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Runway Runaway

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Of course, fashion is not just about clothing; it's central to the way we think about brands and celebrity and even intellectual property, and how all this gets parlayed and monetized, which certainly puts it at the heart of the modern media business. On the other hand, I kept asking what the various designers are worth and no one readily knew (not even about the public companies). People in the fashion business don't seem to keep their eye on the money, which may have to do with their determination to see this business as at least partly art and may have to do with the fact that it's pretty unclear what is being sold, who is buying, and how, in fashion accounting, it all adds up.

I found the Ralph Lauren show, at 10 A.M. the next day, actually to be sort of lovely. All the clothes were black-and-white, then there was a subtle shift to brown-and-white, then back to black before you knew it. "There is nothing like early-morning glamour," said Ingrid. When the show was finished, Ralph took a saunter down the runway, shaking hands as he went, like Bill Clinton entering the chamber of a joint session of Congress. Actually, Ralph and Bill have a similar self-satisfied silver-fox quality.

By the time of the Donna Karan show, I knew the Buddha-like man was the buyer from Bloomingdale's. I met Patrick McCarthy, the head of Fairchild, who with Anna Wintour is probably the most powerful voice in the fashion industry. He said he'd heard this was my first time at a show. He added, generously, that fashion people often forget there is a world outside the fashion world. I found I was getting to know the models too. At least I recognized the famous Gisele, not so much by her face as by the force of her goose step. And Yfke and Roos and Trish.

I had not seen so few bras since the sixties. There is almost a truth-in-advertising issue insofar as underwear is concerned -- it's doubtful you can wear these clothes and require support too. Or perhaps the point is that the world would be better served without so much underwear.

Ingrid told me what should have been obvious: that the dead, drugged look of these models, the Manchurian Candidate thing, which I found disturbing, was because they were gazing, unfailingly, unblinkingly, down the runway, past us, into the eye of all the cameras.

Soon, said Ingrid, I'd be able to recognize what makes a good runway model.

I grabbed up some of the gift bags of perfume at the Calvin show to take home to my daughters.

What's compelling about these shows, I suspect, is the ritual. It's the ritual on the level of theater or dance combined with, say, the ritual of a meeting of the Soviet presidium. Everybody seems so willing to play his or her part -- or afraid not to.

The clothes too are more ritualistic, or more representational, than real. Indeed, who, beyond the fashion industry itself or other people who don't pay retail, wears this stuff? More people read serious literature, for instance, than actually wear such clothes.

And yet these shows certainly feel like they dominate the world. From here flows the look, and the big bucks -- from the center out. This is not just a marketplace but a media-marketing cabal, a highly regimented one.

Indeed, we in the magazine business, in effect, work for the fashion houses. All these pages of advertising -- the clothes, the scents, the bags, the shoes -- mean something (although it is not necessarily clear what they mean -- is this stuff to be bought or just desired?). Designers finance media so that the media can write about the designers.

Of course, it seems like the opposite too. It seems like Anna Wintour is in charge here (and, by extension, in charge of the world). That the fashion people are paying her court rather than the other way around.

As a first-timer, I believe I can see where the lines cross -- who is sucking up to whom and who is fooling whom. But I understand how easy it is, how necessary, too, to take this all more seriously than I am taking it now -- to see fashion not just as the product of the garment industry but as a vital and expressive part of the culture.

That's the meal ticket.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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