Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Right Stuff

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [8]

Ha can go one further: Used to work in a design company where the "manager" would get you to make coffee to a specific shade of brown matched to a pantone colour in the coated colours chart! If it came back looking to light or too dark, and not a perfect match he would throw a hissy fit! Twice he did this the 3rd time he had a broken nose...and then he got into trouble again because his blood didn't match the red colour I had specified in the pantone chart.

For some reason I lost my job there, but job satisfaction reached a high just before I left ;)

I too have been in the employ of the type, but have come to understand they are this way owing to a great deal personal of insecurity. This gives me a deep sense of satisfaction, knowing the torture they are going through inside. I just smile and try to do my part to turn the knife and stick it in a little deeper. My defense is to remain as calm as possible, do my job, while they bounce off the walls. Just the mere act of not reacting drives them further out of control. Such is the delicious cruelty I inflict.

This piece made me reflect on the term mass market. Normally of course this refers to a large number of people, but the consolidation of so much wealth in the hands of the hyper-rich gives another meaning to mass market: the immense physical mass of the things consumed by a tiny group of people. Fashion designers in particular specialize in making stuff for rich people, but a growing sector of our economy in general is devoted to servicing and supplying a tiny minority of fantastically rich people. When does the size and weight of all that stuff become a matter of responsibility for the designer? Is there an etchics of scale? Should design be judged by the pound?
dmitri siegel

Jessica, I too wonder if there is a shift happening, but I can't help but think it's may not be about "acquisition or not", but instead about what is being acquired.

Warren Buffet now has the one thing no one else could buy him. What does the man who has everything buy for himself?
Andrew Twigg

I cannot remember if it was Barthes or Baudry who explicated the idea that fashion was irreparably tied to the death drive--that the constant assimilation of novelty and the desire for change was a sign that fashion was fundamentally concerned with mortality and escaping that mortality. If I could find a link to the essay I'm thinking of I'd post it here; instead of examining fashion as design, though, it looks at fashion as text, but it's still an apropos consideration.

There is another aspect to fashion's encouragement of rapacious acquisition--in the process of creating fashion. Fashion designers consume and aggregate influence from across disparate areas of culture (as do all creators) to furnish an object for further acquisition, so it isn't just the commercial aspect of fashion that encourages conspicuous consumption (indeed, is there any more conspicuous consumption than the assimilation of influence?).

Your post has raised some very interesting questions about design's relationship to culture.
Aden Albert

So it looks as if it was Jean Baudrillard who discussed fashion and death, which seems to fit with his other studies of hyperreality and escstasy. Sorry for the double-post, but I wanted to clarify.
Aden Albert

My short but whole career has been nothing but the description in the first half of this article. It gives me hope that there are good people in the advertsing/design industry.

For me Prada is one of the famoust brands in the world like Gucci or Dior or Armani. These brands are very expensive and I only can afford designer clothing when I can buy it discounted. My best shopping site for discounted designer clothes is
www.brand-fashion.com. There you can buy designer clothing with discount up to 85%.

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