Make Clothes, Not War: Notes From Fashion Week

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10/15/2003

Bryant Park and Beyond

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

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My devotion to fashion shows began with the designer Cynthia Rowley.

About six years ago I inherited an invitation to her show when a fashion editor at the magazine where I worked couldn't attend. I still remember grabbing a cab at the last minute and scrambling in as the show was just beginning.

Sly Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay" was coursing through the speakers. The models, in tiny skirts and platform boots, ambled down the runway as if on their way to get the morning paper. Amused funkiness was everywhere.

In my memory, the catwalk was elevated seven or eight feet—but that wouldn't make sense in terms of the audience seeing the clothes, so it must have been more a reflection of the show's impact on me than of anything else.

I was so hooked that I managed to press-pass my way into the next show—a whimsical and charming spin by Isaac Mizrahi that I remember for its lovely chiffon dresses.

So hooked that the bouncers practically had to carry me out when the tents were being closed for the night.

So hooked that I've been braving huge mobs, snarling guards, and a neither-warm-nor-fuzzy general atmosphere twice a year ever since.

For me, these shows are about much more than trends.

After the models (and any celebrities in attendance) have been captured again and again on film, after the last ensemble on the list has been revealed, one more person walks onto the runway for applause.

This person, the designer, usually looks dazed and always looks exhausted. Through grateful bows and hesitant smiles, the designer's message is clear: All the work I have done in the last six months, all my creativity and inspiration, not to mention I really don't know how much cash, has been poured into the ten-minute display you just witnessed—and oh, God, I hope you liked it."

To me this moment is the most compelling; the shows are expressions of personal vision.

I've seen models walking the runway to classic disco with clear-glass fish-bowl-like orbs over their heads; models who weren't professional models at all but average-height, average-weight friends and relatives of the designer; a show where the models all wore worn tennis shoes, had almost no makeup on, and walked to songs by the Smiths; a show on a skyscraper rooftop in midtown, where everyone's hair and clothes were whipping in the wind and the models, most in white, looked like angels about to take wing.

Captivated as I have been, when New York's Fall 2002 collections rolled around in February 2002 (for fashion calendars, Fall comes in late winter and Spring is in early Fall), I found myself with no appetite for fashion shows at all.

The previous Fashion Week had been interrupted and emphatically cancelled by the September 11th attacks; in their aftermath, it felt impossible to believe that the shows had been scheduled at all or that anyone had planned to attend them.

One assertion I did not hear after the attacks is, "If we stop going to fashion shows, the terrorists win."

Even so I felt disappointed and vaguely angry that even this small pleasure had been tainted. On a day after another warning about another possible attack, the drear made me defiant.

I put on some lipstick, took my best stab at a passable version of jeans-and-whatever, and headed down to the Puck Building on Houston Street, with the aim of seeing a show by the designer Zang Toi.

The afternoon was bitter cold. I hoped at least that the ubiquitous line would not form outside. I hoped that my usual press-pass-and-politeness formula for getting into these shows without a seat assignment would still work. And I hoped that if I was allowed into the show, I would eventually come to feel that I wanted to see it.

That is, in fact, how things happened, and I even ended up with a seat.»

And by the time the lights dimmed and the music kicked in—Lenny Kravitz' cover of "American Woman" (if you pay attention to the words, you realize that this song, penned by Canadians, is actually pretty anti-American, but it has a rah-rah-U.S.A. sound)—I was willing to pay attention.

Zang Toi, it appeared, had also been asking himself why anyone should still care about fashion shows. And his answer seemed to be: because we're alive.

Because we have the capacity to make art. Because we are extremely fortunate for these things, and we should celebrate our good fortune.

He celebrated by way of blue satin short-shorts with stars, red velvet capes with white silk lining, and, after Lenny Kravitz, a recording of Whitney Houston singing the national anthem.

In the land of the free he exercised his freedom to send a female model down the runway with her bare breasts exposed beneath an open tweed overcoat and to dress a strapping male model in nothing but a frilly tafetta evening skirt in dusty rose.

Representing the home of the brave was a room full of people going ahead with their plans and assembling in public, as if they had not just been told that they might be in danger. We're still here, the show said. Rejoice; have fun. Tears of gratitude stung behind my eyes.

Afterward, I stood for a few minutes at the Puck's huge windows with a view west on Houston Street: the pink early-evening sky, the streaming traffic, pedestrians forging ahead against the chill to go where they were going. I stood and absorbed it all, as if I'd never seen it before—my city of defiance, of struggle and drive and heart, of moments, if fleeting, where everything seems to hold together.

II.

But if we're headed for blessed rebirth, we aren't there yet.

Last February, as war loomed, I again went to fashion shows more out of rebellion against tension and fear than because I felt like going.

But the joyful Betsey Johnson drew me in with a "Life's a party, and everyone on earth is invited" presentation (bright peasant skirts, big smiles from the barefoot models, dancing on the runway), and Narciso Rodriguez showed suits and dresses so elegant and skillfully crafted that they seemed somehow capable of getting the world to make more sense.

The last show I got to—Joe Boxer, on Valentine's Day—was giddily lighthearted (I guess no other approach to boxer shorts would really work) but also edged with commentary. The programs were designed as mock tabloid newspapers; the headline was "Love Saves the Day."

At the end of the show, an "explosion" of pink, red, and silver tinsel hearts showered from the ceiling onto models and audience alike, raising a lump in my throat. Love saves the day? Who's to say it absolutely can't?

III.

And again this past September, fashion marched on.

Zang Toi took his audience to a dreamy ocean, with lovely mermaid skirts and a soundtrack of waves and laughter. Marc Jacobs proved that even when a show starts very late and the venue is extremely hot and crowded, sometimes we *can* all just get along (his show, in the end, was fantastic).

And a friendly and talented handbag designer named Jess Alpert-Goldman held a sunny,buoyant first show (accented  with groovy pink hoop earrings and big smiles all around), for her immensely likeable "World According to Jess" line.

As the shows head from New York to Europe, this much I know: We're still tired, still wary, and still confused, and many of us are also broke.

But we're still here, and still striving. And as long as that's true, there's always hope: for beauty, for art, for peace—which, in my book, is always in fashion.

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