Saturday, September 10, 2005

Class and Luxury through the Multicolore Prism

After no posts for more than a week, I thought I'd do three in a row, and this one is sort of a reflection on certain discussions that I was privy to as I was browsing through some message boards. Now I have more than a interest in fashion, as an art form, as a reflection of zeitgeist and certainly because I want to look oh so stylish and put together (not that I ever succeed). But a fairly straightforward discussion of fashion, which is more often than not all about melikey or "ewww, how could they design that" and this sort of banality is very boring for me. I like discussions about history and progression of fashion, the avant-garde and of course, fashion as cultural phenomenon. And the one cultural phenomenon where fashion is deeply entwined, and something that anyone living in the US or Europe or East and South-east Asia could not have possibly missed has been the phenomenon of the Louis Vuitton Murakami bag.

That bag is everywhere. If there is a single piece of merchandise that has become iconic of late 1990s and early 2000s fashion's obsession with logos and conspicuous vanity, it is the Multicolore commissioned by Louis Vuitton from Murakami. The collaboration is an unlikely match, given Louis Vuitton's history, and Murakami's artistic fascinations. Vuitton started in 1854 as a luggage manufacture (quite similar to Gucci's beginnings actually) and moved on to other luxury goods, primarily bags pretty soon. They were shrewd enough to hit on the readily-identifiable beige-on-chestnut monogram with the "LV" in 1896, probably the first luxury goods company in the world to do so. Even in those times, Vuitton was dogged by plagiarism of its distinct designs. Vuitton remained a fairly well-established luxury goods house, with name recognition, but certainly not on a global scale and certainly not on the scale of the frenzy that followed later.

The frenzy was brought on by a collaboration with Takashi Murakami, an artist with a fair bit of following in Japan as well as globally, primarily known for his embracing facets of Japanese pop culture and fusing it with a minimalistic aesthetic. Nothing is left out, animation, toys, action figures, manga, all are embraced to produce results that are a reflection of a composite "cool" in Japanese youth culture. The contrast between Murakami's art and the house of Vuitton is fairly evident, and I guess the collaboration would have never come through if not for the intervention of Marc Jacobs, who was appointed artistic director at Vuitton in 1998. Jacobs is an American designer who revels in vintage looks and grunge, and would presumably have been more interested in incorporating elements of Japanese popular culture-based avante garde into the Vuitton line.

Hence was born the Murakami bag, which is a curious specimen of a luxury bag, to say the least. Strictly speaking the Murakami bag violates all characteristics of what a luxury bag should look like. It is a jumble of colours, the materials used may be top quality but there is no way to tell, and certainly to the lay eye, without the distinct LV label, the bag would be no different from any low-end bag in the market. Actually, it is fairly evident that it is intentionally so (and I'm not making this up, I do remember reading something to this effect somewhere). The campiness and the kitschiness of the bag is very deliberate, as if to transgress the notion of what counts as luxury. And it seems to me, though I'm just conjecturing, that Murakami is actually laughing at and not with the buyers of this bag, at their willingness to suspend notions of conventional taste to be led to believe that what essentially looks like the product of a kid's doodling is indeed an ultra-chic accessory.

I think Louis Vuitton was lucky that the product coincided with a moment in fashion and the luxury trade where even those (middle class women) who could not afford to drape themselves head to toe in designerwear aspired to have at least one designer accessory. For most of these, that accessory had to be highly visible and an emblem of conscpicuous consumption, hence a designer bag. It helped that fashion and celebrity magazines, with the help of celebrities helped to promote the idea of the "It bag", hence identifying a celebrity's bag from paparazzi pictures became an obsession for teenage mall rats and twenty and thirty-something working women as well as housewives. And of course Vuitton was only too willing to recruit celebrities to its cause. Hence after the bag had been seen on Eve, JLo and Madonna, the desirability went up dramatically. But as the limited income woman soon discovered the bag was priced out of middle class reach. The two options were save up or buy a fake. And most women chose the sensible option of going for the latter.

For such a product, that is intentionally kitschy, and a luxury product deliberately dressed down to look less than covetable, it is highly amusing that there is a huge debate regarding the morality of carrying a fake Murakami bag. I was reading through a number of threads at TheFashionSpot, a fairly large online forum on fashion, and the vehemence directed towards those who purchase and carry a fake Murakami is unbelievable. This is common to most online fora that are dedicated to fashion and style, and all sorts of arguments are advanced to condemn those who buy fake LV Murakamis, from the patently absurd ones of money from sale of fakes supporting terrorism, to the more reasonable ones of copyright and intellectual property. But of course, the bulk of the arguments point to a certain status anxiety or the role of luxury goods in determining class and social standing. And hence invectives like "they think they are all that because they carry a fake LV", "they think they look cool, but they look cheap and trashy", "only the ghetto fabulous carry fake LVs", etc., etc.

Honestly, I'm no LV expert (and people with years of experience are paid huge sums of money by vintage goods companies to be so), so not particularly qualified, but I've never been able to identify any LV Murakami carried by someone as a fake. I'm sure there's a way to tell, but as I said, since the LV Murakami is intentionally kitschy and campy, there is really little to tell a fake and a real one apart. I mean sure there are all sorts brand identifiers that LV puts into its merchandise, but those can only be identified on close inspection. So then, I guess there is only way these people frothing at their mouths on seeing others carrying fakes identify the bags as fakes: the rest of the bag carrier's outfit, their location, and the other merchandise they carry, all an indication of social and economic class. So if you look like you can afford the high price tag for a Murakami, chances are that your Murakami bag is real. But lord forbid if you come from my 'hood, generally look down and out and dress ghetto fabulous. Which is amusing on another level because one of the first celebrities to carry it was Eve, the epitome of ghetto fabulous and a woman, who if she walks down the street with her LV Murakami bag, would definitely be called a "fake-carrier" by all the armchair Louis Vuitton experts out there.

Strange how Murakami's design, which seemed (to me at least) to be making a statement about the absurdity of luxury goods as status symbol, became the ultimate class marker for many. I mean the hoopla may be trivial and trite, but I think it raises interesting questions about class and social mobility. And the alarming frequency with which the names of European luxury brands keep cropping up in Indian lifestyle journalism these days, it seems the same class anxiety is being played out there as well. But given the very limited brand recognition among the masses (thanks to years of socialist censoring), I don't think we would see any repeat of Murakami mania played out there anytime soon. In the meantime let me adjust the strap on my Prada shoes and clean the glass of my Cartier watch. Just kidding!!


Blogger the still dancer said...

ekkebare unrelated, but would be interested in knowing what you think of my take on Penelope

11:56 AM  
Blogger Urmea said...

That bag is so darn ugly, they all look fake to me.

8:19 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

@kaashyapeya: Some random comments coming your way pronto!

@Urmi: My thoughts exactly. They should be teaching the LV Murakami case study at Harvard Business School. How such ugliness gets coveted is beyond me.

11:50 AM  
Blogger K said...

Trust me the middle class masses over here are already nuts about certain brands. The availability of fake LV/Prada/Versace gear is mind-boggling. However, the luxury watch market is booming, Cartier sends me a press-kit every week of some new diamond encrusted watch, they think the Indian market will explode because of the "Indian male's acceptance of jewellery." Or that was the PR spiel their corp comm person gave me. Hmmm....

12:37 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

@K: That's certainly news to me.So are fake LV/Gucci/Prada etc. so common?

As for Cartier's hardsell, I guess they are desperately hoping that China and India would emerge as the next Japans, the country that is the biggest market of luxe goods in the world. The European and Ameican sales of luxury goods are expected to decline for the next decade.

Aesthetically speaking, the effusion of diamonds on Cartiers is quite distasteful, but what do I know. If it's good for petro-dollar sheikhs........

12:45 AM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

:D I like being myself. All I have to remember is the name of a general store, Bon Macy's.

Phew! That was a lot. But, it's been long again. Btw, was it keyboard or key of laptop? Curious.

asynsgfx - hmm... rhymes with asphyxiate

11:30 AM  
Blogger said...

Its simply about feeling included by excluding others, no? Camp becomes cliche when the hoi polloi get in on the act.

For an inside look at the world of handbags check this out!

And as to why the real bag is important? Remember the Sex and the City episode where the girls go to the wrong part of town looking for fake handbags. Its all in the mind!

5:23 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

@sanity-starved: It was a keyboard thank goodness. Haven't progressed to laptop-dom yet. The Macy's women's section is terribly unimaginative, and stocks label-whore brands like J-Lo and Guess. For me E-bay and small independent boutiques are the way to go.

@Gypsynan: Haven't seen too many SATC episodes, but surely if they were making a statement about the uselessness of hankering after "real" handbags, it has be a very ironic one. Apparently SJP was the one who started it all, by carrying a very recognizable Fendi baguette in an early SATC episode.

Thanks for the link, it's fun!

7:32 PM  
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4:24 PM  

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