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Prisoners of Fashion

The Fashion Week circus, writes designer John Bartlett, has devolved into self-parody. An air-kiss goodbye to all that.

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Beyond the smoke and mirrors of New York Fashion Week lies the unspoken, underlying reality of economic uncertainty, retail sluggishness, and "designer-fatigue syndrome." As the fashion police patrol the runways this week for clues to next spring's trends, many designers are moving toward smaller shows, less hype, and, God forbid, fewer front-row seats!

It seems like ten years ago Manhattan fashion shows were a rarity, staged in a designer's studio and housing only the die-hard editors and retail execs. Today the runway has become a caricature of itself, where the majority of the audience travels with its own camera crew and even the most enthusiastic voyeurs have perfected the studied ennui of a junior Condé Nast editor. Seating the front row has evolved into a dangerous game of musical chairs, since it is next to impossible to remember with whom each journalist is on speaking terms. With Glenda Bailey (the nicest woman in fashion, by the way) now at the helm of Harper's Bazaar, perhaps the proverbial sunglasses will come off and the front row will be a friendlier place to be.

Major fashion shows can cost somewhere in the vicinity of $200,000 and up. Over the years, my own shows have escalated in price from $3,000 (for my first show, eight years ago, in the back of a flower shop) to more than $150,000 for a menswear blockbuster held last year in Florence. If you divide that number by the number of fashion VIPs (roughly 600), the price per seat averages out to about $250. As my accountants have pointed out, I could easily take each guest for a personal helicopter ride over Manhattan and still save money.

But the backstage interviews and wall of cameras at the end of the catwalk become addictive. Like cocaine (I've been told), once you have had a taste of being in the spotlight it is hard to go without it. People ask you life-altering questions like, "Which is more important, day or evening?" and your press-smile exercises start taking up a bigger part of your morning. And yet, as soon as the show is over (my last runway show ran just over twelve minutes), the air-kissing and flashbulbs migrate en masse to the next show, where another designer is waiting like a Stepford wife to welcome her hungry husband home.

That's partly why I've opted this season to present my collection as an installation rather than a full-blown runway affair. In the past, still-life presentations have tended to be a bit cheesy, with models positioned in front of a roaming audience much like animals in a petting zoo. But as the worlds of fashion and art continue to collide (read Vanessa Beecroft), the use of installation as an alternative to the rote of runway is presenting new challenges and welcome alternatives to front-row roulette and sound-bite anxiety.

Taking inspiration from Jean Genet, the French felon who wrote his first novel in prison, I am constructing an erotic, all-male panopticon at the Armory where the model/inmates will be viewed inside abstract cells situated in a circle with yours truly handcuffed (I hope) in solitary confinement in the center.

At first, the idea of not showing on a traditional runway left me a bit ego-empty -- designers work for six months for those fifteen minutes of fame. But the more I fantasized about creating my very own Oz, the more excited I got about replacing the curtain call with a set of handcuffs and a straitjacket. The catwalk will always be an integral part of the fashion universe, and I am thankful (sincerely) to have had the honor to be part of its odd curiosity. But now more than ever, authenticity is what New York needs if the world is to ever take us seriously as a fashion capital.

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