All hail the emperor (and his new clothes)

The fact that you need to carry a recognisable bag marks you out as neurotic and insecure, not confident or stylish
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The Independent Online

Oh dear. Calamity on planet fashion. Creative director Tom Ford and chief executive Domenico de Sole are leaving Gucci, and no happening woman quite knows where her next must-have handbag is coming from. Will we ever see the likes again of the "slimline clutch in glossy snakeskin embellished with two enormous horse bits"? Apparently not. An important era has ended, and fashionistas are furious.

Oh dear. Calamity on planet fashion. Creative director Tom Ford and chief executive Domenico de Sole are leaving Gucci, and no happening woman quite knows where her next must-have handbag is coming from. Will we ever see the likes again of the "slimline clutch in glossy snakeskin embellished with two enormous horse bits"? Apparently not. An important era has ended, and fashionistas are furious.

"Despite the recent downturn in the luxury goods sector, Ford's reissue of the classic Gucci horse-bit bag this autumn, managed to reverse the company's fortunes," fulminates one fashion editor. "It is selling phenomenally well, and if Gucci thinks that such innovations will be easily come by with another designer at the helm, they are much mistaken."

She's right, I suppose. If this guy can pass off the "reissue" of a "classic" as an "innovation" by a "designer", then he really is something of a one-off. Yet at the same time, you have to wonder why, since he's been at Gucci for more than a decade, the fabulous Mr Ford's company is relying so completely on flogging little bags to large suckers at around £745 a pop to drag itself back to financial security.

Mr de Sole is the man to explain why Gucci's first quarter profits fell by 97 per cent this year. It was, he told journalists, "a perfect storm" when "anything that could have gone wrong, did". These things that went wrong, though, were nothing to do with Mr Ford and Mr de Sole, whose "vision", "genius" and "alchemy" don't run to anything useful like predicting war, pestilence and the rest of it. They were the war in Iraq, the Sars outbreak and a strong euro.

All of these various factors conspired to put a crimp on tourism, and the funny thing is that the fortunes of Gucci, and the other "luxury goods conglomerates", which have mushroomed since the 1980s, are heavily dependent on how much travelling people are doing.

I suppose there must be various practical reasons for this - the way people stuck at airports end up buying perfume and sunglasses because there's nothing else to do, the way they'll find time to visit posh shops on weekend breaks when they'd normally be hitting Sainsbury's at home, or the way they'll consider that an extravagant treat on a holiday will augment the benefits of the holiday itself.

But mostly, surely, it's an indication of how chimeral the market for "luxury goods" is, and how much the whole business is based on exploiting the fantasies people want to project about themselves rather than the realities of their lives. Travelling makes people feel like they are escaping from themselves and their responsibilities. The acquisition of some forcefully branded "luxury goods" promotes their sense of acquiring a new, less complicated identity, while the dumping of a debt on their credit card is a sure way of making them feel that responsibility has been dumped. It's as simple, stupid and exploitative as that.

The luxury goods phenomenon is a fairly recent one. An extension of the craze for designer fashion that now owns and controls it, luxury goods are the items that designers actually sell en masse after the celebrities have worn their frocks to the Oscars.

Before the 1980s, luxury goods really were what they said they were, genuinely exclusive items kept exclusive because they could only be bought by filthy-rich people. In the 1980s, first with perfume, then with leather goods like Gucci's or Louis Vuitton's as well, came the idea that luxury could be "democratised". People who couldn't afford couture clothing could still buy the perfume, or in the case of Tom Ford and others, could still buy the shoes and the bag.

The idea has certainly caught on, with the luxury goods market massively expanded and its close friend the credit card industry cleaning up in its wake. What Mr Ford exemplifies is not design talent or even entrepreneurial flair, but the talent to create a marketable illusion of zeitgeist that people wish to appear part of, and imagine they can buy.

It is indeed a clever trick, one that not many people would have the requisite combination of dedication, commitment and sheer superficiality to achieve. Mr Ford has built a powerful brand out of a flagging brand, which sounds like good business. But what he has designed is not clothing or bags or shoes, or even a style or a look, but an aura or a spirit. This isn't good business, because it is as robust as a desert mirage.

The great con is that people think they can purchase an aura or a spirit. At the start of the 1990s there were many predictions about how it would to be a different decade, caring and new age. Auras and spirits were going to be big. What no one predicted was that they were going to be sold over the counter, in the form of very expensive handbags.

Yet the whole game is even sillier and more cynical than that. The horse-bit bag is by no means the only must-have bag that Mr Ford has come up with in his career. He's come up with loads, and so have many of the other fashion houses playing the same game. It seems cripplingly obvious that the very fact that you need to carry a bag that is instantly recognisable to all others also in the know, marks you out as neurotic and insecure rather than confident or stylish. Yet while fashion types would strenuously deny this, the fact that they know that this season's must-have is next season's mustn't-be-dead-with, proves that the value they place on these holy objects is far from intrinsic.

Which is exactly what keeps the merry-go-round going, with people buying new handbags every few months when in the past they'd buy them much less frequently. That's what the "democratisation" of luxury goods is - an expansion of the market that relies on manipulating the same people into buying the same dream of exclusivity again and again and again. Old-style luxury goods may have been available only to the elite, but we'd all be much better off if we behaved like the upper classes did, and bought a proper classic design with our big lump of cash, and used it till it couldn't be mended again.

Except that would hardly suit the Tom Fords of this world, who themselves wouldn't be nearly so rich if they were selling bags instead of "statements". I think it is pretty obvious that part of the oh-so-admirable, and oh-so-elusive genius of Tom Ford is that he is aware that this must ruthlessly be done not only with bags but with brands themselves. While both fashionistas and business analysts gnash their teeth over the foolhardiness of Gucci's parent company PPR in failing to retain such a dream-team as Ford and de Sole, my own suspicion is that there was nothing they could do to keep these guys.

Prior to the miracle of the horse-bit bag, the feeling about Gucci was not quite so reverend. One "fashion insider", who did not wish to be named, told the press that "Gucci was overexposed, too flash, too label-driven. It suffered because there were legions of super-rich women who simply did not want to be wandering around in the same stuff as footballers' wives." This is really why Mr Ford is moving on. Not because PPR has failed to give Ford and de Sole the "freedom to pursue their vision" that they needed. But simply because Gucci has been "democratised" too much now, and chaps as cool as they are need more rarefied brands to exploit. Mr Ford is still the emperor. But it's his adoring fans who always have to wear his new clothes.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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