Influences: The Winged Messenger

Jimmy Choo Kevan Sandal, $2495 at SaksEarlier this week, Susan Joy wrote a short piece in the New York Times about the trend of be-feathered, be-furred footwear that's just arriving for Fall. While the piece was a jaunty bit of topical "how to wear it", I kept thinking about these luxurious delights for the feet and their implications.

At the surface these shoes are just fancy (and fanciful) designs. A touch of frou for the feet. Since we're all wearing tighter belts and shopping the closet, why not go over-the-top with some fantasy somewhere? Indeed, these little flights will set you back a pretty penny; those feathers don't come cheap. But considering how valuable the first pair of winged footwear was, I'd say we're getting them at a bargain.

The first pair of Talaria or "winged sandals", were forged from imperishible gold by the God Hephaestus, the son of Zeus & Hera and the blacksmith of the Gods. In other legends the sandals are said to be made from palm and myrtle, with no wings at all. When Hermes was born to the Pleiade Maia by Zeus, he immediately became a precocious trickster, deft musician, agile athlete, and cunning thief. He was fast, faster than any of the other Gods, so Zeus gave him the enchanted sandals for his role as messenger.

Brian Atwood, Sanchez sandal - $1100.00

In the fourth book of the Aeneid, the Gods are upset that Aeneas has been distracted from his duty by a love affair with Dido, so Hermes is sent to him with a gentle reminder...

Hermes obeys; with golden pinions binds

His flying feet, and mounts the western winds:

And, whether o’er the seas or earth he flies,

With rapid force they bear him down the skies.

Hermes was also one of the few Gods who could move between the mortal and immortal worlds, sometimes guiding the dead through the underworld and across the river Styx. Since he moved so easily between realms and people, the sandals could only have been his.

Winged Mercury detail, from the Capitoline Hill, Rome

In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it is Hermes who guides Eurydice out of the underworld, only to have her remain there because Orpheus turns to look for her. In the poem Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes, Rike describes him:

"the god of errands and far messages,

the travelling-hood above his shining eyes,

the slender wand held out before his body,

the beating wings at his ankle joints;

and on his left hand, as entrusted: her."

In Marcel Camus' gorgeous film Black Orpheus from 1959, Hermes is a streetcar conductor (fitting, considering that a streetcar takes travelers where they need to go) and friend to Orpheus. Later on, it is Hermes who tries to help Eurydice, and who also guides Orpheus to contacting her once she dies.

Diego Docini, Feather-Heel Pump $1220

As with all of the Gods, Hermes (also known as Mercury in the Roman tradition) can be your best ally or your worst enemy. Sometimes his tricky nature comes out, making things a general mess as he sits back and laughs. Thus, when "Mercury is in retrograde" we all need to be on our guard! So, while Hermes and his winged sandals continues to symbolize speed, travel, agility, athleticism, commerce, and communication, when he's in a bad mood he can mean just the opposite.

All of this symbolism makes the implications of this new flock of shoes even more interesting. The changeable nature of fashion, commerce, communication, etcetera? Yes, I'd say we're all familiar with that in spades. There's also the implication of femininity being equated to birds, as in "birds" - the slang term for a woman - and all of its ideas of exoticism, delicacy, and freedom.

The original winged sandals also wielded tremendous power. Perhaps the gods of fashion are giving us some extra oomph to get through our daily duties? Alright, so that's a stretch even for me. My first instinct regarding these shoes is to say "YES", and then back off a bit to hear myself say..."those are kinda silly".

Nicholas Kirkwood

Then what is going on here? Do the designers really think we're willing to spend $1000-plus on a little bit of feathered detail? Forget about the practicality issues, will these feathers and pelts even survive after one wear?

If they were trying to capture the essence of the friend/foe that is the Winged Messenger, I'd say: mission accomplished. These shoes are sexy, exotic, delectable, whimsical luxury at its best, and they'd surely garner a lot of attention. But would anyone take you seriously?

Don't look now, but I think the Gods are laughing.

Luxury Marketing: Timing is Everything

Madonna for Louis Vuitton, Spring 2009I've been asked by a number of people to chime in on the latest advertising imagery produced by the house of Vuitton. I kept avoiding making my answer public because I was really hoping the hype would just go away. Sadly, I can run but I can't hide.

When I initially heard that Madonna would be gracing the new Vuitton marketing I thought it was a great idea. Her images for Versace were glamorous, elegant, and very on-brand. Then, I started to hear that the ad was set to be shot at a cafe in Los Angeles that merely looked Parisian, and that they would be photographed by Steven Meisel instead of Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot (the pair of photographers that, in my opinion, are the only ones who truly captured the proper balance of glamour and product for Vuitton,) and I started to get a little wary.

And then there's Madonna. We love Madonna, we've always loved Madonna, the prospect of Madonna collaborating with the revered Marc Jacobs made us giddy in apprehension. Divorce aside, Madge has been on good behavior lately; rather than ignoring her middle-age, she's accepted it and seems to understand that over-the-top, sexed-up, and skimpy starts to look cheap instead of provocative. Her new ladylike style reinforced by friendships with Isabella Rosselini and Gweneth Paltrow seemed down-to-earth and irreproachable. This down-to-earth motherhood of Madge made us love her even more - she became one of us, and was finally a bit normal.

Enter the new Vuitton images: skimpy, tight, elaborate and burlesque (and not in a Dita Von Teese way,) and all in an inexplicable smoky sepia-tint. Nothing makes a woman look fifty and far-too-thin than being photographed in not enough clothing. And the crotch shot? Please, we've had Madonna exposing her coochie to cameras for thirty years. Why is this new?

Of course, aesthetics aside, one can see why Vuitton chose using Madonna: pure economics. Yes, I do believe that Marc Jacobs thought of calling her after seeing her Hard Candy concert, but it would be naive to assume this is all there is to the story. Vuitton executives probably leapt at the idea because if Madonna can do anything, she can create notoriety; notoriety drives traffic, and traffic drives sales.

Sprouse Speedy Bag, $1310The same theory applies to the new Stephen Sprouse collection. The popular Graffiti collection was initially launched in 2001 and quickly became one of the first of the modern "It" bags. Ever since, the original pieces have generated a cult status, saying: "you shoulda been there, shoulda bought it, shoulda been so lucky..." With this release of new Sprouse colors, surface designs and accessories, Vuitton is leveraging its previous success by reviving an old favorite that they know will sell. Not exactly innovative design, nor risky business.

True, now is not the time for risky business, but I do find it interesting that Vuitton is betting the bank on such high-profile efforts. I suppose both the Madonna ads and the Sprouse collection leave me with such distaste is because they so blatantly run counter to the current climate. Vuitton is still going day-glo, over-the-top, and high profile in a time when people are tightening belts and shopping the closet. They are making safe business decisions, but still asking their customers to be daring and extravagant.

Sprouse Neverfull BagToday's New York Times article by Elaine Sciolino entitled "In the Lap of Luxury, Paris Squirms" cites how other French luxury houses are understanding this climate and making appropriate changes. Sciolino even went so far as to mention the class and social issues that are at the background of the luxury industry - an inherent point that many have overlooked during the past decade of luxury mass-marketing.

"Paradoxically, that sentiment may not be all that difficult for the French to accept. France’s national identity may seem wrapped up tight in the aura of luxury — elegant dress, sophisticated perfume, good food and wine, and no shortage of Champagne for the flimsiest of celebrations. But even though the French more than most Europeans appreciate the finest quality they can afford, they pride themselves on balance. France remains a deeply conservative country, one in which it traditionally has been unacceptable to show off material possessions. Most French use debit cards, not credit cards, which means they tend not to spend more than they have in their bank accounts. Getting a mortgage is a torturous process.

And so, many see in the closing of an era of free and easy spending on luxury goods — when luxury became associated with flash and ostentation around the world — the potential for a restoration of the classic French virtues of restraint and modesty. Even a bit of suffering and sacrifice might be in order."

How about a global restoration of the classic virtues of restraint and modesty? While a cultural understanding and respect of luxury products is at the core of French culture, I think we are all heading into restrained, modest times. For Vuitton to offer such unrestrained products and marketing at this time makes me wonder who's taking the temperature over on the Pont Neuf. After all, timing is everything!

Sprouse Bag images from

For additional posts on Vuitton and Vuitton marketing, please read:

Our Stinky Semiotics, March 2007

I Hate to Love Him, October 2007

Louis Vuitton Gets Moody, February 2008

Schadenfreude, June 2008