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Initial Reaction

After years of hiding in shame, status symbols are bigger than ever. But this time, not all the logos should be taken seriously.

June 20, 1996|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

For many people, wearing something that lacks snob appeal is like making love with a condom--the thrill isn't quite there. If that analogy crosses the line between good and bad taste, then Tom Ford and Miuccia Prada, the typhoid Marys of the current epidemic of label fever, would undoubtedly be amused.

Ford, design director of Gucci and architect of the company's latest dazzling rise, last year brought back logos with a wink and a nod to the wretched excess of previous status-bound eras. Garishly colored outfits in clashing prints with prominent Gs were his reaction to the sober mood that infected fashion early in this decade.

"Everything was so restrained," he says. "People didn't smoke or drink or have sex or wear fur anymore. No one wanted to look too rich."

The bad-taste movement that followed was pregnant with shock value.

"Sometimes a little bad taste can be interesting, and it looked new," Ford says. "When logos came back in '95 there was a kitsch quality to them, a cynicism in their presentation. It was a little bit of putting some flash back in, and the people wearing the logos were secure enough that they could wear the big double Gs, even though they knew they were kind of tacky. The public has gone through the phase of wanting labels, then throwing them away and then saying, 'I can wear this again, it's funny.' "

So if logos are back, and they are, neither designers nor consumers are taking them as seriously this time around. Celebrities and fashion magazines have granted license to flaunt it again, with or without brio. But not everyone is privy to the naughty wit behind status symbols, or the sometimes rebellious message of smug conspicuous consumption. Some are taking their status symbols straight again.

The objects of desire of the early '90s were personal secrets: Only the wearer of a very costly Jil Sander coat knew what it was. Women treasured anonymous luxuries too shy to speak their names, clothing devoid of embossed buttons or telltale initials. The lines of an Armani jacket were identifiable, but other minimalist favorites, such as Calvin Klein and Prada, lacked specific signatures or silhouettes. Today, when a well-dressed woman is asked, "Whose dress is that?" she answers, "Karl" or "Donna." In the quiet years, she would have replied, "Mine."

For a while, well-crafted anonymity carried prestige. Bottega Veneta, whose recognizable woven bags and shoes had their own cachet, ran an ad campaign with the slogan "When your own initials are enough." Lately, too much is barely enough. At Chanel's most recent runway show in Paris, fashion editors flung Chanel cashmere cardigans over their Chanel jackets or coats, knotting the sleeves at the neck like scarves. The sweaters functioned either as another layer of warmth on a brisk March day or as banners flying more golden buttons.

Although the new wave of ostentation comes laced with irony, it still makes dressing a challenge. The stylized G hinge on a Gucci shoulder bag's strap may be subtle, but it does fight with the crown on Todd Oldham's loafers. Add a gleaming H-buckle on an Hermes belt, double Cs on Chanel sunglasses, a Cartier watch and a vintage Schlumberger bracelet (bought at auction or, preferably, inherited) and a return to the recently departed age of understatement beckons like a month in the country.

"Aren't we just sick of it all?" asks Wendy Goldberg, ace volunteer for a variety of L.A. causes. "If I see another V or a G. . . . I don't need to have somebody else's initials on my clothes in order to make them acceptable. In the old days, people who walked around wearing signs got paid for it. I just think it's peculiar that designers are doing it. And it bothers me that when you wear a status symbol everyone else knows exactly what it costs. Who wants to flaunt anything? You want to be well dressed, but you don't want to be a walking logo."

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Avoiding a monogrammed life can take real effort. In many cases, the lower the price tag, the more flamboyant the logos. This is true of DKNY and the more costly Donna Karan Collection, RL jeans and Ralph Lauren's purple label, CK and the Calvin Klein Collection, the young, sporty Armani AX, D&G and GFF stuff versus logo-free Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Gianfranco Ferre lines.

"Logos were a high-end thing first, which was then parodied at the street level," says Simon Doonan, vice president of creative services for Barneys New York. "Then the serious designers started to be ambivalent about that liberal use of initialing. Now you see it at opposite ends of the market."

Fashion is as democratic as the dollar, but far from an egalitarian society. In the Darwinian fashion jungle, the young, thin, rich or stylish rule, and nothing spells death to a status symbol like association with the wrong people.

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