Fashion Sense and Nonsense

If South Beach's fashionistas have a bit less spring in their high-heeled step of late, show some sympathy. After all, Camelot just ended. For the sartorially obsessed, the recent departure of Tom Ford from Gucci is akin to losing both John F. Kennedy and Jackie Onassis in one fell swoop. Indeed Ford was more than just the creative designer of the fashion house of Gucci. He elevated the very role of designer to rock-star heights, as much a flashbulb-worthy celeb as any of the Hollywood figures he clothed.

Accordingly, when Ford quit on November 4 rather than cede creative control to Gucci's majority owner, French conglomerate Pinault-Printemps Redoute, the fashion world was left reeling -- as duly reported by the trade bible Women's Wear Daily.

"It's shocking," gasped fellow designer Anna Sui. "Terrible," agreed Neiman Marcus senior vice president Joan Kaner. "A tragedy," shuddered Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman. It's easy enough to dismiss this sackcloth routine as just so much melodrama from a crowd often oblivious to life beyond the runway ("If hemlines go down, the terrorists have won!").

But Women's Wear Daily was scarcely the only publication to wax apoplectic. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times both ran dramatic front-page stories on Ford's loafer-clad feet heading for the door, asking breathlessly: "Will Gucci Still Be Gucci?" There was little humor in these pieces. Instead investment firm analysts at Bear Stearns and Morgan Stanley sounded just as concerned for the future as Donatella Versace -- a reminder that the fashion industry is just that, an industry, and one with repercussions far beyond the cultural sphere. Moreover, replacing Ford is a task much greater than a mere CEO shuffle.

In the wake of his 1995 ascension to Gucci's helm, Ford transformed the entire nature of the high-end fashion market, taking it from the catwalks to the streets, and in the process, catapulting Gucci from a scandal-plagued concern to a fashion behemoth that grosses more than two billion dollars.

"That growth can be directly traced to a spending-happy, luxury-loving world population that has been attracted to Ford's sexy jet-set, vaguely '70s idea of the Gucci universe," argues the Times's Lynn Hirschberg. And in a revolutionary flipping of the script, Hirschberg continues, "Gucci appeals to more than just the fashion intelligentsia -- it is a mass luxury, selling to aspirants at every price point, from the housewife who buys a Gucci wallet to the starlet who wears the line from head to toe."

It's no coincidence, then, that Ford's name should be intimately familiar to so many local nightcrawlers -- Hirschberg's analysis of Gucci applies equally to South Beach's own glitter. The city's ever-expanding sprawl of boutique hotels, VIP rooms, restaurant-cum-clubs, and condo developments are all financially reliant on both vacationing weekend warriors and more tonied snowbirds, with the mass presence of the former drawn magnetically to the latter.

This is a delicate balancing act, for city officials and Gucci execs alike. Should a certain rarefied swath decide that the Beach is, like, over, the respective economic effect would be no less devastating than Nicole Kidman deeming a Gucci gown no longer sufficiently chic for her arrival at the Academy Awards. As the fiduciary maxim goes, while a rising tide lifts all boats, the reverse is just as true.

To observe Ford's marketing genius, all you have to do is visit the Gucci store at the Bal Harbour Shops. Ford often speaks of the "Gucci woman" ("You know what she wants, you know what she's after") as opposed to, say, the archetypal woman of another Gucci subsidiary, Yves Saint Laurent ("You might have sex, but she will drip a little hot wax on you first"). If that sounds alluring while still impossibly hazy, well, that's the idea. On an evening last week, every woman entering Bal Harbour's Gucci shop seemed to feel they were indubitably a Gucci woman, or at least -- with the right purchases -- they could start to look like one.

A duo of elderly ladies-who-lunch dragged a grandchild inside, followed by a young Latina princess in thigh-high suede boots and revealing shorts. She in turn was lapped by a thirtysomething white-bread-looking couple pushing a baby carriage. And lest we forget Gucci's menswear, two Asian males sporting baggy hip-hop attire and cell phones pressed to their ears blew past a notepad-waving Kulchur, flashing the international sign for Talk to the hand without even breaking stride.

So how has Ford managed to be all things to all people?

"His designs are all about today's woman," matter-of-factly explains Kanchan Tolani, emerging from Gucci with a freshly bought handbag. Quickly schooling Kulchur on the inappropriateness of Kennedy-esque allusions, she adds, "It's not about Jackie O." And whether Tolani is out and about in Miami, Manhattan, or the Turks and Caicos, Gucci fits the fashion-forward bill. "It's classic trendy. Classic and trendy at the same time."

Isn't that a contradiction?

"Not at all. It's classic trendy as opposed to, pardon my language, crappy trendy."

As for the end of the Ford era, Tolani is unconcerned: "A new designer isn't going to change the quality."

Inside the Gucci shop, however, the sales staff seems less sanguine about the future. In fact, as Kulchur wanders the starkly appointed rooms, all three saleswomen appear to be in a state of mourning, dressed completely in black.

Is the staff here sitting shiva for Tom Ford?

Saleswoman Diana Goldenberg raises an indulgent eyebrow and smiles. Black suits are their standard attire, Goldenberg patiently explains, but she admits that Ford's status has been as much a topic of conversation for her customers as for any of Gucci's own personnel. And while she's confident in the company's ability to name an able successor, "you have to have a lot of guts to follow Tom Ford."

Just such a guessing game is already the talk of Gucci aficionados. A few doors down at Bal Harbour's Neiman Marcus, saleswoman Lynn Baumhart is predicting Gucci underling Alexander McQueen will get the nod. Baumhart holds up a McQueen-designed blouse: "Look at these lines," she coos appreciatively, pointing to angles in the delicate fabric. "These are very Tom Ford," and proof McQueen was already being groomed for such a promotion. It's a display worthy of the State Department's vintage Kremlinologists, who meticulously parsed photos of Soviet leaders standing at parade attention, divining shifts in power from their proximity to each other. Of course, given that the blouse in question costs $4000, this is hardly a laughing matter.


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