Wednesday, October 11, 2006

To the Manor bought: The engineering of an 'It' bag

Screen grab from The Times Online fashion blog.

Now we all know that luxury companies "gift" their new release handbags to the fashion posse. Don't we? "We" in the fashion press certainly understand it goes on, irrespective of whether we accept them or not. Truth be told however, Jo Public probably doesn't have a clue.

Truth also be told, fashion is not the only business that engages in duchessing. But latterly, it would appear, and certainly since the luxury boom of the late 1990s when handbags started getting equal billing to the clothes on the runways, the "gifting" of luxury handbags to major fashion editors appears to have gone on with greater gusto.

Coincidentally, over the same period, the sales of handbags and leathergoods have well eclipsed those of ready-to-wear at most luxury and fashion companies.

I have not personally witnessed the denouement of an it bag, until now that is.

It may well have something to do with the fact that this was the first time I had been dispatched to cover an entire fashion season, from go to woah. Although I'm sure the bag in question was out and about in New York, I didn't notice it. I did however notice "it" in London, indeed on day one of London Fashion Week. The bag, it seemed, was all over the event.

Which bag am I talking about? The quilted "Manor" bag launched by Burberry for the northern fall, as clutched by the ubermodel Kate Moss in the current Burberry ad campaign and as touted by Burberry since the fall shows in Milan in February as the "it" bag of the season.

Now quite obviously Burberry has the right to call its products whatever it likes, even if said products have not yet appeared on the market. Burberry spends quite a lot of money advertising. And to Jo Public presumably, these are quite clearly paid advertisements.

What is not quite so clear however is when a product such as the Manor bag starts getting spotted on the "right" people.

It was a handsome bag, I recall thinking to myself when I first saw it waft past in the February show in Milan. But had the Brit fash pack suddenly become so enamoured of the same it rushed en masse into Burberry boutiques to buy it? There seemed to be far too many Manor bags on the London Fashion Week market for that to be plausible.

When a member of the pack casually mentioned that, "Oh London fashion editors are paid shit money", my suspicions escalated.

It was at this point that I started asking myself, and others, the following questions: are there any it bags that have been granted it status purely on cool design, and, accordingly, via cool hunters seeking them out? Or do the companies in question have to actually offload bags to so-called fashion opinion leaders before anyone deigns to anoint them?

And if that's all that is required to catapult a new handbag into the "It" stratosphere moreover, isn't there a glaring differential between the must-have bag for which Jo Public has to fork out over $3000 (in Sydney) because she thinks it's a hot item, and the so-called must-have bag with which the poorly paid, freebie-loving fashion editor swans around shows? For the latter, surely, it's not a must-have bag at all – but rather, a must-take bag?

Then came the rather shocking answer from one luxury company source:"It's the only way we can get any publicity".

One senior fashion editor did however provide an interesting theory that purported some discretion might occasionally be involved in "It" bag selection.

Those power editors, she noted, who receive such a vast swag of luxury booty must by necessity make selections – and that in culling the must-haves from the must-have-nots, therefore their choices might genuinely carry some weight.

This begged the question of course, just what do "the editors who know" do with the rest of the booty? Auction it for charity? Give it away to minions? Sell it on eBay?

More than one magazine/beauty staffer has in fact been fired for selling promotional booty via same. Whatever the answer however, presumably if the luxury companies knew that those sporting cast-offs from the magazines were not must-have bags at all but rather, must-have-not bags, they wouldn't be talking them up quite so perkily in their press releases.

Just on press releases, I should include a special category here of editor who somewhat reluctantly finds herself suckered into the duchessing. Let's call her the "little bit pregnant" editor. I chanced upon one of these in London.

One day she had passionately slagged off the British fashion press for "regurgitating press releases". The next day she revealed that she herself had recently accepted a luxury handbag. She also revealed that a little note had been attached to the bag by the relevant company, with [words to the effect] "We hope you enjoy being an ambassador for X".

Would she show me the note? Fat chance of that.

"I don't want to bite the hand that feeds" she replied curtly, before insisting that the bag was strictly a thank you and under no circumstances a bribe aimed at influencing future content. No number of gift bags would corrupt the unfettered editorial integrity of her [independent] publication, she added.

There are few ethics in fashion glossies. Not only are staff members regularly asked to write about advertisers, even freelance copy can get "adjusted".

I came to the latter conclusion after a story I had written on luxury power players for one Australian glossy was tweaked in favour of one profiled company that was not a major player, but which in the published version had suddenly graduated to the ranks of LVMH, Richemont, etc. The company in question had taken out six pages of advertising in the same issue.

When we read, on a website such as that the "Fabulous Burberry Manor bag in quilted beige leather" has been "tipped by top magazines to be autumn/winter 2006 'it' bag brand" we take it with a grain of salt, don't we? The website would say that because it is trying to flog Manor bags. And the magazines would say that, presumably, because Burberry is advertising in their pages and they want their ad reps to continue flogging ads to Burberry.

Newspapers are however a different kettle of fish. Or so I thought. And at this point, in the interests of full disclosure, I should add that ethics policies or not, every single fashion journalist who writes for a mainstream newspaper may well be a tiny bit pregnant.

Many of us – myself included – are bound by strict ethics policies that dictate that gifts must be returned. In some cases, journalists may also be bound by personal ethics policies. Suzy Menkes is renowned for her no gifts dictum.

But did Menkes drink Jean Paul Gaultier's champagne at his 30th birthday bash at Olympia on Saturday night? Since I wasn't at the party, I can't comment.

All I do know is that, while there is apparently no such thing as even a free lunch for Wall Street Journal journalists (or so one told me a couple of years ago), many of us who are bound by strict ethics policies regularly attend hosted lunches, dinners and parties. Perhaps all of our publications in future should pack us bento boxes and champagne hipflasks, so we can avoid quaffing LVMH and co canapes and piccolos at their events – and thereby avoid being accused of rigging the companies' respective stock prices.

But canapes and piccolos notwithstanding, I'm just not quite sure how far gone The Times of London might be in the duchessing gestation period. A little bit pregnant? Or completely up the duff? According to The Times' customer charter, which appears on its website:
"The Times in online format adheres to those principles which have guided the printed newspaper for more than 200 years: the integrity of editorial content and its complete separation and independence from the raising of revenue.

Advertisers and sponsors, essential as they are to our business, have never been able to exert any influence or in any way to compromise the editorial content. That remains the case online. In terms of sponsorship there will be complete transparency in any partnerships, the sponsors committing themselves to the understanding that they have no connection to, influence upon, or any power to shape, the editorial material or the judgments in it.

The Times Online, like the newspaper itself, abides by the codes of both the Advertising Standards Authority and the Press Complaints Commission".

But what appears on the blog section of The Times' London Fashion Week coverage [see top of post^] for spring/summer 2007? You bet, Burberry's Manor bag. Talked up, no less, as "the must-have bag at the shows".

We know for a fact that the bag was gifted to the paper. And although there is a – vague – disclaimer that free gifts abound at the shows, it is not clear that The Times team either accepts gifts – or indeed that the four-figure Manor bag was one of them.

In any event, the concept of "free gifts" would appear to be at loggerheads with The Times' "no gravy train" customer charter.

When it comes to the paper's opinion pieces on the spring/summer 2007 fashion season, we trust that they got off at Redfern.

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