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Saying Yes to the Dress

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader


In the history of dubious achievements, designer John Galliano might have set the all-time record this past week — his insane, video-taped, anti-Semitic ramblings were so despicable and morally indefensible that he managed to make Charlie Sheen look like the second craziest celebrity currently on the planet. Galliano's main employer, the French fashion house Christian Dior, wasted little time in severing all ties with the lunatic designer — despite the occasional brilliant and innovative designs, Galliano's instant notoriety became too great a burden for the house to bear. And Dior didn't wait to hear the inevitable backtracking, apologizing and spin control from Galliano's "people." Just Bam. You're done.

What's most striking about l'affaire Galliendo isn't the shocking and offensive sound bites, but rather the surprising amount of attention that a top designer receives in today's pop culture zeitgeist. The 20th century image of the classic, debonair European designer has been completely obliterated by the black-type generating, mega fashion star of the current era. With all due respect to the prodigious Mr. Sheen and his "rock star" persona, the real "rock stars" of uber-celebrityhood in 2011 aren't washed-up sit-com stars with glycerine sweats. The real "rock stars" of the new era are the designers. And occasionally, these enfants terribles will stop the tabloid world cold with some truly horrific behavior.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the transformation began, when designers began to appear in Vanity Fair instead of just providing the clothes for the photo shoots. I distinctly remember my 16 year old daughter asking for me copy of The New Yorker because the magazine had a profile on Marc Jacobs. My daughter is smart and culturally aware yet it surprised me how deep her knowledge of contemporary designers was. At 16 I could have ticked off every member of the Clash or The Ramones, but I would have been hard pressed to name a single designer. I began to notice (through subtle eavesdropping) that most of my daughter's friends, too, were very literate about modern designers and fashion trends. While most of their wardrobes were still middle-class high-school wear — Aeropostale, school T-shirts, jeans, etc — I began to recognize some designer pieces entering into their ensembles.

The sudden prominence of the rock star designer — Jacobs, Galliano, Tom Ford, Christopher Bailey, the late Alexander McQueen, Roberto Cavalli — reminds me of a parallel movement in the early 80's, when the downtown "art star" movement began to dominate the hipster New York landscape. Relatively obscure artists like Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, David Salle, Eric Fischl became oversized celebrities virtually overnight, and their appearances at clubs and cafes were regularly chronicled by the tabloid media. But while the 90's crash of the art market signified the end of the "art star" phenomenon, the cult of personality surrounding the top designers is unlikely to fade in this decade. The fashion IQ of even the most unsophisticated of laymen is significantly higher in the 21st century than it has been for five decades, and cultural touchstones like the Academy Awards, "Sex in the City," "Project Runway," Vogue magazine and "The September Issue" indicate that a high percentage of the population is very interested in the way costumers costume the people.

This point was driven home to me after this year's Oscars, when I engaged in a wholly un-ironic discussion with other straight guys about the best-dressed celebrities at the ceremony. (The general consensus: Scarlett Johansen looked great but couldn't walk, Anne Hathaway's electric blue number popped, Halle Berry's dress was pure, classic Hollywood.) As little as five years ago I wouldn't have even had an opinion about anything regarding empire waists, ruched dresses, assymetrical hemlines. I was always condescendingly dismissive about anything related to high fashion. In general, I spent about forty times as much money on cigars as clothes in any given year, and I rarely ventured beyond black T-shirts, black shoes, and smashed-in hair in establishing my own preferred look. But here I was, post-Oscar, ripping into Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Hudson and arguing with other know-nothings about who wore what the best.

I can't explain it, this sudden appreciation for the art of fashion, but I do remember a time when I felt a similar epiphany for an art form that I had previously derided. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, a few years ago, I remember suddenly feeling like I was seeing Robert Rauschenberg's combines for the first time. They had always struck me as nothing but curiosities before, but that day, for some reason, I felt I was seeing them clearly, and my response to the artist was distinct and visceral. The combined seemed indescribably beautiful. I had a moment of totality with the art, a brief ephemeral second when I experienced the combine with all of my senses.

I went to a Valentino store recently and had a similar response. For whatever reason, the entirety of the dresses and coats suddenly came together for me, visually, and I responded viscerally to the simple beauty of the elegant designs. It's interesting about the designer boutiques — they carry so few actual items that it feels more like a gallery than a store. I know that I'm an absolute dilettante about fashion, but I'm fascinated by the currents of the form, and the masters that operate in the milieu. It matters to me now. On a very simplistic level, I know that I'm physically and emotionally more confident when I like the way I look. I used to believe that this was the epitome of shallowness, to pay so much attention to something so unnecessary, but I've changed my tune. I had white dress shirts tailored for the first time this year, and the only thing I could think after I paid for them was, “Why didn't I do this sooner?” A tailored shirt makes me feel ridiculously smart and snappy, and it's a lot cheaper than prozac.

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