Thursday, March 12, 2009

Like crack for women

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

It's always seemed a little bit loopy to me that the fashion industry continues to churn out four-figure dresses in the middle of a recession - and that any fashion designer would say something like "I do believe that in times like today...the role of fashion is changing and it's no longer just to make sure that we look right and professional and comfortable, but it's maybe about giving the dream and making people feel good again - making people think, Should I go to a psychiatrist or should I go to buy a Lanvin suit?"

I love clothes, but I would pick the psychiatrist any day. Still, Ariel Levy's recent New Yorker profile of Lanvin head designer Alber Elbaz (the speaker of the rather insane quote above) gave me some hope for the fashion industry, which I dismiss mostly as a manufacturer of low self-esteem, in the sense that I could never wear high fashion, even if I could afford it. The models always look supremely uncomfortable and very strange - I rarely look at photographs of fashion shows and see real beauty, because it is so clearly about the designer's ego, rather than the woman who is wearing the garment. But people love Alber Elbaz, precisely because his clothes are about the women he designs for. They are about comfort, timelessness, and most of all, intelligence. "The highest compliment a woman can receive is 'My God, she looks smart!'" Elbaz writes, "not that 'she's sexy'." Perhaps it is this aesthetic that made Barneys' creative director, Simon Doonan, refer to Elbaz's clothes as "crack for women" (because, of course, women don't use crack. I had to say it!).

Elbaz is not one of those glamorous designers, a person who is clearly a purveyor of sex appeal. He is anxious, overweight and boyish - Levy describes a breakfast with him at the Carlyle Hotel, when he looked over the menu and said, "Should we be good or bad today? Maybe we start good and get bad later." Levy writes, "He ordered the fruit salad. He wanted the pancakes." And he is deeply neurotic about how he appears in comparison to other designers - when ousted from Yves Saint Laurent by Tom Ford, a "toned and tan Texan," Elbaz was devastated. Ford is known for his flashy displays of female sexuality - one of his more famous ads for Gucci featured a woman pulling her underwear down to reveal a "G" shaved into her pubic hair.

Elbaz is a little more sedate, and much classier (although really, it doesn't take much to out-class that ad). And where Ford was hip and fast-paced, Elbaz is terrified of being "the designer of the moment" - because that moment will one day be over. And yet - he seems to have triumphed over Ford, who mostly disappeared from the fashion scene at the end of the 1990s. Tilda Swinton (that classiest of actresses) accepted her Oscar in a Lanvin design last year, a dress that she described as "sincerely comfortable, modest, superchic, profoundly modern." Somehow I don't think Gucci could have pulled that off.

Elbaz's designs, a mixture of the "soigne and the daffy," are where I think the true future of fashion lies. I don't object to fashion as an art form - after all, I can't afford lots of art, so the prices shouldn't bother me - but when it manipulates female sexuality to create something that isn't really beautiful, but is in fact profoundly uncomfortable, I think fashion has gone in the wrong direction. Like architecture, fashion is in a different category because it's something we have to live in. Levy writes, "very little is painless or undramatic for Elbaz." And perhaps that's why his designs fit his models so well. Any designer can make a woman look thin, or pretty, or hot. But making a woman look fascinating - that's something that requires more than ego, or even more than style. That's when fashion becomes art.

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