Illustration by Nick Dewar, 2004.
I once worked for a man who marched past my cubicle each morning shouting "Coffee!" without so much as a sidelong glance in my direction. Each day for nearly eight months I did indeed get him his coffee, although I will say that it gave me a great deal of pleasure to never ONCE wash out his cup. Rather than speak up or better yet, quit I desperately hoped he might contract dysentery and die a slow, painful death.
All of us have had them: employers who redefine torture through sub-human acts, boosting their own inflamed superiority while sending the rest of us into years of therapy. As the imperious Miranda Priestly in the recently released film, The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep is the ultimate boss from hell, a perfidious fashionista eminently more watchable than my slavedriver of a boss ever was (and yes, with better shoes). Streep's pitch-perfect performance is particularly striking for its subtlety: she's preternaturally toxic a high-end poison. Yet beyond her stilettoed reign of terror lies a kind of sartorial subterfuge: the clothes and the bags, the Manhattan townhouse and the chauffered cars, the parties, the fashion shows, the endless accessories that beget more, more and still more.
The underlying story of honor and redemption is there if you want it, but the real story is more material than moral: one is left contemplating the power and glory that comes from all that stuff.
Based on the book by Lauren Weisberger, the fictional Priestly is said to be modeled on Vogue editor Anna Wintour, a woman whose own wardrobe budget probably rivals the GNP tallies of some third-world countries. The film's fictional magazine, Runway, is based on any of a variety of fashion magazines, down to the "closet" (a lending library for designer samples) and including the magnificent Stanley Tucci as Nigel, Runway's uncompromisingly detail-conscious art director. Beyond the "bling" factor, anyone who has ever worked at a magazine will recognize the frenzy of activity that attends "closing the book," and there are other delightful moments of giddy familiarity: a scene in which Miranda brings her entire editorial entourage to a young designer's atelier to preview his spring collection offers a hilarious send-up of every over-intellectualized student crit I've ever attended.
Prada is yet another in a long line of stories in which posessions loom large, at once shining beacons of material success and wagging fingers of moral turpitude. Cultural critics have long bemoaned the futile promise of conspicuous consumption, but it persists nevertheless in fiction, where stuff itself is heaped up on the screen like one sinful dessert after another. DreamWorks' recent release, Over The Hedge, offers up a similar tale of material greed here, told from the perspective of a group of wizened critters who yearn not so much for couture as for, well, chips and salsa. The villain intent on eliminating them is a sleek brunette voiced by the whiskey-tenored Allison Janney: known to her suburban constituents merely by her first name, Gladys, (and firmly emblazoned on the vanity plate of her SUV as Glady$$) she's Miranda for the rodent set. No subterfuge here just satire, silliness, and lots and lots of stuff. As in so many movies for children, the animals wise up, see the light and are all the better for it. The loser grown-ups, slaves to the world of material posessions that surround them, remain forever stupid.
Judith Thurman's recent essay on the legend of Cristobal Balanciaga in The New Yorker reveals a similar world of material excess, in the true sense of the word: pricey fabrics, one-of-a-kind confections, fashion as sport, as sex, as religion powered not so much by faith as by fevered reverie. (For readers unfamiliar with Thurman's writing, wait no longer: she is a designer's writer, a hugely talented storyteller whose use of language vividly reconstructs the world around her, often told through the lens of fashion. This is the same writer who once compared the notion of consignment-store shopping, to those unfamiliar with the practice, to sex on a park bench with a stranger. Enough said.) We're reminded that fashion, though, is both an elevated form of design (expensive, social, market-driven, international) and its curious stepchild. In a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz critiques Phaidon's "somewhat fuzzy" choice to exclude fashion from it's 3,000-page, three-volume oeuvre on classic design: the publishers apparently see clothing styles as impervious to the kind of cultural lock-down that we might associate with, say, a Bertoia or a Breuer chair. Fuzzy it may be, but it may also be that such incessant change fuels an equally incessant appetite for change, and in turn, for more acquisition. Is this fashion's failure or its formula for success? Perhaps the best designed thing is that which deliberately incorporates a kind of planned obsolescence: put another way, design it to disappear, and keep 'em wanting more.
Fair enough: so here's more, and while it's not fashion exactly, neither is it fiction. Recent articles in Vanity Fair and The New York Times profiling real estate markets in certain exclusive enclaves of Connecticut and California tell of hedge-fund managers and Hollywood producers whose 30,000 square-foot habitats include skating rinks, screening rooms and squash courts. Yet just two weeks ago, Warren Buffett announced he would be donating 31 billion dollars to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a charitable act of such extraordinary magnitude that the resultant yearly donations will be over four times as large as UNESCO's. (Angelina Jolie started by adopting some children, then adopted an entire country: is this the beginning of a new trend?) Will such unprecedented philanthropy humble the materialistic, shaming the profligate spenders into greater acts of self-control? Unlikely. But it does give you pause: when do we get stuffed with too much stuff? When is it enough?
There is a poignant interlude in Kazuo Ishiguro's latest book, Never Let Me Go, in which a group of children in a British boarding school are far removed from the commercial outlets that enable stuff to be bought. And so they make things poems and paintings and things of creative value and hold gallery swap-meets where the things they make can be traded. The plot is a great deal more complicated than this, but this particular detail was, I found, extraordinarily moving. It's DIY in its purest, most uncomplicated form: removed from the exigencies of public life and its attendant economic tensions, value is crafted, observed, beheld and in turn, beloved. There's no money, no fashion, no vexing need to acquire so much as to appreciate. Yes I know it's the stuff of fiction. But that doesn't make it wrong.
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