If my memory serves me correctly, one of my favorite TV shows, Fuji Television’s Ryōri no Tetsujin, used to begin each episode with this quote from the French gourmet and writer Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” However, it seems a more apt epigram for today is “Tell me who you wear, and I will tell you what you are,” as evidenced by the omnipresence of logos and other signifiers. Today’s conglomerates have realized that the formula for fashion success involves creating items whose brand is aspirational, and whose branding is visible and recognizable enough for one’s observers to recognize and credit. This is an exchange that can take place instantaneously in passing on the street, signifying membership in a club or class that is purely superficial: it does not matter that the item in question came from the outlets that in fact support the brand’s existence, that the item’s quality is mediocre and that its interlocked C’s (for example) might as well stand for “made in China” despite the little paper pamphlet it came with touting its American heritage, or for the credit card debt that that the wearer has taken out to purchase it. This is what passes for modern luxury, just accessible enough to be worn by many, its value concentrated in its recognizability, meaningless without initials or logos or some other signifiers that matter far more than materials, construction or esthetics.
Every time there is an economic downturn, clothing and fashion media herald a return to traditional values and heritage brands, which by coincidence are the older and more expensive brands that were plastering their logos everywhere during the relative boom right before the bust. Longevity is now heritage, even though many historic brands have survived by carving off their historic manufacturing arms and letting them die, surviving as just a brand – an ethos that can be applied and communicated superficially onto anything, as superficially as those printed logos, flamboyant external tags or designer’s monograms.
This is not to let the more expensive or obscure clothing subcultures off the hook. Some of my fellow clothing weirdos no doubt can recognize the John Lobb William (as pictured double-unbuckled in the photos of today’s August Sander with ADHD, the Sartorialist), a Berluti patina or Arnys lapel notch, the Turnbull & Asser (RTW) collar, the Bottega Veneta weave or an Anderson & Sheppard shoulder.
I like to think that I don’t dress to participate in the furtive congress of visible branding, but as with so many things, an exception proves the rule. Herewith, the theme of today, and the only visibly branded item I intentionally wear, this pair of silver Hermès clou de selle cufflinks.
Like their maker, little tarnishes them. The only major luxury brand with any integrity, Hermès has consistently maintained high standards in all of its activities. Contrary to the trend of hiding behind marketing and moving production to cheaper subcontractors, it has retained inhouse production and, in order to keep quality high, taken controlling stakes or ownership of many of its suppliers, including its own glovers in Saint-Junien, one of only two comparable in the world (and trust me, by God I’ve looked), crystal through Saint-Louis, its maker of leather jackets that can still do justice to those evoked by Fitzgerald in Tender is the Night, the exotic leather sourcers Roggwiller, and on and on. In addition to these, of course, are its more famous competencies in silk scarves and ties, leathergoods small and large, and, at the beginning of it all, saddlery, to which the name of this cufflink style refers. The clou de selle is a stud nailed into an Hermès saddle. These cufflinks are designed to look like its head.
I imagine that Hermès likes to draw on equestrian imagery not only as a reminder of its 1837 genesis, but as an evocation to customers attracted to all the trappings associated with the horsey lifestyle. It’s a rich vein rewarding to many of its miners recent and removed, and while the term “the carriage trade” no longer has much significance to most, a name like “Polo,” for one, reminds us of the power of that evocation. At any rate, while saddlery must be a very small part of its business now, Hermès is quite serious about it.
I confess that it wasn’t the name of the style that drew me in as much as Hermès itself, and whatever Hermès, ineffably, meant to me. Despite Hermès’ heritage and image, like most Hermès customers, I generally have very little to do with horses, but that’s OK – most wearers of Savile Row bespoke aren’t actually country squires or gentlemen of leisure (except for Will), and I imagine most wearers of today’s Abercrombie & Fitch probably aren’t actually date-raping douchebags.
While I love my cufflinks and have found my few Hermès leathergoods to be, essentially, unimprovable in quality, I’d be reluctant to wear other immediately recognizable Hermès items: the cartoony ties that shout Hermès are unwearable unless you are French or wish to look like an investment banker (although the older ones with odder, larger images have a certain ironic charm); and the H-logoed belt buckles are simply unfortunate on most people. You can pull anything off as long as you look completely unself-conscious doing it, but this is not a challenge I encourage.
To return to my first paragraph, in a world where the onus is on the beholder to validate the wearer’s statement of class or style or whatever it is exposed brands and logos are supposed to do, it is preferable to be both wearer and spectator, participant and judge in the overheated stadium of daily interaction. Wearing these links, generally not decipherable to anyone except myself, is one course utilizing but not overpowering with the theme of today.