It may be that I am too sensitive, but I cringe when I hear a luxury tycoon say, as he kisses his manicured fingertips, “Fay-shunn should make you dream.” Easy for him to say. Fashion is horribly expensive. And when did designer clothes get so far beyond ordinary reach that it became necessary to give them an air of sanctity and suffering, as though we were pilgrims not for Mecca but for Prada?
Before the fashion industry began dealing in abstractions like “aspiration dressing,” it had real names that you could girlfriend up to: Quant, Khanh, Courrèges, Estévez. The clothes, like the best of clothes, belonged to the times — they were cheap and fun. And even when a designer label was costly, you didn’t feel, or at any rate acknowledge, a barrier to entry. It’s one of the great civilizing distinctions, pointed out by Tom Wolfe and others, that in the 1960s and ’70s you didn’t need to be rich to dress well. You just needed money. As a college student in the late ’70s, I bought Yves Saint Laurent, not much, maybe, but certainly I never felt harassed by the idea that my income (actually, at the time, my allowance supplemented by odd jobs) was a serious impediment to owning good clothes. Where there was a will, there was a way. And this remained my view, however shortsighted, until not long ago.
Last fall, shortly after returning from the Paris collections, I was walking along Broadway, in SoHo, when I saw a navy-blue tunic in the window at Scoop. The tunic was a hot trend for fall, specifically the tunic that Stefano Pilati designed for Saint Laurent. In Milan, I had seen Emmanuelle Alt, the statuesque fashion director of Paris Vogue, wearing the Saint Laurent tunic with leggings and Fendi granny shoes. I thought she looked amazing. Now, outside Scoop, I did what women the world over do: I mentally Photoshopped Alt’s body onto mine.
A few days later I returned to the store, unfazed that the tunic was no longer in the window or, for that matter, anywhere in sight.
I found a saleswoman, a thickish woman (in many ways) with brunet hair, and began describing the tunic. “It was navy or maybe black, with little pockets . . .”
She cut me off with the desolating whish of an eighteen-wheeler overtaking a Ford Fiesta. “I wasn’t working that day,” she said. She went off to confer with an associate and returned a few minutes later.
“We don’t sell tunics,” she said.
Big Brunette was beginning to annoy me.
“But,” I said, sputtering, “you must have something that resembles a tunic. It was navy or maybe black, with little . . .”
She left me and went over to a table piled with sweaters. Lifting one off the top and unfolding it, she said, impatiently, “Is this what you saw?”
I yelped, “That’s it!”
Once again I was grateful to encounter someone who should definitely not be working around old people. Big Brunette glared at me. “This,” she said, “is a sweater dress.”
I grabbed the tunic — it’s a tunic, you lazy bitch! — and fled to the dressing room, where, thankfully, a nice saleswoman helped me,
and I went home, another satisfied, if bruised, customer.
The next morning, girded by my purchase, I strode into the office. I had put the tunic, by a company called Alice + Olivia, with black tights and a pair of flat-heeled Balenciaga boots.
“You look adorable,” my friend Andy said.
Just then it hit me, like nausea — the realization that there would be no more barriers to grandly ignore. This little $280 tunic was not Saint Laurent. That tunic was $2,600. And no matter how hard I scrimped and rationalized, I could not make that leap anymore. I was done. There was nothing to do but face the truth.
I looked at Andy as my mouth fell open.
“I’ve been downgraded!”
After that we screamed with laughter for about five minutes.
So it had happened. And it was happening to other women my age as well, women who, while completely up for a bargain at T. J.’s, still saw themselves as the quintessential designer customer and didn’t care to admit that maybe Alice + Olivia was as good as it was going to get. Hardly a tragedy — more on par with finding yourself seated at the remote overflow table at a friend’s dinner party. Still, it felt strange, and permanent. Andy revealed that her fallback position to Balenciaga was Peter Som. (This made us laugh even harder, Som being a minor talent.) Several friends mentioned a label called Tibi. Leslie Cohan, a gallery owner in Chelsea, told me: “I used to buy Marc Jacobs. Now I buy little Marc.” Geri Schachner, a vice president at Estée Lauder, said that because of the crazy prices, she limits herself to one or two big hits a season. “You’re priced out,” she said.
I can’t think why women should feel a sense of shame at being downgraded, when it is such a common occurrence nowadays, but clearly we do. A friend who used to write about fashion said in an e-mail message: “Last summer I had to buy a dress for an engagement party, and I actually bought a Milly — a Milly. Four years ago, I would have sawed off my left pinky toe before considering such a purchase.” Anyway, this friend said, she’d rather spend her money on furniture, and the Milly, a ringer for Pucci, had done the job.
Stefani Greenfield, a co-owner of Scoop (who was duly chagrined to hear about Big Brunette), said the high prices for designer fashion have helped to create a huge demand for labels like Alice + Olivia and Tibi, especially among young women “who like to buy something at four o’clock and wear it at eight.” I am sure this is the case. Still, one doesn’t need to be a wearer of fashion to feel that some adjustment in perspective is called for when you go from Saint Laurent to Tibi.
There is always a risk in giving importance to fashion, namely that it sounds self-indulgent. But self-indulgence, whatever else it may be, is not self-deluding. The self-deluding thing would be to believe that designer clothes cost more because a factory worker in Italy or Turkey is making a higher wage. In truth, the owners of and investors in fashion companies like seeing fat profit margins, almost as much as they enjoy riding in private jets and seeing their clothes on celebrities. And thanks to marketing and a docile media willing to perform like a new service class, it costs a company relatively little to sell the idea that something is worth the price being asked.
At the same time, designers don’t like giving attention to the fact that fashion, like other creative arenas, involves intellectual and moral values. This is understandable: fashion is now largely seen as entertainment. The last thing you expect to learn from the runway is how to dress well. Yet, if designers were young in the ’60s and ’70s, surely they felt a hatred of big business and male chauvinism — and isn’t that precisely the sense conveyed in the smugness of “Fay-shunn should make you dream”? If wearing good clothes only means you are rich, I guess I’ll have to pass. But I happen to think that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, so here is my response to high prices, which will only get higher. I plan to mock the luxury tycoons whose pretense of excellence makes a mockery of women’s lives and genuine love of fashion.
I can’t imagine that I’ll win. On the other hand, I don’t see a downside.
12 Ways to Stay in the Game
1. Give up eating at restaurants. In fact, give up eating altogether. You’ll look better in the clothes.
2. Start a foundation ... for yourself. Tell your friends you’re collecting money for “Clothes for Caring” — because who cares more about clothes than you?
3. Catherine Deneuve in “Belle de Jour” — need I say more?
4. Therapy racks up huge bills with nothing to show for it. Quit the couch and treat your depression/anxiety/sleep issues with box wine instead.
5. Look around your home for heirlooms that could yield big bucks on eBay. Also, look around your neighbor’s home.
6. Forgo your grande nonfat latte for four months: 120 days at $2.65 a day = $318 = a sleeve!
7. After all these years, can’t you inject your own Botox? Cut out the middleman and save $$$.
8. Scrutinize all expenditures. Does Grandma really need 24-hour care?
9. Anticipate the federal minimum wage hike from $5.15 to $7.25. Two thousand
more hours of cleaning toilets, post-tax, and you’ve got yourself half an outfit.
10. That’s what home equity’s for.
11. Become a Defense Department contractor and slip it into the budget. Forget socialites — those generals really know how to spend on “body armor.”
12. Marry Ronald Perelman. (Last resort.) [?][?][?]Nell Scovell
Cathy is adorable here.
It's amazing that when I searched for "dressing down" here in tFS the result came nothing:-D
This article is really great (although, couldn't she have gotten through one article without jabbing at some poor hard working designer? I mean come on, the Peter Som jab was out of left field). It brings up a lot of issues that have been on the consciousness of the fashion consumer over the last few years. The prices have gotten ridiculous (even more so since this article was written), and it doesn't seem like it will ever stop. This comes also at a time when it is the general consensus of most well dressed people that wearing a complete designer look is in poor taste, or at the very least unoriginal. Perhaps since the contemporary dresser really only needs a few designer pieces a season to cement their wardrobe, then its not such a big deal? But this all goes back to the American consumer's sense of entitlement. More people than ever today are interested in owning designer pieces (primarily accessories it seems on a widespread scale), and they do not necessarily see their finances as a deterrent. At the same time that consumer interest of fashion based luxury goods has hit an all time high, the prices are jerking up higher as a way of deterring the masses. It kind of begs the question, then, if whether or not the middle class customer, whether or not they have appreciation for high design, ever should have been buying designer clothes, and if these prices increases in recent years are not so unjust? I think that is a question that can not be answered really, because it deals with extreme complications within the American class and economic systems, but its interesting to think about regardless.
"She said I was having a nervous breakdown and should go to Atlantic City. I'm not that broken down yet!"
^ Well, I think the Peter Som thing was fair ... he kind of is the high street at contemporary prices/quality ... last show I remember looked like several years old Marc Jacobs. (OK, so the high street is a bit more on top of it than that ...)
Loved the article ... clearly I am not alone in deciding I have better things to spend my money on at the same time fashion prices are skyrocketing.
Completely agree with the one-two heavy hitters a season--and I am not a VP at Estee Lauder
__________________ Luxury is living a simple, elegant, and responsible life. Luxury is a reduction.
i wish i could get there...
but i am buying more designer than ever these days...
the contemporary stuff simply bores me most of the time...
way too mainstream and trendy for the most part...
since i am always after something unique and special...
i have to seek out other brands and it often comes with a higher pricetag, unfortunately...
*if i am going to buy anything mainstream or trendy...
i am going to the mass market chains for it...
ie-zara or h&m...
not paying phillip lim or see by chloe prices for stuff i will be wearing for only one season...
i think that is an even bigger waste of my $$$ frankly...
"It is not money that makes you well dressed: it is understanding."
if I attempt to dress down, I have found that the cost per wear for me doesn't pay off because I never wear it. I enjoy the originality and appreciate the "fineness" of certain designer brands and I would rather buy one piece that makes me woozy than an imitation that makes me wish I had the one I really wanted.
^ With the budget I've set for myself, though, I can only have one or two of those special pieces a season ... and I agree, there's no point in compromising on them 1-2 pieces is not enough to keep me clothed, though, so the rest has to come from somewhere. Generally I buy those "basics" at a price point below contemporary (perhaps much the same quality, but without an exciting name attached), but sometimes at that level. Helmut Lang falls in that category now, nothing to sneeze at there ... and Marc by Marc (as mentioned in the article) can sometimes be a winner too. Much of what I buy is either higher or lower though ...
__________________ Luxury is living a simple, elegant, and responsible life. Luxury is a reduction.