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It's Fashion Week again, that semiannual spectacle of Marlboro smoke and hand-held mirrors, of mascaraed aliens with cell phones buried in their Frederick Fekkai pageboys, of Manolo Blahniks clacking along 42nd Street where live sex shows were briefly supplanted by a two-story Calvin Klein billboard that might as well have been art directed by the North American Man Boy Love Association.
The ads, for those of you who've been on Mars, showed two subteen boys larking around a sofa in their skivvies, and were the latest installment in what some people think of as Klein's ongoing soft-porn public narrative. It began with Brooke Shields's declaration that nothing came between her and her Calvins and made later excursions to Mark Wahlberg's basket and the wood-paneled rec room of heroin chic (with a loving side trip to model Joel West's inner thighs). The ads, Klein's company claimed in a statement, were "intended to show children smiling, laughing and just being themselves. We wanted to capture the same warmth and spontaneity that you find in a family snapshot." The photographer Mario Testino, whose recent book Any Objections? demonstrated his sly way with a crotch shot, said, "I wanted to portray the idea of children with their own taste. Perhaps a bit more mature . . . rather than sexy."
That the "spontaneity" of Klein's fictitious family failed to appeal to the First Moralist probably surprised no one. "The First Amendment allows a whole range of expression," Rudy Giuliani sniffed before Klein yanked his ads. But, "I think it was done on purpose and I think it's in very bad taste."
What is taste, anyway? Is it anything like chic, which the Irish artist-writer and gadfly Patrick Kinmoth once characterized as "nothing, but the right nothing." Klein has made a specialty of providing the culture with just the right nothing at the right time. And while he hasn't always invented it himself, he's hyped it better than anyone.
Hype is more crucial to fashion now than ever, since information travels so fast designers are all maneuvered into crowding around the same shrinking well of images and ideas. Klein's seminude kids come complete with an art-photography pedigree: their lineage includes Wolfgang Tillmans, Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Looked at that way, they're "about" something besides latent pedophilia. The cross-referencing helps legitimize them, the way Klein's pretentious affection for Mark Rothko's palette ("For evening, slashes and shots of red, orange and pink are infused in deep plums, blues, cordovans and browns") is used to lend his clothes gravitas.
Without all the blather, you're bound to notice the high degree of . . . uh, sampling that goes on in fashion. And isn't that one reason why Seventh on Sixth's directors chose to jump the European fashion shows by two weeks? For years, Klein's designs were accused of bearing uncanny similarities to Helmut Lang's. It became such a problem that the Austrian designer eventually took to showing his own work in New York instead of Milan.
Being "first" with a look or a trend or a forecast won't be easy for even the majors as fashion, the industry, is overtaken by fashion, a phenomenon that's too unruly to centralize. If, as commercials for Time Warner's new Style network nag us, "Style is an international obsession, style is in demand," it's also true that style is no longer forged on any designer's runway. It's plural (think Jean Paul Gaultier, skate rats, and Hello Kitty!). It's grassroots (think Afropop and surfer girls). And its trends are increasingly set by people outside the traditional editorial elite.
The fact is that fashion per se has gone out of fashion. Blame the E! channel. Blame FTV and MTV and House of Style. It has become corporate, technological, and has devolved into a spectacle of designer labels (Hilfiger versus Lauren) dueling on an international stage. Innovations in material will dictate trends in the millennium to a greater extent than any designer can. And the charming notion of a gifted nutjob (Isaac Mizrahi in Unzipped) dashing for his sketchbook after a late-night viewing of Nanook of the North will become obsolete.
Successful designers of the future probably won't be movie-mad sissies, but techies with good connections at Hoechst or DuPont. The juggernaut of techno fibers is upon us and, despite the current vogue for handknit sweaters, the future of fabrics is bonded, lasered, and chemically reengineered. The trends to look for on the catwalks are in global economics and not the set of sleeves. One of the subtly recurring themes of Fashion Week was a move away from seasonal dressing altogether. It takes confidence in the permanent availability of fossil fuel to send fall and winter fashion onto runways on models with bare feet, or wearing sleeveless shifts and bare-midriff clothes.
And you to have to buy into the corporatization of fashion and its newly forged alliances with, say, Chiquita bananas and GM. A large sign fronting the tent complex in Bryant Park reads General Motors Seventh on Sixth. The automotive giant's profile customized automobiles and chauffered cars as journalistic perks was bigger than that of most designers.