PRINT October 1985


Courrèges in a snit. Sprouse in a spot. St. Laurent in an art book.

“THE MANNEQUIN LOOKS LIKE a filling station attendant in a room at the Ritz. . . . She is a peach, an apple. . . . She is a modern girl who has journeyed through ancient Sparta!” The year is 1965, the place is Paris, the speaker is Violette Leduc, leftist intellectual and best-selling author now on assignment for Vogue, and the subject is a fashion show. Not just any fashion show, though: this one belongs to André Courrèges, the man who—and it’s 20 years ago, remember—is determined to revolutionize haute couture, to usher it into the space age, to blur forever the distinction between socialite and socialist, between runway and moonwalk, with his relentlessly constructed yet ultimately guileless jump suits, miniskirts, and white vinyl boots. Leduc, like a lot of other intellectuals, takes a look and decides she loves it. A Courrèges woman, she sums up, "is an apricot that has a mental life!’

Granted, Leduc’s no Kate Millett, but her heart is in the right place. So, as it happens, is Courrèges’. “A woman’s body must be hard and free,” he likes to explain, in between being compared by various international fashion journalists to Le Corbusier, Picasso, and Maria Callas, "not soft and harnessed. The harness—the girdle and bra—is the chain of the slave!’

Forget for a moment the inherent elitism of the couture, its authoritarianism, its sheer power to get a handful of women “of fashion”—and, eventually, most Western women—to do what it wills. Here’s a man, an estate-keeper’s son from Pau, downon France’s side of the Pyrenees, who has trained as an engineer, then served an 11-year apprenticeship under Balenciaga—Balenciaga, the great, the patriarchal Cristobal, advocate of severity and perfectionism, “prophet of the silhouette,” despiser of publicity and gimmickry and change for change’s sake, nemesis of Dior and his cage of a “New Look!” On his own at last, Courrèges has changed not only the way fashion is worn but the way it is perceived, has blown away, in three collections in as many seasons, not only the dust but also the dusting powder: the Courrèges woman has short hair, freckles, legs that are very long and very tan. But it isn’t just Lee Radziwill and Baby Jane Holzer (and Violette Leduc) who identify; Rose Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor are making out checks to.the House of Courrèges, too.

Now it’s about six months later. Courrèges is out of business. He’s also out of sorts: seems he doesn’t much like the way he’s been being knocked off by the mass manufacturers, by Ohrbach’s and Alexander’s. His “look,” misinterpreted, becomes a caricature. So he quits. True, he’ll be back in business in a year or two, and in firmer control of his own empire of ready-to-wear reproductions, accessories, and boutiques. But it’s not the same. For one thing, the ’60s have moved on, and youthquake has given way to counterculture, trendiness to relevance, “She Loves You” to "She’s Leaving Home, The comeback Courréges line is brilliant in its way, but it lacks the force, the velocity, of the earlier ones. We’ve seen too many miniskirts at this point to flip over a few variations on the theme. And in a Paris that’s just around the next barricade from Danny le Rouge and the May Day riots, what’s the point of posies?

Now it’s the present, the mid ’80s. Courrèges, far from having revolutionized fashion or clothing or the couture or anything else, seems out-of-it, anachronistic, almost silly. Even those fashion journalists who can still muster some interest in what super-merchant (and former futurist) Pierre Cardin has up for sale in a given season tend to skip over Courrèges. His boutiques seem, at best, lighthearted, kicky. And he’s complaining again. Yves Saint Laurent makes fashion, he tells somebody from Women’s Wear Daily, not style. Fashion is of the moment, he explains patiently, while style is “something very deep that changes very slowly, that’s the end product of sociological, physical, and psychological evolution!” He doesn’t look happy.

There is, of course, an irony here. The irony is that Yves Saint Laurent, precisely because he’s been content to make fashion, has, for better or worse, wound up making style, a little the way weather winds up making climate. His 1965 pièce de résistance—the Mondrian-inspired cocktail dress—may have lacked the zeitgeisty boldness, not to mention the starry-eyed idealism, of Courrèges’ blazing white pantsuits and minis. But it’s been in museum exhibitions and on book covers and its creator is still widely held to be the biggest deal of all living (and most dead) designers. Sure, it’s only fashion. But live with it long enough and it might as well be life.

But why, in 1985, talk about André Courrèges? Two reasons. First, because it’s hard not to be reminded of him as you listen to all the speculation about why, exactly, Stephen Sprouse wound up, this past summer and just two years into his career, going out of business. There’s the ’60s–’80s connection, of course: how Sprouse was obsessed with Day-Glo and peace signs, how his clothes, according to fashion journalists, “could have walked off Courrèges’ runways.” There’s also the sheer contrast: how Courrèges was committed to the color white, the year 2000, while Sprouse saw no point in the new (if we want something new, he has told us, we’ll have to go to NASA to get it) and liked his fabric spray-painted, tainted. Mostly there’s the sense that for Sprouse, as for Courrèges before him, “fashion” just wasn’t enough. Courrèges wanted to nudge it into—wanted to declare it—“style!” Sprouse seemed to want to file it under “art,” to turn his workroom into Andy Warhol’s Factory (It’s at moments like these that shrinks start using the word “grandiosity.”)

Which brings us to the second reason: the Courrèges dilemma—how to gain control of an industry, and a situation, that is all about “copying”: all about multiples and sizes and grades and versions of the “same” thing—has, in 1985, and for art, a nice, almost a didactic reverberation. Sometimes, it seems, copying is creative: when Sprouse “takes off” Courrèges, or YSL is “inspired by” Mondrian, or Katharine Hamnett, aver in London, sends thousands of her “Choose Life” and “Stop Killing Whales” talking T-shirts out into the street, where she is “quoted by” Frankie Goes to Hollywood or whoever on their T-shirts. Or when Warhol “reproduces” his two-hundredth something, or Sherrie Levine “appropriates” her next image. Sometimes it hurts: when Courrèges sees himself being “pirated” by Ohrbach’s, or argues with Mary Quant over who “invented” the miniskirt. Or when Nan runs into Lynn at the Met gala and they’re both wearing the same $8,000 YSL. But sometimes it gets downright ugly: when YSL strikes you, of a morning, as having plundered one too many painters, or cultures, or periods for his inspiration. Strikes you as insatiable, swooping, arbitrary, like a vampire maybe, or a turn-of-the-century imperialist, incorporating (and diminishing) all the spirit, the force, of his victim; each season, each inspiration, each copy more draining than the last.

So, is there a moral to our story? Sure. Don’t, pace Violette LeDuc, put too much credence in apricots. The real test of a mental life isn’t being able to look right in a Mondrian, it’s being able to look right at one.

William Wilson is a New York City writer and editor. He is a columnist on fashion for Artforum.