Congratulations on the Dress!

by Chikashi

People sometimes say strange things. They are usually of no consequence, but one such inconsequential comment has stuck in my mind. It left such an impression on me that I find it as strange as the comment itself. Bizarre all round.

I think it was late spring this year. We were in Paris for a day and headed towards the Marais. I wanted to stock up on tea, and the Brunette wanted to have a nose round the Alaïa outlet shop. When we got to the latter, there were a few customers browsing and trying on some wares: a 30-something French woman, an American in her early 20s and another American in her late 40s with her husband and daughter. There were two shop assistants. And then the three of us walked in. The shop is just about big enough to fit an old Mini Cooper, so let’s just say that the air was getting a bit thin when we walked in.

The young American was clearly on a mission to buy loads of shoes. The older American was determined to buy a dress. Alaïa is not exactly what you might call a democratic label. The outerwear and accessories can have a relatively broader market. However, the dresses, tops, skirts and trousers are for very specific market segments: they can either flatter your assets or accentuate your flaws. You do not need to be young or slim to wear them, but you do need to have a certain firmness and shape, not to mention personality, to pull it off. In fact, a voluptuous woman can be a screaming siren in Alaïa, provided that the body has curves and firmness that house a certain attitude on life. Shapeless bodies need not apply. There are plenty of other labels that suit a broader range, or a different type, of bodies, so there is really no need to insist on wearing an Alaïa dress. But some people do insist on the wrong choices — we have all been guilty of this from time to time — and their spouses or lovers just go along lest they incur Hell’s Fury. (‘Does my bum look fat in this?’ ‘Of course not, love. It’s perfectly juicy.’) So it goes in a circle. A vicious circle. A really vicious one, actually. You can hear Lucifer rolling on the floor laughing and holding his stomach in delicious pain.

A body that resembles a cross between a 2-week old Lincolnshire sausage and a marshmallow that has been left uncovered in the garden for a few days really should not be clad in an Alaïa dress. Ever. But shit does happen. The husband is happy that the wife is happy, so round and round it goes. The spectacle is like a roadkill. Even though you are repulsed by the sight, you cannot help but look at it, ironically because it is a repulsive sight. There is something really perverse about such a reaction. You say ‘Eeuwww’, turn your head away 30° and still have your eyes firmly fixed on it, and the only words that come to mind are ‘Hucking Fell’.

Americans have a tendency to befriend other Americans when they spot them in a foreign land. A very sociable lot. Whilst trying on their respective wares, the two American women, strangers until a moment ago, were chatting away at an impressive decibel level. Their nasal twangs filled up every cubic inch of the physically unoccupied space in the tiny shop. Starting to feel an audiovisual overload coming on, I decided to step out into the courtyard and leave the Brunette and the Little Brunette to themselves to browse the footwear inventory.

Once out in the courtyard, I realised that it has been about 10 years since the last time I was standing there, at Yohji Yamamoto’s book launch party. Optimism was in the air that evening, almost everyone was dressed in black, and I remember how the rather ordinary, flavourless ‘light’ cigarette tasted better than usual. Somehow I thought of the fact that, in the intervening 10 years, the rag trade has seen its fair share of turbulence. Alaïa was given a financial lifeline by Prada and then sold off to Richemont. Yamamoto went bust and was picked up by a private equity firm. Galliano fell from grace. McQueen died following Blow’s death. Valentino hung up his sketch book. Margiela and Sander have left their respective eponymous labels. An eventful decade in the trade…

And then, the American family emerged from the shop and headed towards the pavement. As they were about to go through the arched passage, the husband said rather enthusiastically to the wife who appeared well pleased with the purchase, ‘Congratulations on the dress!’

Congratulations?? For what? Why? There was no sarcasm or irony in his voice, but rather, it seemed sincere. Congratulations? Really? There must be a critical piece of information that I’m missing. Of course, the important thing is that they all seemed rather happy with the purchase. Congratulations.