Monday, August 25, 2008

hidden cost(e)s

Costes by Hotel Costes is a favorite perfume of mine. As a fragrance bearing the name of a luxurious design-hotel, its aesthetic is not based on irritation or challenging conventions, but on conveying the sheer comfort and unrestrained pleasure of a hedonistic weekend in Paris.

Olivia Giacobetti created a spicy-sweet incense, with a slightly soapy and floral heart that avoids the ecclesiastical starkness of Comme des Garcon's Avignon, the olfactory antics of Etro's Messe de Minuit and the sartorial demands (Savile Row suit) of Czech & Speake's Frankincense & Myrrh, each a unique and brilliant variation on the incense theme. With her accustomed sleight of hand she managed to bottle a message of carefree leisure and casual luxury that makes Costes a joy to wear.

We can rest assured that Olivia G., though a hired hand of foreign extraction, was compensated handsomely for her labor of luxury. The same did not apply to a group of illegal immigrants working as cooks and kitchen helpers at one of the stylish eateries of the Costes group, the brasserie La Grande Armée. Working with forged papers, of which their employer was fully aware, and paying full taxes while denied equal pay and the benefits of the French social system, nine Africans decided they had had enough and occupied the restaurant on Valentine's day this year, demanding to be legalized before they would return to kitchen duty. They embody the economic logic of Paris gastronomy, where 60% of employees are without legal papers, increasing profits for operators and revealing to what extent high living standards and high life are intertwined with systematic exploitation in the heart of Europe. Supported by the French union CGT, seven of the rebels succeeded in their struggle, but there is little doubt that things will remain unchanged for many invisible cooks, maids, and other service personell at the Hotel Costes and elsewhere.

It has just become a little bit harder to suspend disbelief and plunge into Giacobetti's cozy fantasy. Somewhere beneath the incense lurks an off-note of hypocrisy and injustice.

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