Simulation - It's Becoming a Genuine Art

OF all the strange fashions that show up in magazines and stores each season, one of the most memorable this fall is a full-length mink coat designed by Geoffrey Beene. Sheared flat to look like cloth, it is lined in a splashy pink and blue print and trimmed in a bright blue fabric that resembles oversized rickrack. Oh, yes - the mink itself has been dyed a shocking pink. In a world grown blas'e, shocking-pink mink will no doubt be dismissed as just one more ho-hum fad. Yet the coat illustrates a dramatic change in the look of certain costly furs this year - a move toward what a Bloomingdale's furrier calls a ``not overtly fur'' look.

In response to an aggressive antifur campaign by animal rights activists, some designers are disguising - or at least playing down - the dark, sleek luxuriance of animal pelts. As Connoisseur magazine explains, ``The season's most expensive high-fashion furs look like cloth coats and jackets. ... Indeed, they are often copies of wool coats in the same collection.''

Real fur masquerading as cloth? What an irony, considering all those years Seventh Avenue manufacturers spent trying to make fake fur pass for real! Only the megabucks price tags hint at the quality hidden under the garish dye.

Nor is fur the only area in which faux - or at least a faux look - is in. Costume jewelry is now fashionable all the way to the White House, where First Lady Barbara Bush has turned faux pearls into a class act with her signature three-strand necklace. Even Boston's upscale Copley Place, home to the likes of Tiffany's and Neiman-Marcus, boasts a jewelry store called Frankly Faux.

In addition, wealthy women worried about the safety of their expensive jewels have been known to commission exact copies in imitation stones. The real emeralds, sapphires, and rubies can then be stashed in a vault while the paste replicas go out on the town. Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but for the security-minded, cubic zirconia are becoming more than a casual acquaintance.

Elsewhere in the things-are-not-always-what-they-seem department, lowly margarine is more and more boldly passing as the high-price spread, bearing such aggressive brand names as ``I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.'' And an ad for something identified only as ``Steve's Gourmet Light'' claims the product is ``virtually indistinguishable in taste from superpremium ice cream.''

Is ``Fake - and proud of it!'' destined to become the bumper-sticker motto for the '90s?

Simulation seems to be the vogue - even down to simulated television news. Still, imitations do have their limits. For some elitists, in fact, even the real thing is barely good enough.

Consider the case of junk-bond trader Michael Milken. After his wife bought several Renoirs for the couple's home (which Manhattan, inc. magazine describes, tongue in cheek, as a ``modest bungalow''), Mr. Milken had the paintings appraised. To his horror, according to the publication, ``he discovered that, if not exactly junk, they were decidedly mediocre.''

How humiliating - mediocre Renoirs! One might as well own museum reproductions. And so, desperate to dump the inferior goods, Milken enlisted the help of art dealer Richard Feigen, who quickly arranged a sale to a client in Japan who ``adored Renoir and didn't seem to mind - or question - the quality of Milken's paintings.''

For other status seekers, the quality is irrelevant as long as the brand name appears certifiable - an attitude that has led to a brisk global trade in cheap copies of Rolex watches, Gucci bags, and Polo shirts, sold not in plush shops but on street corners.

Visible wealth and ostentatious display have been hallmarks of the '80s. In the topsy-turvy world of taste, who can predict what will happen in the '90s? Will people in fur coats made to look like cloth drive Jaguars made to look like Fords and wear Rolexes made to look like Timexes?

If life is a true-false test depending on clear distinctions between the authentic and the counterfeit, the '80s may have flunked the final exam. As this simulating decade comes to a close, Americans can only hope that the '90s will not continue the habit of confusing its identities (and values) - a process that would make the coming decade merely a clone of the current one.

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