At the international airport is an office called the Tourist Refund Scheme. Tourists can spend their money, save their receipts and upon the day of departure claim their 10% GST back. The government in its wisdom thinks this is good for business. But nobody likes to work there because naturally this attracts a horde of locusts all brandishing wads of receipts. There are long delays they chafe impatiently at and they get upset if receipts are ineligible for refunds.
And the receipts all detail orgies of spending that outline in merciless detail what shallow personal priorities people can have. I mean, why do people spend $5000 and upwards on a Chanel handbag that wouldn’t even hold half the stuff I need to survive? My male colleagues deplore the waste. But the Chinese students love them. Coming from a country where cheap fake brands are easily obtainable everywhere, the distinctive and unmistakeable stamp of authenticity holds a very special cachet for these girls who are probably starving themselves to get hold of a Chanel bag.
Over the counter, hundreds of them are displayed for claims every day. Each exquisite bag of quilted marshmallow with its signature strap of gleaming metal chain are discreetly viewed reposing on its bed of tissue paper in its neat cardboard cradle. And oh yes, how can I forget? There on each bag the famous silver interlocked CC logo stampthat each eager customer pays to advertise the Chanel brand.
The Chanel receipts are always unimpeachable. The ABN prominently displayed, a clear invoice number, the ATO requirement that receipts of over $1000 have the customer’s name and residential address always complied with, everything is easy to read. Yes, Chanel is big business in a world where style and social stratification are the uniform code-names for success. In the hands of a young graduate woman, the Chanel bag becomes a weapon to carve out her place in the world.
Except that this kind of conformism also breeds a multi-billion dollar industry of envy, imitation and deceit. Fairly recently a bold, brassy, palatial new shopping centre has sprung up in the city where Chanel naturally has opened a store. One afternoon as I was looking through one of the shops an assistant, all agog, told me that the Chanel store had just been robbed in broad daylight. The audacious female thief had come in, ostensibly to try on bags before the mirror. She had just got two armloads of different bags when she suddenly made a run for it, startling the security beef at the door who failed to stop her because he did not want to leave the store. The loss? approximately $50,000. On passing by later on I noticed the store was closed, sunk in humiliation, at a very early hour indeed.
And this brings me to mind some things that are wrong with Chanel. What does it do for women today? A couple of biopic movies of Coco Chanel have come and gone. In one of them the French actor Audrey Tatou plays a woman who played the kept mistress and yet plied her unique talents in dress-making and design to brilliant success. Scornful of the creakily inhibiting 19th century female garb of overblown frippery, trailing skirts and straight-jacket style corsets, she lived and worked to banish it, clothing women in the kind of gear they could run to catch a morning train to work in.
She brought us the collarless tweed jacket one could wear with
everything, the plain little black dress that was always a sensation dressed up or down, the matching jacket and skirt that never went out of fashion and always appropriate in the workplace, the now ubiquitous breton fisherman striped top, the tailored wide-legged pants, beige, linen, ropes of fake pearls, the camellia and jersey. And of course the famous perfumes, decreeing that ‘a woman who does not wear perfume has no future’.
So what’s not to like about Chanel? She is revered as a goddess, a legend, an inspiration. There is an enduring and undeniable beauty in her cut and design. But what was a strength in the early days of the 20th century, the convent inspired functionality, the plain simple elegant uniformity has perhaps drained some of the colour, individuality, spontaneity, risk taking and creativity out of the meaning of the word fashion.
The house of Chanel especially in latter years under that of her acolyte Karl Lagerfeld, has turned fashion instead into a conformist armageddon of expensive, intimidating style where the warrior wearer is safe on all fronts.
Today the Chanel style of chic functions to checkmate others into feeling envious and inadequate, overdressed or under-dressed and inferior. It has become a fashion house steeped deep in the increasing and deplorable social stratification of our world.
I want clothes bursting with colour and fantasy in this, our only world: reds, purples, cobalts, ochres, acqua and paisleys. I want opulence, decadence, lusciousness and all lengths of skirts, especially long ones. I want silk scarves fluttering like summer night breezes around my neck and anonymous but picturesque bags. There being nothing on the racks worth buying but derivative clothes, I want to make my own clothes and be proud to wear them. I want people everywhere to feel free to wear whatever they damn well like – as long as it goes, of course.