By Cary O’dell
Such is the power and influence of Yves Saint Laurent that when he announced his retirement in early 2002 from his namesake fashion house, it was reported not only in the fashion press but via all aspects of the world media, from CNN to the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times.
The retirement of Saint Laurent represented not only the stepping down of one of fashion’s great (greatest?) grand masters, it also represented a seismic change within the culture, one that we are only now, I think, are beginning to fully appreciate.
Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, was the last of his kind, the final purveyor of a particular but important type of fashion: subdued, reserved, understated, and elegant above all. His were the clothes—day and evening—that for years formed the uniforms for the Ladies Who Lunched. And though these “ladies” are often mocked and derided for who they were/are and what they represent, it was their fashionable sensibilities (not to mention their bank accounts) which, for decades, kept fashion alive and afloat both in America and abroad.
After YSL’s stepping down in ’02, preceded by Givenchy’s and Bill Blass’s earlier exits, I began to wonder just who would now dress the lunching crowd? With Saint Laurent’s end, it seemed fashion was absolutely no longer about proper gentlemen working in quiet workrooms. Instead, it was now populated by a bunch of (in comparison) young turks, who were flashier, splashier and funkier. And, try though they might, desperate though they might be, I did not see the elder ladies of fashion running off to the showrooms of Versace, Viktor & Rolf, Stella McCartney, or even Prada for their daily dress needs. And though the houses of Givenchy, Chanel, and Balenciaga all endure, the clothes produced by their current lead designers are often far removed from the spare silhouettes and uber-classic stylings favored by their house founders. For a time, at least, clients could turn to the work of Valentino but now, even that classicist has—as of 2007 -constructed his final garment.
Granted, fashion has always had a place for the eccentric designer, one has to think no further than Schiaparelli’s powerful influence during the 1930s to acknowledge that fact. But these extreme witticisms were always tempered by a band of gifted cutters and tailors able to craft the most spectacular suits and eveningwear (think Dior) for even the most proper and socially-conscious of women. Today, however, with the possible exception of the newly revitalized House of Dior and Vivienne Westwood when she feels like it, “safe” (yet stylish) labels are completely outnumbered, overtaken by the likes of The Row, D&G and Gaultier along with a lot of other radical visionaries. Even the Met has gone avant-garde; this year’s annual Costume Gala was, as you probably heard, devoted to the Punk aesthetic.
But, never fear, we are not on the verge of rash of criminally under dressed society ladies. If designers for this set no longer exist, that’s okay, for the “ladies who lunch” themselves, by and large, aren’t that much of the populace either. Nan Kemper passed away in 2005. Mrs. Astor in 2007. Loulou De La Falaise in 2011.
This is not to say that all fashionable “women of a certain age” don’t still exist and don’t still need to be DRESSED. It’s just that, nowadays, these women are different. Today, the women who lunch look like Jane Fonda or Sophia Loren and have the bodies and mentality of Cher and Tina Turner. Jane, Sophia and Tina are all grandmothers, as is Goldie Hawn and Jessica Lange. Helen Mirren is a sex symbol at age 67. And Betsey Johnson (always her best customer) is 70. These women, and their kind, grew up wearing Westwood from Westwood’s punk phase and the color splashes of early Stephen Sprouse. Later, they lapped up Lacroix. Today, then, these women, even though in their “golden years,” they are not ready to wear cap sleeves and muted twin sets—nor would we want them to.
Still, despite this shift in customer, it nevertheless behooves fashion to try to keep alive some of the grand traditions of some of the old masters not only as homage to a great fashion tradition, but also because it’s good business, something that no fashion house these days can afford to ignore. After all, Nancy Kissinger is still with us and still needs clothes. And even the most chi-chi and forward-thinking of 50-plus women don’t want to wear leggings and hoodies everyday. And, hence, an important customer base awaits, as do their closets.
Designers should (and must) find a way to be fully grown up without being stuffy, to be dignified without being anything less than “modern.” As mentioned, Dior, now in the hands of designer Raf Simons, has shown his ability to marry the most important edicts of the House with a great modernity. And when she is indulging her vintage sensibilities rather than her punk tendencies, no one cuts a better, more dignified and stylish suit than Vivienne Westwood. Finally, Chanel, as interpreted by Lagerfeld, can still be depended upon (most of the time) to bring us something classic and stylish and not overly outré.
But these designers shouldn’t be the only ones. Even if their numbers have dwindled, the “ladies who lunch” still cast a profound, influential shadow, one whose current state and needs fashion should embrace and learn from, not turn its back on.