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Fashion gravitas

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Wednesday, Jul 26, 2006

Part of the success of the Us Weekly and InStyle formula rested initially in their ability to merge the functions of a celebrity gossip magazine with those of beauty and fashion magazines: Service pieces about makeup and whatnot would be enlivened by the presence of a celebrity endorsing one product or another, while simultaneously promoting the celebrity’s own career, her own notoriety. But that formula may be in danger of exhausting itself, as the reciprocal promotions taking place are starting to become unbalanced. According to this Wall Street Journal piece, celebrities are out and supermodels are back in for the latest slew of fashion advertisments. “The pendulum’s swing back to models reflects what some fashion marketers are calling “celebrity fatigue”: A-list entertainers are so overexposed that ‘there is a major lack of trust,’ says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York consulting firm.” (The Luxury Institute? That’s probably not a bad place to work.) This risible statement presupposes that (a) supermodels are not overexposed and (b) people once “trusted” celebrities who endorsed luxury products, as though they weren’t doing it for the money. It’s not as if people are out there thinking: “Hmm, if that Jessica Simpson likes Pizza Hut, maybe I should give it a try; her opinion on such things seems pretty trustworthy.” Trust wouldn’t seem to enter into this transaction; it’s just that some celebrities have enough glamorous status that the brightness of their star power blinds consumers to their motives and allows their association with the advertised product go unquestioned. And overexposure doesn’t compromise trust at all; it just reduces the star’s luster so that one focuses on the celebrity’s greed and vanity rather than dreaming about the product making one as glamorous and exalted. Once stars are “just like us” they can’t serve as signals of exclusivity.


No one thinks models are just like us. In fact, they seem inseparable from the product of fashion itself. One of the article’s sources attempts a defense of the models’ special talents: “They’re professionally trained to be photographed incredibly well,” a modeling agency VP claims, “They know which camera angles work.” I’m sure that’s a rare gift, and I’m sure the training is rigorous and uncompromising—“No, you must stare off into space as though you are seeing nothing, nothing. Do you see it?”—but I have a hard time believing that has anything to do with this. A much better explanation is probably that they are cheaper to use, and carry less extracurricular baggage (amazingly, this is alleged to be true even of Kate Moss). “Style experts say that models may convey more fashion gravitas and sophistication than screen actresses. ‘They’re specifically related to fashion,’ says Sally Singer, fashion news features director at Vogue.” Fashion gravitas equates to the model’s ability to be indistinguishable from the product, to be a product herself rather than a personality in her own right. Fashion gravitas is a kind of imposed amnesia: It’s a matter of taking the posture being advertised with the utmost seriousness, as if no other definitions of style have ever existed, and having no agenda of one’s own in promoting it.  ” ‘We’re seeing a return to the focus on the product rather than just the image,’ says David Wolfe, a New York fashion consultant and creative director of the Doneger Group. ‘People have decided that when they buy the image they are not really getting anything.’ ” Now, no one thinks that’s true; if consumers were no longer content to consume images, fashion magazines and the fashion industry would be in great danger of folding altogether. The industry consists of little more than images, and the attitudes and whims they are essential to establishing. What you expect to get when you consume fashion is a moment’s respite from the ever-mounting insecurity that the world is passing you by. For a moment you feel ahead of the curve. Celebrities, apparently, have fallen behind it. But the substantiality, the use value, of the product is never in question; everyone knows there is none.


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