not sure what the exact lesson is, or why designers have come back to The Bauhaus again for this year.

It is ironic though, that The Bauhaus school never provided design history courses to its students. It was thought that everything should be designed according to principles rather than precedent.

Influences: La Casati

I finished Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino's book Infinite Variety - The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casatilast evening and, true to form, I've spent this morning furiously questing for additional imagery and information on the fascinating Marchesa and all of her far-reaching influences. Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, Marchesa di Roma is truly a non-pareil that could hardly be summed up here, but I did want to celebrate her miasmic life in art and fashion.

I mentioned this book a few posts ago in the Lit Tag, but now that I've read the entire book I have to say that I'm really haunted. I cannot tell if I even like the Marchesa as a person, but I am completely enthralled by her ceaseless devotion to art and creativity - both in herself and others. So, the whole snakes and monkeys thing sort of creeped me out, but how shockingly fabulous would it be to wear a little coiled snake as a dramatic necklace at a dinner party? Or to walk a pet cheetah or alligator like they were the family Jack Russell? As the authors did state, the Marchesa's quest to always out-do herself got a bit stale over the years; her profligate lifestyle becoming almost insulting during political and economic crises, while her overbearing eccentricity hid an ever-growing personal insecurity. As a quote from Maurice Druon said in the book: "Eccentricity is tolerable only in its first freshness. Cherished until it has gone stale, it becomes unbearably pathetic and at the same time alarming."

Eccentricities aside, the Marchesa did accomplish exactly what she set out to do: become a living work of art. Her personal style of medusa-like curls dyed bright red, large black-rimmed eyes, sleek gowns, and hats swathed in veils have influenced many fashion designers, writers, and film directors. Even toward the end of the Marchesa's life when she was forced to live in poverty, her tattered elegance recalls everyone from Dickens' Miss Havisham through to Big and Little Edie from Grey Gardens. While one cannot help but feel sorry for one of Europe's former glitterati in her late-life squalor, looking at the reach of her influence you can see this is not how she is remembered.

In 1998, John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture created a masterpiece of runway theatre when he presented an entire collection honoring the Marchesa Casati. Shown at the Paris Opera Garnier, the show was said to be surreal, haunting, and overwhelmingly elaborate. After trolling through the internet, I was able to find this news clip covering the show from so long ago...

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The Marchesa Casati by Augustus John

La Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Grehound by Giovanni BoldiniFollowing-up on some of Luisa Casati's portraits, I learnt more about Augustus John and Giovanni Boldini, both of whom painted significant images of the enigmatic woman. In 2003, London's Royal Academy of Arts held an exhibition Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, which included Boldini's 1908 portrait of the Marchesa with her Greyhound. Art historian Christopher Wood stated: "The staggering Boldini portrait of the legendary Marchesa Casati is surely the greatest portrait of the Belle Epoque." Augustus John's 1919 portrait is considered a twentieth-century masterpiece, and was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1934, while the tripe-eye photograph of the Marchesa taken by Man Ray in her hotel suite at the Paris Ritz is considered the first and most important of Surrealist photographs. Even the Marchesa's famous ruin of a home in Venice, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, was purchased in 1949 by Peggy Guggenheim and now houses the prestigious Guggenheim Museum.

Thought to be lost, another major portrait by Romaine Brooks has recently been recovered and is in a private collection. Hopefully an image will become available sometime soon! Having never seen any of Brooks' work, (now impossible to believe) I have enjoyed looking at her paintings, finding them incredibly odd, yet beautiful, and certainly very modern for their time. Likewise, the work of Giovanni Boldini is now among my favorites for its romantic yet impressionistic style. I've learnt that a handful of Boldini's pieces even reside in San Francisco!

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Her influence is not limited to art and fashion, however. Vosges Haut Chocolat created a special collection of Marchesa Truffles which are available only in December. "Black sea salt caramel ensconced in 85% bittersweet dark chocolate and real freshwater pearl dust." A very fitting tribute.

My friend Michael Mattis wrote a piece about this book and La Casati on Dandyism.net a few years ago, wondering if the Marchesa could be considered "a dandy"; if she were a man then no doubt the term would apply, but as a woman? According to Mr. Mattis, even if the Marchesa were a dandy, being androgynous, masculine, and beautifully dressed as she was, she wasn't elegant enough for the term to apply. True, the Marchesa was heavy-handed with everything from eyeliner to pearls to gold lamé, but I would hold off on the dandy label anyway. To me, the Marchesa's androgyny and aggressive extravagances set off her distinct womanhood, I don't find her masculine at all. This, like Marlene Dietrich or an Yves Saint Laurent Smoking, make the true woman. The Marchesa's style was all about NOT being manly, but being every bit the independent, entitled woman that she was born to be in this world.

As another fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, stated about La Casati: "Tall and gaunt with heavily made-up eyes, she represented a past age of splendor when a few beautiful and wealthy women adopted an almost brutally individualistic way of living and presenting themselves to the public."

The rest of us should be so brave... 

Portriat of Marchesa Casati, Man Ray 1922

The Marchesa Casati, Augustus John 1919, Art Gallery of Ontario

The Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound, Giovanni Boldini 1908, collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber

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 

Great Gruau

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It is October, and bookstores are beginning to stock their collections of next year’s calendars. I try to change up my calendar each year to keep things new and get new images to ponder one month at a time. Some people swear by the travel calendars so they can get a dose of "tropical isles," or perhaps celebrate their allegiance to a particular dog breed. I typically choose something artistic, inviting, and something I can look at every day for a year and still find something new in the images. I typically mix different images between the wall and the desk, so that I don't get bored. For 2006, however, I actually broke my rules of variety, and purchased the same wall calendar and desk calendar, but with good reason: René Gruau. I have gazed wistfully at his heroines of chic fashion illustration for nearly a year, and I am thinking I may just have to re-buy the same calendar for 2007. What can I say? The images just make me happy.

I have always loved the media of poster art and graphic illustration. The simplicity and economy of design communicates so much with so little. It is the perfect example of designing effectively within constraints. Fashion illustration in particular is becoming a lost art form, with companies relying almost entirely on photography to communicate their branding. One of the last of the genre was Gruau, who illustrated well into his nineties, finally passing away in 2004, after creating iconic imagery for Dior, Balenciaga, Ortalion, Air France, and International Textiles. His later work for Moulin Rouge and the Lido de Paris helped to promote the classic Parisian cabarets to a new generation of tourists, yet with an old-world aesthetic. Gruau was the son of a French socialite (whose surname of Gruau he later adopted,) and an Italian Count. His real name & title?: Count Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli delle Camminate.

Miss October is this image for Ortalion stockings which I adore. I want her sexy ostrich chubby, and above all her legs that are ten miles long. (Truth be told, this is how you’re taught to illustrate fashion, as taught in fashion school. The average human proportions are “eight heads” high, but a fashion croqui is meant to be stretched to nine heads. The stretching most elegantly manifests in the legs. If only I could be proportioned to nine heads high!)

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Miss Dior Aside from their incredible height, Gruau women are flirtatious, sensuous, saucy, and innocently invite the voyeuristic gaze – that is, when they aren’t confronting the gaze directly. They are beautifully dressed, their smiles are knowing, and their limbs, like their eyelashes, are long and luxurious.

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Lingere Christian Dior 1966The lingerie advertisements for Christian Dior are particularly voyeuristic, but are frothy enough to remain adorably appealing, rather than tawdry and “through-a-keyhole.” Every so often, you can find original lithographs of these graphics being sold in some of the bouquinistes along the Seine. One summer my sister and I spotted some, but she prevented me from buying them due to their expense. Coulda shoulda woulda.

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Air France Cote D'Azur - 1963One of the more iconic images includes the “straw hat” girl for Air France’s ad for travel to the Côte D’Azur in 1963. This is the one my friend Emi loves the most. It instantly conveys the simple romance of a summer on the beaches of France.

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Other than Miss October, my other favorite Gruau images are from his cabaret advertisements. This sketch for a Lido poster from the early 1950s conveys the classic glamour of the can-cans, while it celebrates the traditional poster-art graphics of Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, who created this form of illustration during the Belle Epoque. Yet this art derives its hard-line aesthetic from the influence of Japonisme, and it’s flattened, cartoon-ish forms. His use of diagonals and vertical compositions, as well as empty spaces to contrast with thick lines, create an illusion of movement and lightness rooted in Japanese wood-block prints. Gruau mixes both Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec’s images in this sketch, with the single black line delineating a crowd of onlookers, while the froth of the dancer’s feathers trails away like champagne foam.

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Chat BembergGruau also illustrated textile advertisements, and captured pattern and texture with a few strokes of the brush. Always, his same economy in bright colors and rhythms that are compelling and unforgettable.

With the exception of Michael Roberts, fashion illustration has hit an all-time low. Of course, The New Yorker still leads the way in classical illustration, with only a few periodicals reaching for creative graphics every now and again. Advertisements are hard, dark, and more often than not, a bit vulgar and difficult to look at for any length of time. Gruau created images that you wanted to hang on your wall - their sheer simple genious and elegant draughtsmanship served to transport you to other eras and other moods.  It is with a heavy heart that I will relinquish my Gruau calendars at the end of the year - what other images could I possibly find that will take me so far away from my daily grind with just a brief glance? Where to find the same freshness, the exuberance, the bubbly enthusiasm that carries me on an effervescent wave of chic? Who but Gruau offers this kind of happiness with just a paper calendar?

www.renegruau.com