LONDON, United Kingdom — Historians take pleasure in giving portmanteau names to periods: The Age of Elegance; The Dawn of Civilisation; The Gilded Age. It is interesting to imagine what, in the future, will be the title given to today’s fashion period. Guilt and Greed, perhaps? The Death of Taste? I would suggest it could best be summed up as The Age of Irresponsible Excess.
To illustrate what I mean, take the recent little vignette that played out in Switzerland, starring Oprah Winfrey. In a Zurich shop, the American media icon expressed interest in a $38,000 black bag, displayed in a locked showcase. A shop assistant refused to get it out of its case to let her properly examine it. Oprah (who is estimated to have earned $77 million last year alone) was informed that it was too expensive for her and after a few more requests and refusals, she left. Many will agree with her assumption that she, an African American woman, was a victim of prejudice, and they could well be right.
Racial prejudice is intolerable to all civilised people and it is right that it should be rigorously questioned and examined. But what has not been questioned or examined in this particular case is something which should shock and appal all right-minded people. And that is the price asked for the bag. What an affront to society and civilisation it presents. Above all, it is a shocking indictment of the mindless greed of the higher echelons of the fashion industry and the way in which it has corrupted certain areas of society. Astronomically priced products are designed not to shock, but to excite a customer sufficiently to be determined to buy them.
To me this is exactly what has gone wrong with the fashion business. A spat between a designer and a journalist, like the one between Hedi Slimane and Cathy Horyn, is demeaning and embarrassing, but the “Oprah Bag” question is infinitely more important and should outrage us all. Can we really have respect for an industry that sells handbags for $38,000?
My view is that we are so corrupted by high prices, and even higher praise, for the frequently banal artefacts that command them that we have only one way to gauge their value and that is how much they cost. That is why we have stopped looking at fashion and have become obsessed with the value of the label it bears — a value put on it not only by customers but by its owners. How is this done? By brilliantly judged pieces of psychology called advertisements which entice us to such a degree that we are prepared to pay any price for something which — to echo that chillingly and insensitive phrase “to die for,” coined by our industry — has a very short shelf life.
So, you might say, if the rich are foolish enough to pay that amount, it is their stupidity. And you would be right. But it is the industry that is weakened and besmirched by such attitudes, because It encourages the decision-makers to believe that anything goes, as long as the prices continue to go up and the profits remain buoyant.