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Issues That Fashion Could Do Without

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009; Page M01

MILAN

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It's unclear how many publicists in other industries sign their professional e-mails with "big kiss," but in the fashion world such a signature is not particularly unusual. There is an assumed degree of extreme intimacy, among those who are in the business of making and marketing expensive clothes, that sometimes borders on incestuous.

One of the most recent examples of how the various strands of the fashion industry are interwoven -- or more aptly, tied into a tight, complicated little knot -- comes in the form of a Prada project called "The Iconoclasts." The Italian design house announced that four well-known fashion editors will each window-dress one of its flagship stores. The guest merchandisers' work is organized to coincide with Fashion Week in each of the four cities.

Prada's description of what the editors will do is, of course, put in terms far fancier and more high-minded than merely saying they will decide which dresses to put on the mannequins. The creative folks at Prada tend to speak in riddles and hyperbole, with phrases such as "visual identity" and "image makers." They also suggest that for the first time, the collection will be presented through the eyes of someone other than designer Miuccia Prada. One might assume that happens all the time when the clothes are photographed in magazines or hung on the racks of stores such as Barneys New York. But no, there are rules and pressures about what can be shown or sold and precisely how that will be accomplished.

So this willingness to allow another person's point of view on hallowed Prada ground appears momentous -- at least in the fashion world. And how the editors display the collection may, in fact, be provocative and even memorable.

The point, however, is whether they should be doing it at all. In a business where conflicts of interest occur every day, this is a step too far and poorly timed. Fashion does not need such a public blow to its credibility during an economic crisis that has it quite literally -- and at times, unfairly -- having to justify its existence.

Alex White, an editor at W magazine, styled the New York store in SoHo for February. The London shop was reimagined by Katie Grand, the editor of a magazine called Love and one of the hardest-working folks in fashion -- with a résumé that includes styling, of all things, previous Prada collections. Styling, by the way, is that mystical craft of taking a designer's collection and editing it, tweaking it and throwing some voodoo onto it so that it becomes dynamic and mesmerizing on the runway, in an advertisement or in the pages of a magazine. It is not curating with a critical eye but aesthetic merchandising.

Here in Milan, where the fall 2009 runway shows are underway, the Prada store on Via Montenapoleone is in the hands of Olivier Rizzo, who has worked with a variety of magazines including Grand's Love. And finally, the Paris store will be merchandised by the editor in chief of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld -- which would seem to be a bit like the editor of Sports Illustrated calling the plays at a football game and then writing about how brilliant the coaching was.

The overlap of who does what in the fashion industry has always been disconcerting. Former magazine editors become designers and then lobby their former colleagues for coverage. Many editors on the mastheads of magazines have simultaneously worked as stylists -- or muses -- for designers such as Diane von Furstenberg, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Donatella Versace.

It's hard to take anything at face value when the person editing the magazine and celebrating a collection because of its sex appeal is also the one whispering in the designer's ear and telling him to sex things up a bit more.

The incestuousness of the fashion industry has been going on for so long that it seems like there was never a time when Roitfeld wasn't offering some designer her recommendations -- for better and oftentimes worse -- or the editors at American Vogue weren't previewing collections and giving designers helpful hints on what works and what doesn't.

Magazines have never pretended to be objective observers of fashion. They have always seen their role as that of cheerleader and champion. They celebrate the most talented designers and the most beautiful clothes and simply ignore the rest. They give special attention to advertisers. And so it's often hard to know whether the best truly is any good at all. Maybe the only reason that a collection gets press is because the designer just happens to be a good schmoozer with the right connections or a compelling story.

Those close relationships are especially bothersome now. The economy is struggling, and so is the fashion industry. The appetite for luxury goods is drying up from the United States to Russia. And the magazines are trying to remain optimistic and encouraging. They're filled with pages of lavish clothes and expensive accessories and the message is this: You absolutely cannot live without this necklace. You will feel empowered if you purchase this pair of shoes. You will do the economy a service if you buy this overpriced bauble.

At a time when the industry needs all the credibility it can muster, Prada is bragging about its coziness with editors. With so many folks scratching each other's back, why should any reader put stock in a story about clothes that supposedly have lasting value? Why should anyone believe magazines, designers or anyone in this industry? No wonder so many consumers believe the fashion business is just one giant conspiracy out to dupe women. It's just what the paranoid always thought: They are all in this together.

The fashion industry painted itself into this corner over the long haul. It doesn't see itself as a conglomeration of businesses that are interdependent and yet provide each other with checks and balances. Instead, the industry would best be described as an unruly family filled with enablers who encourage behavior that weakens consumer trust.

The Prada spring collection, the one that editors have been asked to help market and sell, is a beautiful one. And many of the pieces, with their crinkled texture, deep hues and ribbon closures, are the sort that could become classics in a woman's wardrobe.

But when magazines make that sales pitch to readers, it's going to be a hard one to believe.


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