If fashion is about anything, it’s about the power of desire, the impulse that makes you gasp, ‘I love that! I want to look like that!’ when you see a particular outfit on the subway, or in a magazine, or on a runway. Nothing is staler than tameness on a catwalk, except maybe naked bids for buyers’ orders, or the desperate trailing after what’s already all over the street and the stores. Which is why obscure, off-the-calendar fashion shows are invariably more refreshing and exuberant and exciting than the efforts of long-established mainstream designers.
At Paper magazine’s Lab, Launchpad, & Lounge Project, a series of events that took place just before the official fashion week began, the sensibility was determinedly avant-garde, even when the sewing was barely proficient and the ambience adolescent. On the first night, three models gyrated mechanically in headache-inducing outfits by Les Enfants de L’Horphanat—a Spanish company, though, like the Japanese Comme des Garçons, their name is French. They seemed to be still wallowing in the bohemia that flourished in the wake of Generalissimo Franco’s death, or that’s one possible explanation for the leather harnesses, shields, metal mouthpieces, skull-topped canes, bare heinies, and other embellishments that informed their performance piece, which started an hour late and was so sharp and strange it “scared the security guards,” according to an editor who had been backstage.
Les Enfants were immediately followed by m.r.s., a tableau vivant that announced itself with an invitation printed on a piece of flesh-colored stocking (socialite Nan Kempner was quoted in The New Yorker as saying it looked like a condom). m.r.s. wouldn’t have frightened a flea: It featured a roster of courtiers, serving girls, jesters, a king, a queen, and other medieval archetypes clad in velvet robes with bell sleeves and gauzy cassocks fastened with copper wire. Three little girls in miniature medieval drag danced around; one guy juggled; another stared into space. (“He looks a little psychotic,” someone in the audience whispered, referring to a dazed druid with a divining rod, but he wasn’t—a few minutes later he broke character to flirt with a young woman in the audience.) The children laid fruit before the royal couple, who were ensconced in big chairs, sipping from goblets, and smiling benevolently at their subjects.
Audience members hard pressed to choose between Iberian s/m and the Forest of Arden had other, less demanding options. The Moroccan-born Claude Sabbah presented a collection that relied heavily on flag and camouflage fabric, both of which gained prominence as fashion materials in the 1960s. Sabbah had camouflage pants covered by green fake fur chaps, fishnet layered over camouflage, star-printed shawls, and even a huge starry coat with a matching face mask and hood over a camouflage bathing suit. It all managed to look fresh, probably because you had the feeling that Sabbah is genuinely fascinated by star fabric and camouflage—that for some reason this particular combination really speaks to his heart, the way tacky fur-trimmed coats delight Anna Sui, and boxy suits straight from the pages of 30-year-old Seventeen magazines float Marc Jacobs’s boat.
For Daniel Storto, undulating armpit-high leather gloves have the power that stars and suits hold for other people. His “clothes for the hand” are always black (he’s color-blind), retail for around $600 a pair, and don’t necessarily match. “I’m trying to break down barriers,” he said of his accessories, then went on to explain that his work is heavily influenced and inspired by the life of Louise Nevelson. (“He’s so old school, so surrealist-fetish,” whispered Chi Chi Valenti, the curator of the Downtown Costume Institute, which provided a series of mannequins dressed like Oscar Wilde, Leigh Bowery, and other outré heroes that graced the entranceway of the Launchpad and had their own surrealist-fetish appeal.)
Stranger still was the case of Susan Cianciolo, who last season presented deconstructed vintage clothes dangling miniature stuffed animals, and this year shocked the crowd at her gallery-based presentation (she wasn’t part of the Paper Project) with a real runway show of exquisite, elegant afternoon dresses full of what used to be known as dressmaker details. (Cianciolo must have learned about covered buttons, intricate if highly visible seams, and other sewing tricks from vintage clothes, since even her grandmother would be too young to have provided firsthand knowledge.) If it was a little like Jerry Lewis yelling, “Hey lady,” that didn’t take away from the loveliness of some of the offerings.
Also ladylike, but executed with far less sure a hand, were the one-shoulder, leg o’ mutton-sleeved velveteen dresses offered by Seth Shapiro’s American Manufacturing in off-shades of mustard and grass green. When the designer came out at the end of the show wearing a fake beard and banging a tambourine, it seemed safe to assume that the collection was a dippy paean to the romantic-hippie era of Marianne Faithfull, and to chalk up the oddness of the clothes to a charming lack of personal knowledge. Alas, an interview with the designer a few days later unleashed an earnest polemic concerning regionalism, intentional communities, local farming, a lost colony off the Virginia coast, benevolent corporations, and other stuff that the solemn Shapiro said were in fact the real reason he designed frocks. Still, it was hard to argue with one of Shapiro’s remarks: “I believe life is a wonderment and clothes are its expression.”
No theorizing was required to bask in the wonderment created by the real stars of the alternative fashion world, the masterful Michele Savoia and the quartet that calls itself Future Planet of Style. Savoia’s runway show would have been a smash no matter whose auspices it was held under. A completely realized triumph of serious, grown-up, black, white, and gray menswear—high-waisted tweed pants, double-breasted suits, velvet smoking jackets, lavish overcoats, suspenders, two-tone spectator shoes, and other mid-century masterpieces—proved that being true to your desires (Savoia’s been making this sort of thing for 16 years) is always superior to a half-baked, watery vision that changes every six months.
Future Planet of Style didn’t bother with a runway show at all. Instead, they bought 44 cheap mechanical dancing dolls, popped off their heads, re-dressed them in tulle ponchos, foiled leather capes, and other shrunken versions of Future Planet’s collection, and set them twirling on a table. There was something inexpressibly touching about the valiant dolls, spinning and banging into each other, toppling and being set right by the enthralled audience. With their little arms held high, their pinheads surrounded by metallic leather hats, turning and turning to the booming strains of Wagner, it was, in the words of The New York Times‘s Bill Cunningham, the sort of thing one sees only every 10 years or so. Not since McQueen spray-painted a model had Cunningham witnessed anything so wonderful, he said later in the week, still thinking about the little dolls as he trundled from one human fashion show to another and another.