When I was invited to a press screening of “Lagerfeld Confidential,” now playing at the Film Forum in New York, about six weeks ago, my first reaction was to decline the offer. What possible interest could the Unrepentant Marxist have in one of the world’s highest profile haute couture designers? I am glad that I decided to watch a screener. Not only is Karl Lagerfeld a truly compelling figure; the film also provided an entrée into the role of designer clothing in bourgeois society.
Long ago, when I worked at Goldman-Sachs on Wall Street and had money to burn, I got hooked on luxury items myself. I bought my suits at Paul Stuart and kept a Mount Blanc pen in my shirt pocket. Not long after I started working at Columbia University, I donated all the suits to a thrift shop but kept the Mount Blanc pen. I never use it because the refills are exorbitantly expensive. Although I lead a simpler life now, I do understand the mystique that such goods have. Even Fidel Castro wears a Rolex.
Perhaps the last word on dressing up comes from Thorstein Veblen. In chapter seven (“Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture”) of “Theory of the Leisure Class,” Veblen observes:
The standard of reputability requires that dress should show wasteful expenditure; but all wastefulness is offensive to native taste. The psychological law has already been pointed out that all men — and women perhaps even in a higher degree abhor futility, whether of effort or of expenditure — much as Nature was once said to abhor a vacuum. But the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly. Hence we find that in all innovations in dress, each added or altered detail strives to avoid condemnation by showing some ostensible purpose, at the same time that the requirement of conspicuous waste prevents the purposefulness of these innovations from becoming anything more than a somewhat transparent pretense. Even in its freest flights, fashion rarely if ever gets away from a simulation of some ostensible use. The ostensible usefulness of the fashionable details of dress, however, is always so transparent a make-believe, and their substantial futility presently forces itself so baldly upon our attention as to become unbearable, and then we take refuge in a new style. But the new style must conform to the requirement of reputable wastefulness and futility. Its futility presently becomes as odious as that of its predecessor; and the only remedy which the law of waste allows us is to seek relief in some new construction, equally futile and equally untenable. Hence the essential ugliness and the unceasing change of fashionable attire.
Notwithstanding Veblen’s insights, there is another dimension to designer clothing that “Lagerfeld Confidential” conveys. While such clothing is not “functional” in any real sense, it is often beautiful and can even rise to the level of art as should be obvious from a trip to the Metropolitan Museum or even the Guggenheim, which mounted a controversial exhibit of Giorgio Armani clothing in 1999. Some journalists made the obvious point that the museum was blurring the lines between art and commerce:
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum announced last month that it would pay homage to the Italian designer Giorgio Armani next fall with a major retrospective of his work. The museum will turn its rotunda over to his ball gowns and pants suits and tuxedos, providing a breathtaking backdrop for an opening soiree and adding even more luster, if such a thing is possible, to the fashion designer’s name.
What the museum did not acknowledge was that some eight months earlier, Mr. Armani had become a sizable benefactor to the Guggenheim. The size of his contribution has not been disclosed, but one participant in museum meetings at which it was discussed said it would eventually amount to $15 million, an initial $5 million with a pledge to donate $10 million more over the next three years.
Asked about the gift, museum officials said it was part of a “global partner sponsorship,” gifts that can go to Guggenheim projects anywhere in the world, and denied that it was a quid pro quo for organizing the Armani show. The show is being sponsored by the fashion and celebrity magazine In Style, in which Armani is an advertiser…
But the debate began earlier. In the last three years, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, fashion designers like Dior have sponsored shows devoted to their work. When the museum held a show of Gianni Versace’s fashions, it was paid for in part by Conde Nast, publisher of fashion magazines like Vogue that depend on Versace for advertising. Next year the museum hopes Chanel will finance a show of its work. Tiffany, Faberge and Cartier also paid for shows about their products. The museum won’t say how much any of these shows cost.
–NY Times, December 15, 1999
If there is a case to be made that fashion is a form of art, Karl Lagerfeld would be prima facie evidence. “Lagerfeld Confidential” consists almost entirely of interviews with the seventy-something designer as he works in his studio, attends runway shows, dines with fashion industry muck-a-mucks, etc. Although I knew him only by name in the past (I might have even had a bottle of Lagerfeld cologne in my decadent youth), I came away from this documentary directed by Rodolphe Marconi with a deep respect for the creativity and intelligence of an admittedly cynical subject. Like his friend Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld is a true expression of how bourgeois decadence can be seductive, not unlike the pearl generated by an infected oyster.
As the son of Swedish merchant-banking family that grew up in Germany, Lagerfeld enjoyed material privilege and emotional hardship. His mother Elizabeth, a native German, was cold and abusive as a New Yorker profile revealed:
He was devoted to his mother, who seemed rarely to miss an opportunity to criticize him. He has said that he decided never to smoke cigarettes after his mother told him that his hands were exceptionally ugly and that smoking would only draw attention to them; she also told him that his stories were “so boring” that he should hurry up and tell them—he says this accounts for his rapid speech. Lagerfeld recounts these instances of maternal cruelty without self-pity and even defends his mother, saying that children’s stories are indeed boring. His mother was tough, he concedes, “but right for a boy with a head like this”—he throws his hands wide apart.
In adolescence, Lagerfeld became consumed with design and women’s fashion in particular. As he reveals in the documentary, he knew early on that he was gay and never made an effort to conceal that fact. He moved to Paris in his teens and launched a successful career immediately. His main complaint about the fashion world then was that it was too “bourgeois”, a term that he uses throughout the film as an epithet. Unlike Marxists, his contempt stems from his identification with the feudal aristocracy that was overthrown by a bourgeoisie that disdained the peacock dress of the royal courts. It is obvious from this excerpt from the New Yorker profile that he would like to turn the clock back:
Two decades before it became de rigueur for designers to do so, Lagerfeld haunted flea markets and thrift shops for vintage dresses, dismantling them in order to learn the secrets of their construction and design. He studied books on Madeleine Vionnet and the other pioneers of fashion from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he translated this knowledge into his work, pairing historical references with contemporary trends. Lagerfeld became a fixation of the fashion press, which chronicled his life and style, noting the changes in his home décor, and his habit of dressing in Edwardian collars and ascots, and wearing a monocle. When he moved into the house on the Rue de l’Université, in 1977, he did not use electricity in some of the rooms but lit them with candles. Buck visited him there. “It was extraordinarily beautiful,” she says. “I slept in this bedroom with a lit à la polonaise, with a semicircular canopy—very high, with ostrich feathers on top. Next to that room was his study, and he slept in this tiny little room that had the actual lacquer furniture that had belonged to Mme. de Pompadour.”
While he is totally consumed with the fashion world and his place in it, Lagerfeld is by no means a one-dimensional figure. He is devoted to fine literature and has launched publishing company that is devoted to works that he deems worthy. His tastes run to Rilke and Emily Dickinson but when he discusses his favorite writers in the film, it is not from the perspective of a literary scholar. He is the quintessential fan, who makes no distinction between high and pop culture. You can get a sense of his unique conversational style from this New Yorker snippet:
“For me, the perfect writing is E. B. White—that’s how one should write English,” he told me at his home on the Rue de l’Université. “The sound, the language, what it evokes for me. I see New York with the eyes of his book about New York. Like Colette in French. Even someone like Léautaud—whom you probably don’t know. Léautaud was the son of a courtesan and his father was a bad actor who became a souffleur in the Comédie-Française—you know, the one who sits in a box onstage and whispers lines to the actors when they forget them? Prompter! He wrote three books and then he started a publishing house, a very good one, the Mercure de France, and stayed all his life there as the editor of the Mercure literature review, and he loved cats and animals—which I’m not crazy for. Everything he did all of his life, I don’t like, but his writing, for me, his descriptions of Paris—I go to the street where he went for fifty, sixty years, and I see it only with his eyes.
Clothing has always been connected with class issues. The French Revolution attempted to uproot all vestiges of the Ancien Régime including the ostentatious costumes of King and aristocrats, even though many in the middle class adopted the style of the rulers as is the case today with rappers wearing bling.
In the nineteenth century, clothing styles became more and more bourgeois, stressing sobriety and uniformity. With the advent of the industrial revolution, clothing not only began to come off the assembly line but expressed the aesthetic of the factory, especially men’s clothing.
The abandonment of display and color was more than mere Anglomania. The new dress embodied the ideological justification for and social legitimacy of the bourgeois. Clothing reaffirmed the concepts of modesty, effort, propriety, reserve, and “self-control,” which were the basis of bourgeois “respectability.” They combined a moral rejection with their political rejection of color. “The world of colors,” writes Jean Baudrillard, “is seen as opposed to that of values. ‘Chic’ effaces appearance so that being might stand revealed. Black, white, and grey, the very negation of color, were the paradigm of dignity, control, and morality.” Ideally, the bourgeois’s rather stiff black suit, like that of a clergyman, disguised or effaced his body, allowing the wearer to distance himself from it, abandon it, and forget its embarrassing or inopportune presence. It became, as Theophile Gauthier pointed out, “a sort of skin that no man will shed under any pretext. It sticks to him like the pelt of an animal, so that nowadays the real form of the body has fallen into oblivion.”
(Phillipe Perrot, “Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: a History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century)
As class distinctions began to emerge in the 19th century, elite dress began to reflect this fact. Industrialists, bankers and their wives began to wear clothing that distinguished them from the commoners, in the same manner that the aristocrats distinguished themselves from the lower classes in the 18th century. Ironically, bourgeois clothing often had egalitarian roots despite the “conspicuous consumption” uses it now had. The top hat, which had became a symbol of bourgeois excess, typified this paradox. Turning once again to Perrot:
In nineteenth-century streets the top hat covered every bourgeois head. To trace its history would entail a story of geographical displacement (because of its Quaker origins it emigrated from England to America), of amazing diffusion (the War of Independence made it prestigious, notably among the victorious French troops who brought it back to France and turned it into an emblem of liberty), and finally, of significant monopolization (it became the prerogative of the bourgeoisie).
After the July Monarchy the top hat was made no longer of felt but of black silk, and its crown was lower and narrower. Yet, it remained exceptionally uncomfortable, even after the spring system of a new, more practical model, the gibus, made it possible to open and collapse it. It fulfilled no useful purpose: its narrow brim provided little protection from rain or sun, and its height exposed it to every wind. It had no aesthetic alibis: everyone criticized “this unattractive and unfortunate form, known as the stovepipe,” and excoriated those “responsible” for it, “the ignorant hat-makers who for fifty years have been stuck in the groove of routine.” This gleaming cylinder owed its long life to other virtues: notably, that of incorporating both bourgeois propriety, through its stiffness and funereal sobriety, and aristocratic bearing, because it made any physical activity completely impossible, and that of simultaneously integrating democratic equality, by abandoning feathers or embroidery, with hierarchical difference, through a new play of distinctive details, particularly luster and cleanliness.
Today haute couture is not what it used to be. As described by Dana Thomas in the recently published “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster,” designer clothing is no longer the province of small, specialized manufacturers who produce for the carriage trade. It has become big business for two reasons. First of all, the growth of a new middle class worldwide has created a new inexhaustible market for Gucci, Prada, Yves St. Laurent et al, especially in Japan, Russia and China. Secondly, globalization has made it possible for such goods to be produced cheaply in China and other East Asian sweat shops. If you look carefully at Coach handbags, for example, you will notice that they are made in China. Like anything else coming out of China, the workers get the shitty end of the stick, as Dana Thomas reports:
Production in China costs 30 to 40 percent less than in Italy. “So we aren’t dirt cheap,” the manufacturer said. “There is a preconception in the U.S. and Europe that if the brands move to China they’ll get it for 10 percent. Sure, there are factories that will do that, but the quality won’t be there and the brand will suffer. If we do it right and they get good products from our effort, they will make money. In the end, we are the money generator for them.”
Indeed they are. The evening after I visited the factory in China, I met some friends for a drink at the bar at the new Harvey Nichols store in Hong Kong. As I entered the store from the Landmark luxury shopping mall in the heart of the Central business district, I passed through the handbag department. To my right, on the shelf, sat the exact same bag I saw the Chinese girls making in the factory. It cost the brand $120 to produce. It was for sale at Harvey Nick’s for $1,200.
Today nearly all the designer labels that you see in advertisements in the NY Times are not independent companies, but are subsidiaries of huge conglomerates that roam the planet relentlessly in search of new markets and cheap labor. LVMH (formed as a merger of Louis Vuitton, Moët et Chandon and Hennessy) is typical. These are some of the other properties they have acquired over the years: TAG Heuer, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Donna Karan, Emilio Pucci, Givenchy, Kenzo, Marc Jacobs, Parfums Christian Dior, Guerlain, Parfums and Givenchy.
The CEO of LVMH is one Bernard Arnault, who is the seventh richest man in the world. Arnault has brought the MBA, bottom line mentality to all the companies in his fold and most journalists in the fashion industry, including Dana Thomas, believe that his products have suffered as a consequence. Clearly, with the same process taking place in the film and wine industries, you are seeing the decline of quality as a function of rising profits.
And each time Arnault has taken over a fashion company, someone has ended up with a bloody nose.
The story of his dramatic climb started in 1984 when he returned to France from the US after a frustrated attempt to expand his family property company overseas.
It was then that the French government let him pay the insolvent Agache-Willot textiles and stores group a token one franc to acquire all its subsidiaries, including Christian Dior. The acquisition demonstrated Arnault’s lateral thinking. While all the other companies chasing the same prize would talk only to the government, Arnault instead reached an agreement with the Willot brothers who had run Agache-Willot into the ground.
This left the government with an easy choice. If it plumped for Arnault, it could get rid of the Agache-Willot problem. If it chose one of the others, the affair would drag on for years because the Willot brothers would have challenged its decision in the courts.
Predictably, it chose Arnault – but there there was a hitch.
Although Arnault’s optimistic business plan led the government to believe he would carry on running the textile and hygiene companies with a specified number of employees, he quickly took steps to sack workers in their thousands before selling off his textile and hygiene assets at a profit.
–London Mail, November 8, 1992, Sunday
Whatever criticisms one might have of Karl Lagerfeld and his feudal pretenses, he at least has the right attitude toward Arnault as found in the article cited above. Lagerfeld, who was the head designer at Christian Dior at the time when Arnault was making a takeover bid, said that he would “rather be a beggar in the streets of Paris than work for Bernard Arnault“.