Dior to Bardot: Get Your Own Dress!

In 1955, when the producer of Pierre-Gaspard Huit’s La Mariée Est Trop Belle wanted Christian Dior to design a scene-stealing wedding dress for his star, Brigitte Bardot, the designer refused to even meet with him. Instead, he sent his financial manager, Jacques Rouet, who was told how much publicity Ms. Bardot’s wedding dress would create and that Dior could even meet the actress in person! As Mr. Rouet predicted, Dior wasn’t interested. He refused to dress Ms. Bardot.

“There was no way Dior would risk incurring the displeasure of some of his most elegant clients by allowing his dresses to be put on vulgar display on the screen,” wrote Dior biographer Marie-France Pochna in 1996. In 1997, however, the House of Dior didn’t blink when given the opportunity to dress Nicole Kidman in a lime-green embroidered couture concoction by John Galliano for a big night in Hollywood. It was Dior’s chance to steal at least one movie star from the globally televised Giorgio Armani Annual Fashion Show, also known as the Academy Awards.

Apparently, fashion is the greatest thing to happen to the entertainment industry since Technicolor, and vice versa. At least until the mood swings, and actors tell their managers they want to be “serious” artists, not models with talking heads, and until the press agent for Gwyneth Paltrow realizes that in the pages of InStyle magazine there’s not sufficient demarcation between her, Salma Hayek and Jennifer Aniston.

So formidable a marriage have fashion and celebrity forged that, in 1995, USA Today stopped covering fashion shows here and in Europe. Was fashion editor Elizabeth Snead upset by the newspaper’s decision? Hardly. She suggested the idea to her bosses and then requested a transfer from New York to Los Angeles, where she covers celebrities and movie stars through a fashion lens.

“I just couldn’t justify going anymore. It didn’t make sense to call the shows fashion ‘news’ when they weren’t anymore,” says Ms. Snead in The End of Fashion (William Morrow and Company), a splendid new book about the mass marketing of the clothing business, by Teri Agins.

Despite the chilling title, The End of Fashion is not intended as a polemic. Ms. Agins writes in an informed and lively style about the phenomenal changes she has seen in the fashion world as a reporter covering the beat for a decade for The Wall Street Journal . She sees an industry challenged and, in many cases, in denial. Consumers have rejected fanciful fashions, she argues. “Today, a designer’s creativity expresses itself more than ever in marketing rather than in the actual clothes … Image is the form and marketing is the function.”

The End of Fashion isn’t for fashion enthusiasts who live to be buried in Yves Saint Laurent dress boxes. The End of Fashion does not bubble with fashion moments. (There’s no fainting for Gucci’s $6,800 beaded silk jeans; just acknowledgment of Gucci’s marketing brilliance.) Ms. Agins isn’t sympathetic when she includes this passage from Christian Lacroix, writing in his fashion show program in 1997: “I believe I have not given into systems, whatever they might be … A Lacroix style has been born and even if it doesn’t appeal to everyone, so much the better. The barefooted, jewelryless woman, skimpily dressed in worn-out togs creates a ghostlike vision that only satisfies the most pessimistic, of which I am not one …”

Mr. Lacroix’s attitude, in Ms. Agins’ view, expresses a lot about the end of fashion. Old century versus new century. Fashion today, says Ms. Agins, has shifted from “class to mass, elitism to democratization, from art to commodity.” In other words, the Gap. The author cites four megatrends that propelled fashion into its new direction. “Women let go of fashion … People stopped dressing up … People’s values changed with regard to fashion (consider Target’s tagline: ‘It’s fashionable to pay less’) … Top designers stopped gambling on fashion.” Especially for publicly traded companies, such as Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation and Tommy Hilfiger Corporation, with shareholders to please, she says, “the big guns can’t afford to gamble on fashion whims.”

Of course, these megatrends already might be painfully apparent to fashion industry people. These ideas may seem foreign to New Yorkers who need therapists to help them wait out a late arrival of the new Miu-Miu shoe. But Ms. Agins isn’t writing for them. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t rely on fashion advertising, and Ms. Agins isn’t rushing to play Florence Nightingale to the fashion business. “By the 1980’s, millions of baby-boomer career women were moving up in the workplace and the impact of their professional mobility was monumental. As bank vice presidents, members of corporate boards and partners at law firms, professional women became secure enough to ignore the foolish runway frippery that bore no connection to their lives,” writes Ms. Agins.

She provides a descriptive context and researched chronicle of the evolving industry trends, the cultural and economic changes they represent, and the challenges the fashion business faces at the turn of the century–financing, manufacturing, retailing, licensing and, last but not least, marketing an image that keeps pace with consumers’ desires. “At the end of fashion,” Ms. Agins writes, “it takes a whole lot of clever marketing to weave ordinary clothes into silken dreams.” The author does not focus on fashion connoisseurship, the agenda one hopes to find in the best fashion magazines, inspiring readers to regard fashion the same way a wine aficionado appreciates wine or a cook great food. After all, if Americans can learn to make tiramisù, why can’t they learn to dress well?

The End of Fashion investigates the fall of Paris and the rise of Milan as the center of the fashion business in Europe; the competition between Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger; Giorgio Armani and the Hollywoodization of fashion; the failures of department stores such as Chicago’s Marshall Field’s; and Donna Karan’s ruffle on Wall Street. As an example of how a designer thrives outside of the bubble of fashion, Ms. Agins includes a portrait of the designer Zoran–”proof that a niche player could survive in a cutthroat marketplace, where affluent women were buying fewer designer clothes and were most likely to trade down than up when they did.”

How successful is Zoran, whose simple, expensive, one-size-fits-all clothes change little from season to season? In 1997, he took Bill Blass to lunch at Da Silvano and asked if he could buy his business; he was thinking of expanding. Although intrigued by Zoran’s fiscal display, Mr. Blass wasn’t selling. At least not yet.

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Who is Niki Sachs?

a. The lawyer who did the Condé Nast-Fairchild deal.

b. The chief executive and U.S. president of Hanro of Switzerland, the underwear purveyor that dressed Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut .

c. The newly elected president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

2. In fashionspeak, what are “biscuits”?

a. According to Vogue , those trendy little evening purses from Fendi.

b. According to Barneys’ new catalogue, the store’s little bargains.

c. According to Out magazine, an insulting reference to the overhang of a manly foot crammed into a delicate mule.

3. Clothes from which outfitter feature heavily in the Broadway play Voices in the Dark ?

a. Eddie Bauer.

b. Celine.

c. Vivienne Tam.

Answers: (1) b; (2) c; (3) a.