c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
My obsession these days is to find a decent pair of sweatpants. And by decent, I mean particular: not too skinny, perhaps something in a fine knit (ribbing is OK) and definitely not anything pooling at my ankles. I’m willing to pay a lot of money for my dream sweats, not a fortune, but certainly I can do better than Modell’s.
I was thinking about my quest in relation to Nicolas Ghesquière’s appointment as creative director of women’s design at Louis Vuitton. I know, I know: fat chance. He’s hardly a sweatpants kind of guy. He dressed his friend Kristen Stewart in graffiti-squiggle trousers. Chloë Sevigny probably owes her entire career as a radical style chick to his early designs at Balenciaga. He put the planet on skyscraper platforms.
This was back in 2006. I remember the day well. A pair arrived at the office for a photo shoot, and I thought: What can it hurt? I’ll try them on. Had a crane been available to hoist me up on those babies, I’m sure Chloë and I would have been friends today.
The news reports of Ghesquière’s appointment coolly noted that it was “expected” and, further, that it was part of a broad “strategic” effort on the part of Louis Vuitton, which makes billions selling handbags. But what does that have to do with my sweatpants?
Well, in a way, everything.
Let’s deal with the first part. Why was the hire expected? Because the luxury-goods business doesn’t care for risk. It likes a known quantity, and while Ghesquière is a daring designer, with a curiosity for the new, especially futuristic fabrics, he fits comfortably with LVMH’s idea of high-powered, blow-the-bank showmanship. He will deliver what executives want, which in part is a continuation of the values that Marc Jacobs, the former Vuitton creative head, represented.
By comparison, Burberry’s decision last month to give Christopher Bailey the responsibilities of both creative director and chief executive is truly risky. Such a thing has never been done before. Though Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani run their own ships, they have long had chief executives.
One of the challenges Bailey will no doubt face is how he will get along in a large company like Burberry without a partner, which he has had in Angela Ahrendts, the outgoing chief executive, and her predecessor, Rose Marie Bravo. Strong or not, it helps to share your thoughts with another person.
Still, the Bailey decision represents a break from institutional thinking, and that is no small thing in an industry frantic with self-doubt behind its superior mask.
Now for the second part: the whip-poor-will call of strategic initiatives. This sounds more exciting than it really is. Most luxury-goods companies, if they are cautious, as both LVMH and its rival Kering are, have figured out that demand for expensive products isn’t all that elastic. They can open stores in new markets, but because of a bunch of factors, including competition and the rapid spread of information resulting in bored-to-death consumers, they find that growth starts to slow.
And this process seems to happen at a faster and faster rate, so that before long, everyone is pointing to an entire country and saying, “Well, it’s finished.”
One solution has been to effectively turn fashion into a gated community, by making products more expensive and exclusive (at least marketing them that way). Oddly, I don’t know many people connected with the industry — designers, editors, behind-the-scenes staff members — who hold the view that fashion should follow the global economic divide of haves and have-nots. We certainly don’t dress that way ourselves.
Nonetheless, the industry expresses this outlook — in its language, in its elaborate craft-oriented products — as though the handmade were also something infinitely beyond human reach.
Well, it makes a decent pair of sweatpants seem almost bold.
Don’t get me wrong; I think Ghesquière is a great choice for Louis Vuitton. At his worst, he is more interesting than most designers of his generation, and at his best, he makes you think. I certainly wouldn’t mind if he did something utterly contradictory at Louis Vuitton. In fact, it’s time.