THE END OF FASHION

The Mass Marketing of the

Clothing Business

By Teri Agins

Morrow. 320 pp. $25

Reviewed by Laura Jacobs

Writing about fashion isn't easy. To begin with, where do you focus? On the silhouette or the trend? The designers or the retailers? The ad campaigns that hammer away or the tiny hammers of the human heart, longing one minute for the future, the next minute for the past?

You can approach fashion as a sociologist, a psychologist, a cultural historian, a semiotician or an aesthete. After all, this is the century that saw fashion become an art in the hands of masters like Madeleine Vionnet, Cristobal Balenciaga, Charles James and Geoffrey Beene. At the century's end, however, fashion is increasingly a business with a capital B (for billions), and its aesthetic is the art of marketing. It is with this 1990s trend in mind (hot color: greedy green) that Teri Agins gives her new book its sweeping title: The End of Fashion.

Agins subtitles the book "The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business," and she should know. As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she's covered this beat for the last 10 years, and she writes about it with confidence. Her book comes at its subject from seven different directions, each of its seven chapters presenting a case study that also illustrates a development in the industry. As these perspectives come together, like angled mirrors in a dressing room, you begin to see the end result -- a whole world dressed in Gap khakis, Nike shoes, Hilfiger shirts and Donna Karan sunglasses, because that's all that's left to buy.

Beginning with an introduction that asks "What Happened to Fashion?", Agins nails down the decade's four industry-altering megatrends: 1) Baby boomer women wanted clothes that worked as hard as they did. 2) People stopped dressing up (think dress-down Fridays). 3) Reverse snobbery meant that consumers could feel clever about spending less. 4) Top designers stopped risking the franchise with fashion gambles. Of course, consumer needs and ambitions had changed before, as in the late '60s and early '70s when Flower Power and peasant dressing went like a wave through the population. But in those days it was youth that was carried away. In the 1990s, it's Everyman.

The business world has changed too. Agins's first chapter is an historical recap of fashion's ground zero, Paris couture. She charts its ebb and flow over the last four decades, describing the point of no return when the licensing of perfumes and accessories took off and transformed fashion houses into million-dollar empires, thus taking the emphasis off wearable clothes. It's a huge subject (a book in itself), and Agins's treatment is scattershot. Much better is her portrait of couturier Emanuel Ungaro, whose fashion house was recently taken over by the House of Ferragamo. It's a close study of disparate management styles -- Ungaro's artistic impulsiveness versus Ferragamo's conservatism -- and it shows the risks of both in a business where timing is not only everything, it's practically metaphysical.

The long chapter that compares the groundbreaking ascent of lifestyle impresario Ralph Lauren with the easier climb of his younger imitator Tommy Hilfiger put me in a cryogenic state. There's only so much one can read, or care, about the making and marketing of polo shirts. But I have to admit, the chapter does make you think: If this is fashion, fashion is over.

The last three chapters are the best in the book -- solid, focused and fascinating, as if Agins had finally hit her stride. Her history of the great Chicago department store Marshall Field's, its creative innovations, its majestic Walnut Room, its Frango Mints, captures the grandeur of a beloved urban institution and also the emotional expectations customers bring to it. This setting allows Agins to discuss how expectations were disappointed when the store went downmarket, and also how big, safe, brand-name designers came to dominate department-store floors, making them all look and feel alike. The chapter on Donna Karan and her initial public offering fiasco is a hoot -- a cautionary tale that takes plenty of potshots ("The high-strung Karan was famous for throwing fits when she couldn't get her way. . . ."). And the final chapter on Zoran, the guru of luxury minimalism, is cut just right, elegantly done. In a climate of IPO extravaganzas, when you have to "grow the company" to satisfy stockholders while knowing that growth isn't actually good for you, Agins shows that the Zoran model of small is beautiful is not some slow boat. It still works, and is still profitable.

What's missing from Agins's account? I would have liked to see a chapter on the tarnished fashion glossies, especially Vogue, which in its pursuit of the hip, twentysomething demographic embraces trends mass and crass. When I was a teenager, reading my aunt's copy of Vogue was one of my first acts of sophistication. It kindled a love of design, high culture, art. Now those pages are about power and money -- yet another endgame for fashion.

Laura Jacobs is the author of "Beauty and the Beene" and "The Art of Haute Couture."