Couture Reaction

What we are looking at here in the 'value' of designer logos is designer goods as magical symbols of the glamour world of international fame, beauty, success and style. The world of couture and top prêt-à-porter offers the public a tantalizingly beyond-reach image of the fabulous and the elegant - a magical aspiration. Grant McCracken in his book Culture and Consumption calls it a process of displaced meaning - namely that top designer objects act as a bridge to the ideal luxury world.32 The perfume bottle by Jean Paul Gaultier at £30 is attainable whilst the Gaultier dress at £1,300 is not. We can buy Dior perfume instead of the beaded fantasy dress by Galliano at Dior worth many thousands of pounds. These purchases attach us directly through product ownership to the couture world and through that we enter our world of dreams. It is almost a process of sympathetic magic. We can never own a £1,000 McQueen dress from Givenchy but we can make ourselves believe that we 'own' the Givenchy glamour through one squirt of a Givenchy 'Fleur Interdit' vaporisateur (£9.95, Harrods sale, 1997). It is this process that the big designer houses have long understood and exploited so cleverly. Since the 1950s and even as the great fashion monopoly conglomerates of Prada, Gucci, LVMH and Louis Vuitton gobble up ownership of one great couture salon after another, enormous care is taken to guard the individual sacred

31. Rebecca Lowthorpe, Independent, 16 February, 2000, with thanks to Amy de la Haye.

32. McCracken, G., Culture and Consumption: new approaches to the symbolic character of consumption, Indiana Univ. Press, 1988.

logos of each company. Stuart Ewen, a sociologist, describes the couture world as 'beyond the real', believing that this notion of beyond reality is an 'essential element to the magic of style, its fascination and enchantment. ... Part of the promise of style is to lift us out of the dreariness of necessity.'33

The brand logo holds the magic of style. As long as Hilfiger, through astute marketing, can succeed in creating an élite image for his mass-produced leisurewear and fragrances and as long as he can successfully market them as 'designer' products, he represents a serious commercial threat to the elite designer fashion world. As long as Hilfiger can successfully attach this element of magical desirability to his very ordinary leisurewear products and continue to launch his products to a generation of international young consumers, he presents a most serious economic threat to the world of Paris couture and designer prêt-à-porter, a threat as serious as the consequences of the Wall Street crash of 1929.

It seems however, that the established Paris fashion houses were aware of the Hilfiger threat as soon as it reared its head. Their astute commercial flexibility and response to challenge, once again came into play. By the mid-1990s plans were in place in Paris to deal with the threat of commercial rivalry from global leisure/lifestyle clothing companies such as Hilfiger (and indeed the increasing commercial rivalry from Italy.) Hence the employment of the avant-garde young London designers, John Galliano at Givenchy and Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Stella McCartney at Chloe from the the mid-1990s. These companies recognized the urgent need both to rapidly lower their consumer age appeal and to modernize their image of glamorous elitism. Even as they were chewed up by the great financial companies LVMH, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, the commercial need to retain a cutting-edge, innovative house style remained paramount. If the sale of branded products was to continue to flourish, the need for this sharp, young image was essential. This outweighed the need to satisfy their few hundred private clients, who can always be serviced with watered-down versions of outrageous catwalk styles. The retention of an image of seductive glamour, however, remains vital for the continuation of the million-dollar international selling of branded perfume, maquillage, handbags, jewellery, stockings, watches, shoes, tee-shirts, luggage, underwear, sunglasses, scarves and now interior design too.

As Tommy Hilfiger and other similar brands have expanded the extent of their marketing hype, so too have the great couture salons of Paris. By the late 1990s their advertisements featured more and more seductive images

33. S. Ewen, 'Marketing Dreams - the Political Elements of Style', in Tomlinson, A., Consumption, Identity and Style, London: Routledge, 1990, p. 43-8.

that the likes of Hilfiger could never possibly achieve. Elite advertisements featured very young, bejewelled, gilded, beautiful, fantasy women next to elegant glass bottles, or peering into logoed handbags or wearing elegant branded shoes. What we are seeing here again is the classic flexibility of the trade. Let no consumers escape the magical lure, from Saudi princesses, to opulent Russian mafiosi new rich, to Hollywood stars given free couture clothes to wear to the Oscar Awards nights. Above all, the appeal must be to the cross-channel ferry passenger or the package tourist waiting for hours in the airport lounge. Tamsin Blanchard headlined her Paris report on the 21st January 1998 for the Independent with the line 'What Lagerfeld Knows and Galliano Knows Not'. She slated Galliano's collection for being too fantastic and romantic. 'If the sole purpose of a couture show is to sell perfume and be a glorified advertisement, then the entire concept of haute couture is indeed a wonderful poetic and fantastic sham.' But, perhaps the existence of companies, such as Dior, does indeed depend on creating precisely this image of poetry and fantasy. The Dior company very deliberately and evidently with careful commercial forethought, uses Galliano's couture fantasy in all its glossy advertisements for its franchised products. A survey of Dior advertisements (and Chanel, Gucci, Versace, etc.) taken out in Vogue's international editions for Poland, Singapore, Paris, Milan, London, New York, Moscow and Tokyo, reveals the very same fantasy images across the world.

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