Name designers and their autograph hounds

A colleague reports that the name-designer craze has reached the point of excess where a certain designer of kitchens affixes his autograph to the corner of a cabinet, say, or maybe even a particularly inspired stretch of floor. Thus you and your family and friends can be assured, as you pad about, making that midnight sandwich: I am spreading tuna fish, surrounded by the ambience of a designer original.m

We have chosen not to investigate this story further. There are some things even a dedicated reporter doesn't want to know.

We can only ask why. Why, in an age that has trouble believing in anything else, is there this quasi-religious faith in the designer's name? People who sneer at Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, or both, will go down on their knees before Calvin Klein.

All "creative work," as it is rather pretentiously called, used to be anonymous -- and we don't mean just designer fashions. There are no signatures below the right rear hooves of those first cave paintings in Spain. "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" were primarily folk poetry: genius from the race. We, not the Greeks, felt compelled to invent Homer. The notion of art as self- expression is a comparatively modern idea. And now look at what it's led to.

Today you can hardly buy a handkerchief without the designer name ruining at least one dabbing edge. Products carry so many credits you can scarcely find the product. Is that a briefcase or an overnight bag under all those LVs of Louis Vuitton? We are in danger of turning into a society wearing other men's names: Pierre Cardin's ties, Oleg Cassini's shirts, Yves St. Laurent's everything else. From two years up, toddlers wobble about in jeans that are signboards to somebody else's identity. Even sensible Sears, Roebuck reports that its customers are crying for names like Gloria Vanderbilt on their jeans.

In theory a designer's name is a guarantee of excellence. In practice it is also a guarantee that a customer will pay 25 to 100 percent more for any given product. And what customer can say he is not paying at least part of that extra price for the reflex blink of respect he anticipates in the eyes of others?

Snobbery is the curse of a world autographed by designers. Amid the stockpiles of mass-produced goods, the designer's autograph offers the illusion of something individual, something custom-made -- an irresistible temptation to elitists, and aren't we all? that's democracy for you.

It is no secret that designer' names carry the most authority when they are spiced with exotic accents. Like opera singers and ballet dancers, name designers are advised to have French or Italian names, or adopt one. Nor does it hurt to precede them with Prince or Princess, Count or Countess.

The name designer is a classic case of reverse provincialism, illustrating the law that reads: The greater the geographical gap, the less the credibility gap.

One believes implicity in the French autograph on perfumes, the Italian autograph on shoes, the English autograph on tweeds, and the Swiss autograph on chocolates -- to the point of superstition.

Where will the domain of the name designer end? As more and more Americans buy imported automobiles, a number of European manufacturers have made a point of introducing their designers by name, and even portrait, in their aids. Will we next see autographs discreetly displayed on trunks, or perhaps the corner of hoods, as name-designer chic gets applied to the selling of cars?

It's all too easy to be cynical about name designers. But there's also something rather appealing about this fervent wish to believe in somebody'sm good name. It may be romantic, but it is wrong to want to reduce the impersonal world of mass technology to a village street, where a sign above each shop bears the name of a craftsman who must be as good as his word? Because he is also our neighbor.

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