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It's exactly seven days before the beginning of Fashion Week, and just inside the door of the Duckie Brown showroom on Mercer Street, a gaggle of maybe 20 young men, uniformly clad in ratty jeans and shredded tees, are sitting around, waiting for their close-ups. At first, they seem like normal, nice college boysbut examine them more closely and you'll see that each face has something incredible to recommend it: Either it's dauntingly chiseled with cut-steel cheekbones, or there are piercing aqua eyes and a wicked stubble, or a complexion creamy as milk glass. Though there's not a stray ounce of body fat to be seen, there are also no obvious examples of manorexiathe skinny guys just seem like skinny guys, not desperately ill fashion victims.
"There's the show you dream of, and then there's the show you end up with. You've got to be willing to be surprised," says Daniel Silver, waxing philosophical on the daunting chore of casting the guys who'll walk in his runway show.
Silver is one half of Duckie Brown, a clothing line ("It's not menswear, but men's fashion," he will remind you) that he owns and runs with his business partner and sweetheart of 15 years, Steven Cox. "We started our business in 2001, a few days after September 11. I thought, 'It's not the right time,' but Steven said, 'Duckie, it's never going to be the right time.' " The first collection was 17 pieces; by their third season, they were attracting attention as part of the GenArt show, where their runway conceitunderwear with gloveswas a smash. Where'd the cute name come from? "Steven's English'Duckie' is an endearment that his aunt used all the time, and we thought 'Brown' sounded like a sturdy old name."
Are they pleased by the lineup of lean beefcakes that awaits them? "This collection is American fashionAmerican sportswearkhaki trousers, navy blazers. So we're looking for classically American boys," says Silver, who is wearing a much-washed, much-loved Duckie Brown jacket and white Birkenstocks. (In fashion, male models are always "boys," females are invariably "girls"which is vaguely degrading, maybe, although, in truth, these people are rarely over 21.)
Cox, who has a beard, a number of imposing aquatic tattoos, and is today favoring an oversize $3.99 undershirt from Conways with pointy vintage Helmut Lang lace-ups, admits that "this is the most hectic time. It can be hard to work out what will look good on who. But you see the boy, you feel the boy, you talk to him, and in one minute you know. It's intuitive. Some are so good they will fit every single look, but that's rare." In the end, Silver and Cox will audition 40 or 50 aspirants for around 27 spots.
Every show, every vision has its specific requirements. This season, Duckie Brown is looking for guys with average hair length, so it can be styled and sprayed until, in Silver's words, "it looks like when you see a mannequin with the hair included." It's tougher than it sounds, since so many models are bald as cue balls. When a prospective candidate walks in with a waist-length mane, a horrified silence ensues; the chagrined model caster, a gorgeous pregnant woman, hurriedly ushers him out.
I am determined to get these model boys to talk to me, but my queries are met with the enthusiasm usually reserved for a high-school teacher's pop quiz. Finally, an African-American guy with a fat pearl in each ear takes pity on me and shares that he was discovered by a photographer playing beach volleyball in Hawaii, that this is his third season in the business, and that the bigger the designer, the longer the wait. (Duckie Brown is a medium wait.)
The guy next to him, an ultra-thin Texan who has the words "April May June" tattooed in gigantic gothic script across his upper chest (the permanent souvenir of a failed relationship), and who has had a meteoric rise in fashion modelinghe walked for Dior Homme exclusively in Paris last summerexpresses a rueful wonder at his current fate. "I have some issues with being a promotional toolI mean, I used to be a crusty punkbut I'm pretty good at justifying things to myself. I mean, it's not underage mutilation or anything."
Back in the casting area, Silver is vigorously defending an outfit of slick trousers and a matching windbreaker being tried on by a dazzling brunette. "It's not going to look boring, Duckie! It's not a boring suit! It's a modern suit!" "You've hit the nail on the fuckin' head, Duckie!" Cox replies. "He looks like a straight dude on a date."
Watching the casting is mesmerizing, like staring at a super-sexy lava lamp. One hot guy after another is asked to walk down a long hallway so his gait can be subtly assessed by the Duckie teamif he passes muster (just the right swagger, just the right bump), he moves on to step two, which requires him to drop trou, revealing in most cases a pair of boxer briefs. Then he dons whatever outfit the Duckies deem perfect for himin one notable case, a symphony of giant mismatched floral prints, so huge and garish it could get you thrown out of a carnival sideshow. "He's beautiful, and he has a sexy walk, toohe has a swagger in the tush!" Silver says of the model. But there's some concern about whether putting a black man in a loud floral print is at best a little predictable, at worst promulgating a stereotype. The team decides it's OK. "I could put an Asian or Latino or white guy in it, too," Silver says. "But he's owning it! He pulls it off! Now let's try him in the gold, Duckie!"
The gold in question is a languid sweatshirt covered with real metal sequins that weighs eight pounds, takes 90 hours to bead in India, and retails for $3,500. How does it feel on? "Like a weight jacket," the model replies softy. Silver insists that it's actually comfy because "the weight's distributed!" Though there are lots of plain, sporty items the models would happily take homeand they will, since the only payment they receive for the show is a pair of sneaks, some Florsheim slip-ons, and one Duckie Brown outfitit's the twisted sisters you always remember best: the apple-green knitted cummerbund, the drooping cashmere shorts with a button back-flap like Dennis the Menace's pajamas.
But you've got to have some drama on a runway. "For us, a show is a show!" Silver says. "We want you to react! We want to make your blood boil!" And actually, the temperature in the room does inch up a degree or two when the next guy walks the walk. He's a surfer type, a particularly exquisite version of Sean Penn's iconic Spicoli, and his wrist is sexily bandaged from a recent longboard accident. When he doffs the straw hat he's wearingit has a huge hole burned out in fronthe reveals sun-lightened hair that's just the right length for the show. The Duckies put him in what they call an ombré silk organza frock coat; its elegant sleeve covers his injury.
Is the shoulder a little off? Cox shrugs. "It's like Comme des Garcons, Duckie! It's fabulous! I love him in it! It's never gonna fit anyone perfectly."