Prada family values

Harper's Bazaar shows us moms in transparent blouses and teen daughters in Limp Bizkit videos.

Published May 31, 2000 7:46PM (EDT)

This month, Harper's Bazaar went for a theme that wasn't one of those one-word exhortations -- Pink! Sexy! Hair! -- we have come to expect. Instead, it was ominously topical and, initially at least, very tempting. They called it the Family Issue.

Actually, it was new editor Kate Betts who named the issue, conceiving it out of a concern for the family "as we know it." This particular family, she writes, is threatened by our career-obsessed dot-com society (I think she means "society" in the polite, Edith Wharton sense), and may soon be obsolete.

Scary stuff. But it really helps to know what she means by "as we know it." Even if you have, as I believe I do, a fairly loose definition of family, there is no trace of that family in this magazine. Which is not to say that the family as we know it is extinct. It is more a case of that family's having dropped off Betts' personal radar. I suppose it is even possible that the family of the fashion-unconscious was never really on her personal radar.

The family as Betts knows it is a rarefied grouping, mostly organized on a celebriarcal model. Sort of a "it's not who gave birth to you but who you know" type of thing. Clothes appear to be the glue that binds these units, functioning both as a means of demonstrating allegiance and as a way to express love, though not unconditional love: Labels matter. Prada signifies depth of attachment.

We are not surprised to learn, then, that the original idea for the family issue is rooted in the aesthetic of family -- that reliably seductive tableau of woman with child. Betts tells us that Paul Eustace, the art director of Harper's Bazaar, came across a 1966 issue of the magazine with a cover photo of a model embracing a child. He was "so moved" by the cover photo and the "portraits of society families," says Betts, that he suggested an entire issue of the magazine be devoted to family.

Apparently Eustace was not so moved by the aesthetic beauty of that (generic) Madonna and child that he felt the need to reproduce it himself. The cover for this "family issue" features model Caroline Ribeiro hugging not a child but her own Scarlett O'Hara-sized waist. Maybe someone just confused "baby" with "babe."

Inside the magazine, maternal beauty takes its cue from the lovely and predictably emaciated Ribeiro. The actual mothers in the magazine, though they didn't make the cover, probably could have, had they not been with child. Expectant mother and model Sigrid de l'Epine, seven months pregnant, clad in an all-black, belly-revealing ensemble and sensible python heels, declares pregnancy to be her beauty secret: "It makes your skin glow and your hair look good." (Pregnancy is so good to her skin that de l'Epine claims she would like to be pregnant for another six months.) Elsewhere in the magazine, model Stephanie Seymour reveals her maternal breast -- literally -- as she poses with her three sons, her nipples poking through the fabric of a translucent hot pink blouse.

Sibling rivalry in all its complexity is reduced to an all-in-the-family beauty contest, showcased in a feature about supermodels who are twins. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this sound like a stock frat boy masturbatory fantasy?) Fraternal twins Kate E. and Karen Elson say that Kate, who has "china white skin and long black lashes," played the beauty to Karen's beast in high school; Karen, "who has almost no eyelashes," was teased and called "Le Freak." Happily, Karen, who has most likely discovered mascara, is now a model too.

While the rest of us now acknowledge the existence of the nuclear family, the extended family and the blended family, Betts has broadened our horizons with the addition of a new unit: the fashion family. In a feature billed on the cover as the "Ultimate Fashion Family Album," Harper's Bazaar redefines "home" as "house of couture." (Well, they are etymologically similar, right?) This definition of family is so vast it becomes meaningless: Suddenly the creative teams of major fashion houses have become "families" by virtue of their working relationships (neatly negating the sincerity of Betts' complaint that the problem today is people who are too career-obsessed).

As if on cue, Helmut Lang confides, "I have my real family and my creative family," and designer Rei Kawakubo describes collaborators as her "children." (I would personally be afraid if my boss called me her kid, but I probably would allow it if I wanted my new fall line to be promoted in her magazine.)

As for real-life mothers and daughters, well, their definition of intimacy, as revealed in Bazaar, has mostly to do with the ability to swap clothes. In a probing feature that dares to ask the question -- "Are the lines between generations just getting too blurry to see?" -- middle-aged moms wear the same size as their 17-year-old-daughters, and bonding consists of dialogue like: "Are those my Pradas?"

Of course, one expects to see Prada in Bazaar. And $650 "adolescent" khakis on Lauren Hutton, and models in gorgeous ice-blue lipstick that you will never wear to work and probably not even to a club, and really quirky examples of modern furniture design, and all sorts of other lifestyle accouterments that one can appreciate as art, if not actual acquisition. But this is a world pretty devoid of social content, and Betts' attempts to superimpose social meaning without social content merely flattens relationships, cash and fashion into a lovely, expensive but inscrutable montage.

In one of the most astonishing segments of the magazine, mom Laura Aldridge offers career advice as she passes around photographs of the members of Limp Bizkit "nuzzling" her 14-year-old daughter Lily, who appeared in their video "Break Stuff." Lily, described here as a "baby Catherine Zeta-Jones," didn't want to be a model until Laura gave her some motherly advice: "I said, 'Lily, girl, let's talk: Life is hard. You have to take every opportunity you can.' I was a Playboy playmate."

In a feature on pushy stage moms, or girls growing up too fast, or moms who ask their children to support themselves before the legal working age, this could be an insightful quote. But here it is frightening, wedged next to other surreal, chirpy bons mots, including one from a mother wearing "leather pants and a black studded Harley Davidson jacket" who says, "I think kids need boundaries. But you can't create boundaries in fashion anymore."

I don't mind knowing where to buy leather pants, or even being a mother in leather pants myself. But reading that knowing where to buy the right leather pants has some pivotal connection to my ability to love my daughter just pisses me off. In Betts' world -- one where she says she loves Missoni "not only because I love their signature striped knitwear but because I remember my grandmother talking about Missoni as a child" -- shopping and consuming are ways of demonstrating affection.

I was never a devotee of tough love, but somehow the concept of stuff love is deeply depressing.

But what does one expect from a parallel universe? After all, this comes from the same editor who admits, in her editor's note to the December issue, that in order to balance family and career, she tried to take her 12-week-old baby to the runway shows in Paris and Milan, Italy, but was stopped when she realized that children traveling overseas need a, uh, passport. She did the only sensible thing: She left her baby at the airport. (Her husband brought him to Milan a few days later, just in time for the baby to see his first supermodel, Amber Valletta.)

"Most of the way across the Atlantic," muses Betts, "I wondered how millions of American women manage the difficult balance of motherhood and work."

Best not to find out, Kate. The wardrobe is outri and the entourage cannot be carefully selected. But if you will, tell us where to buy spit-up-proof Dior.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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