Saturday 19th November

| BY Glenn O'Brien

Glenn O’Brien: What’s In A Name


Immortality. We can’t seem to live without it. Life is never enough – we always seem to want more, even if the one we have hasn’t worked out all that well.

This rage to live is responsible for some nutty ideas. When we die we go to heaven, especially if we worked hard, did what we were told to do and maybe gave our life for our country. Or maybe we go to hell instead, if we screwed up, screwed around, liked to party, or joined the revolution. Americans are especially prone to unreasonable optimism when it comes to mortality.

Europeans always ask me what’s wrong with the United States. Well, comrades, America is still very keen on the afterlife, with 72% of us believing in heaven and 58% believing in hell, which greatly reduces the consequences of what we do on this earthly plane. Fuck it, I’m going to heaven anyway. Or, fuck, I’m going to hell, fuck you.

Purgatory – that jail-like after-death state where we serve time before being promoted to heaven – was big back when the Roman church made a fortune selling indulgences (the medieval get-out-of-jail- free card), but today it’s rarely mentioned. Limbo, where the sadly unbaptized were once confined, seems to have been dropped altogether. But as we’ve become more sophisticated and, perhaps as heaven has become more difficult to conceptualise, afterlife ideas are changing. Christians are going all Asiatic, with 28% of US Catholics now believing in reincarnation.

But there are plenty of other notions of afterlife, and among the celebrity class, the 1%, the rich and famous, it still seems to be about reputation. We live on in the memories of others, but if we’re really, really good, we live on as legends.

We may be physically defunct, utterly extinguished, without a headstone or marker, gone like ashes in the wind, but in this celebrity-worshipping age, “legendary” has become the greatest compliment. To be a living legend is the next thing to being a god or its modern equivalent, a corporation.

The earliest works of western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, tell complex stories of gods and legendary heroes and, almost 3,000 years later, they retain their power – especially, perhaps, when made into epics starring Brad Pitt. For the ancient Greeks, after death, we journeyed to the underworld, a dreary place. In the Odyssey, the wily warrior king Odysseus travels to the underworld as part of his journey home. Here he meets his old comrade in arms Achilles, who tells him,

“I’d rather be a slave on earth for another man, some dirt poor tenant farmer who scrapes to stay alive, than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

The afterlife was no motivation for Achilles’s exploits. The greatest warrior in the world goes to war in Troy having been told by his mom, the sea-goddess Thetis, that doing so will be his death, because doing so will also make his name live for eternity.

In the film Troy, this is how Odysseus (Sean Bean – Christian Bale would have been wilier) recruits Achilles (Pitt): “Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves, ‘Will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought?’”

Yes, immortality is eternal PR. It is holding on to fame long after you’ve shed the mortal coil. We live on in the imaginations of others. No easy task. Even the Olympian gods have lost their lustre. Hermes is more renowned than Zeus because he has become a god of fashion. Venus holds her own. But today we have methods undreamed of by our forebears. We can live forever by becoming a corporation, a brand. We might stop breathing, sure, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop selling.

Corporations, like gods, are theoretically immortal. And corporations that become great brands are worshipped in much the same way that the gods were. An ancient Greek might be favoured by Plutus, god of wealth, and marry a woman favoured by the mighty Aphrodite, goddess of love. Today we show our status and enhance our repute through conspicuous consumption, through the possession and display of luxury-brand mojos that elevate us above hoi polloi.

Once we showed our godliness by displays of piety and charity. We feigned modesty and chastity. If we happened to be good capitalists and screwed the public, we compensated with flamboyant displays of building schools, libraries and hospitals, – named after us, of course, and hopefully with flattering statuary. But today we succeed most visibly by displays of expensive taste. We collect artists of genius and we are literally clothed in genius, outwardly reflecting our inward state.

Today’s fashion system isn’t about a tailor’s or dressmaker’s name whispered mouth to ear; it is dominated by the idea of genius. We patronise great designers. They are like the great artists whose elaborate outrages decorate our homes, but they are even closer to us. We live inside their designs, flaunting our wealth and sexual prowess with the complicity of their genius.

Genius is the human partaking of the divine, but channelling the divine is a tough gig. Even the greatest painters and couturiers are known to lose it, flop and eventually croak. How tragic when our designers die at the peak of their genius and/or commerciality! Fortunately, they can live on in the person of a corporation.

We promote young designers as junior geniuses and sometimes eccentrics, according them acclaim similar to that enjoyed by young fine artists, and see if they can fill the great designer’s shoes. But to achieve immortality, it seems that they must visit the land of the dead. Because the great powers in the realm of fashion are the houses of the dead. The person of genius is dead, but their name lives on. Surrogates are cast, much as actors are, to channel the spirits of the legends to keep them alive.

Paris still hails the deceased genius of Balenciaga, Balmain, Chanel, Courrèges, Dior, Givenchy, Lanvin, Rochas, Saint Laurent, McQueen, Vionnet, Schiaparelli… You don’t even have to be dead. John Galliano is now starring as Martin Margiela, who is retired. Jil Sander, who resigned three times, is now being played by Rodolfo Paglialunga, who formerly channelled Mme Vionnet (1876-1975). Helmut Lang? He’s just a company now, and apparently some guy trying to make art out in Long Island.

In America, Perry Ellis is bigger than ever since he died in 1986. Calvin Klein and Donna Karan carry on with their designers retired but still on the scene. There’s something vaguely creepy or zombielike about designer brands where the namesake still lives, or is at least fresh in our memory.

We didn’t know Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Lanvin or Schiaparelli, so we can’t really compare. But I remember the sadness of Halston, living on in the shadow of his name, which he had sold to the downscale retailer JC Penney. It’s a bit like the TV commercials we see today starring digitally resuscitated stars. That practice was invented in 1991, when Coke spots featured Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, Cary Grant and Groucho. We’ve had James Dean for Lee Jeans, Sid Vicious for Dr Martens, John Wayne for Coors beer, Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner and a nauseating Galaxy chocolate spot violating the memory of Audrey Hepburn.

This legion of celebrity ghosts, endorsing they know not what, surely shows it’s time to enact laws to deal with the incorporation of human personality. America has become the land of the brand and the home of the corporation, especially since the Supreme Court decided, in the Citizens United case, that corporations may participate in political funding because, as legal persons, they have freedom of speech, and speech… well, in the US of A, money talks.

A database corporation called Sap Hana barrages us with a commercial about its breakthrough spirituality, an ominously grand British voice accompanied by an antsy orchestral track from the film Tron declaiming: “Can a business have a mind, a subconscious, a knack for predicting the future, reflexes faster than the speed of thought? Can a business be alive?” This leads to other weighty questions. Can a corporation steal a soul? Can a corporation rewrite history? Can a corporation make all of its employees think alike?

Perhaps the big fashion brands need to take it a step further. Why not reanimate their namesakes? Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel, Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent. Semi-fictionally portraying the legendary designers gives their heirs the opportunity to tell the founders’ romantic stories, meanwhile cleaning up any unsavoury or overly complex or controversial aspects of their personality or their history.

We could even take it a bit further. Why not have the current designer of a heritage brand take on the identity of the founder? Marc Jacobs could have grown his moustache and put on a few pounds to play Louis Vuitton. Alber Elbaz would not have made a good Jeanne Lanvin, but he could easily be styled into a reasonable facsimile of Christian Dior. A system of designer identity transformation might help the perpetual shifting of personnel at the great couture houses, where heads have been rolling like bowling balls lately, and it might also provide incentive for young designers to actually design as themselves, like Stella McCartney or Proenza Schouler. Do you really have to be dead to be immortal? You don’t have to be discarnate to incorporate. You just need a genius and a genius lawyer.

– Glenn O’Brien Inc

Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Magazine, TRUE RANDOM AUTHENTIC, on newsstands now… 

Illustration by Stephen Doherty