Louise’s Happy Returns

The Countess’s stimulus plan for the fashion industry: Give the customer something to smile about.


We’ve had The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Cooking, The Joy of Sports and even the Joy of Bird Watching. So why can’t we have the joy of fashion?

I’ve been terribly upset these past few weeks about what that sometimes very creative designer Alexander McQueen did to the reputation of fashion with what I call his “junk collection.” And I was even more upset that the fashion critics went mad for it.

Sure, it may have been an entertaining show, but imagine making women dress in what looked like garbage bags, Rubbermaid sink mats and other detritus left over from his previous collections.

We don’t need such humiliation of fashion in this day and age, when we are struggling with enough problems. Designers and stores are desperate to get women and men to buy, and this doesn’t help. People now have the attitude that they shouldn’t treat themselves, but even spending a little money on a lipstick, a scarf or a pair of socks can make them feel better. It has gotten so bad that even in Paris, women are afraid to look chic or glamorous. As Stefano Sassi, chief executive of Valentino, recently said, consumers are taking a “punitive” approach to spending on fashion.

They shouldn’t feel that way, although the days of showing off one’s wherewithal are over. Nothing gives me more joy than wandering the boutiques of New York, Paris or even Gstaad to buy a simple skirt, a new hat or some lingerie. And I’ve never understood why designers claim that they reflect the times. Shouldn’t they be trying to deflect them? We all need joy in our lives these days, and we must bring the joy back to fashion.

And I don’t mean practical pleasure, like Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. If I had my way, I would resurrect some of the gardening clothes Bunny Mellon had Balenciaga make for her and send them to the first lady. After all, they’re right for the recession—they’re vintage!

Nor do I mean pretty, because “pretty” clothes can be pretty boring. But why are designers so fascinated with the ugly? Trying to make a statement and to send fashion critics into high orbit, they just produce ugly clothes à la Mr. McQueen that will never be worn—even by the fashion critics. Women today don’t want gimmicks in fashion, nor do they follow what designers dictate are the latest trends (usually what they’ve copied from someone else). The changing fashion game is perhaps a reason Jil Sander has decided to design for Uniqlo of Japan, with its mass appeal, rather than to establish a new, expensive collection.

Of course, there are dangers in all of this—like tracksuits, tight tank tops, shorts up to there or jeans so low that one’s buttocks hang out. That’s not fashion either. I’m not saying women shouldn’t go wild now and then, but that should be kept at home, not shown in their clothes.

So what are the rules? Well, there are none, since every woman dreams of her own look. But one of the surest ways to dress is in any version of the Chanel jacket, which seems to carry through in even the hardest times. No one today can cut a jacket like Coco Chanel. I remember watching her in the atelier as she worked on a shoulder while whispering to herself, “The armhole should be hammered into the under part of the arm.” Simplicity and workmanship like that will always reign supreme in my mind, although there are few designers today who understand—the way that Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior or Yves Saint Laurent did—that a woman has to look charming with a touch of allure. Today designers add so much va-va-voom, a woman looks ridiculous.

In short, a woman can dress in a way so the clothes aren’t noticed—she is. Maybe people aren’t buying much of anything because we are in a topsy-turvy world and the economy is rotten. But that doesn’t mean a woman, if shown or given the right fashion, won’t be tempted. As Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz recently told Women’s Wear Daily, there is no stifling the female desire to purchase clothes: “Next to chocolate or a rose, I think the only thing that can make a woman happy is maybe a pink dress.”

Temptation always sells—and is also the joy of life.