Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The new economy and the pursuit of happiness

Does it really matter what one wears? I sometimes think my life might have been different if I had chosen the other wedding dress. I was getting married for the second time, and until the overcast morning of the ceremony I dithered between a bland écru frock appropriate to my age and station, which I wore that once and never again, and a spooky neo-Gothic masterpiece with a swagged bustle and unravelling seams in inky crêpe de laine, which I still possess: hope and experience.

The black dress—and other strange clothes in which I feel most like myself—was designed by Rei Kawakubo.

—Judith Thurman

CdG dress
Katie Holmes in CdG (from the newsstand
issue of W, courtesy of style.com).

Thus begins a terrific piece of fashion writing in the July 4 issue of The New Yorker: Judith Thurman’s “The Conceptualist,” [not available online, alas] a profile of Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo, (Confession: this blogger would regularly visit an insanely beautiful men’s suit—constructed from two different fabrics, one sewn atop the other—from CdG’s 2003 collection at the Chelsea hobbit-hole store, only to be stymied at first by price, and subsequently by middle-age spread. Sigh.) The essay won me over from the very beginning in its unabashed declamation that fashion does matter, at least on a personal level.

The portrait painted of Kawakubo, aged sixty-two, is an interesting one: she hails from a radically normal middle-class upbringing, and has made her mark by challenging notions that high fashion must emphasize the female form—her architectural dresses oppose the ideal of a Chanel suit, the gold standard for a Japanese woman after she has sown her wild fashion oats. Most interesting is a portrait of a company that prospers by marketing clothes in guerrilla stores—boutiques opened without fanfare in incongruous urban districts, perhaps without any other retail outlet, and closed precisely one year later; an insightful passage describes Kawakubo’s creative process, one that

[B]egins with a a vision, or perhaps just an intuition, about a key garment that Kawakubo hints at with some sort of koan. She gives the patterners a set of clues that might take the form of a scribble, a crumpled piece of paper, or an enigmatic phrase such as “inside-out pillowcase,” which they translate, as best they can, into a muslin—the three-dimensional blueprint of a garment.

The evocative back-and-forth, which sounds a little like a Ouija board that transmits and receives, describes a process that must certainly be resistant to the usual strictures of the MBA, and is remarkable for that reason alone.


Over the past few months, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has been writing in support of his new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. In his examination of the new economies of China and India (and its contrast with the U.S. economy), he stresses the need for our federal government to lead the way in improving our educational system, sometimes stressing our need to improve science and engineering studies, and at other times highlighting the need to train young adults in the art of learning itself. I generally agree with his globalist prescriptions. The world has cast its lot, and we are closer to the kernel of the capitalistic enterprise as never before: once one gets on the treadmill, it becomes more and more difficult to keep up, for the speed continues to increase, faster and faster. As Lady Thatcher is believed to have said, there is no [longer an] alternative.

Easy Rider still
But talkin’ about it and bein’ it—that’s two
different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be
free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.

It now looks as though the late sixties were the golden age for having one’s cake and eating it, too: it was a time where one was able to drop out, at least for a time, and still retain one’s, er, “viability” in polite society. (Questions like “what are you going to do with that English degree?” had already begun to assert themselves in the mid-seventies, a time of economic malaise.)

I’m a big fan of Bennington College’s philosophy of education, one that they apply equally to students and to instructors: one shouldn’t eschew the mainstream—to the contrary, everyone is expected to be in the world, of the world—but they also instill a balance, so that graduates are equipped to work with the world on their own terms. There is a kind of “make ‘the man’ work for you, and not the other way ’round” ethos in play here, one that used to be more common (think Faulkner writing screenplays, or composer Charles Ives, working as an actuary for most of his life).

As the pace quickens, the forces of capitalism gradually eat away at the soul. (Friedman, tongue in cheek: if the French and German people are holding fast to their thirty-six-hour work week, then the Indians are willing to work a thirty-six-hour work day!) In the end, it takes more and more to hold onto one’s individuality, one’s happiness. But Rei Kawakubo’s work, and her story, are inspirational and hopeful.



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