First Ladies of Fashion

Glamour and global economics

Times change, habits change, fashions change, but there’s something classic and ageless about glamour. That’s not so say though that it’s not a commodity like any other, to be bought, sold and manipulated. It is … if you’re very, very rich and know exactly what you’re doing.

I’ll give you my favourite example: a few years ago a certain tobacco company launched a hugely-successful advertising campaign across the developing countries of Africa. The enormous posters showed a black man nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. Nothing more. Or so it seemed. The secret though was this: the smoker was wearing shoes, a sure-fire sign that he was upwardly-mobile and someone to be seen with – the perfect target market. Now I’ve always been an avid anti-smoker and so this sad little story, which I heard during a lunchtime lecture at the London Schools of Economics a few days ago, upset me greatly. How devious and venal! It almost put me off my much-anticipated visit to Le Gavroche that evening. Though would I have been as upset if the posters had been advertising the benefits of Cristal? The honest answer is probably not. Because unlike cigarettes, Cristal is actually good for you … isn’t it?

I mean, I’m not anti-capitalist or anti-globalisation or anything. After all, who could be more glamorous than my good friend, the renegade Canadian economist, Naomi Klein, who was in London to promote her new worldwide bestseller, The Shock Doctrine, follow-up to the equally riveting No Logo. When she’s not charting the protean nature of consumer capitalism and lecturing at Harvard Business School, she’s a really girlie girl. We did some great shopping together. Lips sealed!

Which brings us seamlessly back to life’s core concern, fashion. Naomi put this searching question to me – in actual fact she was reading it from The Financial Times – over a skinny latte: What have Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, France’s willowy First Lady, and younger-than-ever Hollywood model, Demi Moore, as seen in her latest movie, Flawless, got in common?

At last, we were away from global economics and I was back on home territory, fashion and movies. “I know this one”, I squealed, raising my hand and accidentally attracting the waiter. “It’s the 1960s revival”, I stated, full of assurance. “Skirt suits, especially in charcoal grey, are the latest thing, à la Jackie Kennedy. We’re also talking sleeveless tops and coats with stand-away collars. Everyone knows that … don’t they?”

It was gratifying to hear the woman who has been hailed as “the funky young heiress to Noam Chomsky” reply, with a light coating of latte foam right across her upper lip: “Absolutely! Bonne réponse! When it comes to the vacuous world of glamour, fashion and celebrity gossip, your knowledge is truly without equal. The coffee’s on me.”

I don’t like to flaunt my knowledge, but I could have gone on to tell her that the difference between Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Demi Moore when it comes to their Jackie Kennedy-styling is that the First Lady’s comes courtesy of Christian Dior, while the star’s is the work of Dinah Collin, the costume designer who started out on Doctor Who, before moving upmarket to Pride and Prejudice and The Bourne Supremacy. Whether or which, the result is an early 1960s revival.

Men, it turns out, are up to something similar. Back comes the tuxedo for dressy occasions. And not just any old double-breasted piece of cloth either. Think classic narrow-lapel and single-breasted, with a crisp white shirt and a real bow tie. My goodness, the very thought of those elasticated models makes me feel faint!

It’s all to do with catching the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, as I’ve said here many times before. There’s the Camelot-style appeal not only of the Sarkozys, but of the Obamas now as well. And so Dior has been followed down the retro route by Michael Kors, with his no-nonsense dresses and suits (more Fifties than Sixites to be honest), and by Oscar de la Renta, with his new range of cocktail frocks. Keep that in mind the next time you stroll down the Passeig des Born with your credit card in your hot little hand.

And it’s worth wondering – holding that Camelot thought a moment longer – what will happen if the Obamas get the thumbs down and John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, get the nod from the great American public this month. I just can’t imagine. I mean, have you seen the would-be Vice President’s hairstyle? Is this a woman equipped to lead? Naomi tells me it’s what’s beneath the hair that matters, but isn’t there a question of judgment? Wouldn’t Ms. Palin be better off heading for a good coiffeuse than for the Situation Room?

Whoever wins the White House, the good news is that the accoutrements of glamour continue to sell, despite the economic jitters.

I don’t want to sound too much like the selfsame Ms. Klein, but isn’t it fascinating that first-half 2008 sales for the big luxury groups were buoyant. The Gucci Group, for instance, which owns Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, put in a truly bling-bling performance with a 13 percent increase in operating profits. At constant currencies, their profits were actually up 36 percent. At the same time, HSBC calculates that over the past three years organic sales in the glamour and luxury goods sector have grown by an exceptional 13 to 15 percent annually.

It’s a creditable performance. And all the more so given that I can’t personally – despite my best efforts – have accounted for more than four or five of those percentage points. Our support for the global economy has been nothing short of heroic, ladies. And the future is looking bright: the way things are going, we could have a full-blown recession to buy our way out of!