Caught any of "Billions," the new series on Showtime? It's pretty good, despite it being tough to believe the terrific Paul Giamatti as a federal prosecutor. He's fun to watch, granted, but seems to strain at being tough. Maybe that’s good. And Damian Lewis is, well, Damian Lewis...
Anyhow, the costumes, by Eric Daman and Sarah Edwards, are pretty much perfect, and fill in whatever is missing in the actors' characterizations, like the way music works, filling in the dramatic background. Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades has a sort of disheveled-big-shot executive, Brooks Brothers look of the double-breasted variety: that good-life, shirt-coming-untucked waistline, and otherwise completely anonymous and unmemorable American shirt, tie. Here is a guy who is completely conventional and without a scintilla of stylishness, all very consciously put together. This look (absence of look?) says "I am dependable. Steady. I have conservative values. Trust me." This is the default American professional's style sense.
Bobby Axelrod, the billionaire hedgy that Lewis plays, has the exact opposite wardrobe. Most of the time he's got a Neiman's semi-active sportswear vibe, with zip-front cashmere hoodies, slim jeans, super expensive Chuck Taylor knockoffs. Clean. Neat. This is his office wardrobe, the business casual ala Cucinelli or Loro Piana. In one scene, giving scholarships to some kids, he's wearing a slim suit with high-ish button stance and a bit of a shoulder. (Zegna?) Youthful. Exuberant. Expensive. Says "Check it out, yo! I have made it."
Get the picture? A comprehensive look at the spectrum of style of Homo Americanus, circa 2016. It's the equivalent of seeing Rudy Vallee vs. Henry Ford in a 30s exhibition. Perry Mason vs. Don Draper. But it's not just the contrast of style that stands out. It's more than that. It's sociological, baby.
Figures of authority are just shlumpy, it says; righteous schmoes. The prosecutor is a little overweight, chomping Chinese at his desk, a little heavy on the red wine, digs some majorly kinky sex; but at work he's totally righteous. A paragon of dispassionate justice. The modern bad guy is stylish, admirable, cool. Unbelievably successful by any standard. This whole scenario says the system, i.e., playing by the rules, is boring and stupid. The unconscious message says The Ends Definitely Justify the Means. The new think is unconventional, but groomed. Today’s kids took their parents values one step further and added one element: money.
Whatever works, man! We are rooting for the Devil in Dolce.
But there's a scene that goes much deeper. Bobby is going to sort of bribe a once-rich WASP-y family to give up their right to have a building (a big cultural icon) continue to bear their name, so he can replace it with his. So happens (spoiler alert here!) that the grandfather, just to save face, unfairly fired Bobby from a caddying job twenty years earlier and Bobby never forgot. He’s told them he'll pay them 25 million bucks for the privilege and he shows up at the meeting, not in a Zegna suit, nor even in Brunello Cucinelli cashmere, but in some tight, funky-grey graphic tee. The members of the fallen dynasty are all in their country club blazers and rep ties and old Bobby is rocking the Best of Bronx. The clothes are part of his victory celebration. The Old Family pathetically folds, out of necessity of course, and Bobby, Axe ground to a fine blade, lets them have it, in the neck. The tee-shirt generation steps on their button down necks.
Tradition is over, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s give it a standing ovation. But it’s leaving the stage. And is it a long jump from there to the condition modern executives seem to lament, that requires management to allow the millennials on staff to do pretty much whatever they want? A friend who runs a company with 25,000 employees told me that to keep the best and the brightest of the Y generation, you need to let them do pretty much whatever they want, wherever they want, and whenever they want. Sounds like herding cats.
So, luckily, we in the retail business don’t have to figure out how to manage these folks, or how to make them go to church, or vote; we just have to figure out what Bobby Axelrod and his thirty-something (to fifty-something) wannabes will wear. Because there aren’t going to be a lot of guys willing to spend a pile to look like a federal prosecutor, and there’s something about a $1500 cashmere hoodie that’s just not, well, just not…
The best thing about business life is the worst thing about business life. The pace of change and the dynamics of taste require us to be creative, forward-thinking, attentive to every generational adaptation. You can't do that from your couch, or while you're watching TV. It's terrific excitement, keeping up with all the Bobbys. I'd better go get a coffee.