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September 16, 2003

Sharp as a Tack


Is there some requirement that success in the fashion industry requires a certain, er, morally flexible attitude and, um, not being the sharpest tool in the shed? The Wall Street Journal of September 15 offers some insights into the attitudes of this industry in a story headlined: “Smokes Return to Runway.” It tells how the hip but undercapitalized design team As Four decided to take $20,000 to mount a runway show from an upstart cigarette company, Freedom Tobacco Inc. Freedom Tobacco is also providing financing for the fledgling designers, whose clothes are sold though Barney’s New York. In return, the designers will be co-branding a match dispenser promoting Freedom’s “Legal”--pronounced "luh-GAL"--brand of Columbian cigarettes and creating a reward program (“Legal Loot”) inviting consumers to trade in empty cigarette packs for As Four merchandise.

This arrangement does not exactly seem to be a well-thought out political statement on the part of As Four. I mean, there’s no suggestion in the story that Team As Four thinks smoking cigarettes is a good thing that everyone should do, or even a bad thing that people should have the right to do to themselves. No, this looks more like strict opportunism.

Team leader Angela Asfour explains: “We are financially unable to do it all by ourselves. We need money.” Mercenary motives don’t seem to register as an embarrassment with the members of Team As Four; Kai Kuehner offers the world this stunning piece of philosophical reasoning: “You have to be pretty open-minded and free with yourself to get into this business in the first place.”

Open-minded and free—I’ll have to remember that line the next time someone accuses me of being piggish when I scarf the last bagel. Regrettably, Team As Four doesn’t appear to be an isolated instance among fashion designers in their somewhat un-cerebral approach to ethical questions:

Australia-based designer Wayne Cooper, who got almost $40,000 for fashion shows from British American Tobacco PLC over the years, dropped the sponsor 18 months ago. “This got too hot for us,” Mr. Cooper says. “We looked like we were promoting smoking to young girls.”

Thank goodness Mr. Cooper wasn’t actually promoting smoking to young girls, and could clarify his real role for us in this brilliantly insightful way. But this tale of avarice, irresponsibility and low-wattage brainpower hasn’t touched bottom yet. No, that’s left for Isaac Mizrahi, who feels it necessary to drag art into the muck with him:

If a designer or any artist takes funding from tobacco companies, I admire them. Shouldn’t art be more important than policy?

Gee, I don’t know, Isaac. I’m still trying to figure out what you think qualifies you to discuss art in the first place.



posted by Friedrich at September 16, 2003


Your point being, I take it, that Team As Four should have chosen not to have a show at all rather than get into bed with the evil cancer merchants.

Principled ethical positions are all well and good, but they're supererogatory, Friedrich: while I can admire you for taking them, I don't think you have the right to come down on others like a ton of bricks for not doing so. Making it as a fashion designer is hard enough; making it as a principled fashion designer is pretty much impossible, unless your father is a billionaire. And as for whether fashion is art, given what else counts, I'd consider that a no-brainer.

Posted by: Felix on September 16, 2003 10:30 AM

As Four doesn't appear to sell children's clothing. Do you hold that marketing cigarettes to adults is inherently immoral?

Also, I'm not sure I understand why fashion designers should be any less mercenary or opportunistic than persons in other lines of work. Perhaps my understanding of the fashion industry is at fault, but I never thought it was filled with Franciscans.

Minor quibbles aside, I'm a big fan of your site. Thanks for all your fascinating commentary.

Posted by: Nantoling on September 16, 2003 10:30 AM

Felix & Nantoling:

I don't recall any discussion of the As Four group being coerced into pursuing careers in fashion. Ergo, they have to assume moral responsibility for their actions, same as anyone else. They are not merely taking money from their cigarette company backer, they are deliberately attempting to add transgressive allure to their fashion products. Transgressive allure as a marketing strategy chiefly targets empty headed children, er, I mean teenagers, who are the demographic most likely to take up smoking with its attendant evils. Other parts of this article indicate the widespread use of teenage models too young to legally smoke (although they almost universally smoke anyway)in the promotion of products of such designers as As Four. The fashion industry/teen girl/stay-slim-by-smoking-nexus is a little too well established to permit designers to utilize such arguments as "We're all adults here able to make our own choices."

But the real point of the posting was to work in such masterpieces of rationalization as are quoted. I was going to run one of them under the heading "Quote of the Day" but I couldn't pick just one; there were just too many juicy examples scattered throughout the story.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 16, 2003 11:06 AM

P.S. Thanks for the nice comments, Nantoling.

P.P.S. Felix, to clarify my point (which I admit wasn't spelled out in the original post very intelligibly): I wasn't suggesting fashion couldn't be art, merely that by being willing to use the prestige of art to provide a rationale for the use of smoking to market fashion, Mr. Mizrahi was disqualifying himself from consideration as a serious thinker on both moral and intellectual grounds.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 16, 2003 11:15 AM

I don't mean to be tiresome, but I still don't get it. No one is denying that the members of As Four are morally responsible for their actions, but what, exactly, is it that's so immoral about their acts? You may be correct that their advertising will appeal to some teenagers; since their target market appears to be twenty-somethings, this would be hard to avoid. But surely you don't mean that they're morally obligated to avoid any advertising that might conceivably appeal to teenagers? Unless you're arguing that *all* cigarette marketing is immoral, it doesn't hold up.

As far as their underage fashion models are concerned, you may have a point in that they're being extensively exposed to cigarette marketing. But consider everything else they're being exposed to. Why their parents allow it I don't know, but frankly, "reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" is far from being the worst message that may reach them.

Posted by: Nantoling on September 16, 2003 9:01 PM

I think part of what FvB is saying (I think, maybe) is not thar Nantoling's points aren't true, its that these fashion wannabe's (and stars, like Mizrahi) aren't even admitting or ackowledging it. They are saying its not their problem. They have no societal responsibity relative to their product at all. The execs of Philip Morris are paying out the wazoo for taking that attitude. These designers aren't even saying that it sucks that they have to associate with the cig money, but there ain't any other capital out there (Vogue, Cosmo---where are you when we need you?) and they need to get their product out and seen.

Nobody seems to have asked Isaac, a pretty darn wealthy guy, why he doesn't cough up (no pun intended) with $40,000 or $50,000 to launch one of these small fashion shows, making the dependence on tobacco money unnecessary? If he truly believes are is more important than policy, it's surely important enough for him...

Posted by: annette on September 16, 2003 9:44 PM

Looks like smoking isn't the only subject where the fashionistas are a bit dim. Here's a review of the current fashion shows:

"Naiveté is the reigning mood at the Spring 2004 collections. Two of New York's three most disparate talents—Oscar de la Renta, Miguel Adrover, and Marc Jacobs—presented the kind of collections that cynical observers of the fashion world cite as proof that the industry thrives on the intoxication of utter self-delusion. Indeed, most designers are shutting out the rest of the world even when they think they are commenting on it. What of the record-breaking loss of jobs in America? De la Renta's collection essentially said: Let the people eat cake. Conflict in Liberia? Adrover pretentiously envisioned an Africa stylishly rife with struggle."

Posted by: annette on September 16, 2003 9:56 PM


My objection to fashion designers "co-branding" with cigarette makers is as I stated:

Transgressive allure as a marketing strategy chiefly targets empty headed children, er, I mean teenagers, who are the demographic most likely to take up smoking with its attendant evils.

Targeting teenagers (who are not adults either legally or emotionally) with the message that smoking is hip in order to further one's ambitions as a designer is not a nice thing to do. IMHO. Perhaps we disagree.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 16, 2003 10:22 PM

What about the child">">child sexploitation and racial">">racial eugenics of Abercrombie & Fitch?

I don't think fashion has to be anti-social and exclusive. I love the Oprah make-overs, building up the self esteem of ordinary people through enhanced fashion.

What bothers me most about these companies is the hypocrisy. I'm willing to bet most executives at Abercrombie & Fitch don't dress up their little girls in sexy underwear. Like cigarettes it is something you sell to other people. And how many of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues go to middle-age men anyways, a majority?

I thought about where to put Abercrombie & Fitch on the ideological spectrum. Your first response might "way left" but actually they are promoting a conservative female gender role (sexually available, impossibly beautiful) and racism is as old-school as it gets. From this perspective fashion supporting the tobacco industry is not out of step.

Something about using liberal means to support conservative causes seems significant to me. Abercrombie & Fitch is based in the middle of conservative Ohio. Eli Lilly, the makers of Prozac, are located nextdoor in the middle of Republican Indiana. Ok, psychiatric drug maker, progressive leftwing ideology? But more and more antidepressants are used in grade schools for behavior control similar to the attention disorder drugs. Liberal means to conservative ends. Sit still and be quiet kids, instead of a paddle you get the pill.

Maybe it's that power and economics are inherently conservative, regardless of the means. Each of these three industries, fashion, tobacco, and pharmaceutical are selling mood altering substances that may have more serious side effects than the advertising indicates, and are targeting children with adult-orientated fare. When economic power isn't checked by some sort of ethics or morality the means grow monstrous, like slavery or chimney sweeps.

Posted by: Matt L on September 17, 2003 8:26 PM

Here are a couple articles about Abercrombie & Fitch I meant to link to:

Posted by: Matt L on September 17, 2003 8:31 PM

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