The sexpot blonde, smiling teasingly while pretending to control the pleats of her billowing halter dress, blown askew by an unexpected gust of air from underfoot.
Would that that iconic image of Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate (Lexington & 53rd) were the reality of subway woes: Oops! Caught unaware in a full skirt, a hot girl might give passersby an unexpected show. We wish. Instead, for millions of New Yorkers, another work day, another commute. And the chance for serious subway anguish.
It has been the NYC story of the summer, one of derailments, track fires, passengers trapped underground without air-conditioning, and back-and-forth sniping between governor and mayor. How to fix it? Fund it? Determine priorities? Meanwhile, most commuters have long since made peace with the grime, the overcrowding, a stranger’s sweaty armpit in one’s face, the occasional rodent sighting. They now feel every day like Alfred P. Doolittle on his wedding day: Just get me to my work on time — and safely, without major incident. As causes go, not a sexy one.
Which is why this industry can take pride in the fact that when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced its Subway Partnership Program late last month, two of the seven corporations signed up as lead partners hail from our world: Hearst, which declined to comment on its participation, and the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., which did.
As described by the Governor’s Office, the program creates a structure through which “private corporations will invest in a fund to support the New York City subway system and work closely with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on issues affecting commuters.”
Last week, William Lauder took time out from his family vacation to talk about his company’s involvement. Equally gracious and ardent, he corrected the suggestion that this is yet another philanthropic endeavor from a company whose proactive generosity is legendary. “This is an investment,” Lauder offered. “Philanthropy is much more targeted to specific actions and activities. It’s hard to say that the subways are a philanthropy because they serve everybody in New York City.”
To that end, Lauder sees participation as a common-sense initiative with potential bottom-line resonance. Ease of transportation, he noted, is essential to Estée Lauder’s more than 3,000 New York-based employees, as it is for those of every other employer in the city. “We felt very strongly if our people are riding to work in the subways and the subways need help, we have a moral obligation to do what we can.” That which improves “the lives of our employees and makes them happier and better, will help improve the lives of their customers,” he said.
The program is in its nascent stages. Lauder and the top brass of the other companies involved — in addition to Hearst, BlackRock Inc., Blackstone, MasterCard, Rudin Management Co. Inc. — were approached through the Partnership for New York City, itself now a member of the newly formed Subway Partnership Sponsors Council, the minimum entrée fee of which is $250,000. Whether any or all of the founding members plan to ante up more wasn’t disclosed.
While 250-grand-times-seven is a drop in the bucket relative to the daunting task of “fixing” the subways, the expectation is that the council’s membership will expand with time, and that private-sector input will extend beyond check-writing to serious involvement in determining solutions to the vast problems of the subways. The concept is modeled after the wildly successful Central Park Conservancy, founded in 1980.
Yet there’s a difference. Central Park is Central Park. It was intended as beautiful, bucolic respite from the otherwise frenetic life of Gotham. Yes, the park fell on hard times that escalated into, at its lowest point, its image as a dangerous haven for criminals and drug addicts. From the start, there was a romance to its restoration and maintenance as a glorious urban retreat.
The subways have no such aura from which to draw. Aside from the system’s Marilyn moment (and a wacky three-plus-decade stretch during which young rail-riding beauties competed for the title of Miss Subways) positive descriptives are seldom invoked in reference to the much-maligned system (even though, let’s face it, at its worst, it’s still pretty amazing.) Rather, the 6 train is like your apartment plumbing — you don’t think about it until there’s a problem. And the problem is never delicate.
That’s what appeals so much about the Lauder involvement: one of the world’s most famous purveyors of glamour stepping up to address the epic issues of a system that telegraphs the antithesis of glamour.
“We are a global company, but with our headquarters and home in New York City,” Lauder said. “We were created in New York City by New Yorkers and we consider New York to be an important part of our identity. It’s not a branding thing as much as a psychological thing. We, as good citizens, need to be good citizens in every aspect of what we do.”
Perhaps that proactive inclination goes back a couple of generations. “If there is a message at all,” Estée Lauder once said, “it’s probably that we have to recognize in ourselves how we feel morally about certain things and make sure we follow that up with our actions.”
• • •
Saks Fifth Avenue and Vetements recently made a joint statement of corporate citizenship of a different sort. Or more correctly, the statement came from the latter, using the former as the platform. For about two weeks until they were disassembled on Wednesday, Saks’ flagship Fifth Avenue windows featured junk piles of clothes and accessories, what must have been hundreds of wardrobe cast-offs donated by Saks employees, along with out-of-stock merch. An up-close perusal of the windows revealed what looked mostly like pieces priced at contemporary levels or lower, along with some on-view luxury labels: Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik. Nowhere visible in the trash heap: a Vetements label.
The point of the mess, as stated on Saks’ Instagram account, was that fashion produces too much, and fashion consumers, discard too much. “Using unwanted clothing, our windows are a bold statement by @Vetements_Official calling us all to offset the excess in our lives,” it reads. “At the end of the installation, Saks will donate the textiles in our windows to RewearAble, a clothing recycling company designed to provide sustainable employment for adults with developmental disabilities.”
The contribution aspect was noted as well in signage positioned in the lower right of each window, although not as prominently as the bold lettering that signaled the Vetements merch is available “on 5.”
Amidst the layers of stuff, layers of dismay.
First, the public scold. Just as it’s irritating to hear a lecture on the health hazards of sugar from a celebrity who smokes cigarettes, please don’t lecture on the social ills of excess consumerism when you’re zipping together Levis parts and selling them for $1,865.
Second, the windows dripped with noblesse oblige at its most arrogant, a smug celebration of the transfer of the sartorial table scraps of the privileged to those who, apparently, should be thankful for what they get. If the accoutrements accumulated in those windows are still good and valuable, then why treat them like garbage? Why not fold them into neat, impressive towers of well-used, well-loved vintage? Better yet, wouldn’t it have made a powerful statement to dress a brigade of 50 or so mannequins in the clothes destined to be of employment and wardrobe value to good people facing challenges most of us can’t imagine? Then again, that might have provided too much practical rumination for Fifth Avenue’s ecumenical, international population-on-foot; someone (or some many) might have thought, “I have clothes that look like that. Why buy more?”
Finally, what’s with Saks, the venerable retailer that once invoked as its tagline, “very Saks fifth Avenue?” Especially at a time of seismic change (and, some would say, panic) for this industry, “cool” is a grail that beckons many, yet is as fickle in the long term as it can be elusive in the short. Yes, purveyors of fashion must stay aware and current, and must be willing to shake off the stodginess of old. But mountains of clothes treated like garbage — very Saks Fifth Avenue? Let’s hope not.