PRINT March 1986


Ye’ll tak’ the high road an I’ll tak’ the low road / An’ I’ll be at Le Mondrian before ye.

“I LOVE YOU ’CAUSE you’re my style.” So goes the latest jeans jingle, affirming in the boldest terms ever the supremacy of fashionable over natural selection. “You’ve got the look I want to know better / You’ve got the look that’s all together,” chant the Jordache singers as the Jordache dancers cavort in a model mating ritual. “When every little bit of hope is gone, Sassons say so much,” croons Elton John on one of the most elaborate blue jeans spot-musicals of all time. Actually, the ad is a retouched rock video: John sold his elaborate “Sad Songs” music video to Sasson, because the assonance was irresistible and the price was right. But the result of syllabic switching—a production number extolling blue jeans hope for the desperate—still boggles enthusiasts of the literal, even though the ad is now a golden oldie. Not only do these ads sell jeans, they also sell Charity, Faith, and Hope, respectively.

Calvin Klein jeans commercials are not musicals. “Calvins” are not about Love, Hope, or Faith: they are about obsession. They are romance jeans, the romance of a languid Calvin sweating it out in a Georgia O’Keeffe adobe interior. Calvins undershorts are passionate undershorts, riddled with ambiguity and often finding themselves double-teamed by identical Calvins of the opposite sex—virgin Brooke and others who look more than immaculate.

The Fat Boys, whose first rap hit “Fat Boys” contained the lines “Calvin Klein ain’t no friend of mine / I don’t want nobody’s name on my behind.” might change their minds if it was their own name on their behinds and on big behinds everywhere. They don’t mind selling you a diamond Swatch watch for Christmas; in their musical-comedy TV spot they break a yuppie-nerd couple’s sofa when they literally drop in bearing Swatches.

Gloria Vanderbilt was just a Vanderbilt before she put her name on the rear of a pair of denims. Debbie Harry sang about her jeans on TV and suddenly “Gloria” was a certain smart set of jeans. Why not Claus von Bulow jeans?

In a “classless” democratic society, what better way to indicate your class orientation than by the name of your jeans? The very existence of the line of clothes called Members Only implies that the off-the-rack brand wars have become the last refuge of group identity in a critically amorphous society. Hipsters in the Times Square region wear their attitude toward designer lifestyle on their chests—$6 Gucci sweatshirts—or on their heads—Gucci baseball caps. The hip watch is the $50 counterfeit Rolex Oyster. In street fashion, satire scores extra points.

Status brands become jokes when they are decoded. Name brands devalue easily and commerce turns to art for creative input. Artists are stylish because they are originals. And they are brand names. Swatch’s latest campaign sells Keith Haring—designed watches as art. Haring designed four watches, each in a limited edition of 9,999 numbered watches. Haring already does T-shirts. Jeans loom, almost inevitable.

Rose’s Lime Juice, “the uncommon denominator,” is a product used by particularly stylish young artists, if its ads are to be believed. West Coast painter James Mathers drinks Rose’s in his paint-splattered jeans. John Lurie, New Wave movie star and saxophonist leader of the Lounge Lizards, puts it in his beer. “Introduce a 19th-century British lime juice to a 20th-century lounge lizard and you must expect a few curious developments.”

If you can’t be an artist, you can own an artist’s work. And you can also dress like an artist, drink like an artist, and shop like an artist. Art sells and so do artists, but until recently they have tended to avoid selling themselves. Some of today’s artists are showing that they can sell as well as their work. But if you are an artist, what can you do? How far can you go? Can you sell Scotch in print ads like Philip Glass? Can you sell whiskey on Japanese TV, as Joseph Beuys did? Can you take money to publicly put lime juice in your lager? Andy Warhol is a Ford model. Can an artist sell soap for profit and power with the ease of a ballplayer of integrity like George Brett? If the answers are “anything, all the way, yes, yes, yes, and yes,” then we may ask: Where does the Renaissance man draw the line or step across somebody else’s? Abstract Expressionists were not, for the most part, into commercial modeling.

Buying art is still serious; it is probably the most serious form of shopping. It is totem shopping: paying cash for what money can’t buy. You don’t shop for art like you shop for a pair of Calvins. But maybe you shop for it a little bit like you shop for a Scaasi dress.

Today’s avant-garde is the next century’s ready-to-wear. The new Le Mondrian hotel, “a Monument to Contemporary Art . . . captures the pulse, the very essence of Los Angeles.” Mondrian is a natural for a line of hotels. I’ll bet the towels are great.

Glenn O’Brien writes reviews and a column on advertising for Artforum.