Runway Runaway

This was my first time going to the fashion shows during Fashion Week (going to any fashion show ever, actually).

I went with Ingrid Sischy, the editor of Interview magazine, with whom I’ve been having a long-running discussion about pop culture and the media – which parts of both you have to take seriously has been the subtext. Ingrid, who wears white T-shirts and black stretch pants almost exclusively, was inclined to see the fashion world as I did – frivolous and Eurotrashy and disreputable, even (this is the garment industry, after all). Then, ten years ago, she took over Interview and became a significant figure in the fashion-media world. Her advice is that you can’t really think about the media if you don’t think about fashion too.

I certainly get the inescapable economic point. Fashion is one of the largest advertisers in consumer magazines. The category is up there where automotive used to be (what’s good for Gucci is good for America). We’re saturated with fashion images.

On the opening night, I saw the work of a young man named Miguel Adrover, whom I had never heard of – but then, I knew by name only the most unavoidable people in the fashion business. Ingrid described him as very hot, a renegade whose first show had caused quite a stir. Since then he’d almost gone bust and then had come up with a new backer, and now everybody was excited about what he would produce and how far he might rise in this world.

That excitement was one reason why his show was not in the tents in Bryant Park, the established area for showing your wares, but was held at nine on Sunday night in an old bank downtown – because he was hot enough to get people to come where he wanted them to come. In fact, Adrover was slightly upstaged by some other hot designers called Imitation of Christ who held their show earlier that day in a downtown funeral parlor.

There were 600, 700, perhaps 800 people crowded into the old bank. It was a very makeshift setting, a plywood runway surrounded by bleacherlike seating arrangements, no doubt contravening all kinds of fire laws.

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.

“The mosh pit,” said Amy Spindler, the style editor of the Times Magazine, who was sitting next to us.

You had here, Ingrid explained, a small number of buyers and then, overwhelmingly, the media (you also had the designer’s relatives): the fashion trade press, the women’s magazines, indeed, virtually every consumer magazine, every major newspaper, and a large number of foreign reporters, hundreds of still photographers, and the cable outlets, which were broadcasting runway footage. In terms of numbers of reporters and editors and photographers, the fashion shows are a much bigger media event than a presidential campaign.

They are also less democratic and much more structured. It’s a carefully regulated hierarchy (it’s regulated by special fashion P.R. agencies), with ironclad seating assignments. There is rigor to the selection, and many people are excluded. Getting a position in the front row, where I sat with Ingrid, means everything.

Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor, presided here – and at any show worth any attention at all – in the front row like a languid queen. Or, possibly, like the bored head of a dissertation committee. Beside her (not behind her) sat the four lieutenants who accompany her to each show.

Although called for nine, the Adrover show did not get under way until nearly ten. It is impossible to be late for a fashion show, according to Ingrid. No one seems to mind the delays, however. The crowd obviously likes itself very much.

The show lasted for little more than twenty minutes.

There was a military motif to the clothes. There was one model who was overweight and seriously lumpy who was applauded (for being overweight), and another model who was butch and smoking a cigarette, which Ingrid reported to be an unusual thing – women’s sexuality in fashion shows is usually the traditional kind, apparently.

And then it was over and everyone tried to get out as quickly as possible. Afterward, we went to a party on the roof garden of a new and architecturally out-of-place hotel, the Tribeca Grand (“Atlanta,” sniffed fashion pundit Fran Leibowitz in the elevator), for Diane Von Furstenberg, hosted by the Times’ Spindler. Barry Diller, Von Furstenberg’s longtime consort, sat in the shadows of the roof garden under a fake trellis. It was hard to tell whether he wanted people to pay him homage. They did anyway.

The next day, at the Marc Jacobs show, held in a clear plastic tent put up on a playground at Houston and Sixth Avenue, a Women’s Wear Daily gossip reporter approached me in a breathless way and asked, sotto voce, what brought me here. I said I’d just come to have a look around.

“No one comes to a fashion show just to look around,” said the reporter. There were no disinterested observers, I understood the point to be – Marc Jacobs was no trifling thing. (The following day, I made my debut in a gossip item in WWD.)

We sat across the runway from the Vogue contingent. The Vogue people sat just down from the New York Times reporters. The Vogue people, beginning with Wintour, followed by editor-at-large André Leon Talley, a towering and commanding presence who seems to double as Wintour’s bodyguard, had an amazing look – iconic, frightening, commissarlike (this was, of course, the highest-ranking command of the fashion police). They really added to the show. You could see what made them Vogue. Whereas the Times people were schlumpy – they looked like reporters everywhere.

Of course, the Vogue people get their standout clothes free from the designers, while the Times people are prohibited from accepting such favors.

The show began suddenly and, like all of the shows, had no commentary. Except for the loud music, a fashion show is a very silent thing. Mute like the models. “It’s all about what’s going through your head,” said Ingrid.

Donald Trump and I came face to face in the crowd as we tried to get out – he has started to age dramatically.

Ingrid, who made her reputation as an art critic, and who does not seem in the least like a fashionista, is trying to convince me not just of the high level of creativity and imagination in the fashion world but that fashion itself is at a historic moment of cultural importance not seen since the sixties. It is not just Ingrid. There are many people I know and respect who discuss fashion as a vital art form.

They obviously do not have teenage daughters.

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.


Runway Runaway