Commodity Fetish Hot Potato

Available now on our new (!) Youtube channel: a pilot episode for an innovative new unboxing series. We—well, health protocols mandate that a solitary associate intern shares—the thrill of making runway dreams a reality. 

Our intern reports strange sensations in the course of filming these productions. We expected to feel a diminished pleasure from the staging for public consumption of the private, neurotic pleasures of collecting. This has to a certain extent proved true: that furtive first unwrapping, in half-lit, not yet repossessed rooms, of objects half-forgotten in the journey home, has been held off, the amateur’s impulse deferred for a professional stoicism.

The pleasure is no longer our own. It must wait, for the calculated angles of daylight, camera, and sound equipment. Our private reification—the attribution to things of qualities and relationships usually reserved for human beings—has been displaced, transferred, to the viewer. 

To our surprise, the handling of clothes during filming, the consideration of how they are best placed before a camera, to demonstrate their features and different uses, all create in us a far more materialist relationship with the pieces, one that is closer to the ideal proclaimed by good designers: of repeated, creative, much-handled and thoughtful use.   

In our traditional processes of purchasing and not-at-all taxonomic addition to the wardrobe labyrinth, we rarely reached this level of practical relationship with new items, particularly when registering more of an already well-represented item (leather jackets). So that, what might appear, to the casual viewer passing the thumbnail frame, just one more example of our all TV must be an infomercial moment, is, in fact, someone unexpectedly working their way out of commodity fetishism.    

Our first episode looks at two pieces from Celine.

Southern California Fieldwork

Yesterday we sent one of our assistant content researchers to explore their local fashion ecosystem. Their official assignment was to compare the colours of Lanvin’s Bumpr sneaker there with our inventory in Asia. Afterward, with a two digit per diem—that’s 00.00, not 00,000.00—local observation for future features.

Turning into the Lanvin store we were greeted with: ‘Are you here for the Curb sneaker?’ After a rapid self-examination of our clothes, we drew ourselves up proudly. What gave the impression that we were contributing to the Foot Lockerfication of the most ancient fashion house? But of course, we were; for the other model, we explained. 

So very many colours! Slight variations of synthetic upper, the latest—we ought to have anticipated it—in full grain leather. Attractive on first release as a retro middlebrow athleisure reference, the lux irony loses its gild when the luxury house itself produces infinite on-demand variations. Thus our discomfort at buying, rather than simply admiring, luxury sneaker trends. 

Jealousy, no doubt: we have been delighted by the resort ‘21 collection, which suggests some of Bruno Sialelli’s range. We wish there was as much of it in our local store as there are sneakers. The resort collection, making use of prints from the twentieth-century Russian artist and designer Erte, is much more grown-up. The preferred wider cut of Sialleli’s trousers are a natural fit with these more formal, wide cut blazers for men. Did we say wide? They aren’t in fact; and this is an attractive conjuring trick of Sialelli’s tailoring. Fitted at the chest, with slim and elongated drainpipe sleeves similar to the women’s, the monochrome colouring, square shoulders, and play with buttons all add a formidable, martial punch to an otherwise androgynous look. It appears that the suit will be as masculine or feminine as its wearer, or better, their mood at the moment. An achievement.

Finally, Sialelli’s preference for warm weather wear doesn’t look quite so sweaty. These clothes might be worn to a glamorous dinner. The womenswear is all about the hardware: gorgeous metal, self-fabric and leather buttons, fixed to jackets and coats (the leather lapelled peacoat is particularly good) with variations of balloon and rounded sleeves, all combined skillfully with refreshing Erte printed silks, scarves and blouses. This, not a hoodie and a bag of Cheetos, is what we aspire to after lockdown. Note the Erte collaboration in our blouse below, bought at Harbour City, Hong Kong.            

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Cross the way at Louis Vuitton, a dozen shoppers wait in line. So, down the corridor, at Gucci. Elsewhere, including Saint Laurent, empty. Black people now shop at South Coast Plaza, something which, before the renewed publicity of the Black Freedom Struggle, was not the case. It is not without shame that one imagines the discomfort that kept them away in the past. 

We explored emerging and underappreciated designers at feel-good local French-owned boutique Please Do Not Enter and, extinguishing our allowance, bought socks. 

Then, to Bottega Veneta, to get, for the first time among our American staff, hands on the latest collections by Daniel Lee. It was, in our brief glimpse, impressive. Despite BV’s apparent resurgence, there was no line at its door, which was moreover, open. Losing ourselves in the moment, we entered, noticing one employee reviewing an accessory with a pair of Chinese women. 

As we paused at the sunglasses, we noticed a tall, lean, bespectacled man polishing a jewelry case in the center of the store. His suit, at the second half of its laundering cycle, brought Dickens to mind, its colour no longer quite black. As we made our way to ready-to-wear he grasped the shoulder-width sides of the jewelry case, as if bracing himself before fainting. Doubled forward over the glass, his neck was peeled stiffly back, like an opened tin of sardines, over which his head lolled heavily. He gasped. 

“It’s ok,” we said, forgetting the times, hoping in this way to indicate a “browser.” 

It’s no wonder Daniel Lee has overseen the label’s retreat from social media. Short on logos, he makes use of impressive combinations of textiles and leather, as with, for example, the Plat Lace-Ups, which looks like an elegant if slight ‘50s football boot with asymmetrical lacing. The woven upper is in fact, to the touch, ingenuously structured, with a beautiful contrast leather tongue. Neither would be evident digitally. 

Examining the shoe, we heard a breathless sigh. “..Lisa…” 

We looked up at the still-stricken store minder. He leaned further over the jewelry case, his back by now as flat as its illuminated glass. He spoke again, this time the syllables stretching to a moan: “Lisaaaa!” 

Unaware, from too much unbroken lockdown, of the agony we were inflicting on the man, we assumed, at best, that he worried of a missed sale; at worst, of theft. 

We had our eyes trained on the curious Quilt sneaker, imagining its proper use, when we heard a dry, halting whisper at one ear. 

“Excuse me, would you leave?” said the polisher, who had silently liberated himself from the liferaft of his jewelry case. His speech, like all which pass through the turmoil of a body suffering from harmless unsociability, was utterly royal. 

Horrified, immediately, on recognizing our violation of health protocol (all of us to a man are devout rule-followers), we fled, giving the polisher, by now perhaps rising at the chance to express a long suppressed occupational wish, our quickest and sincerest apology. Taut with personal anxiety, the polisher’s face softened as we departed to one of sacerdotal benevolence, of commiseration at our recklessness unchecked.

Meanwhile back (far) East, we have added a few BV pieces to the wardrobe labyrinth. About which, more to come. 

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Whenever staff undertake such assignments, we ask—with gyungyun HR staff present—what they are wearing. Our assistant researcher wore a Haider Ackermann sweater styled with BV necklace (unremarked on in-store), Lanvin shoes, and a pair of jeans which were incinerated between research and publication. 

The Erstwhile Influencers and Fashion

High fashion is in an abusive relationship. In this caper, the fashion industry occupies the peculiar role of the infinitely patient parent. The big money labels, on the strength of accessory sales, advertise for big money in what few extant non-specialist publications will take them. Rather ungratefully, these publications, when they do take notice of fashion, in the form of seasonal summaries or designer profiles, adopt a singularly apologetic tone, as if the subject could only ever be of passing or embarrassed interest to its adult readers. I can think of no other industry with this kind of arrangement. Public asset-stripping unprofitable rideshare apps; wildcat fossil fuel extractor and refiners; criminal national champion airplane builders; all reported in earnest. Fashion by contrast gives (more), but gets questionable loyalty in return. 

A few such apologetic articles in the Financial Times. Lauren Indvik, a friend of fashion, summarized the spring couture season with the headline, “Who needs haute couture?” This seems on reflection only reasonable. 2020 was a dreadful year for the industry, with the quickmarch development of remote working forcing a reconsideration of dressing not only today, but in the many imagined futures of labour. And yet, what industry, with even the smallest trade organisation and advertising budget, would encourage such a discourse? Would the auto industry countenance an article headlined “who needs another car?”, or question competition and elite client programmes that are expensive, exclusive, beautiful, and push the limits of science and the market? Highly doubtful. For an industry responsible for such a substantial slice of the global economy, wasteful indeed but by no means irreparably or the worst, it’s a very unique identity the fashion industry has permitted for itself. 

One can’t help tracing some of the cause of this apologetic discourse to the dubious, often unquantifiable connections between art, artists, and femininity. Consumerism and feminism really ought to team up.  

A related disservice to the industry is the habit popular publications have of presenting clothes and fashion as, first of all, a discipline. Clothes by this logic are like cricket: a set of complicated rules the pursuit of which, especially for beginners, obscures and threatens to overtake the pleasurable purpose of the activity. Helen Barrett opened a FT advertorial for spring 2021: “An inherited sartorial rule is hardwired into most of us.” Robert Armstrong wrote an entertaining and schoolteacherly article in May 2020 titled, “Cancel that cravat: my rule for retro dressing.” Good clothes, we hear, with a wrap on the knuckles, “do not have to be fashionable…But if they are not, they have to be timeless. This rules out sentimentality…” and so on. 

The hyperbole is all part of the fun. After all, what are rules, and listicles of rules, but scrutinized, obsessive shopping lists? But the humour rests on a fixed rubric for thinking about clothes. Don’t tell anyone you like this stuff! Don’t do this! Don’t mess it up! Who could blame the punter for wondering why to bother at all? It’s no wonder that when Americans think of luxury brands they grasp the liferaft of a blameless belt or safely traditional print bag. 

There are harsher approaches to fashion among mainstream publications, even among those that publish the occasional fashion supplement. A contributor to The New York Times in January suggested the cancellation of talk about clothes tout court. During a live commentary of the video feed to the Presidential nomination one staffer posted, “I don’t want to be sexist by talking about clothes, but the first lady’s…” etc. And clothes were studiously avoided in that coverage, to be picked up in memes (Bernie Sanders), and rather bizarrely, by conservative outlets. Something is most definitely wrong when the curious have to resort to the rebarbative New York Post to learn who is the person in that spectacular Miu Miu coat. Doesn’t Prada advertise in the Times

Talking about clothes isn’t sexist. Assuming, imposing, or limiting the purposes of another person’s body certainly can be, though for many of us, the very act of spurring the viewer’s mind to action is a large part of why we dress. 

Clothes are one of very few harmless ways we can escape from our selves: from last year, last childhood, yesterday, even a slow, sloppy, self-loathing morning. Clothes are a source of liberation, their daily (re)iteration a process of healthy diversion and renewal. It is perhaps symptomatic of our modern media moment that the big tents of high-circulation newspapers don’t know quite what to do with fashion. To which reader should these papers appeal? We have on the one hand a business-friendly clientele battling with self-imposed Weberian Protestant sumptuary codes. We all know this rich, constipated Dad. On the other, an aging group of progressives tentatively mouthing “cancel?” at young readers who, in fact, wouldn’t at all mind luxury goods, if they could find work to pay for them.     

There is no shortage of new fashion writing. Great quantities are produced for the increasingly siloed digital world. But the loss of the legacy papers would be a blow to fashion. Where else should a lover of clothes read about their passion in correct serif font? Free from “ironically bad” photo collages of product, from think-pieces on the perils of consumerism, and sentences like this: “For artists working across eras, what they make is often a collective effort: to remember and honor what was almost forgotten and cannot be.” 

While the old papers last, fashion ought to reset the relationship. Stop apologizing and back itself as the industry of new beginnings. In our ticker-tape world of horrible news, fashion doesn’t deserve its self-flagellating identity. 

What are my top rules for dressing? Chuck out the rule book.