Cuffed by a colour

Image of Vanessa Friedman

I tried to avoid it as long as possible. I stuck my head in Olympic hoo-ha and refused to pull it out. I thought Lycra, Lycra, Lycra instead of lust, lust, lust. Even when the news hit that Fifty Shades of Grey, the tripartite saga of smut and spanking in Seattle that has become a publishing phenomenon, had surpassed Harry Potter as the bestselling book of all time on Amazon UK, I rolled my eyes and shrugged: nothing to do with me. This book is about getting rid of clothes, not analysing them.

How wrong I was. If any proof were needed that a blockbuster bestseller equals a sartorial spin-off waiting to happen, this is it.

Who cares that the book is all about what’s underneath – literally? That’s just a detail. Who cares that other than Victoria Beckham – who confessed that she was a fan of the series – most of the reviews and comments focus on how terrible it is? Who cares that most people who admit to reading the book do so in an “I was duped” kind of way, using it to demonstrate their intellectual cred by proving they were not among the quazillions of dodos who actually liked it?

Who cares, the theory goes, that the book has become an ebook phenomenon because people are buying it to read on their Kindles so as to hide from other people the fact they are reading it?

Not, apparently, the designers who are betting that the book’s popularity will act as a spur, sending consumers into stores for their very own wardrobe-ready souvenirs.

Marc New York by American designer Andrew Marc, for example, has launched an autumn/winter advertising campaign based on the book. It features a girl in a pale grey/white sheath dress, unzipped at the back, ogling a guy in a towel. The two of them are standing in what could be a bathroom, or some sort of gym/locker room (it’s hard to tell), as inspired by many scenes in the novel.

I suppose the idea is: buy this dress and a super-stud will ask you to rip it off, or, maybe, buy this dress for your girlfriend, and see what you can get her to do. It’s possible that the brand was considering both possibilities, though it’s unclear how well the theory will work in (sales) practice. Depends, I suppose, on just how suggestible the target consumer is.

Meanwhile, type “fifty shades of grey” into Etsy, the online marketplace that features handcrafted objects, and 1,862 – count ’em – different products come up: charm bracelets, T-shirts, keyrings, little handcuff earrings, and so on. And reports abound of “lingerie” finally catching up with “handbags” and “shoes” as the subject of Google searches, in what UK Marie Claire had dubbed the “Fifty Shades of Grey effect”.

Surprisingly, one of the few components of a wardrobe not yet created to pay homage to Fifty Shades is the sort of elegant, silver-hued tie that is featured on the cover of the book and is also pretty much the only piece of clothing actually described in enough detail within to be recognised without.

Before you get all excited about what the above reveals about my knowledge of the book: yes, I read it, though only for the purposes of this column – which is to say, to find out what, if any, role clothes play in the story. Answer: not much.

I know the heroine likes jeans, and the hero seems to wear only grey trousers and white linen shirts – and, when he gets ready to get kinky, old beat-up denim – but white linen shirts clearly don’t provide much retail zing, being both stain-and-wrinkle-prone in non-literary life. But the tie did seem like a missed opportunity.

Of course, this could be because such neckwear is already a standard offering everywhere from Giorgio Armani to Gieves & Hawkes, or perhaps it’s mere oversight (fashion designers being more focused on the gullibility of the female consumer). But, either way, that may soon change, as it seems that author EL James has decided she should seize a slice of these spin-off profits for herself, and signed on with UK-based licensing agent Caroline Mickler.

Mickler will target companies that could make Fifty Shades stuff: sleepwear, clothing, bedding, scent and, presumably, ties. Mickler told the Hollywood Reporter that she would be at London brand Licensing Europe in October to chat to possible licensees as the “first step in developing Fifty Shades into a worldwide brand”.

Some of this stuff – sex toys – may make sense but you have to wonder what, exactly, they are imagining they can add to a world where Christian Dior made dove grey his signature shade (hey, the hero of Fifty Shades is called Christian. What a coincidence!), and where every other designer, from Yves Saint Laurent to Donna Karan and J Crew, has produced various versions of the little grey dress and the little grey suit and the little grey cashmere cardigan.

Forget 50 shades; when it comes to grey and fashion, there are hundreds of shades. Personally, what would really excite me is the news that James and her crew have realised we don’t need any more. Not every success needs a dress.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor

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