Fashion Undressed

THE FASHION CONSPIRACY by Nicholas Coleridge, New York: Harper & Row, 323 pp. $19.95

RALPH LAUREN'S name and Polo trademark are known the world over - on five continents, in cities and small towns - always wistfully displayed in special mahogany boutiques lined with faded books and overpriced clothes.

But behind the carefully marketed image of old wealth and ``Absolute Values'' were humble beginnings for 5-foot, 5-inch Ralph Lifschitz, born of immigrant Soviet Jews in the Bronx. His wide foulard ties sparked a fad in the 1960s and gave him a name; in the '70s he launched the ``Annie Hall'' look. Today the designer is the wealthiest in America, with a personal fortune of more than $380 million.

This is only one story behind the label - labels that stand for whole fashion empires built on paranoia, luck, and instinct - which Nicholas Coleridge undresses in ``The Fashion Conspiracy.''

Thoughtful, provocative, and humorous, his ``travel journal through the interior of fashion'' traces the life of a designer original from beginning to end. Embarking from many a designer's atelier, he continues on to manufacturing in dimly lit sweatshops, to marketing at glamourous fashion shows (overflowing with jet-lagged buyers and edgy editors) where the garment's fate is determined by a few people within a few seconds. We are privy to exclusive cafes filled with gossip of the fashion elite. The journey ends in the ``elephant's graveyard'' - a dry cleaner's in Kuwait filled with designer creations which were worn once, cleaned, and abandoned for newer styles.

Journalist by instinct, the former editor of Britain's Harpers & Queen expected to find the fashion industry no more substantive than the emperor's new clothes - founded on hype. Instead, he found a complex ``conspiracy of silence ... dangerous and sinister'' in which whimsical editors, despotic designers, and ruthless store buyers determine how the world dresses.

Coleridge exposes the conspiracy fairly and fully - without lionizing (although the chapter on wealthy American women is as tedious as the subjects themselves) or trivializing. After three years of research, Coleridge concludes that the homogenous, xenophobic ``fashion circus,'' with its ``tiny nucleus of opinionmakers hurtling around the world,'' induces insecurity and schizophrenia unknown in other industries.

``Of the 400 people I interviewed for this book, only about 50 seemed altogether sane,'' says the author. One can only guess who those few are.

Among the most amusing characters is Katherine Hamnet, the young British designer who weaves Jung's ``collective consciousness'' into her own theory of fashion. She is best known for the protest T-shirts (``STOP ACID RAIN,'' ``FEED THE WORLD'') that sparked a slew of copies everywhere. Her recent collection is sexy, causing her friends to call her sexist. ``I really hate that old-fashioned idea which said that looking sexy is bad and you shouldn't try to attract men,'' she says. ``... You have to be intelligent to flirt properly.''

The late Hebe Dorsey (former fashion writer for the International Herald Tribune) provides a few laughs with her worldly wit. ``I'm only interested in men who've made it on their own. I love the smell of power they exude.''

American designers come off as commercial and compulsive. Calvin Klein is the classic example. He made a fortune with designer jeans (profit: 50 a leg) and salacious advertising (Brooke Shields teases, ``Nothing comes between me and my Calvins''). Of his millions, the whiz kid of Seventh Avenue says: ``It buys you freedom.''

Italian Georgio Armani is ascetic; Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld takes chocolate cake and Coca-Cola over love. Pierre Cardin licenses his name to sardine cans and igloos.

But these superb portraits of the biggest designers lack an important aspect: Coleridge fails to establish just how much they actually design the clothes that bear their names. He also neglects discussing the late Perry Ellis, as well as the effect that AIDS has had on many of the industry's best and brightest.

The journey includes the ``morally disoriented'' extremes of the fashion world: couture and sweatshops. Underpinned by charity events (which provide the excuse for the ``Shiny Set'' to purchase $20,000 gowns), the overblown couture market serves only 3,000 customers worldwide. Coleridge estimates that in a year, the average couture customer spends more than $360,000 on clothes. (He forgets to figure in furs.)

If you can't afford the clothing of the big names, take heart. You are living in the golden era of fashion. Coleridge estimates that by 2017, while only one-quarter of the major designers will still be around, their names and empires will live on. So save your money.

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