Posts Tagged ‘Book Review


The Devil Sells Prada

Book Review–NYT. August 26, 2007


How Luxury Lost Its Luster.- By Dana Thomas.

The Penguin Press.

“Luxury,” Socrates once declared, “is artificial poverty.” I’m not poor, but there’s nothing like an afternoon spent shopping for luxury goods to make me feel that way. On a recent jaunt through some of Midtown Manhattan’s snazzier stores, I began to wonder why this should be the case. When, I asked myself, did it become commonplace to charge several thousand dollars for a mass-produced handbag? How could the flimsy designer sundress I bought on sale — a “steal,” the saleswoman assured me — still wind up costing a whole month’s salary? Why is my favorite brand of lipstick more expensive than a nice bottle of Italian wine? When did these products’ values grow so distorted, and what is the would-be customer to make of it all ?


In the midst of my consumerist crisis, the question I should have been asking was: Dana Thomas, where have you been all my life? In “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster,” Thomas investigates the business of designer clothing, leather goods and cosmetics, and finds it wanting. Hijacked, over the past two or three decades, by corporate profiteers with a “single-minded focus on profitability,” the luxury industry has “sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers.” Hoodwinked? The truth hurts. After I read “Deluxe,” suddenly my new sundress no longer looked like such a steal. Au contraire, the book’s line of argument suggested, it was I who’d been robbed.

For Thomas, a cultural and fashion writer for Newsweek in Paris and the Paris correspondent for the Australian Harper’s Bazaar, the luxury industry is a sham because its offerings in no way merit the high price tags they command. Yet once upon a time, they most certainly did. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when many of luxury’s founding fathers first set up shop, paying more money meant getting something truly exceptional. Dresses from Christian Dior, luggage from Louis Vuitton, jewelry from Cartier: in the golden period of luxury, these items carried prestige because of their superior craftsmanship and design. True, only the very privileged could afford them, but it was this exclusivity that gave them their cachet. Although they may have “cared about making a profit,” the merchants who served this pampered class aimed chiefly “to produce the finest products possible.”

All that changed, however, in the last decades of the 20th century, when a new breed of luxury purveyor, epitomized by Bernard Arnault, now the chairman and chief executive of the multibillion-dollar LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton conglomerate, first came on the scene. “A businessman, not a fashion person,” Arnault realized that the mystique of the great brand names represented an invaluable — and historically underexploited — asset. Identifying the luxury sector as “the only area in which it is possible to make luxury margins,” Arnault snapped up Dior, Vuitton and a clutch of other star brands. Then, by spending hundreds of millions on advertising, dressing celebrities for the red carpet, “splashing the logo on everything from handbags to bikinis,” and pushing product in duty-free stores and flagship boutiques all around the world, he turned these brands into objects of global consumer desire. In so doing, Arnault changed “the course of luxury forever.”

And strictly, Thomas argues, for the worse. Insofar as luxury has gone corporate, relentlessly focused on the bottom line, quality has disappeared. In order to keep margins high (in 2005, LVMH recorded more than $17 billion in sales and a net profit of almost $1.8 billion), Arnault and his competitors have cut costs wherever and whenever possible. The most obvious strategies involve using cheaper materials, replacing skilled artisans with computers and machines and outsourcing labor to less expensive markets like China. Sneakier tactics include “cutting sleeves a half an inch shorter” (“when you get to 1,000, you see the savings,” one employee told the author), replacing finished seams with raw edges and eliminating linings on the grounds that “women don’t really need” them. A grouchy aside: my aforementioned sundress is (a) an LVMH brand and (b) unlined. It is also (c) white, which means that a lining would sure have come in handy. But if Arnault can amass a personal fortune of more than $21 billion by forcing me to display my underwear, then who am I to complain?

Continue reading ‘The Devil Sells Prada’


What Spacetime Is It?


By Jean-Claude Carrière. Translated by John Brownjohn.

186 pp. Harcourt. $22. Book Review

In a room somewhere in a building outside of time, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Albert Einstein sits and works on his universal plan, plays his violin, puffs a pipe and fends off an outraged Isaac Newton, among other visitors. Into this scene comes an unnamed young woman with a tape recorder, which might or might not work under these circumstances — her watch apparently doesn’t — intent on getting an interview.

This setup didn’t inspire high hopes. Not that I hadn’t often wondered, after years of following physics and even writing a biography that involved serious time with Einstein’s personal correspondence, just what I’d have asked the old man if I’d been granted a one-on-one. If, however, this novel’s opening was just a contrivance to have Einstein explain the laws of physics, I was willing to take a pass. Been there; done that.

But Jean-Claude Carrière comes with some serious mojo as a thinker and writer, having worked with the likes of Peter Brook and Luis Buñuel on films like “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “Belle du Jour.” He’s obviously worth risking a few hours with, and I’m happy to report that he far exceeded my meager expectations. “Please, Mr. Einstein,” unobtrusively translated from the French by John Brownjohn, isn’t so much a novel about physics as it is a novel about how people feel about physics — presumably Carrière, who gives his fictional Einstein all the best lines. Some, in fact, are like open doors you could wander through and never come out of: “Being distrustful of those who persistently deceived us, we developed the habit of also distrusting the night, which enshrouded us, or so we thought, in gloom and illusion. We put our faith in light alone.”

In its uncounted hours of conversation, “Please, Mr. Einstein” touches down lightly and charmingly on some of the thorniest philosophical consequences of Einstein’s genius and, by extension, the scientific preoccupations of the 20th century — the nature of reality, the fate of causality, the comprehensibility of nature, the limits of the mind — while scrolling through Einstein’s life. It’s easy to see this novel as the germ of a future playlet or movie along the lines of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” or the play and movie “Insignificance,” which featured a mythical Einstein in a hotel room with Marilyn Monroe.

I like Carrière’s Einstein. He’s frank, down to earth and not prone to cosmic mustiness. He’s actually worn an Einstein T-shirt and admits he’s happy to be talking to a woman, especially a woman from the 21st century, because that means his godchild, the atomic bomb, hasn’t destroyed civilization — yet. “I think better when eyes like yours are looking at me,” he tells her, “and when I’m talking to them.”

He’s also happy to be able to correct the record on some of his most quoted statements, including my favorite, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility.” Now he thinks the opposite might be closer to the truth: “What is comprehensible is that the universe is incomprehensible.”

Continue reading ‘What Spacetime Is It?’

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