Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Milan Fashion Week: Armani Affronted

Anyone who doubts the correlation between fashion and art need only consider that, like the artist, the fashion designer is largely considered to be only as good as his last collection. If said designer is a tyro with only a season or two under his belt, the correlation becomes all the clearer. The sophomore book was a disappointment, the second role was a bust, the latest album was not as good as the first.

Or so the song goes. It's a tough world out there.

Even the artist in his prime can suffer a reactive disappointment, and disappointment may sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of the critic (we cannot speak for the artist, who we hope possesses a large enough ego to overlook a cavil or two).

Ego is sometimes as unpredictable as an act of God.

Giorgio Armani is an artist in his prime and in the prime of his ego. Back in 2005, he threw a clinker of a collection that was based on bloomers. Bloomers did not change either the fashion industry or the way women dressed, and because of the designer's track record he was treated gently and respectfully by the media. He did not receive, as a freshman designer might, a critical walloping. Women did not respond well to the pantaloons, no matter how well tailored, and the moment became a minor blip in fashion history that passed without causing psychic injury.

Armani returned to form the following season with a collection that he predicated upon what women really want, i. e. not satin diapers. The critics breathed a sigh of relief at this careful backtracking; he is taking our needs into account after a brief and thankfully temporary period of delusion. This is the Armani we know and love. They still politely wondered if he would ever break out of his smartly tailored jacket.

In a three-week-old review of the designer's couture collection, Cathy Horyn of The New York Times referred to that signature piece as a "huge beige hub" and remarked that she doubted whether "a jewel of a dress" would ever emerge from within it. She went on to say that Mr. Armani, unlike Mr. Lagerfeld, had a diminished ability to use his own history or wit as a reference point or to create sui generis garments. In order to produce such a masterpiece, she felt, Mr. Armani would need both irony and self-reference, neither of which was in the range of his "imagination." She said that his body of work had been "impeccable."

Mr. Armani, via his head of communications, not so promptly uninvited Ms. Horyn from his Autumn 2008 ready-to-wear show on the morning of the show. The rescindment took the form of an e-mail, supposedly reinforcing the contents of an earlier letter that Ms. Horyn did not receive. Mr. Armani, the e-mail said, had not cared for the "tone" Ms. Horyn had used to describe his friends and family as they waited for the start of the January haute couture show. Ms. Horyn's tone had been "belittling" and Ms. Horyn need not darken the ready-to-wear doorway with her presence.

For those of you who do not read Ms. Horyn's column, the article stated, "Sophia Lauren, dressed in a dark coat and trousers, sat in the front row. There was no need to smile because Sophia Loren had smiled so many times before. Mr. Armani’s niece, Roberta, sat next to Hilary Swank, who had on a black beaded cocktail dress. Ms. Armani never seemed to stop smiling.

The burlesque star Dita Von Teese, who had changed from a Dior in the afternoon to an Armani, its portrait neckline now framing her bosom, sat very still, her hands folded on her lap, the picture of a lady in drag."

It could well be that the burlesque star objected to having her appearance associated with transvestism, especially when wearing one of Mr. Armani's own garments. Mr. Armani might have balked similarly. Neither Mr. Armani's niece nor Ms. Loren seemed to have grounds for complaint, but you never know. These are sensitive times.

It seems more likely that the real reason for the retraction was that the designer perceived Ms. Horyn's remark about his apparent inability to produce a magnum opus as damning. That may have been what was truly "belittling," and Armani may have felt it discredited a designer with a prolific and commercially successful body of work. To dissemble and use a sophistic reason for the rescindment was preferable to acknowledging the existence of the statement and ergo admitting that it had an impact. By easing around its gravitas, the statement became distant and less alive. Still, it's the designer version of the actor who will never win an Oscar, the writer who will never win the Pulitzer, and the singer who will not cart home a Grammy. Ever.

You can see how quickly such a thing might get out of hand, even if it won't approach the hostility of the Capulet-Montague feud. Was Ms. Horyn throwing down a gauntlet or was her statement an absolute? What of Armani's enormous body of work; was all of this not up to snuff? Was Ms. Horyn saying that he had never once produced "a jewel"? What about all those Armanis that have paraded down red carpets on the backs of Hollywood's shiniest stars, were these simply "impeccable" shmattes?

Whatever the real reason for the e-mail, it read as a self-conscious and puny one. It lacked, as the Italians say, coglioni, and there was Ms. Horyn busting what was left of them in an On the Runway blog post.

It may have looked like an antique comedy of errors, but it was a modern conundrum with modern implications.

Language is a funny thing, especially today. No sooner does one manage to extricate one's foot from one's mouth then someone else forces it back in there. It happens with increasing inadvertence as the world grows smaller, and as a result of this shrinkage there are innumerable fresh opportunities to offend. Journalists--and especially those who collate letters to editors--know that if someone can take umbrage, he will. There is always someone to rile. That person might live in a remote corner of the Idaho Panhandle, but he's out there. There is a giant computer in Belgium that stores all of our choicest and not-so-select words and keeps a running tab, so watch it, buddy.

We've now worked ourselves into a tight little knot that requires a communication protocol. We must stick to the simplest language; words that are in the vernacular suddenly have significance well outside our ken. We are all arrivistes on the new linguistic frontier. Simple literacy is no longer enough--if by literacy we mean that one knows when it is necessary to seek information, where one might find correct information, and how one must properly use that information.

All of this takes place before expression, before considering tone, before wondering about what goes on in someone else's head. If you're feeling somewhat less than creative, you are on the right track. You may now call yourself, until tomorrow, a responsible writer.

By the looks of it we are going to have to write with a very cramped pen.

And that ready-to-wear collection? Armani redux, with a bit of social reflux. Always true to itself in its fashion.


jen said...

You are without a doubt my favorite writer right now.
This summer I think we need to grab a few bottles of champagne, a large bottle of prescription pills and our best swimwear and hang poolside at the Chateau for hours.... and once we're more tan than I've been in ages, we can go shopping for daysss.

Suzanna Mars said...

You're on, Jen! And thank you for a wonderful compliment.

I briefly lived at the Chateau, while opening a boutique on Rodeo Drive. Every night, someone would drop raw eggs on the awning of my balcony.

I do not think this was the Method in action.

Imelda Matt said...

Gauntlet thrown! My guess is you won’t be invited to any Armani show. Ever. Let’s look at this in cold hard light of the day – A slouchy suit does not an impressive body of work make. What would an Armani retrospective at say the Met look like??? A bunch of Richard Gere’s cast off’s from American Gigolo, a Cate Blanchett red carpet frock and a jersey for ‘good mate’ and sartorial icon Russell Crowe’s beloved South Sydney Rabbitto’s (google them).

Opp’s there goes my invitation. We’ll hook up for espresso and a spot of shopping in Le Duomo…it will be more fun anyway!

Suzanna Mars said...

I'll take you over a show any day, Imelda, so long as you leave the rugby jersey in the Antipodes. And Russell, too. He's not my idea of a good time.

iñaki said...

This is some of the best writing I've seen in a long time! I read and I adore and I envy at once, you're quite amazing.
Who said journalism was easy? I think events like this are the essence of the job. I myself cannot wait to be involved in such troubles.


WendyB said...

I went to an Armani show once. Cathy should be happy she's off the hook.

Suzanna Mars said...

Inaki, you're a pistol! Every time I see your pic it makes me smile.

Somehow I think you'll attract scandal like a magnet.

Suzanna Mars said...

WB, LOL! But I could see you wearing a couple of pieces from this collection, cocktail, of course.


such a censorship seems to be ridiculous and outdated (forgive me, but these are the words which, in case of mr. armani, do make some sense). denying the problem is the way of admitting it. why couldn't he just follow marc jacobs' footsteps and be 'forgiving'? at the end that's just about clothings. or not?
ms. horyn seems to have found the next Achilles' heel of italian fashion. vanity is its name.

Suzanna Mars said...

Starving Dud, while the incident makes Armani seem childish and petulant, it really does open up a wider dialogue about the relationship of the press to the designer (and what a morass that is!).

I gained some greater insight into these tricky relationships, at least viz the NYT, through reading something by Chandler Burr, the NYT perfume critic. If anyone is interested in that, here's the link:

enc said...

Is it over-simplifying the matter to say that it sounds like two grown-ups throwing handfuls of sand at each other in the Fashion Playground?

Did Horyn's opinion (opinion!) hurt Armani's feelings?

As you point out, one would hope Armani's ego and Ivory Tower were sufficiently fortified to withstand the odd editorial or blog post, by Horyn or anyone else.

enc said...

The super-cynic in me wonders if this is just a p.r. opportunity for both?

Thomas said...

Luckily I will not be invited to any Armani shows any time soon, so I am free, I suppose, to make light of not only Armani and his family, but his friends and even mere acquaintances. Huzzah!

I am not sure what to make of Ms. Horyn's remarks. At the very least she didn't use so many adjectives (Tim Blanks) as to render them all useless.

(Tim Blanks)

Suzanna Mars said...

Thomas, I just love your sense of humor. I must brush up my Blanks; I keep skipping him in favor of the more mundane Mower.

iñaki said...

I just saw your comment on me.
I feel somehow deliciously flattered by it. Hope they think it a good quality at St. Martins.


riz said...

Wow, I am still reeling from this story. (like i said i'm so begind)

I guess we shouldn't feel too sorry for Cathy. But I have to say that while Armani is not one of my favorite designers, I think it is a bit unfair to compare him with Lagerfeld. Apples and oranges to me really, although i recognize she did this in the context of the couture shows...His reaction is certainly undemocratic, actually appalling, and in bad taste I think, for it clearly conveys his inability to process such incomparable criticism.
I agree with Starving Dud, and i think we've only just caught a ghastly glimpse of the relationship betw. the designer and the critic...

Suzanna Mars said...

And to that, Riz, we can add the press and make a neat little vicious circle. I admire Cathy and I prefer her columns to what passes for fashion writing in the rest of the press. However, I will agree with you here--and it was easy enough to see how someone (Armani) might take her pronouncement to have finality. But again, this all comes back to the use and interpretation of language.

Iheartfashion said...

I read Cathy Horyn for her fearlessness, and the fact that she's not afraid to change her mind, panning a designer's collection one season and praising it the next (like Rodarte recently). She doesn't seem to "play favorites" like many other fashion journalists.
This was a funny little spat with Armani. He does come across like a petulant child, uninviting her from his show at the last minute, and must have known it could appear on her blog. But her bigger point seems to be: Does it matter?