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What is talent, anyway? (And what does age have to do with it?)


“Who has real talent and staying power or merely the ability to sell themselves effectively?” That’s what the New York fashion scene wants to know. Not that I’m part of New York’s fashion scene — okay, I have some Calvin Klein briefs, and I once saw Tommy Hilfiger at Macy’s. But I wouldn’t know Vera Wang from Veracruz. A fashionista, I’m not.

Fortunately, we have the New York Times’ Thursday Styles section to keep us in the loop. Yesterday, they ran this cool piece about how the fashion scene is going gaga over young “runway darlings of the moment,” including a “heartthrob” with the mildly sadomasochistic-sounding name of Simon Spurr (who happens to have the Hollywood good looks of a young Matt Damon). There’s grumbling that the people who decide who’s in and who’s out are picking young designers, not because they’re talented, but because they’re cute.

Mr. Spurr

“Just because you’re cute, connected, rich and famous doesn’t necessarily mean you design great stuff,” one Kim Hastreiter said in a talk at a recent Council of Fashion Designers of America gabfest. (This was taken as a swipe at Sarah Jessica Parker, who was named a fashion designer for Halston earlier this year.) Even Prabal Gurung, another “runway darling of the moment,” told the Times that he was “in complete agreement” with Hastreiter. “Talent should not be instantaneously celebrated, but rather nurtured and grown steadily.”

Mr. Gurung, nurturing his talent

Well, isn’t going to insert its nosy nose into a catty New York fashion war. Those rag peddlers have sharp claws! But I am going to make the (not very difficult) leap over to two other areas in which “runway darlings of the moment” vie with more established stars. Consider Project Runway’s 51-year old Michael Kors, who told the Times, “I waited three years before I ever had a fashion show…Today the spotlight is so quick that…I don’t know if you can still let a business percolate and grow naturally.”

One area in which we see the same sort of overnight rush to stardom, or unnatural growth to use Kors’ words, is with instantaneously created “cult” wineries that pop up almost overnight, charging a fortune for wines with absolutely no provenance, except that the same old, tired, famous-name consultants are hired to give them the aura of — I was going to say “quality,” but it’s not that. To give them an aura of celebrity. In this sense, having David Abreu’s or Michel Rolland’s name attached to a wine is pretty much the same as Halston hiring Sarah Jessica Parker. The famous name pushes the brand, not vice versa. If this seems calculating and cynical, hey, it’s just business. And it works.

The other area where these “runway darling” rules of the road apply is with wine blogs. We do have  something approaching the fashion wars in the wine blogosphere today. On the one hand are establishment figures who’ve been around the block a few times, and taken their hits. Like the Times said about Michael Kors, “his journey has not been without its bumps, including a bankruptcy…When Mr. Kors was starting out, he…went in and out of business with the seasons.” I suppose I’m an establishment figure, but that doesn’t mean my career has been easy. It hasn’t. There are ups and downs, and every up seems like it’s immediately followed by a downer. I guess it’s just human nature to think, “Hey, I earned what I have the hard way. If you want it, go out and earn it on your own.”

And then there are the young wine bloggers, our heartthrob equivalents of Mr. Spurr and Mr. Gurung. Heady has been their rise to prominence. The entire wine industry is gazing upon them with admiration, and perhaps even envy, certainly with a degree of, yes, lust. Their entrée into the realm of importance has been amazingly rapid, satisfactory (for them), and complete: not a serious wine company in the world dares to ignore them. They are “playaz” (as we say in Oaksterdam), our own runway darlings of wine writing. Yet even Mr. Spurr told the Times, “It may be easier to become a designer [today], but it’s a lot harder to make it as a designer.”

Becoming vs. making it; aye, there’s the rub. There’s a big difference between launching a successful wine blog, which instantly turns you into a published wine writer, versus making it as a wine writer, which implies, yes, staying power. It’s not that difficult to get off to a flying start anymore.  Nicole Miller told the Times, “All these new designers start out and they immediately have showrooms and accessories lines.” With bloggers, they too start out, and almost immediately get free samples, paid junkets, book contracts, advertising, speaking gigs — the industry’s way of showing its love. To the establishment, it looks like it’s all happening too fast, too easily. Don’t you have to earn your stripes anymore, go to the School of Hard Knocks? Michael Kors spoke for all establishment types when he told the Times, “Just when you think you know the rules, the rules change.” On the other hand, maybe they don’t. We will, at any rate, know sooner or later who has staying power and who doesn’t.

  1. Hey Steve, “With bloggers, they too start out, and almost immediately get free samples, paid junkets, book contracts, advertising, speaking gigs” – ‘almost immediately’ is probably pushing it a bit. Compared to when/how these opportunities were presented to the press before on-line self-publishing, then it’s a much faster timeline and the big difference is that these things are going to individuals and their own brands, vs. going mostly to brands (newspapers, etc.) in the past. But those opp’s don’t pop up for bloggers after one or two blog posts – they take time, and in the quick pace of the on-line world that time is actually pretty long in most cases, I think.


  2. Dude, yeah you’re right, “immediately” was too strong. I was just trying to make a comparison between how long it used to take to get known, and how fast it is now. You’re a good example!

  3. Yeah, totally understand – is really only about 3 years old! But maybe that’s more like 15 in Internet years?

  4. It’s like dog years. 7 = 65 or something like that.

  5. It’s difficult to draw many parallels between the fickle fashion world and the wondrous if sometimes wacky world of wine writing (not wine making–where fashion can play more of a role). Wine writing, like (almost) all writing, thrives or not, by the quality of the writing not who’s in and who’s out. You either have the skill set to present a cogent and enjoyable story or you don’t with a continuum in between. You also need the proper forum, with mentors and breaks–being at the right place at the right time– so you’re not the proverbial sound in the forest. And you need to keep crafting articles that satisfy in order to hang around. No flash in the pan.

    To mix in more clichés, since in our meritocratic society, cream tends to rise to the top, those scribes who have the better gigs, with more readers and more pay, have demonstrated that they can produce a piece that has appeal to a broad readership.

    The hotshopts, except for Gary V of course, will have to bide their time, paying dues and all that, until they can move onto the centerstage; but this should happen if and when jobs open up.

    Now evaluating wines…that’s a whole other activity with different requirements…. {8^D

  6. Maybe we should have a “Project Wineblog”?

  7. Staying power is everything, its easeir to make flash and smoke to get things off to a bang than it is to create true quality (Roshambo anybody?) The real trick is keeping consistency, and creating a good foundation to keep things grounded if “celebrity” comes knocking and suddenly your the next big thing.

    Also I have always wondered about a reality show:
    “So You Think You Can Ferment?” =)

  8. Roshambo! Haha

  9. What doesn’t get recognized is all of the people who support the designers and make those guys look good. The designers of the moment have a plethora of other no-name designers that actually do the work where the darling, as you call them , is the idea person and gets all the credit, money, fame. I am not sure if this is true for all wine bloggers, I will have to ask their wives/husbands/partners if they get a cut.
    Same in the winemaking world. Winemakers have lots of help crafting the product but wouldn’t be anywhere without the filter guy or the enologist dude who works just as hard, or harder, and has the same goal and desire as the winemaker.

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