I. Round one: Z Zegna
Like ants in a colony, the men and women in town for Fashion Week have thin black exoskeletons, specialized social functions and valuable cargo to transport. A swarm of these people has formed on a September afternoon in front of the West Village showroom where Z Zegna will exhibit its Spring-Summer 2009 collection. I don’t know what Z Zegna is, apart from an Italian menswear line whose website has an alphabet theme. Words that begin with “S” scoot across the introduction page and fade into a photograph of a guy on a motorcycle—Seduction. Sporty. Style. A press release I downloaded opened with a paean to the expected letter Z: “The ultimate letter, the most distinguished of the alphabet.” An invitation to the show is sandwiched between two candy bars in my purse, like a boarding pass. In terms of Fashion Week hierarchies, I get the feeling that Z Zegna is Greyhound to Zac Posen’s Amtrak and Marc Jacobs’s Concorde.
But an invitation is an invitation. From what I can tell by eavesdropping, the people mingling outside the showroom are representatives from department stores, boutiques, online retailers, and press, all smoking and speaking different languages. An abandoned kombucha bottle is wedged in a decorative shrub. Malcolm Gladwell walks past on his way somewhere else and looks inquisitively at the gathering. Ah! My totem! I see Mr. Gladwell frequently in the West Village and consider him, like a shooting star or a rainbow, to be a sign of good luck.
Ten minutes after the show is scheduled to begin people wrap up their conversations and move inside, flashing invites to a team of assistants in black outfits. Stiffly upright men posted by the door hold trays of water bottles that have had the Z Zegna label glued to their midsections. A concrete ramp leads into a bright cavern with seats set up like bleachers alongside a white runway, which is arranged in a complicated Tetris shape. (This is not what I was led to expect by Project Runway.) There is tuneless thumping music beneath the sound of “darling” pronounced in a dozen accents. The smack of kisses landing on cheeks reminds me of asterisks.
How to describe the crowd? The women wear heels and have assertive haircuts. One fifty-year-old lady has on a child’s party frock and pale yellow kneesocks, but she is the exception in a uniformly tasteful group. The young men favor a tight-pants-and-boots silhouette that makes them look like Clydesdales. Older men wear “statement” glasses and expensive shirts that ripple in my viewfinder when I try to take a photo. Some have ponytails. None of the women do. Waxed eyebrows are popular for both sexes. Male heads are preemptively shorn to avert baldness, and everyone is tanned to the color of pie. I see zero celebrities.
The fashion industry promotes a high standard of personal grooming, and as a result of this everyone looks rich. Because the spoils of the industry (free or discounted clothes) get passed down to even middle and low-ranking fashion employees, I cannot detect a difference between the powerful people in the room (you can tell because they have front-row seats) and the Z Zegna staffers my age running around with clipboards, who might as well be actresses or young trophy wives. All are adept at self-embellishment to a degree that suggests coded communication. I try to deduce the key but my fashion eye is untrained. I think it involves black.
I have been assigned a shitty seat in the uppermost bleachers and quickly maneuver to a better location, but a man with an earpiece catches me within seconds. “Darling,” he says, and points back to the peanut gallery. A matte black folder on my seat contains a list of the runway outfits in order and an introduction to the collection, which reads like the ill-translated descriptions on Japanese candy packages. “The Spring Summer 2009 collection apprehends and interprets ideas by the faculty of imagination, shifting conventions with sophisticated ease,” it says. “An urban yet ethnic conscious is created for relaxed summer dressing in the metropolis.” The collection summarizes itself as nothing less than “the urban reality of the modern man.”
The program itself is a useful symbol of the event. It is glossy, expensive-looking and puzzling. I am reminded that fashion, like porn, is humorless. I am not sure whether it is my fault or theirs that I cannot understand what “quadratic” outerwear is or how it benefits from a “waxed baby lamb patina.” But perhaps it is unfair to quote from the introduction; these guys are artists, not writers.
No one else has touched her program.
When everyone has taken a seat the protective tarp is removed from the runway by two men who roll it into a log. The surface below is like snow. Sitting next to me is a German fashion editor. I’m starting to get excited. I ask her whether there will be a palpable crowd reaction to the show; whether we’ll be able to discern instantly its degree of failure or success. “Not really.”
I wonder how the models will walk. Are male models supposed to march, swagger, stalk? Do they adopt a cocksure strut à la Mick Jagger or an Iggy-style saunter? None of the above, it turns out. The models are about sixteen years old and they walk the way a teenage boy would walk if he were told to move slowly and curb his awkwardness. As for the clothes, well, I have no vocabulary for fashion. All I can think is that a certain waistcoat is cool-shaped. The whitish hats resemble condoms. The other colors are ashen: mauves, slates, grayish plums and plummish grays, so that the models look like trimly-suited chinchillas fresh from a dust bath. During the show, which lasts ten minutes, I try to imagine any man I know wearing the outfits on display. It is difficult. The clothes are fey, the kind of thing fit for curling up beneath a mushroom and capering in a glen.
But then, I am not sure if the men I know are the target demographic. And I suspect I’m not the target audience. This is a business event. The German editor next to me looks bored but never takes her eyes off the runway. There must be an acute faculty of pattern recognition among these buyers and editors; an ability to notice key details from outfit to outfit—sleeve length, silhouette, collar, hem—within a show and from one show to the next, and from this database of similarities to select or guess the next season’s trends.
Fashion Weeks (both the September and February versions) are at once the ne plus ultras of the fashion year and, I suspect, unrepresentative glimpses of the industry. Runway shows are fifteen-minute supernovas that leave a mass of parties, celebrity endorsements and industry prophesies in their wake. From the outside it looks like fatuous fun. From the inside it also could look like fatuous fun, but now I see that that’s because I don’t know what is going on in the minds of the people around me. Behind their poker faces something difficult is happening. They are seeing things that I can’t see—not only seeing them, but weighing them! And drawing on a body of references that presumably includes the difference between a flounce and a ruffle, between floral brocade and petal-print cloque, and with words like intarsia, capelet and dobby-pleats all precisely defined and recognizable in true-life form. No wonder they’re snobby, these people. No one can understand them.
Round two: Badgley Mischka
A few days later I meet an acquaintance at Bryant Park for a couple of fashion shows. She is a reporter for Fashion Wire Daily and has offered to let me in. I wait for her on the corner of 6th and 42nd, where a giant silver balloon with “SEX AND THE CITY ON BLU-RAY AND DVD” printed on it is bopping in the wind. When the walk sign comes on and the crowd steps off the curb I see that the balloon is connected to a man via a harness worn diaper-style. When the winds change he struggles to control the balloon.
Outside it is grim but the rain acts nicely as a shared antagonist, soaking the tips of everyone’s shoes and mussing tight buns into an agreeable state of disarray. Plus: there is nothing better than watching a fastidious man in loafers hit an undercover puddle. You can tell who is destined for the tents by their appearance. It’s not that fashion people dress the same or even splashily, but rather that every one of them possesses an uncanny sartorial self-awareness. You get the sense that they have arrived at their outfits and hairstyles after painstaking analysis of personal flaws and assets cross-indexed with current trends.
Inside the tent there is a gleaming white Mercedes on a pedestal (it is Mercedes Benz Fashion Week) and a gaggle of men passing out Chambord cocktails. My friend and I produce our invites to the Badgley Mischka show and find our seats. The runway at this show is a more traditional U-Shape, and we are positioned at the far tip of the U so we can see the models lined up backstage and waiting to emerge. One of them keeps frowning and squashing her boobs together inside a beaded dress. In the front row I spot Heather Graham wearing pancake makeup and Jason Biggs from American Pie, but there are no exciting celebrities.
The atmosphere in the room is like the wait before a school play. Anticipatory and convivial, and much cheerier than I’d have thought for a staunchly upper-crust brand like Badgley Mischka, known for its evening gowns. After a decent interval the show begins. Models come out wearing Easter Egg-colored dresses and tight ponytails. It is Park Avenue stuff, grandmotherly duds that look funny on the young and lithe. I am bored. When the show ends we go backstage where Mark Badgely receives greetings from attendees. There is an area set up for photo ops, and in the center of the room, a garbage bag stuffed with model detritus: shaving cream, lint removers, tampon sleeves and disposable nude-colored thongs. After thirty minutes someone notices the bag and gets rid of it.
Round three: Baby Phat
The third stop is a Baby Phat show at the Roseland Ballroom on 52nd Street. Baby Phat is the clothing line designed by Kimora Lee Simmons, the ex-wife of hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, and a former model herself. The Baby Phat website describes the label as “the premiere female hip-hop brand” and “a lifestyle for the glamorous woman who is everything hip-hop and everything fashion.” Kimora’s design qualifications include “her marriage to Russell, her innate sense of style and her affinity for the finer things in life.” Tonight the company is celebrating its tenth anniversary as well as the unveiling of its Spring collection. When I enter the Ballroom a woman is being carried out screaming by a security guard. “We’ve got a problem,” murmurs a second guard into his mic. “Someone’s already been manhandled.”
This is a good preface to the atmosphere inside. The carpet has been sprinkled with glitter and a bar is serving goblets of a rose-colored alcohol called “NUVO”. “What’s NUVO?” I ask. “It’s like a liqueur twist on a wine spritzer,” the bartender says. People are double-fisting them. There is free Coldstone Creamery ice cream to eat, and those who aren’t drinking NUVO hold spoons and waxed cups. Even the women! Unbelievable. Indeed, the body mass index of the average Baby Phat guest is higher than at the previous shows I’ve seen, and areas of erotic emphasis tend to the classic: boobs, bottoms, waists. The zones of attraction at ZZegna and Badgley Mischka were more obscure, a sternum here and a clavicle there.
When the pre-party winds down people move into the main arena and settle into their seats. Russell Simmons sits in the front row speaking quietly with a lady companion. Without his signature cap, he looks like a brussels sprout. An hour after the show is scheduled to begin, Ice-T and his wife Coco arrive. Coco is a “glamour model” who looks like Veronica Lake dipped in MSG. She is a hyper-woman, with measurements that look to be about 60-30-70. Scrumptious! The last guest to arrive—the reason the show is being held up, I realize—is Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley. He sits stone-faced at the foot of the runway across from me, absently fingering the strap of his goodie bag while things get underway. There is an Obama button pinned to his suit.
Finally the lights darken and Kimora’s voice booms over the system. “I just want to push the Baby Phat lifestyle,” she explains. After a slide show of Baby Phat greatest hits and a brief laser display, the lights go out and the music starts. “I like them white girls. I like them Asian girls. I like them mixed race girls,” the song goes. Out come the models. They are styled to look like mid-seventies Cher, with flattened hair and false eyelashes. (As a side project Kimora is releasing a hair-straightener embedded with Swarovski crystals for $850.) The clothes are various combinations of clingy, truncated and transparent.
More than the other two shows, Kimora’s Baby Phat production has a real air of celebration. What are we celebrating? A ten-year anniversary, nominally. But we’re really celebrating a female impresario, KIMORA LEE SIMMONS as it is written in giant cursive letters on a background screen. A glossy booklet in the swag bag is full of lavish Kimora spreads, and at the end of the show when the designer takes her triumphant spin down the runway, she is met with a standing ovation.