“Clothes” Encounters of an Excessive Kind

Luxury (noun from Latin, luxus and its derivative luxuria, excess, indulgence), can be defined as 1- The habitual enjoyment of or indulgence in the best and most costly things; 2- An inessential and desirable item that is expensive or difficult to obtain. See also: luxury brand. Other definitions include: “great comfort: expensive high-quality surroundings, and the great comfort that they provide; nonessential item: an item that is desirable but not essential, and often expensive or hard to get; pleasurable self-indulgent activity: an activity that gives great pleasure, especially one only rarely”.

Needless to say, there are many ways to view luxury and many ways to define luxury. (In addition, one person’s luxury is another’s necessity). Luxury has been with us through the ages and it’s a topic of fascination and yet it’s never been the focus of an exhibition…until this week.

Yesterday morning, I attended a press preview for “Luxury – A Close Encounter with Extravagance, Vanity, And Excess” at the Museum at FIT’s Fashion and Textile History Galleries, which runs through November 10th. It could have just as easily been called, “Clothes Encounters of an Excessive Kind”. (Only kidding of course, not all of it was excessive as you will see).

As if to prove just how vast a subject this is, it was curated by museum director Dr. Valerie Steele, with a “little help from her friends” – a veritable supporting cast that included associate research curator Tamsen Schwartrzman, associate curator of costume Fred Dennis, associate curator of accessories, Clare Sauro, in addition to Harumi Hotta and Lynn Weidner from FIT’s textile department.

The 150 garments, accessories, and textiles spanning 250 years, from the 18th century to the present, were selected in order to show how the social climate and cultural influences have impacted on the notion of luxury, and to illustrate the many ‘faces’ of luxury.

Aristocratic fashions like the voluminous, floor length floral yellow brocaded silk taffeta dress from 1735 (photo above) and the 1889 jeweled velvet ball gown by Emile Pasquiere illustrate the obvious, more is more, over the top, in your face opulence and excess of it all.

On the other side of the coin is the softer, paler, more subtle trio of knee length dresses by couture legends Paul Poiret, Edward Molyneux, and Coco Chanel from the 1920’s (photo above). Along those same lines, the exquisitely delicate lingerie and lingerie inspired pieces (Pacquin’s two 1930’s slip dresses and Coco Chanel’s 1932 Couture lingerie inspired evening gown) are proof of lingerie’s appeal as “a personal sensual indulgence”. “Private luxury for your own satisfaction and pleasure” is how Dr. Steele put it. Displayed alongside, is a quote from Coco Chanel, “Luxury is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside”.

Speaking of which,Traina/Norell for Nan Duskin’s deceivingly simple (yet not so) camel wool knee length coat lined in gold sequins and shown over a matching gold sequined dress (from the 60’s) was inherently modern (and truly relevant for today) in that the luxury was personal, private, hidden, and safely out of sight, making it ‘urban’ friendly. I knowingly laughed at the name “Subway Ensemble” since it would indeed be a good choice if one were taking a subway to get to that chic, dressed up evening soiree. (Hey, I don’t have a limo or town car and I’ve done that many times. This would undeniably come in handy).

Cristobal Balenciaga’s 1951 black silk jersey, silk faille, sequined and jet beaded lace beauty, (which most of the women in attendance oohed and aahed over since it would obviously be as perfect today as it was back then) is proof positive that certain things never change – such as the luxury of owning a shapely little (or not so little) black dress.

Romeo Gigli’s signature olive cotton velvet cocoon coat and menswear inspired cotton shirt, pinstriped vest, skinny suede trousers were selected to show the haute bohemian, rich hippie side of luxury, while Yeohlee’s 1997 luxury ensemble, comprised of a tunic trimmed with mink cuffs worn over pants, displayed another, surprising side of this architectural and minimalist designer.

Maggie Norris’s white cotton lace up the back elongated “uber luxurious” white shirt, 2007, shown over Acme’s skinny black stretch “uber premium” jeans were indicative of the way in which couture elements can be used to add a luxurious touch to the most simplified basics and classics.

The ‘luxe sportif’ Spyder USA ski ensemble was testament to “experiential luxury”….luxury as lifestyle (“it’s not just about material objects but spending money on interesting experiences…travel, sport, etc.”)

A duo of handbags, one by Hermes and the other by Coach were indicative of the ‘old/new’ luxury as Dr. Steele put it. “Hermes is the absolute classic old luxury brand. It became prestigious in the mid 19th century, it was instantly prestigious and became associated with the best in European craftsmanship, artistry, and aristocratic clientiele And then you have the ‘new luxury…which is more style driven, more American, and more accessible”. She mentioned that Coach is setting up a whole new luxury line.

Two pairs of statement making shoes: the Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton 2004 gilded leather, silk, and mink oxfords, displayed in a glass case next to the very “cool” yet awkwardly heavy black leather platform booties from Nicolas Guesquiere for Balenciaga, made the point about the dichotomy of luxury: that which is materially obvious vs. that which is trendy, of the moment, and a flash in the pan.

Rodarte’s spring 2007 customized confection of a dress, decorated with chiffon roses, was selected as a nod to the growing trend in contemporary luxury towards the “demi-couture”.

Viktor & Rolf’s highly publicized ivory silk organza and satin wedding gown created for the chain H & M, was included (it is in the first display area) because it’s symbolic of another growing trend…the democratization of fashion. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the idea of luxury being made accessible for the masses, without discussing all the inexpensive knock offs and counterfeits which abound (many of which are so good it’s really hard to tell which is which). And as if to prove the point about fabulous fakes, Dr. Steele, accessorized her authentic Dries Van Noten embroidered skirt, with a pair of vintage (and large) ‘paste’ drop earrings that looked just like diamonds. She also admitted that the fascinating subject of counterfeits might in fact be the subject of a future exhibit somewhere down the line.

By the way, joining me at the press preview was The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan. I asked the Pulitzer Prize winning writer (and soon to be recipient of CFDA’s Eugenia Sheppard Award for Fashion Journalism on June 4th) who she thought exemplified the notion of modern luxury. She almost immediately cited Hermes (specifying that she’s not referring to Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs but the House of Hermes) and Rochas (when Olivier Theyskens was its creative director). When I asked if that means she also thinks Nina Ricci (Theyskens is now its creative director) is in the same category, she said no; she sees that more as more ‘ready-to-wear’.

When I mentioned the soon to open Hermes store on Wall Street, she voiced some skepticism observing that “luxury is supposed to be rarified” and exclusive, but since it’s become “more accessible”, there is a “growing contradiction”.
Ms. Givhan is also “skeptical” about “limited editions” and questioned if in fact that necessarily signifies “better”.

Getting back to “modern luxury”, for me that implies a certain subtle, downplaying of it all (adding a touch of throwaway chic). I’m all for the tendency to offhandedly mix the very high end with the very low end: as in the common practice of hi/low (you didn’t see gals mixing their ballgowns with motorcycle boots or their tiaras with blue jeans in the 1800’s but today, women routinely pair their favorite jeans with Chanel jackets or furs). It’s a more realistic, more accessible approach.

Speaking of which, luxury items are far more accessible on a global level (just a click away); and they are being made far more accessible to the masses. So, like everything else in our mass produced culture, it’s even harder and more challenging to find ways to personalize and individualize even the most luxurious and rarified of items.

Perhaps that’s why I agreed wholeheartedly with Agnelli scion Lap Elkann’s take on luxury. (I guess you can say he is well qualified to tackle the subject). Considered to be “possibly the best dressed man in the world”, according to Vogue magazine, he routinely mixes grandfather Gianni Agnelli’s custom suits, which he inherited, with his own “more contemporary pieces” and was the focus of a sprawling 20 page spread photographed by Mario Testino for the June issue. In it, he observed, “I don’t believe in imposed luxury. I believe in built luxury…something you refine with your own taste”.

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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