Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2013

The decline and fall of Levi-Strauss

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

No, I am not talking about the French anthropologist who applied structuralism to indigenous societies. Rather it is the blue jean company that has fallen upon hard times, much to my dismay. I imagine that after posting this and the one on Barneys yesterday, this will be the last I have to say on the rag trade for some time to come.

After going from a 34 waist to a 31, I have had to replace my trousers some of which were over 10 years old including a pair of Levi’s 501 blue jeans. I have had a pair of such jeans going back to 1961 in my freshman year at Bard College when upperclassmen advised me that they were “cool”. They have a button fly and shrink a size or two after the first washing. The material was like stiff and heavy canvas when it first came off the shelf but softened and faded most pleasingly after about a dozen cycles through the washing machine.

Unfortunately the 501 jeans Levi-Strauss sells today have nothing in common with my original pair except the name. The material is thinner and cheap looking. They are also prewashed. The upside is that you don’t have to worry about shrinkage. The downside is that they look like crap.

If you go to Amazon.com, you will find the “most helpful critical review” of the Levi’s 501 jeans:

Real 501’s are made of 14 oz canvas-like material. These “Iconic Rigid” jeans are made of some sleazy, much lighter material that takes on a carefully contrived set of wrinkles to make them look like they’d been worn to bed soaking wet and dried out overnight. If you want real 501’s stay away from these. I sent mine back right away.

Exactly.

Before revealing how this state of affairs came to be, a look at the roots of this garment manufacturer would be useful.

Levi Strauss (the first name is generally a last name in Jewry, it means a member of a priestly caste) was a German Jew who launched his blue jean company in 1853 out of San Francisco. The jeans were actually pioneered by a Latvian Jewish tailor named Jacob Davis who purchased denim from Levi Strauss. When the miners and other hardscrabble men who bought pants from Davis kept coming back to have them patched, he came up with the idea of reinforcing them with copper rivets at the points of maximum stress like the pockets corners. As is often the case in design, functionality and beauty are joined at the hip.

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Although they started out as work clothes like the Carhartt brand, they became a fashion statement in the 30s and 40s with the growing popularity of dude ranches. The look became popular in Hollywood films, with James Dean in “Giant” being representative.

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As well as Marlin Brando in “The Wild One”.

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By the time I got to Bard College, Levi jeans had become popular among the early 60s hipsters—most of whom were strongly influenced stylistically by the beat generation. Bob Dylan wore Levi’s.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.49.54 AMRapidly approaching my 69th birthday, I suppose I seem a bit foolish trying to dress in the same style I had adopted in 1961 but then again I remain attached inexplicably to the habits of my youth, including Marxism. It looks like I will be wed to Marxism for as long as I live but unfortunately the Levi 501 jeans will go by the wayside.

So what happened? This article puts it altogether:

The Guardian, Sunday 3 June 2007
Story of the blues
By Hadley Freeman

Levi’s was the original denim brand. In 1873, Jacob Davis, a tailor, hooked up with Levi Strauss to create a special pair of trousers for a woodcutter that were strong enough to hold in his bloated stomach. But things have come a long way since then and many industry observers say Levi’s has failed to keep pace.

Since 1996, the company’s sales have been dropping fast. It has lost billions of dollars in sales, closed dozens of factories and laid off nearly half of its workforce because, competitors say, it failed to take advantage of the change in the denim market when jeans shifted from being seen as a work garment to a style statement. Jonny Sorensen, the chief executive of Von Dutch, one of the denim brands Levi’s is suing, told the New York Times: “[Levi's] missed the boat. Now they want to make a lot of noise and scare people away.”

Calvin Klein introduced the concept of designer denim back in 1978, and Helmut Lang upped the ante two decades later by giving his jeans designer prices. But it wasn’t until the late 90s, with the emergence of Earl jeans from California, that the denim craze truly took hold. This label shifted people’s perceptions of jeans: no longer were they chunky workman wear but a sexy item that showed off a woman’s figure. In Earl’s first year, it had a turnover of $600,000. In its second, sales rose to $10m. In 2001 the company was sold for roughly $86m. “A woman now needs a different pair for every occasion, just like shoes: some days you want a sexy pair, other days you want to be more relaxed and slouchy,” says Suzanne Pendlebury, womenswear buyer for Harvey Nichols.

But the emphasis here is on “new”: jeans are not what they once were – baggy, frumpy, clumpy – and the mid-priced classic brands, such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, have struggled in the new marketplace. They have been squeezed out between, on the one hand, the flashier designer brands and, on the other, the cheap ranges offered in supermarkets and on the high street. Topshop’s Baxter jeans, for example, sell 18,000 pairs a week. Both the top and the bottom ends of the market have focused on denim’s new fashion-based image. Lee and Wrangler, on the other hand, have struggled with stagnating sales. Last year, Levi’s ended an eight-year fall in sales but it is still trying to recoup its losses from its period of what Onda describes as “steep decline” in the late 1990s.

Full: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2007/jun/04/fashion.retail

Levi-Strauss’s collapse raises all sorts of interesting questions about the commodity. Here is a product that underwent no significant changes since its birth around 150 years ago. It began to die in the marketplace as soon as people like Calvin Klein began to market blue jeans as a fashion item rather than a workaday garment (even though it did have its own esthetic.)

To what extent are there real benefits in style changes? Also, what was the role of such a “proletarian”, no-frills garment in destabilizing societies that were based on the rejection of commodity fetishism? The Levi-Strauss website recounts the role of their product in the Cold War:

Back (Then) in the U.S.S.R.

Russia – part of the former Soviet Union – is a fairly new market for Levi’s® jeans, but the company and the brand actually visited that country more than fifty years ago.

In 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to increase cultural contact between the two countries in order to ease tensions between the Cold War rivals.  The agreement stated that exhibits are “an effective means of developing mutual understanding,” and both nations agreed to host exhibitions from the other country. In 1959 the United States Information Agency coordinated the American National Exhibition which was sent to Moscow. Vice President Richard Nixon opened the Exhibition on July 25. (Remember the Kitchen Debate?)

Included in the displays of American culture, science, and technology was a good- sized booth created by Levi Strauss & Co., filled with displays of 501® jeans and Western-themed advertising. Staffers wore jeans and cowboy shirts, and 501® jeans were also worn by entertainers hired to treat the crowds to some down home American music.

Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. Why? As explained then by the international press service R&F Features, “Eager Soviet visitors handled – and occasionally helped themselves to – display samples of the all-American denim pants.”

Levi’s® jeans were a coveted, but forbidden capitalist item in the Soviet Union for the next thirty years. Then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Russian citizens could buy “real” (not black market) Levi’s® jeans for the very first time.

The LS&CO. Archives has a letter from one such happy customer, a woman named Larisa Popik, who wrote us in August of 1991:

A man hasn’t very much happy minutes in his life, but every happy moment remains in his memory for a long time. I’m not the fanatic of clothes, but the buying of Levi’s jeans (501) is one of such moments in  my life.  I’m 24, but while wearing your jeans I feel myself like a 15-years-school-girl, I feel myself like a graceful, slender and beautiful girl. 

Thank you very much for such comfortable, soft, light and nice jeans. Good luck to your kind and necessary business!

So, Levi 501 jeans—a vanguard fighter for capitalist restoration—now falls victim to the very process it seemed contrary to.

Maybe there’s hope for Levi’s in filling a niche for those wealthy enough to purchase jeans that perhaps allude to their birth in a place totally the opposite of where they are sold now: Barneys.

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October 28, 2013

Barneys bigotry

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

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Published by billionaire Mort Zuckerman, a diehard member of the Israel lobby, the New York Daily News has been evolving into a fairly hard-hitting “anti-racist” publication, to use the term that has come under close scrutiny in the recent past by people such as Adolph Reed. If you go to their website, you will see for example an item on the disgusting Trayvon Martin “costume” worn at a Florida Halloween party. Juan Gonzalez, Amy Goodman’s co-host at Democracy Now, has been writing a column at the News for years now. So, in general, this is a paper that is more liberal in some ways than the NY Times that has not had an African-American op-ed columnist since Bob Herbert left some years ago. Charles Blow does have a column that appears on Saturday but it is fairly narrowly focused on polling and demographics.

The News broke the story on a young Black man being racially profiled by Barneys, the upscale clothing store that I used to patronize in the 1980s when I worked on Wall Street.

The clothing store Barneys purports to cater to a certain class of person, one so chic and so monied as to be eager to spend $280 on a pair of jeans or $2,850 on a skimpy woman’s “bicolor jacket.”

Apparently, in Barneys’ view, this class of person did not extend to a young, black New York City male who took a flier on buying a $300 Ferragamo belt. Trayon Christian says store security had him busted by the NYPD.

Christian is a 19-year-old New York College of Technology engineering student who lives in Queens. He has a work-study job that deposits his pay directly into a Chase bank account.

After picking out the belt, he offered his Chase debit card for payment. This was a transaction of a kind that happens thousands of times a day at Barneys’ Madison Ave. flagship emporium.

Without incident, the trendy from neighborhoods like the upper East Side make their picks and flash their cards as if this is where they belong . But not Christian, who has filed suit charging that Barneys concluded, based on skin color, that his money was stolen.

Christian says that, after presenting his debit card, he complied with a request for identification, completed the purchase and walked out, only to be stopped by plainclothes NYPD cops, who said that Barneys had called, accusing him of using a fake card.

In Christian’s telling, he was handcuffed and spent two hours in the 19th Precinct stationhouse while cops verified that he was who he said he was and that the money was his to spend.

The incident has had ramifications in a city polarized around the question of racial profiling. Bill de Blasio, certain to be the next mayor, has called for the abolition of “stop and frisk”, a practice that targets Blacks and Latinos disproportionately.

It has put Jay Z, the rapper businessman, on the spot:

Jay-Z — under increasing pressure to back out of a collaboration with the luxury store Barneys New York after it was accused of racially profiling two black customers — said Saturday he’s being unfairly “demonized” for just waiting to hear all of the facts.

The rap mogul made his first statement about the controversy in a posting on his website. He has come under fire for remaining silent as news surfaced this week that two young black people said they were profiled by Barneys after they purchased expensive items from their Manhattan store.

My last big-ticket purchase at Barneys was a 700-dollar Armani suit that I bought just a few months before losing my job at Goldman Sachs in 1988. It, along with my Paul Stuart suits, went to a thrift shop about a year after I began working at Columbia University. Don’t ask me why I wasted my money on such commodities. Temporary insanity, I guess.

The story of Barneys’s transformation over the years is one that is very much connected to those taking place in New York City generally, as it has become much more of a FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) center as well as a haven first for Eurotrash and more recently for the offspring of Russian oligarchs and oil sheikhs.

The store is named after Barney Pressman, a Jew who launched it in 1923 at 7th avenue and 17th street with the $500 he got from hocking his wife’s engagement ring. He got started in what New Yorkers call the rag trade working in his father’s clothing store, pressing trousers 3 cents a pair.

Early on, Barneys catered to less than wealthy men who wanted to buy a prestigious brand like Hickey-Freeman or Oxxford that were bought wholesale at odd lots and auctions. Often the customer would ask for the Barneys label to be removed so as to leave open where the suit was purchased. At the time Saks 5th Avenue had a lot more clout than Barneys.

In the 1960s the store was transformed into a snooty boutique under the stewardship of Fred Pressman, the owner’s son. As prosperity became generalized in the long postwar expansion, New Yorkers had more money to burn. Barneys’s original location expanded to five floors and a new store was launched on 61st and Madison, both catering to women as well as men. After Fred Pressman retired, his sons Gene and Robert took over and targeted the rich and the infamous even more. If you’ve seen Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, you’ll get a good idea of what the typical Barneys wardrobe looked like.

On August 29, 1993, the NY Times Sunday Magazine had a 5000 word article on the store’s ambitions. Like cocaine, Studio 54, and Madonna, it was an icon of the period as reporter Steve Lohr indicated:

Much of retailing, it is said, boils down to understanding life styles and spotting trends. Over the years, Gene Pressman has certainly done plenty of field research. He is by nature a participant, trying what was hip and trendy ever since Woodstock in 1969. “I got so wasted,” he recalled fondly. “And wasn’t the music great?” Later, he sampled Manhattan night life, knew the Andy Warhol crowd, took in the scene of Studio 54 and the like.

He lives in Bugsy Siegel’s former house, a Tudor mansion in Westchester County, overlooking Long Island Sound, which he redid to accommodate a 14,000-bottle wine cellar and a garage with vintage cars. Guests, also clearly a carefully edited selection, get tours past the ’62 Aston Martin in the garage and the expensive wines in the cellar. Gene is married these days with two children. He drives fast, but the rest of his fast-lane life may simply be a fond memory.

Though he’s wealthy and surrounds himself with expensive toys, he clings to his version of 60’s counterculture values. He pulls his white shirt away from his neck to show that it is monogrammed, but on the inside. “How about that for reverse snobbery?” he says.

In order to build their empire in New York as well as stores in other countries enjoying a booming economy, the Pressman’s partnered with Isetan, a Japanese department store also catering to the rich.

Like the Japanese economy, Barneys expanded too fast and too much on a mountain of debt, thus leading to bankruptcy in 1996. In 1999 a book by Joshua Levine titled “The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory and Greed “ was published by William Morrow. If the title evokes Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, this review in the New York Observer will explain why:

Some years ago, a friend took her 14-year-old son to the 17th Street Barneys to buy a birthday gift for his style-conscious grandfather. Dressed in full New York private school uniform (frayed baggy jeans, ripped T-shirt), my friend’s son seemed to have come from a different fashion planet; here the aliens were buying and selling silk socks that, judging by their price, must have been produced by worms specially selected and properly compensated for outspinning their grubbier brothers. For a while, the boy was mystified, and put off. But eventually he succumbed to the lure of the buttery loafers, the ties arrayed in bright rainbows, like elegant wearable candy; he fell for the seductive chemistry of luxury, snobbery and taste. As they left, he turned around, and promised the expensive, attractive things, “I’ll be back!” When I asked my friend how this made her feel, she said, “As if I’d personally introduced him to the Devil.”

The most entertaining and upsetting sections document the sheer wastefulness, misguidedness and mismanagement that went into the construction of the catastrophically expensive–$267 million–Madison Avenue Barneys, the Pressmans’ monument to themselves: “‘The Pressmans kept saying they wanted this to be the most beautiful store in the world,’ says one of the top architects on the project … ‘We did a whole boutique [lined] with goatskin … I was arguing that you could do this in a faux finish, and you might spend an eighth of the price. The response was, like, why use faux goatskin when you could use real goatskin?’”

Why? Presumably, so all that expensive fabulousness could be osmotically absorbed by the sales staff, who would then feel righteously entitled to give Barneys’ customers the maximum amount of attitude. The arrogance and oily-hip demeanor of the salespeople eventually became a liability for the store, as shoppers began to wonder why they were sneered at so contemptuously when they handed over their credit card to pay for, say, the Rei Kawakubo bump dress that for a small fortune could make a woman look like she had tumors growing on her ass.

Like other wonders of the world (the Pyramids, for example), the building took its toll not only in money but in human life. One worker fell off a scaffolding, the other tumbled down an empty elevator shaft–a death that, Mr. Levine suggests, may have been connected to a dispute over the profitable disposition of the scrap metal that the construction site was generating. But unlike the slave laborers who built the Pyramids, these workers expected to get paid, a modest expectation often at odds with the Pressmans’ increasingly precarious financial situation. Creditors resorted to scrawling nasty graffiti on the unfinished building and (as they grew more impatient) making death threats against their employers, tactics the Pressmans countered by beefing up store security.

Reading The Rise and Fall of Barneys means wading through the details of the bad business decisions that brought the Pressmans low; some people love this sort of thing, which I find about as exciting as watching a stranger balance his checkbook. And at times I couldn’t help wishing that Mr. Levine had gained access to the family. To know what makes the Pressmans tick might be like channeling the Pharaohs, or Louis XIV. Nonetheless, Joshua Levine has done a serviceable and entertaining job of explaining why, when my friend’s son makes his long-promised return to the pretty ties and shoes of the Chelsea Barneys, the store he remembers will be long gone–and he’ll find himself in Loehmann’s.

March 30, 2012

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: beatniks,Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Reviewed below:

–“Beat Hotel”

–“God Save My Shoes”

–“Surviving Progress”

In catching up with AMC TV’s terrific “Mad Men” series (Season Five began last Sunday), I was watching an episode from Season Two the other night. Peter Campbell, a copywriter from a very Waspy family, went to a doctor with his wife to find out why they were having trouble procreating. Set in 1962, it was natural for the doctor to ask Campbell in his one-on-one discussion with him: “Do you really want to have a child?” Campbell replied vociferously, “How can you ask such a question? Everybody wants to have children.”

As part of its ongoing attempt to reflect different aspects of American society, the show depicts the burgeoning counter-culture—even including the bearded hipster copywriter named Paul Kinsey.

As I watched the exchange between the doctor and Peter Campbell, I could not help but think of the opening lines of one of my favorite poems from the early 60s, Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”:

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where’s the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap-
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?

For countless numbers of young people, Corso’s poem symbolized an alternative path for living in America by one’s own rules. Instead of buying into the suburban utopia with its split-level houses and two-car garages, we would make life into an adventure—smoking dope, hanging out in Lower East Side tenements listening to Charlie Parker records, working as clerks in bookstores, and trying to finish a novel or that next poem.

Just two nights after watching the “Mad Men” episode I had the exquisite pleasure of watching what might just be the best documentary on the beat generation, a film titled “The Beat Hotel” that opens at the Cinema Village in NY this evening.

Like the Chelsea Hotel in NY in the 1960s and 70s, the fleabag, no-name hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur in Paris became a beacon for cultural rebels during the 1950s. Three of its leading denizens were the aforementioned Gregory Corso, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who shared his tiny room with Peter Orlovsky.

The film relies heavily on the photographs of Harold Chapman who lived there as well. Chapman also supplies invaluable recollections of what life was like in the hotel, including fascinating details about its seediness. There was only one bathroom on each floor, each featuring a “Turkish” (or squat) toilet that evoked those Gahan Wilson cartoons from an old New Yorker Magazine.

“Beat Hotel” also includes some absolutely fantastic animation based on the paintings of Elliot Rudie who also lived there. Like Chapman, Rudie has plenty of great anecdotes about hanging out with Burroughs and the gang.

The hotel was owned and run by Madam Rachou who was sympathetic to political as well as cultural rebels. During the Algerian war of independence, she provided a haven for leftists being pursued by the French cops.

In contrast to the opulent but spiritually bereft environment of “Mad Men”, “The Beat Hotel” was a fertile oasis that brought great pleasure to the men possessed by a vision of a better world, even if it was not based on any kind of economic or political program. Allen Ginsberg, who put in some time as a copywriter himself, put it this way in “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

Now, 57 years later after this poem was written, young people not that different than me continue to look to the beat generation as an inspiration. They, and people of any other age, should go see “Beat Hotel” to get an idea of how it all got started.

Also opening tonight at the Quad Cinema in NY is “God Save My Shoes”, a fascinating examination of women’s high heels. For those who have read my posts on Sex and the City, both the television show and the universally despised part 2 movie (except for me and WBAI’s resident Marxist film critic Prairie Miller), this review should come as no great surprise. As Karl Marx once said—quoting Roman playwright Terrence—”Nothing human is alien to me”. The same goes for me, including high-heel shoes.

Despite the film’s nod to Sex and the City as having inspired the explosion of sales in high-heels over the past decade or so, it has as much in common with a Modern Language Association convention as it does with pop culture. It interviews Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer whose beautiful but largely unwearable commodities were favored—if not fetishized—by lead character Carrie Bradshaw. Indeed, the documentary shows outtakes from several fashion shows as runway models trip over their own feet bedecked in 5 inch heel shoes. A similar scene takes place in Sex and the City when Carrie tries modeling as a PR stunt.

Shoe designers like Blahnik are artists in their own right, even if their work might have the effect of confining women just as feet-binding and corsets did in an earlier age, as observed by Valerie Steele, the curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum (a school where my wife has taught political science classes for over 5 years.) In addition to Steele, we hear from Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, whose grasp of the history, the esthetics, and psychological and social implications of high heels is just as penetrating.

The academic experts allow for the possibility that such shoes empower women insofar as they raise their wearers to the same height as men. At the same time they fret over the obvious health hazards and their sexual objectification of women. This contradiction, of course, is at the heart of the film’s message and makes it such compelling viewing.

In keeping with the “Mad Men”/”Beat Hotel” times-are-changing motif expressed above, it occurs to me that the high-heels fad among young women is related in some ways to the almost universal tendency for African-American women to straighten their hair using toxic chemicals as pointed out in Chris Rock’s fascinating “Good Hair”. If the 60s was all about being “natural”, the late 70s onwards is much more about appearance—a repeat of the awful fifties in many ways. Let’s hope that the financial crisis might have a useful side-effect just as the 1930s Great Depression did, namely an impulse toward reexamining what the “good life” is all about.

On April 6th, a week from tomorrow, “Surviving Progress” opens at the Cinema Village in NY, the same locale as “The Beat Hotel”. This documentary can best be described as a look at the same phenomenon covered in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, the tendency of civilizations to destroy themselves over time through unwise economic and environmental practices—but without Diamond’s crappy politics. Probably the first and best overview of this tendency was stated by Frederick Engels in “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Unlike Diamond, directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks make the link between the capitalist economic system (even though they refrain from using the term) and environmental despoliation. In answering the question why the Amazon rainforest keeps getting chopped down even as it threatens to undermine humanity’s future, they call on left economist Michael Hudson who explains that Brazil was simply acting on the suggestion made by the IMF to pay off debts through the rapid and extensive use of agricultural exports. The general thrust of the film is to put the blame on the international financial system for a possible extinction of life as we know it. What makes this all the more interesting is Martin Scorsese’s role as executive director. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the great artist of personal crime is beginning to understand that the biggest problem is corporate crime.

“Surviving Progress” has a stellar cast of academics like Michael Hudson (Stephen Hawking among them) and people in the political arena charged with the duty of saving the planet from predatory financial interests. Among them is Marina Silva, a Brazilian senator who was formerly Minister of the Environment, who is shown in the Amazon at a logging factory and at the small towns that house the desperately poor loggers and farmers encroaching on the forest. They plead their case, stating that if the Amazon is the lungs of the north, it is also the heart of the Brazilian poor. Without an Amazon to exploit, there is no future for them.

While the film does not get into alternative ways of economic development, it is fairly obvious that the future of the planet can only be guaranteed through the elimination of private property and the profit motive. As Hollywood fictional films continue their sorry descent into the cesspool, we can at least be assuaged by the determination of courageous directors like Mattieu Roy and Harold Crooks to tell the truth without worrying about whether their film will be the next blockbuster. For intellectual and political stimulation, and as well as to respond positively to an imperative to make such documentaries worth making, I urge you to put “Surviving Progress” on your calendar.

June 13, 2011

Savage Beauty: the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Met

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Always looking for an opportunity to disassociate myself from a herd mentality on the left, I have found occasion in the past to write about haute couture designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino Garavani, and the Project Runway veterans Austin and Santino, who were featured in a Bravo series last year about designing fancy gowns for women in the boondocks who drove trucks, worked in construction, etc.

From time to time, I get complaints from people who read my blog about my failure to address burning issues of the day like the trade union struggles in Madison. I always defend myself by saying that I am not trying to compete with Znet or Counterpunch. I write about what interests me, even if that opens me up to the charge that I am an intellectual dilettante. Or maybe I concur with Karl Marx who concurred in turn with the Roman playwright Terence’s dictum “Nothing human is alien to me.” (Nihil humani a me alienum puto.) After spending 11 years in a disciplined Marxist-Leninist group that functioned more or less like the Borg in Star Trek, I made up my mind after resigning that I would follow my own path wherever it might lead, including a visit to the Metropolitan Museum yesterday to see “Savage Beauty”, an exhibition of the work of Alexander McQueen, the high fashion designer who killed himself in February 2010, a month before his fortieth birthday.

On the occasion of McQueen’s untimely death, I posted a NY Times obit to the Marxism mailing list that included these paragraphs:

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

Well, call me a dilettante but how in the world would I turn down the opportunity to see the clothing described above with my own eyes?

McQueen was in the news lately when it was revealed that Kate Middleton would be wearing an Alexander McQueen wedding dress. As it turns out, the dress was actually designed by Sarah Burton who was the head designer at the firm founded by McQueen. That being said, it was likely that McQueen would have worked on such a gown if he had been alive. Despite his outsider posture, he understood that his ambitions were inextricably linked to the upper class that he so detested.

That same contradiction exists within the Metropolitan as well. The curators were obviously sympathetic to McQueen’s rebellious nature even though the board of trustees at the Met typifies the tastes of American blueblood society, including the Anglophilia that prevails at PBS television as well. Despite this, the curators did not mince words:

“The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as . . . haggis . . . bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.”

—Alexander McQueen

McQueen’s collections were fashioned around elaborate narratives that are profoundly autobiographical, often reflecting his Scottish heritage. Indeed, when he was asked what his Scottish roots meant to him, he replied, “Everything.” McQueen’s national pride is most evident in the collections Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995–96) and Widows of Culloden (autumn/winter 2006–7). Both explore Scotland’s turbulent political history. Highland Rape was based on the eighteenth-century Jacobite Risings and the nineteenth-century Highland Clearances, and was the first collection to introduce McQueen tartan. Shown on semi-naked, blood-spattered models that staggered down a runway strewn with heather and bracken, the clothes were intended to counter romantic images of Scotland. In contrast, Widows of Culloden, which was based on the final battle of the Jacobite Risings, was more wistful, featuring exaggerated silhouettes inspired by the 1880s. McQueen’s message, however, remained defiantly political: “What the British did there was nothing short of genocide.” Despite these heartfelt declarations of his Scottish national identity, McQueen felt intensely connected to England, especially London. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said. His deep interest in the history of England was most apparent perhaps in The Girl Who Lived in the Tree (autumn/winter 2008–9), a dreamy quixotic fairy tale inspired by an elm tree in the garden of McQueen’s country home near Fairlight Cove in East Sussex. Influenced by the British Empire, it was one of McQueen’s most romantically nationalistic collections, albeit heavily tinged with irony and pastiche.

If you are inclined to see “Savage Beauty”, my suggestion is to go early in the morning and on a weekday unless you are willing to put up with a half-hour wait on line. I am not quite sure why this is such a hot ticket right now but you will get the most out of the show if you are not forced to compete with other attendees for a unblocked view of the clothing on display.

Like Lady Gaga, Alexander McQueen understood that a career in the arts could be advanced by being outrageous. One might be sure that he would have appreciated her showing up at a Grammy show in a meat dress, a move obviously indebted to the McQueen esthetic.

For most of the past century, avant-garde art, including some haute couture designs, has proceeded on the basis that we are in a period marked by decadence. As you walk your way through the McQueen exhibit, you feel as if you have walked into a Poe short story. The dominant colors are black and gray, relieved mostly by the colors of artwork that have been integrated into a dress or a gown. In one jacket, you see an image drawn from “The Thief to the Left of Christ” by Robert Campin, a fifteenth century artist. In another item, you see elements of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of tormented sinners. This is hardly the sort of garment you would see at a cocktail party in the Hamptons, needless to say.

In fact, most of the clothing on display challenges conventional understandings of what constitutes haute couture. Platform shoes have impossibly high heels that threaten to topple anybody wearing them. Dresses made of black leather look like the sort of thing you’d find in an S&M boutique even if they incorporate McQueen’s ravishing sense of style.

This mixture of beauty and decay is what might be expected from a social system that is on its last legs. The artist cannot help but understand that art is resting on rotten foundations, just as was the case in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Ushers”. In the 17th century the Dutch masters were content to represent the burghers as benign figures, but in the 20th century onwards—after two world wars, countless colonial wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation—it is impossible not to notice the rot all around you, starting from the heads of society: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Barack Obama, David Cameron, et al. In such circumstances, Lady Gaga’s meat dress and Alexander McQueen’s “savage beauty” make perfect sense.

September 12, 2010

Picture Me: “a model’s diary”

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

As a fan of cable TV’s Project Runway and documentaries about Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, I jumped at the opportunity to see a press screening of Picture Me: “a model’s diary” last Thursday that was scheduled to coincide with Fashion Week in New York. (The movie opens at the Angelika Theater on September 17.)

However, this film was anything but the kind of free PR that the fashion industry might have expected. It was co-directed by Ole Schell, a documentary filmmaker, and Sara Ziff, his girlfriend—a professional model since the age of 14 who kept a video log of her experience in the industry over a five-year period. Weaving together her amateurish shaky footage with his own interviews with industry honchos, the finished product is a complex, ambivalent and altogether fascinating glimpse into the world behind the photos seen in Vogue and Elle magazines and the mammoth billboards on Times Square.

That is what one might have expected given their background. Ole Schell is the son of famous Sinologist Orville Schell whose first movie was Win in China, a documentary on the country’s entrepreneurial tidal wave. By the same token, Sara Ziff is not the stereotypical bubble-headed model (the movie’s main breakthrough is challenging these stereotypes) but the thoughtful and self-aware daughter of an NYU biochemistry professor and his wife, an attorney.

One day a total stranger approached Sara on the street asked her if she was a model. When she answered no, he set up an appointment with her at a top agency and her career began immediately. She knew that this would take her away from the path of college education and a career more in line with her parent’s expectations but the promise of a glamorous world, travel and buckets of cash persuaded her to take a shot at it. Although the film does not mention it (and really does not need to do so), the third “benefit” (buckets of cash) is exactly what draws young women into exotic dancing, porn films and prostitution.

While the world of runway modeling would seem to have little to do with these tawdry professions, we learn that they now recruit from the same labor pool: the impoverished nations of Eastern Europe such as Byelorussia and Romania, two countries whose representatives are seen in the film.

There is also the same kind of meat market mentality that operates in both realms. Sara Ziff says that the objectification is so extreme in the modeling world that an agency bigwig will often grab a model’s thigh or rear end in his or her hand and comment “She’s too fat” without even asking the model’s permission. For them, the model amounts to the same thing as a head of cattle on display at an auction.

We also learn that sexual predation is commonplace in the fashion industry. A top photographer will have his version of the casting couch, often selecting a young model under the age of 15. It is a sign of the desperation of poor women trying to break into the field that charges are not filed on a regular basis as they were in the Polanski case.

Despite the horrors that Sara Ziff put up with, she freely admits that the money kept her going. She was making more money than her dad and able to buy a fancy loft in Soho. But the longer she stayed in the industry, the more alienated she became. It was also getting to the point when she was becoming “too old”, an astounding verdict given that she was only 23. We learn that the industry is a revolving door, always on the lookout for the next big sensation, ideally a 15 year old just beyond the body of an anorexic.

At the end of the film, Ziff has been accepted into Columbia University General Studies and the closing credits inform us that she is majoring in political science and has begun work to launch a fashion model’s trade union. Good for her and good for Ole Schell for making a remarkable movie.

February 12, 2010

Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

NY Times February 11, 2010
Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40
By ERIC WILSON and CATHY HORYN

Alexander McQueen, the renegade British fashion designer known for producing some of the most provocative collections of the last two decades, was found dead on Thursday morning in his London home, the police there said. He was 40.

At the beginning of his career, Mr. McQueen became a sensation for showing his clothes on ravaged-looking models who appeared to have been physically abused, institutionalized or cosmetically altered, all while peppering his audience with rude comments. “I’m not interested in being liked,” he said. He once mooned the audience of his show.

But he was enormously creative and intelligent, and he seemed to sense that the fashion industry needed to have its buttons pushed. His fall 2009 collection was the talk of Paris when, reacting to the recession, Mr. McQueen showed exaggerated versions of all of his past work on a runway strewn with a garbage heap of props from his former stage sets. He was suggesting that fashion was in ruins.

“The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem,” he said. “There is no longevity.”

In his work, Mr. McQueen drew on Orientalism, classicism and English eccentrics, and also his ideas about the future, combining them in ways that were complex and perplexing.

As designers have done for centuries, Mr. McQueen altered the shape of the body using corsetry and anatomically correct breast plates as a recurring motif. More recently, his work took on increasingly futuristic tones, with designs that combined soft draping with molding, or ones in which a dress seemed to morph into a coat. At his last show, in October, the models wore platform shoes that looked like the hulls of ships.

Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London on March 17, 1969. His father was a taxi driver; his mother was a social science teacher. His father wanted him to become an electrician or a plumber, but Lee, as he was always known, knew he wanted to work in fashion. His father, Ron McQueen, survives him, as do five siblings.

Aware of his homosexuality at an early age (he said he knew at age 8), he was taunted by other children, who called him “McQueer.” He left school at 16 and found an apprenticeship on Savile Row working for the tailors Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes. In a story he repeated on some occasions but at other times denied, he was bored one day and wrote a derogatory slur in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.

As he struck out on his own, Mr. McQueen was immediately recognized for his brashness. The models in his October 1993 collection walked the runway with their middle fingers extended, and their dresses were hand-printed to appear as if they were covered with blood; some of it looked fresh. He also showed trousers cut so low that they were called “bumsters.” Criticized at the time because some did not cover the rear, the trousers were credited with initiating a low-rise trend that eventually caught on with every mainstream jeans maker in the world.

“His was a hard show to take, but at least it offered one solution to the identity crisis of London fashion,” wrote Amy M. Spindler, then the fashion critic of The New York Times.

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

“Nicey nicey just doesn’t do it for me,” he said.

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