FASHION IS ABOUT MANY THINGS--BUT DOLLARS DRIVE THE ENGINE

By Published on .

About a half mile north of grungy Seventh Avenue's garment district, in Rockefeller Center, there is a place called Fashion Cafe. With a promotional display sign informing us, "Fashion is attitude."

Which, though it sounds like something the Canon camera folks get Andre Agassi to say in commercials, probably is about as good a definition as any (Amy M. Spindler in the Jan. 21 New York Times said fashion often seems "a monster eager to eat its young," which is pretty good, too).

I rather fancy Yves Saint Laurent's long-ago dismissal of "art" as too grand a description. To me, he said, "Fashion is a craft; a poetic craft ('un metier poetique')." Just don't try to make fashion a Harvard B School case study.

In last week's Advertising Age Jane Hodges and Alice Z. Cuneo reported fashion magazines are booming, heavy with ads, thanks to retail store portfolio advertising. And in Paris last week, the couture collections were being shown, the new spring and summer clothes as contrived by the most famous of all the world's fashion designers.

A vintage year for fashion? Sure. And yet, and yet. . .

That fine Wall Street Journal reporter Teri Agins has taken a one-year leave of absence to write a book about fashion and she called me a few days before leaving for Paris for my take. On that same day there appeared in the New York Post a media item about Teri's upcoming book, including a quote from her book editor at Morrow, Paul Bresnick. Said Mr. Bresnick, "It's going to be the first book to tell the truth about the fashion industry."

This is rubbish and Teri Agins knows it because I asked her. No one objects to a book editor hyping the product a little. But Teri's book hasn't yet been written and what Mr. Bresnick is saying is that John Fairchild and Bernadine Morris and Laurence Benaim and so many others who wrote books on the subject (including me) are either ignorant or liars. Which doesn't strike me as a terribly tactful way for her book editor to get the rest of us to open up to Teri in her research.

Then there are two new biographies just published, one by Marie-France Pochna about Christian Dior (it came out three years ago in France and now here in translation) and one by Alice Rawsthorn about Yves Saint Laurent. Ms. Rawsthorn is a correspondent for The Financial Times of London and she zeroes in not on the clothes themselves but on M. Saint Laurent's fiscal dealings, alleged insider trading, and on the impact of interest rates and leveraged buyout debt on fashion.

I know almost all the great fashion designers of the world and most of them are blessedly ignorant of money. They like money, they make plenty of it, they spend lots and waste more. Hardly one of them should be permitted to possess a checkbook. To criticize these poor fellows with culpability in arcane frauds or with failure to pay their taxes (Armani, for example), as Ms. Rawsthorn does, is rather like assailing Brett Favre because he doesn't pass his days composing verse in iambic pentameter.

The unfortunate M. Dior had passed away before I got to Paris (his portrait still hung in the offices of the Maison Dior's chief executive, Jacques Rouet, and you genuflected on entering) but I got to know Saint Laurent pretty well and wrote the first-ever stories about his plans to open his own couture house after being sacked by Dior and invalided home from the army.

My favorite line about Yves is from Pierre Berge, perhaps the smartest man in Paris and surely in the fashion business, who, whenever questioned about Saint Laurent's latest illness or rumored collapse, shrugs, "Yves was born with a nervous breakdown."

You must understand, fashion designers are not like the rest of us and fashion itself is not the canning of vegetables or the manufacture of pickup trucks. Berge himself, in an angry moment, told Vogue that his partner and longtime love Saint Laurent, was "a man of exceptional intelligence practicing the trade of an imbecile."

I know Pierre does not really mean this as I have seen his impish glee and healthy avarice when he and Yves previewed a new look for us from Women's Wear Daily, and John Fairchild, who knew that stuff, proclaimed it a sure winner. An assurance which promptly inspired M. Berge to race up and down the racks of dresses with his pen, crossing out prices and writing in prices hundreds of dollars higher.

Fashion is sexy and fun and childish and beautiful and illogical with its wonderfully wacky cast of characters and charlatans and idiots savant, and like

Most Popular