Friday, February 29, 2008

Paris Fashion Week: Requiem for Luxury

A lot of things aren't what they used to be. Big Macs, airline meals, the English language, and luxury have all taken big hits in the past decade. Luxury is in a particularly bad way. Now, things must be so slimmed down in the name of social responsibility that anything luxurious marks the buyer as an ignoramus.

Slimming down isn't always beneficial. Decreasing luxury won't take an inch off your waistline, and decreasing English is a national disaster.

Something odd has happened over the past decade. At the same time that luxury is being equated with obscenity, many luxury brands have been cheapened to the point of unrecognizability. Or luxury brands have bastardized and bootlegged their own product so perfectly that no one can tell the difference between a fake and an authorized fake.

There's been a strong tendency to go in the opposite direction, to reject luxury through sensibility. But sensibility tends to be the color of a mouse or a wet Parisian sidewalk on the gloomiest day of the year. Sensibility is insidious; it goes hand in hand with efficiency and a number of other do-good defining characteristics that are said to be healthy but that don't have that rich, full-fat taste.

Yves St. Laurent knew luxury when luxury was the innocent pastime of the gloriously rich. This was back when the world was a lot bigger and France had a monopoly on the best wine, cuisine, and couture. The end of that era coincided with the end of the self-indulgent eighties and it's been all downhill from there.

Fashion's new label is expectation. Expectation that the consumer won't do anything reprehensible, like wearing haute couture while not deliberating long and hard about the planet and one's responsibility to it. When was the last time you heard something naively described as "sumptuous"? St. Laurent knew from sumptuous: sumptuous peasants, sumptuous coolies, sumptuous Tatars. And smoking, let's not forget. Smoking! Dastardly. Looking at St. Laurent's body of work is looking at the death knell of irresponsibility. In as much as one's choice of clothing can be a reflection of both an actual and a fantasy persona, that much luxury on one mortal husk smacks of intemperance.

The luxury implied by the big French labels used to be aspirational. Not that your average punter waiting for the six o'clock commuter rail had the coin to rush over to Paris to be decked out à la Chinoise, but there were always the stockings and the perfume and the sunglasses as consolation. Then, somewhere in that rift between Boomer and X, luxury became equated with gaucherie, gluttony, and a lack of awareness.

Blame the gray market, blame the Internet, blame the strange allure of illiteracy. What had once been symbolic of luxury has depreciated to the point that it has token only in certain unattractive subcultures. It is tempting to say that their gratifications are not aligned with the sustenance of the privileged, and yet they are precisely the same thing. It's the feel-good factor that only serious commodification can provide. Once you can be one with the thing you desire, the thing has value only in so far as it affects the next chump downwind.

This is why today's fashions have to be blameless and above ethical question. You see it in the fall particularly, because at present anything you can visually equate to dead leaves and concrete must be on the right course. It's all over the fragrance industry, with the backlash against allergens, and you can see it in the fashion industry as well. Everywhere you look, sobriety and accountability rule. With some exceptions, color is looking like provocation. Step outside this proscription with a bit of flamboyance and there will be a trial of public opinion and perhaps a call for heads.

Into these difficult waters step the old-school design houses, but none more significantly than St. Laurent. During the 1970s, St. Laurent described luxury as something with a taste roughly equal to Perigord truffles. That is, far too silken and costly for any but the very wealthy. That was the legacy of the house, but the problem was how to keep the idea of it without making the diet version. Tom Ford tried and came up newly gluttonous; although his smut-chic looked and felt like luxury it was intrinsically debased currency with a stratospheric price tag.

In some instances, it looked as if it smelled of popper sweat and careless arrogance.

Taking over from Ford was Stefano Pilati, who had an impressive background in textiles. Pilati's test has been to make the label socially relevant and socially enlightened while maintaining the brand's value and integrity. In the face of those demands, Pilati has been a cautious and clever student.

Pilati's Fall 2008 outing hit the bull's eye of responsible luxury and desideratum. He understood that intimation is not always essential so long as the character remains strong. Over the course of several seasons, Pilati has quietly refined the idea of YSL into something with present consequence. His looks were freed from the body, free of speculation, and full of the verve of the original without indulging in the original's outsized savoir-vivre.

Ironically, one of the highest walls to scale at YSL has also been one of the easiest to climb: the huge bulkhead of St. Laurent's original work. What did YSL stand for, exactly? So thematically diverse is St. Laurent's cultural legacy that only the very wisest man could ignore the far-flung exotica while pursuing the global democratization. Right now, that means the facelessness of the individual and the devaluation of the individual's crassest commercial needs. This can only be accomplished as a group effort, a unified whole, but with a flick towards the old in a squared-off coolie jacket and baggy coolie pants. That was the most significant look in the collection and also the most telling; what once had been decadent was once again merely uniform. Things have truly come full circle.

Luxury. Price tag aside, today it's just a six-letter word.


iñaki said...

I am becoming afraid of entering your blog. I love it when I agree with you, but it kills me not to. And, this time, I can hardly agree. I though YSL's collection quite the box of wonders. I think they haven't lost luxe as much, but it's true that the decadence of the modern times has had an effect we can notice. That, we can't change. Why not simply assuming it and adoring luxurious in it new-found way?


Suzanna Mars said...

Inaki, I write a lot of satire.

iñaki said...

I do know that, do not worry. I love satire.
My comment was most worshipping (as always), only ina different manner. ha


susie_bubble said...

I need time to process this collection a bit more but the bottom statement is... me likey!

K.Line said...

I LOVE this post. I don't even know where to start... Now I'm all over luxury, even as my hippy, ecocrazy husband and child (well, she's a neo-hippy) rope me into the reusing, reducing and recycling. Note: I'm not planet hating and I do see their point. I mean, where I live in downtown TO, a totally bohemian enclave with a heavy dose of heterogenousness and economic diversity, when you're finished with something you simply put it on your lawn and it's gone in 10 minutes. Not joking.

At any rate, I associate luxury with my late childhood, specifically the 80s when everything was so big and glam and, in truth, I was at a much freer and more affluent phase of my life. I used to wear Paris (YSL) back then. Yes, I was entirely too young for it but that's what girls in my circle did!

Akris, it would seem, is the antidote in more ways than one. It manages to be grey in that Paris sidewalk way - but with a little oily rainbow in the corner. Let's hear it for real luxury. Gotta love something that lasts!

Suzanna Mars said...

K. line, I love your oily little rainbow more than words can say. I also love quite a few looks from the YSL collection, most notably that black skirt/sheer black turtleneck uniform that looks like 80% of my closet anyway. And that dog collar gives me a new idea for a very old leather jacket that is style exactly like this new YSL velvet one. Formidable!

enc said...

I think the word "luxury" can now mean many things to many people, but I think it certainly implies expense. I'm not sure my definition of "luxury" includes high cost. For me, it means freedom of choice, and that may mean opting for the less costly option. Usually, for me, luxury is minimalism, freedom FROM "stuff."

The YSL collection means "luxury" to me because it feels pared-down, and that is my ideal.

riz said...

I though this collection was exceptional. The shaping was quite imaginative, and I really do think Pilati is going to give YSL a huge push, and make a lot of people uncomfortable with the idea of an old world house that is perhaps coming into modern view way too fast. (I'm not one of those people) Of course, I am probably talking past your post - which I enjoyed immensely as usual!

riz said...

Oh and apropos enc, i just wanted to say that the notion of luxury its qualitative diffusion, is a postmodern phenomenon that goes hand in hand with the radically shifting flows of global capital...
(i know blah blah blah :)

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, what I thought was so clever was that many of these shapes are things that are so fundamentally iconic (the sharp little bomber, the tight, sheer turtleneck, even the coolie top) and yet they just looked so fresh and exciting. And, (something I did not want to add in the post), similar somehow to that great Donna Karan essentials concept but also unlike it thanks to the Parisian accent.

riz said...

Donna Karan, in my view, (and surprisingly perhaps), can do no wrong. ;)

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, I'm a fan as well. To me DK's output personifies easy American elegance with no effort attached. I've liked her ever since I first laid eyes on those essentials way back when. And certainly in the eighties her looks were everything you'd possibly want for a city wardrobe. The longer circle skirts, the side-sashed shorter jacket and suede boots, all that black!

Her jeans don't fit me, though. How is it possible to make legs as long as mine look stumpy? Rise too low, flare too wide.

iñaki said...

Whose collection is your next post going to be about?
McQueen, perhaps? I was struck by it quite intensely!


Thomas said...

Not to miss the point of your post entirely, but what is less socially responsible - expensive things, or mountains of cheap crap?

I have always loved YSL, even before I understood there was a YSL to love.


i learned a good lesson with this collection. be patient and the truth will come. the truth is this is one of the most amazing collection i've ever seen.
i liked the way this show made you think of the definition of 'luxury', a word which was raped and vulgarized so much, to me it seems almost offensive to use (the story once happened with 'glamour' which in russian sounds even more shocking. 'glaaah-muuur'. disgusting!).
what i think is this is the point where we have to rethink the whole concept of the privilege 'luxury' means. in the world where there's anything and anybody knows it luxury, to me, is the right of... not to own it. once luxury meant the more hand made chinoise silks you could afford and physically drape over your body (tons of everything put on you, isn't it an act of violence?). today being rich means having the possibility to not show it, not claim it, not cherish it, not prove it. this is, to me, what Pilati did: that ultra high level of chic, where stars have gone out and there's nothing more to conquer but your SELF. SELF is the new luxury, the impossible ability to own it.
while others seem to live the last days of material totems of that old mega-luxury (good old Dior, what happened to you?), people like Pilati set Rome on fire and moved on right to the stars.
The totems, R.I.P.

a. said...

two things -

1) how have i not read your blog in so many days? again, you are brilliant. this post is so thought-provoking, connects up so many disparate yet related ideas... i love it!

2) i LOVED this collection. i have loved pilati since he started at YSL. YSL was the first label i really noticed and fell in love with as a little kid, peeking in fashion magazines... i was so disappointed when i started following fashion as an adult to find that this strange non-designer named tom ford had taken it over. pilati pilati pilati... oh, he makes me swoon.

and, your post made me see things in it that i hadn't even realized were there! (granted i did flip through it at the speed of light, inhale it like a drug. eek.) the coolie jacket and coolie pants, most interestingly to me, since i've been noticing the similarities between the leggings-plus look and the churidar-kameez sets of south asia.

a. (who is an l.a. native... don't know if you will even remember me)

Suzanna Mars said...

a., I remember you! Long time, no see! Drop me a line sometime!

a. said...

i definitely will! actually, i'm going to be in LA in a couple next weekend... any suggestions as to new fun cool rad stuff i should be checking out? boutiques/art exhibits/restaurants etc? having been away from there for so long, i have to begrudgingly admit that i am no longer a local and therefore am lacking an insider's knowledge...