The Baffler

Louis, Louis

How one fashion brand failed at being good

The Baffler
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Over at The Cut, New York magazine’s ode to the stylish and sexy set, there are stories of couples considering open relationships and pro tips on “How to Whiten Your Teeth at Home” (and your skin, your apartment, yourself. . .). But the other day, I found a somewhat startling headline there. The famed fashion brand Louis Vuitton, fervently adored by those who like to showcase their status on various airport concourses, had manufactured and donated 2,500 face masks to workers at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The masks given to the MTA, where nearly a hundred workers have lost their lives during the pandemic, another article pointedly clarified, are plain, not adorned with the company’s valuable logo.

I imagined this odious scene in my head.  How had the masks been sent over to the MTA? Was there a ceremony, featuring a small gaggle of exhausted workers, an over-eager Vuitton public-relations manager, some MTA boss awoken from his work-at-home slumber? Or were they just mailed over in a large box with Louis Vuitton as the return address? I wondered why the masks were not adorned with the brand name—surely the expert artisans of repurposed Vuitton factories could put a little logo on them? I imagined the rehearsed response that would fall from the nude matte lips of a working-from-the-Hamptons publicity doyenne: “Well, the pandemic is so tragic,” she’d intone nasally, “we didn’t want people to think that we are using it as a publicity thing, or to push a secondary market for masks.”

Except that Louis Vuitton is using this moment (as are Chanel and Armani and Kate Spade and Ralph Lauren, for that matter) to do just that; they flash with a flourish the company’s caring heart. The logo on the masks would make them valuable beyond their functionality, maybe even make them (gasp) fashionable, and we all know that fashion of that high-end, snobby sort does not belong on the faces of poor MTA workers. Sharing some small bit of its billions in profits is kindly and socially responsible; giving away its logo to working stiffs is cheapening its brand.

I imagined the rehearsed response that would fall from the nude matte lips of a working-from-the-Hamptons publicity doyenne.

The Vuitton caper represents the conundrum that luxury fashion brands face in this time of tragedy. Chanel, which has also allegedly repurposed its factories to make masks and protective gowns, survived World War II with a tarnished reputation. Its survival was ensured largely because Coco Chanel, the company’s namesake, became an eager agent for the Nazis. Even as she peddled her suits and gowns during the War, Chanel cozied up to a top officer in German military intelligence, happily moving into the Ritz Hotel and passing information she gleaned from her uppity and ever style-conscious French friends on to the Germans.

Louis Vuitton’s mask-donation publicity stunt is not equal to colluding with the Nazis, but it is a hypocritical effort to create the pretense of a “company conscience” where none exists. Bernard Arnault, a lover of diamonds who heads up LVMH (the company that owns Louis Vuitton) is the richest man in France. His company is valued at $166 billion; he recently gobbled up Tiffany for $16 billion. But Arnault, the mask stunt tries to say, also has a heart of gold, a desire to tend to the needs of the MTA. This caring story is the one Vuitton wants to tell.

The truth happens to be different. Vuitton’s bid for good publicity underscores just how hard it is going to be for luxury fashion brands to contort themselves into the tight moral constraints that are likely to dominate consumption in the post-Covid-19 world. Gone are the days when impossibly thin New York women could put on a Chanel suit that cost a small mountain of credit card debt and lay rightful claim to the snobbery that came with it. Similarly lost will be admiration for the branded tchotchkes that heiresses and style mavens flashed with some deliberation every chance they got.

There is research to show just how terrified the fashion industry is of all this—and of one other more important and crucial consequence of the pandemic. A report published by McKinsey & Company mentions something called “a quarantine of consumption,” where consumers already driven away from luxury brands and toward those that promise sustainability and fair labor practices will now turn away altogether and for always. Boasting about a $6,000 pair of Louboutins may have brought awe and envy to the suburban mother in the “before” times. In the after-times it just reveals a craven let-them-eat-cake sort of callousness.

Trend forecasters agree. “The virus, I think, can be seen as a representation of our conscience . . . it brings to light what is so terribly wrong with society and every day that becomes more clear,” said Li Edelkoort. “It teaches us to slow down and change our ways.” This change of ways bodes ill for all the discretionary spending that brand-boasting Americans and more crucially the jet-setting Chinese have promoted in the post-2008 recovery. With “discretionary” spending drawn into the realm of ethical consumption, a fashion brand must now signal not only style but virtue.

Post-Covid consumers cannot will the pandemic away, but they can mock the timid overtures that high fashion is making in its effort to pretend it cares.

And so it happens that Louis Vuitton, never before concerned with anything New York’s MTA workers need or do, has to make masks for them. The hope is that websites like The Cut, which seems to have branding conundrums of its own in the post-Covid moment (like the blackly comic juxtaposition of Covid casualty numbers next to the thirteen best eye creams), will run articles on it along with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and perhaps Vanity Fair. The handing out of masks, the repurposing of factories, all the luxe brands hope, will make fashion look good, where good (revolutionarily for fashion) means actually virtuous rather than simply beautiful. If there is any embarrassment to be felt about the multi-billion-dollar LVMH handing out a few thousand masks through Louis Vuitton, it has been ignored.

The live-and-let-live ethics of the pre-Covid era of plenty represented the sort of laissez-faire indulgence that will no longer be available to the peddlers of luxury goods or their bauble-baited consumers. As we sit and squirm in our continuing pandemic nightmare, it may be time to resurrect and reclaim the cleverly denigrated task of being “judgmental.” Fashion, after all, only gains its meaning and even its value from those who apprehend it, consume it, admire it, and affirm it. Instead of gobbling shoes and clothes that sit in bags in closets that smell of insecurity and desperation, pandemic time is better spent at calling out the immorality that created want and indulgence existing side-by-side, sometimes on the same street in Manhattan or Paris or Milan. Post-Covid consumers cannot will the pandemic away, but they can mock the timid overtures that high fashion is making in its effort to pretend it cares. In this case, mockery may really be the best policy.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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