By GUY TREBAY
WHEN business gets more interesting than art, smart artists go into business.
That, anyway, was how Andy Warhol saw things. And if the talking heads in Ken Burns’s new documentary on him are to be believed, Warhol was not just the single most important creative talent of the late 20th century but among its cannier social analysts.
Of course, Warhol was neither alone nor even first among his contemporaries to play coy games with commerce. Early in 1961, at about the time Warhol was piecing together the first moves in his grand career strategy, a reporter asked Yves Klein, a founder of the Neo-Realist movement, what he would do if offered a job as head of General Motors.
“Would you give up art?”
“Why not?” Klein replied. “It’s a good job.”
Klein’s quote is printed on a wall at the entrance to a retrospective of his work at the Pompidou Center. And it would seem to have a lot of relevance for those who spend their time critiquing the fine and applied arts.
Lately the boundaries between creative forms and commercial forces have all but vanished. And this fact, much more persuasive than any of the notional drivel being spouted about the so-called future of fashion, is the indicator to watch.
For all the creativity, craft, technical wizardry, theatrical acumen and outright wackiness on display across runways in New York, London, Milan and then Paris in the last four weeks, the most interesting trend to observe was not the seemingly universal one for tented minidresses or torturous wedge shoes but the frank embrace among people in the business of ... well, business.
It was a season of bags and shoes, as Suzy Menkes pointed out in The International Herald Tribune. In some instances, as at the Christian Lacroix show here, this point was put across so baldly that each model sashayed down a vivid green runway, stopped for the cameras and then, apparently as instructed, awkwardly held out her purse.
“I used to say to Bernard Arnault, ‘It’s not as if I get up every morning, look in the mirror while I’m shaving and ask, ‘What can I sketch today that will lose Bernard the most money?’ ” Mr. Lacroix said, referring to the president of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, a company from which the designer has parted ways. Now with the backing of a venture capital fund, Mr. Lacroix seemed determined not to repeat past mistakes.
“After all,” he said, “we are here to sell clothes.”
That is only partly true. We are here — and this includes what at this point is a fairly complicit fashion press — to sell images and to assist in promoting the “narratives” at the core of most brands. Although these stories typically originate in the biography of some real person (the shrewd and gifted and hardheaded peasant Coco Chanel, say, or the Polish refugee who founded Celine), their elaboration on a grand scale is the work of people more likely to turn up in the business section than in the pages of style.
It would be simplistic at this point to think of men like Mr. Arnault or François Pinault, the founder of PPR, which owns the Gucci Group, merely as billion-dollar bean counters when the luxury companies they run have reshaped tastes and cultures across broad swaths of the planet.
When you consider that the net effect of all the frothy although deeply earnest stuff that goes on during runway season is to sell a perfume atomizer or key case to someone in Kuala Lumpur, the creativity of John Paul Gaultier or John Galliano or Alexander McQueen or Rei Kawakubo begins to seem anachronistic and even quaint.
“The challenge for designers right now is to be super creative and super innovative and yet to realize that this is a business,” Glenda Bailey, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, said last week before the Chanel show. The dominant trend of the season, she added, is that “designers have to create items that are truly desirable.” And, if that is so, then Chanel was distinctly on message.
The show was held in the recently renovated Grand Palais, a glass and cast-iron marvel used in its early years for automobile and aeronautic trade fairs. In keeping with this season’s inescapable theme of commerce, the runway had been turned into what looked like a Chanel atelier cum shop, complete with uniformed assistants and garment racks on wheels.
It often happens during the French fashion season that unexpected but serendipitous correspondences turn up between what designers and museum curators seem to be thinking. What this usually means is that a Marlene Dietrich show at a fashion museum will turn up soon enough as a Marlene Dietrich runway moment.
In a separate part of the Grand Palais, adjacent to the hall in which the Chanel show was mounted, there is a blockbuster exhibition right now devoted to Walt Disney and the art historical references that influenced him (if influence is the right word), as well as the profound cultural effects Disney Studios produced.
Lines of visitors stretch for blocks to see the original cels from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” or child-size marionettes of Pinocchio or snippets from “Fantasia” screened alongside the “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The enthusiasm of the Parisian public can be explained, as least partly, by an extravagant thesis laid out by the show’s curators: Walt Disney was the greatest storyteller of the 20th century.
Walt Disney rarely told new stories, of course; his genius was for recasting and marketing myth. And it was his foresight in recognizing the business potential of exploiting familiar tales and transforming them into universally legible commodities that constituted the real magic of Disney. It is no accident that within the fashion business, labels like Dior and Louis Vuitton are what is known as magic brands.
And, no matter what anyone says, that is what fashion is about these days. Those who were baffled when the fashion press greeted Nicolas Ghesquiere’s collection for Balenciaga — which to some eyes resembled costumes for the “Star Wars” robot C3PO — with hosannas seriously underestimated the industry’s growing need for circus posters and cartoons. Critics strained to describe Mr. Ghesquiere’s efforts as futuristic, but their observations were probably beside the point.
“At the end of the day, would I wear Balenciaga? Probably not,” said an editor from Vogue, who would speak only on condition that her name not be used. “But you have to make a choice between whether you only show pretty dresses that women will want to wear or whether you show work by a designer who can change the way people see.”
Strong brands need billboards, in other words. And after a season during which so many designers seemed to come up with some version of party clothes for warriors in one of the outsider artist Henry Darger’s imaginary armies of little girls, it was Mr. Ghesquiere who created the most startling and memorable images, the ones that will be most often reproduced, most copied and that will, ultimately, sell the most bags.
That is precisely the trick Marc Jacobs has pulled off in the nearly 10 years since Mr. Arnault hired him at Louis Vuitton. The proof can be found at the label’s flagship store on the Champs-Élysées. On most any day you can find a big crowd lining up behind velvet ropes there, waiting to get inside with an enthusiasm rarely seen outside Space Mountain and a reverence that puts one in mind of church.
Not all of them, of course, can afford a costly Alma or a Papillon or a Lockit bag or one of the witty high-low takes on a French shopping tote Mr. Jacobs showed on his runway last Sunday. But at this point one would have to go a long way to find anyone immune to the special, socially elevating effects of hauling an LV monogram around.
“What it’s all about in this business, finally, is memory of brand,” said Serge Brunschwig, recently charged with reviving the flagging fortunes at Celine for LVMH. What it is all about, this and every fashion season, is selling consumers on the dream that in a handbag can be found the secret to having a life more glamorous, dimensioned and storybook than one’s own.