The Cause That Distresses

tshirts The Cause That Distresses What’s wrong with getting tarted up in a brand new shimmy frock, jacking yourself up on some black patent wedges and having bit of good old-fashioned superficial fun?

Everything, apparently. Fashion is currently going through a John the Baptist hair-shirt kind of period. Self-indulgence has been replaced by self-flagellation. All I can say is, “Stop it, girls! Stop it before it’s too late.”

Last week I hosted a party for designer Stefano Pilati. He’s a really nice Italian bloke who also happens to be the genius designer behind the reinvigoration of Yves Saint Laurent. The occasion was the launch of a limited-edition “new vintage” collection for Barneys created from fabrics recycled from the Saint Laurent archive. Stefano is very earnest and sees this venture as an exercise in consciousness-raising, describing his mission to Women’s Wear Daily as “a general attempt to give a sensibility and an education to our public so that it can act consciously toward its environment.”

Blimey, mate! I just thought I was buying a new crepe de Chine brunch blouse. I had no idea I was saving the world as well!

In fairness to Stefano, YSL is not the only company currently pitching its recycled calico tent on the moral high ground. Take a walk down Fifth Avenue. Every fashion store from Gucci (organic T-shirts benefitting goodplanet.org ) to H&M (celeb-designed AIDS fund-raiser tees) seems hell-bent on repackaging day-to-day commerce as some form of philanthropic venture or environment-saving initiative.

Does the consumer really need this kind of absolution? Why are we feeling bad about looking good? Who knows. Whatever the reason, the fashion world is clearly in some kind of guilt-riddled meltdown about its basic raison d’être and is scrambling to find meaning in chiffon pleats and sequined gussets.

Not all consumer products have been engulfed with existential guilt: I am currently engaged in buying a new garage door, and, out of all the companies online, not one has attempted to muddy the transaction with a “buy this one and we will give $100 bucks to the Save the Spotted Gerbil Fund” sales pitch.

But I am worried that the general new trend toward self-critical anti-glamour will inhibit the thirst for transformative gorgeousness in the customer. Getting people to pay full price these days is hard enough without getting all Quaker on their asses.

I am also worried about the impact on the charities. The new hair-shirt consciousness allows people to feel philanthropic while making a truly minimal contribution: e.g., I feel O.K. about buying this cashmere skirt because I just sent a text to Bono about how much I care about the plight of the Tanzanian Albinos. What will happen to charities when people stop writing checks because they already feel they did their bit since the heels of their Louboutins were made from recycled chicken bones? In other words, the nouveau marriage between style and philanthropy enables and encourages the innate cheapness that lurks inside us all.

As a guilt-free shopper and a know-it-all, let me give everyone on earth some advice: It’s so much easier to separate your tithing from your tube tops. If you write the check yourself, you can be sure the shekels are ending up in the right hands. You can also keep much better track of how much you have actually given, thereby knowing whether you have been stingy or stellar. At the end of the year, instead of trying to figure out what went where from the proceeds of all the hand-woven organic halter tops you were guilt-tripped into buying, you can simply look at your bank statements. Et voilà! Your generosity, or lack of, is there for you to see in black and white.

At the YSL event, the women tore the clothes off the racks with a genuine fervor. But they bought them because they were hip, beautifully designed and, most notably, a limited edition. What the fashion addict really wants is to snag a garment and not see it walking toward her on Madison. Forget about the égalité and the fraternité. When it comes to La Mode it’s all about exclusivité! Bonjour!

If you are a bit simple and not good at grabbing nuances, you may well come away from reading this column thinking that I am a horrible midget who is anti-philanthropy. In order to counter this perception—and prove my point—I will donate my fee for this week’s column to Keep a Child Alive. It’s an amazing charity that helps H.I.V.-stricken Africans every day and is run by my old mate Leigh Blake.

Make a no-fashion-strings-attached donation at keepachildalive.org today.

Then shut up and shop!

sdoonan@observer.com