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

The Great Shoe Wake

I died for beauty, but was scarce

Adjusted in the tomb,

When one who died for truth was lain

In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?

"For beauty," I replied.

"And I for truth, -the two are one;

We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,

We talked between the rooms,

Until the moss had reached our lips,

And covered up our names.

- Emily Dickinson, 1862

I've been planning this funeral for months, years actually. Everything short of wreaths of roses and readings from the Psalms. If I had hardwood floors instead of carpeting I'd be pouring my shot of whiskey right out in honor of my fallen heroes - all six of them, in fact. To be fair, not all of these heroes are entirely fallen. Some are merely in ICU or in desperate need of hospice care just to manage the pain a bit. Is it their pain, or mine? I wonder.

I suppose I should tell you what I'm talking about here: shoes. Very beautiful, expensive, adored, and in another time frequently worn, shoes. Back when I worked in the luxury fashion industry I gathered together quite a collection. I'm not one of those people that builds a collection and then hordes it for myself alone; no, I share it with the world and display my affection (and appreciation) openly. Thus, these shoes have served me well and are now very close to death, if not entirely dead.

In all honesty, some of these do have some life left in them but I am concerned that if they emerge from the cryogenic stasis of my closet that they will disintegrate once they hit pavement. So what to do? How do you honor the life of a much-loved, once-luxurious set of footwear? Do you bury them in the shoe cemetary, burn them and scatter the ashes above Union Square, or perhaps commit sati upon their blazing pyre? I have no idea. But before I do anything, I think I should give them a mention here...

The Lou-Boos above are my very first pair from that illustrious house, and unfortunately I never wear them. This despite the fact that the style was on an episode of Sex and the City back in the day. (One of the few when Carrie was in Paris with Baryshnikov - can you imagine those stilettos on cobblestones? Me neither.) They're about a half-size too big for me and even with the anti-skid sole they are always precarious on the foot - like any second they could potentially go flying and impale the handsome head of a gentleman caller. This looseness makes them more than a little uncomfortable, and while I lament giving them up, I'm afraid they are just using up precious closet space.

These gold Celine sandals are likewise mere space-suckers in the armoire. Glittering, Grecian, shapely, sexy, and strapping, these shoes always garner compliments galore. This is a good thing that my toes appreciate because they hurt like the dickens when worn. Dickens? More like having a pair of rubber bands around your foot just below the arches, cutting off the blood-flow. Despite only having worn these all of three times, the insoles are completely unglued, rippled, and serve as a useles layer on an ultra-thin lower sole. I've been dying to throw these away, but my heart collapses at the thought of putting anything named Celine in the garbage.

Back around 2004-2005 chunky heels were in style and I definitely participated in this trend. Enter the next two pairs: a Mini-Damier Mary Jane and Mini-Monogram Cerise Pump, both by Louis Vuitton. I cannot tell you how much I adored these two in their time. The Mary Janes' straps are connected by small pieces of elastic which are now so overstretched that they could snap at any moment. Meanwhile, the pumps are scuffed, scratched, and stained with the residual damage of many many adventures, at play and at work. Both pairs are as loose as bedroom slippers (even with the heels) but are now beyond wearable. They're just embarassing. As far as disposal goes, these two are my Velveteen Rabbits.

Another oddity is this ultra-fabulous pair from Marc by Marc Jacobs. Entranced by their colorful polka-dots I had to have them so badly that I paid full-price for them, around $250, which was a LOT of money for me back then. (Hey, who am I kidding, it still is!) It wasn't until after I'd purchased them that I found that they were also in an episode of Sex and the City, but I can't remember which one. Retro, fun, and sexy, I still love the compliments I get on these shoes. They're still in really good shape, outwardly, but inwardly there's a few little issues. Okay, so I snapped one of the heels at one time; you wouldn't know it but for the six-odd angry-looking nailheads that the shoe repair drove right through the instep. I would have forgotten this myself if that shoe still had its insole, but it doesn't. They're also barely comfortable after about an hour, so they too go unworn.

Finally, remarks for the best pair of kitten heels that ever came out of the House of Dior. A saucy mini heel and a long pointy shape are paired with lush black leather, making these versatile and easy to wear. At least that used to be the case. The little "Dior" metal embellishment on the right shoe has come unhinged on one side so it starts to swing around as I walk. The overall condition is good though, but these too feel more like slippers than shoes and tend to flop on my feet. They've been re-soled and re-heeled umpteen times, but they're so lovely and adorable! It breaks my soul to conceive of stuffing these kittens into their dust bag and drowning them.

Has anyone else faced a similar predicament? How does one dispose of no-longer-wearable designer fashion? It cannot be restored or recycled or given away at this point, and belive me, no museum would want them. Apart from a sacrifice on the altar of fashion, I'm not sure what to do. Plus, I'm not sure the Gods would care - they aren't virgins after all!

Here's a drink to all my shoes, past, present, and future...

Influences: Arts & Crafts

Detail from Anna Sui Fall 2010 with Rycroft Tile necklaceFashion, like art, repeats itself over and over. A cultural thermometer of sorts, the fashion world reflects and responds to the social climate faster than any other produced consumable product. Designers reflect our own fears and uncertainties and mix these with a heady cocktail of beauty, luxury, and desire.

It’s clear that with the current economic and social outlook, the era of bling and the gaudy counterfeit it created have faded away (thankfully). In its place there seems to be an inherent appreciation of craftsmanship and creativity. At its most obvious, this appreciation is found in the collections of Anna Sui and Duro Olowu, both of whom found inspiration in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th & early 20th Centuries.

A reaction against the Victorian era’s penchant for “reviving” historical styles and the soulless production of the Industrial Revolution, the Arts & Crafts Movement sought artistic reform, both in its process and product. Aesthetically, the movement sought simplicity of form without superfluous decoration, often exposing the construction of an item. As many of the studios were in rural areas, Arts and Crafts motifs were inspired by the flora and fauna found out of doors.  Seeking an “equality of arts”, the movement revived traditional crafts, and created the role of the “master craftsman” at the heart of production and design. Ironically, by placing greater importance on handicraft, the resulting products were too expensive to be purchased by anyone but the very rich.

Anna Sui Fall 2010. Images from Style.com.

Perhaps designers’ looking to this era and design philosophy portends a resurgence of true luxury goods? I doubt that this idealism will trickle down to the Canal Street shoppers, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.

“If you cannot learn to love real art at least learn to hate sham art.” – William Morris

For her part, Anna Sui took her inspiration in the design motifs and crafts of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Citing the artistic furniture of Charles Rohlfs, her Fall collection was adorned in architectural, but colorful, floral prints and geometrics. Small Roycroft tiles mixed with natural wood to create simple necklaces, all designed by Erickson Beamon. The result was classic Anna Sui hippy girl, but with a dash of sophisticated craft.

Duro Olowu Fall 2010. Images from Style.com.

With a more modern take, Duro Olowu drew inspiration from Hidcote Manor, home of England’s great Arts & Crafts garden, which is now part of the British National Trust. Hidcote’s lavish topiaries and outdoor rooms led to cozy knitwear, mod geometrics, and just a whiff of floral print. 

I realize that these are but two designers among hundreds, and while fashion is always looking to the aesthetic movements of the past, I found it interesting that the Arts & Crafts Movement in particular found its way onto the runways at just this time. Going by the fashion thermometer, it seems we need more simple luxury, beauty, and craftsmanship in our lives. What do you think?

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