Fashioning Your Identity

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:17

    they are required to sit in desirable restaurants, for instance, or what color marble adorns the entryway of their apartment building, or whether their expected annual invitation to the National Day party of the Belgian ambassador to the United Nations arrives, or whether the chairmammal of their department remarks at the weekly meeting on the admirably cunning comment they made to the press after a nasty charge of insider trading. And unable to leave well enough or quite good alone, very often when they have already achieved high status in one hierarchy, for example in creating empires of parking lots, then they will enter another one entirely, such as owning paintings by dead white Frenchmammals or helping collect money for diseases or prestigious groups associated with the finer things of life, such as French paintings or very old books kept in a fulsomely decorated building. In a society such as ours, in which the accident of birth is a helpful guarantee of permanently good and obvious status for only a tiny number of people, everybody else has to confect a self that establishes a desirable perch in the roiling status cavalcade of modern life.

    That is one reason for the extraordinary power of commercial brands in the marketplace, and for the endless parry and thrust in the higher echelons of shareholders and managers of the shibboleth enterprises that feed the status requirements of people with money beyond what they need for Cheerios, motor oil and orthodontia for little Gregory. Hence the endless conniptions of enterprises such as Gucci, Chanel, Baume & Mercier, St. Laurent, Cartier, Moet and Prada, as they buy and sell each other to acquire portfolios of products that will allow the privileged masters of a rich economy to soak up excess resources-to turn necessity into vanity, function into form-money under the mattress into gemstones for the holes in women's ears-savings into chic.

    These are the items advertisements for which sustain the Conde Nast glossies and even duller other magazines like The Economist, readers of which seem peculiarly interested in lavish watches that keep time at extravagant cost. And not only do such ads tempt potential buyers with hazy promises of impending personal stature, but they also serve to reassure existing owners of the luxury item that, yes, they made a fine and thoughtful choice to acquire the special object. They contentedly read the reassuring ad copy describing the virtues of the product they can buy, which of course they already own. They belong to it just as it belongs to them.

    The stakes are high. Gucci owned $3 billion in cash after it sold 42 percent of itself to the French mogul François Pinault. Its shares rose 128 percent in a year, and it has now taken $700 million from its velvet pocket to buy the Yves Saint Laurent brand and business. The egos of petulant designers and bankers of imperious corporate raiders all become involved in an elegant ballet of wealth based on the cut of a shirt or the logo on a handbag or the color of the gift box or the ability of the latest seamstress to dazzle the annual migration of birds of fashion to Milan to inspect the new plumage in a new arrangement and to decide which to buy to sell back home.

    And this occurs not only at the high end. It also affects possibly near-indigent adolescents, who may boast the fashion sense of cold cows but know what they like and from whom they want it. If 20 years ago you had gone to a marketing MBA to say, "I want to build a successful world brand of teen togs called Tommy Hilfiger," the expert would have properly replied, "You are crazy." Yet by skillful marketing of blatant objects of attire, Tommy managed to create a network of need for its products among troops of young people apparently unable to find in their real worlds of people and school and summer jobs any more clear or convincing index of their value and position in life than by wearing a garment bearing its designer's name inches high, red and wide.

    The cunning use of existing heroes of sport, music, noise, cinematic seduction and ambient notoriety provided the structure of community within which youngsters otherwise terrified by the anonymity and triviality of their lives could find an attachment that linked them to a cool crowd. The impulse for identification with a larger tribe than their own self encouraged them to wear zeppelin-shaped sweats shouting Hilfiger. This was the same impulse as drove their well-off uncles and their school principals to wear otherwise ordinary shirts upgraded and up-priced with an image of a person on a horse with a polo mallet.

    One of the certified spectacles of the Western world is the Palio of Siena, a horse race around the main square of the city in which an equine representative of each of the city's centuries-old neighborhoods-or contrade-races madly around the enclosure in a largely ruleless but thrilling manner. Each contrada has its traditional colors and flags, and before the race there are complex displays of each in turn. The night before, the horse of the contrada is taken into its central church for a blessing as part of the prerace party. That evening there is another party in the street. At the race, people wear the scarves of their neighborhood, and feelings of identification fueled by grappa may make life tricky for a hired-gun jockey suspected of throwing a race in return, perhaps, for a contribution by the winning contrada to his daughter's course at modeling school. But the whole town turns out. It is an amazingly intense event, twice each year. No one doubts who one is.

    Of course in this new society people can wear school t-shirts and college shorts and the inevitable trophy clothing, revealing that the wearer has been to Planet Hollywood Las Vegas or Paris University or the Grand Ole Opry. Countless stores and devotional counters in stadia and arenas sell garments bearing team insignias. The substantial markup over the simple cost of the cotton or nylon fills the pockets of the team owners, at the same time as they provide to buyers some sense-evidently worth the money-that their personal stature has been enhanced because their bodies say Knicks or Rams or Raiders or Jets.

    What the economists called "added value"-the symbolic gizmo provided by the logo or the identification-unites shoppers at the Tommy counter and at Gucci Corner. Both groups share name tags filled in by others, for a price. But, hey, now they're distinguished.