To many people outside of New York, fashion shows are full of glamorous people, gorgeous models, and mouth-watering clothing. They think of the goodie bags, the celebrities, and that warm fuzzy feeling you must get on the inside knowing you're part of the elite. Sorry to tell you, but it's never really like that.
I hate to burst your couture bubble, but more often than not fashion shows are just a hassle. There is a crazy wait to get checked in, a bored bustling while cameras scrum around the famous people, 20 minutes of clothes down the runway (at most) and then a throng pushing to get out so they can make their next show.
The downside of Fashion Week was perfectly illustrated by a trip to Project Runway gay sprite Christian Siriano's show on Saturday afternoon. Both my colleague Adrian Chen and I were invited and I served as Virgil to his Dante as we entered the eighth circle of NYFW for Adrian's first show. When we walked up, 15 minutes before the show's 4pm start time, there was a line half way down the block at the far west Chelsea location (as a fashion insider told me a few weeks ago at the official Lincoln Center venue, "The tents just aren't cool"). It was freezing and the line was not moving.
While Adrian waited at the end of the line, I walked to the front door knowing that you can always find a stray PR girl hanging around in a frenetic haze of stress and Red Bull to help you out. I check in with such a girl (note to the PR industry: iPads may look cool, but using one freezing talon to type in all the names takes a whole lot longer than flipping through a clip board analog style). Though both Adrian and I had RSVPed, they didn't have either of our names. The PR girl reached into her pocket to permanently seal our fate. She pulled out two cards that said "Standing" and handed them to me. Yes, we were relegated to steerage.
I went and got Adrian and we stood in line for the standing room seats, which are at the back of the house. We were waiting outside as the rest of the line slowly trickled in and dozens of others were placed along side us. But the crowd showing up for Siriano (as the Times pointed out) was not the industry types that one might hope to see at such an event. The crowd seemed like women who would appear on Dance Moms and were all dressed up in the coolest outfit they could find at the mall for their big "fashion" moment. For so many people, Project Runway is their televised entry to this strange world, and this was Fashion Week for the reality television age.
After waiting with the other aspiring street style bloggers and recent FIT graduates in line for standing room, we were let in right before the show started and shown the back of the bleachers. It was perilously dark and the seating rather rickety. You couldn't even see your feet to tell where you were standing. The inside PR girls pushed us farther and farther into the darkness, trying to cram all the bodies into the tight space. Finally a group of photographers surrounded two young women. They were like those fish at the nail salon that swarm your feet and eat off all the dead skin. The women were facing away from us. "Who is that?" I asked Adrian. "That's Diana Agron from Glee," said one of a trio of suburban teenagers who were sitting in the last row, right in front of us. They were standing up and snapping pictures of the back of her head with their iPhones while trying to keep their tight and rather short minidresses from riding up too high. Then the other girl turned toward us, a brunette. "Who's that?" I asked again. "She's in the Vampire Diaries" the trio said. Damn, here I am at Siriano getting schooled by a bunch of tweens.
A stray goodie bag was sitting on the bench in front of us and I picked it up and rifled through. There was a single can of hairspray. That has got to be the saddest swag in all of the land, and the only such bag I saw the rest of the weekend. Then the clothes started. They were pared down from what you would imagine from Siriano. The first look was a white dress with a sophisticated swirling detail and a white leather jacket. The rest of the clothes were similarly tasteful with small embellishments of draping or slight innovations in the cut of the neckline or the twist of the skirt. They looked like the nicest thing you would find at Nordstrom. The gowns, however, especially the last two—a mermaid tail number with an intricate beading pattern that shimmered everywhere and a white halter that was modern but also classic—were stunners. The biggest applause though, was for the man himself. When he did his bow, everyone shot up with their phone cameras ready to get a glimpse of the big personality behind these whimpering clothes.
Stuck in the back of the stands, Adrian and I hopped down the six rows of bleachers to get onto the runway, where the media frenzy was still going on for the few stars there. Done with the whole scene, we excited quickly. Happy the whole thing was over.
I never got the sense as acutely as I did at Siriano that these shows were all about commerce. Sure, there is some semblance of art or performance, but never forget that this is always about selling clothes. It was about creating the mystique that they are rich and exclusive and fashionable and only the best people want them. However, due to the crowd, Christian wasn't really finding the share of the upscale market that many designers claim.
Things were totally the opposite at Altuzarra on Saturday night. This was one of the week's hottest tickets since Joseph Altuzarra (who I know socially) just won a $300,000 prize from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue. His PR team had their act together, and I got my seat assignment in the mail ahead of time. I got there right at the stroke of 8pm and, showing my invitation, walked right inside past the line.
Inside it wasn't the traditional set up at all. In the old Tunnel nightclub on 28th Street, there was a maze of chairs set up in different staging areas. The thing vaguely resembled a plus sign with one row of chairs arranged around it. It seemed more like a runway maze that would be on America's Next Top Model to purposefully confuse the models (never hard to do) and send them crashing into each other for dramatic effect. Then I realized what the real purpose was: at this show, everyone was front row. This was such a hot ticket, that no one took a back seat to anyone.
The scene, however, was amazing. With low music that sounded right off the Twin Peaks soundtrack playing, the lighting dimmed and soft, and long fixtures of dried grasses hanging from the ceiling it was like the world's chicest day spa. After finding my seat, I went searching for the one fashion celebrity I always want to spot: Anna Wintour. She wasn't that hard to spot (thought I swear the crazy maze was set up just to keep this Minotaur away from me) and she was there, seated on time and texting with her head down in a sea of gorgeous women, the editors of the finest magazines, and socialites whose names I'm too poor to even pronounce properly. I took a picture of Anna, because I'm a stalker, and returned to my seat.
The clothes were absolutely breathtaking, and I don't usually get myself worked up over womenswear. Each look was a bit like an MIA song, an amalgam of transglobal influences put together in startlingly original ways to make a whole that is not only the present but is also, somehow, the future. What does that look like? In Altuzarra's case it was lots of belly dancer gold coin bangles, cute Mongolian pom-poms, tribal printed jackets, fur-lined pea coats, horse sweaters, and the most glorious spike heeled boots you ever did see. There was a lot of pants with tiny cargo pockets that looked more like decoration than function (which means they are Fashion with a capital F) and a final dress that was a draped print embellished with so many tingling bangles that the model sounded like a Central Park carriage horse as she clomped toward the exit. I mean that as a compliment. It's the kind of thing that breezes by you and you just want to reach out and touch it, to be a part of it on a concrete level.
As staid as Siriano was, there was something about Altuzarra that made it seem like a triumph. And the show certainly was. Not only were the clothes magnificent, but it cultivated that mystique that high-end customers would pay for. It wasn't just a presentation, it was an experience. That is what money can't buy but all of these designers are shelling out the big bucks for a show are hoping to achieve. In this instance, it appears like the gamble paid off.
On Sunday I went to Simon Spurr, a show i go to every season for the simplest reason of all: for fun. Spurr makes the most amazing men's suits and I just want to look at the clothes and the pretty boys showing them off. it's a much smaller show at Milk Studios in Chelsea (again, the tents are lame). There's no block-long lines, the seating area is intimate ,and the crowd is full of men, some dressed in floral printed suits, some dressed in paint-splattered sweatpants and a holey sweatshirt. The great thing about menswear, is that the only people who show up to see it are those who really care about it. I knew a handful of journalists and other homosexuals there, so I enjoyed meeting and greeting before the show started (my third show, the third one to start precisely 30 minutes late). While many wannabes at home think Fashion Week must be so much fun, most of the writers I talked to, by that point, were a bit fed up with trucking around town, jostling into shows, filing on insane deadlines, and having to do it all again. And they still have several days left.
When I found my seat I realized the smart publicist behind this affair played my least favorite trick, putting the press (especially those on the snarkier side like moi) in the section behind the famous people. Then we can't see what they're saying, what reaction they might have to the clothes, or break any news that will keep celebs away from the designer's show in the future. At this show was tween dream Joe Jonas, Twilight hunk Kellan Lutz, the world's gayest homosexual Andy Cohen, stylist and reality star Brad Goreski, and the guy who plays the redneck on Walking Dead. What they didn't expect was me photobombing the proceedings (see above).
Yes, this is what fashion shows, I guess, were supposed to be about: looking at clothes. There just wasn't the festival of doom aspect at Spurr like there was at Siriano. It was just buyers and editors and a handful of interested parties (every show has hungry photographers and journalists elbowing each other to try to get a shot or find a scoop or make a connection that will break them into the industry and this was no exception). The clothes themselves, from the striped suits, to the jackets with a squiggley print that made them look like cable knit sweaters, are the best of modern tailoring out there. They're different and edgy without being dandyish (that's because Spurr is hyberbolically the only straight man in the entire fashion world). He even showed my favorite thing, a fashion poncho that doesn't look ridiculous. Oh, what I wouldn't give for a fashion poncho.
And after three shows, I was ready to be done with Fashion Week for another six months. I'd had the full gamut of experiences—the aspirational longing at Spurr, the glamorous spectacle at Altuzarra, and the commercial shitshow at Siriano, to feel like I did the whole damn thing without wearing myself out. And if you feel left out for not being able to attend, don't. That's the coinage the fashion industry mints. It wants you to feel included by buying into all of this quite literally, by paying money for these clothes so that you'll feel included, glamorous, and part of the in crowd. But take it from someone who's been invited: sometimes the invitation isn't all it's cracked up to be.
[Images via Getty, except Wintour image via Brian J. Moylan]