Old Acquaintance


What is it that makes Fashion Week so deadly, anyway? Is once every six months too often to expect something half-alive to stumble down a runway? Or could it be that catwalk presentations, straddling the rocky terrain between trade show and art exhibit, desperate to capture the imaginations of influential editors while at the same time offering saleable items to the store buyers, are collapsing under the weight of too much media attention?

Whatever it is, the willingness of the fashion press to weep with gratitude when confronted with the least flicker of individuality reached its apogee at the Imitation of Christ show, held in a funeral parlor—a fitting locale, given the state of mainstream fashion—on East 7th Street, and featuring mourners clad in black thrift-shop dresses and faux military uniforms, carrying lilies and crucifixes and genuflecting in front of a coffin in an atmosphere so formal and decadent it might have been Augusto Pinochet’s wake. Imitation of Christ’s clothes aren’t exactly designed: The company (actress Tara Subkoff and Matt Damhave, along with “creative director” Chloë Sevigny) is known for altering unpromising Salvation Army finds and issuing provocative statements to the press. (Perhaps in answer to the team’s allegation that Tom Ford has ruined Gucci, Vogue‘s André Leon Talley attended the show in what was surely a custom-made jacket—he’s a big guy—of beige Gucci interlocking-G fabric.) Still, though it seemed fertile ground for mockery, the show shut up critics by making its old dresses look great: sometimes barely altering them, other times slashing hems and necks or adding blood-red pocket linings, scarlet shoulder patches, or other flourishes. Afterward, an editor was overheard to say, “Well, next season will be easy: I’ll just go to the Goodwill!” Would that it were so simple: It takes a special kind of skill and restraint to transform vintage clothes so cleverly.

Imitation of Christ may have caused no end of commotion, but sometimes an equally worthy collection slips into town with hardly anyone noticing. Company of Unorganized People’s show, held in a former firehouse in Chinatown, offered a quiet array of deconstructed suits—the fact that lining fabric hung artfully from hem and cuff did nothing to detract from their dignity—along with pink spider-web-ish mohair sweaters over bare breasts held in leather halters, likewise more demure than one would suppose, and even some shorts and dresses decorated with odd, padded lumps, in homage, perhaps, to Comme des Garçons’ infamous 1997 “hump” collection.

Arty presentation and winsome ensembles are the twin hallmarks of Susan Cianciolo, a designer who likes to pretend her shows are gallery installations, and offers program notes that say things like “The notion of creativity, becomes relevant to what we are told to believe or what we are unaware of ourselves in our existence and beliefs.” This season, Cianciolo took an empty West Village storefront, hung a sign out front that said “Store,” dressed the putative sales help in her baby-stitched ragamuffin frocks, and charged them with “selling” some of her theme merchandise, which included sheets and pillowcases that come with a pen so you can write on them, kits for making your own sweatshirts, and decorated pin-back buttons for sale, in another indication of fashion’s price inflation, for $5 each. All this was either charmingly bohème or too icky for words, depending on the tolerance and no doubt the age of the viewer.

Age is never far from the runway at Anna Sui, a designer acutely aware of the cultural shifts in the years—the 1960s and ’70s—when she was growing up. Sui has never been able to resist putting her old dreams on the runway: This time, she exhibited a split personality. The first numbers were ratty, wrapped, tied, studded versions of punk clothes, worn with fishnet stockings and as much attitude as a model born long after the death of Nancy Spungen could muster. (Sui’s show was actually one of the few examples of the much ballyhooed punk revival, but it’s probably just as well—the fragile charm of tampon earrings and torn undershirts tends to wither under runway lights.) The second theme to emerge, a flock of 1940s dresses, the kind Sui no doubt bought for $2 during her early years at Parsons, seemed dangerously close to reproductions. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing: If you can’t find what you want at the local Salvation Army—Subkoff and Sevigny may have got there first—what’s wrong with buying a replica at Bloomingdales?

More peculiar still is the case of the overextended Marc Jacobs, a fellow who, in addition to having taken on the job of house designer for the rarefied Louis Vuitton and being responsible for his own line, has just introduced a less expensive division called Marc. Both the Marc Jacobs and the Marc shows laid on the ’80s references with a spatula: off-the-shoulder Flashdance necklines, hip-slung webbing belts, blousons, etc. Should there be any doubt as to the thinking behind his collections, Jacobs is quoted in the October Vogue, an issue devoted to vintage fashion, saying: “I’m not into modern clothes right now, because they’re not warm and inviting. Anything that looks like it belongs at an art opening doesn’t look very good.”

Be that as it may, one suspects that more than a few Jacobs-clad ladies will find their way to a Guggenheim opening in his outfits, but never mind. If it’s ’80s you’re after, you’re better off with Alice Roi, one of three up-and-coming designers presented in Moët & Chandon’s “Designer Debut” event. Remember the old rule that people who are old enough to have worn a particular style the first time around probably shouldn’t be wearing it again? Roi’s fans, and she appears to have many, needn’t worry—they’re certainly young enough for her Dynasty-inspired yellow-and-white diagonally striped blouson minis, tiny flared skirts, dropped-waist dresses, and other homages to Brenda and Brandon Walsh.

Lest you think ’80s mall rats and ’40s chorines, ragged punks, and veiled widows are the only options for spring 2001, Betsey Johnson not only dug up another female archetype, the Playboy bunny, she populated her catwalk with Hefner employees. Noticeably thicker of thigh and hip than typical runway models, the various Misses January, August, etc., sported stunningly huge breast implants, stuck floppy ears over garish wigs, executed a repertoire of lascivious bumps and grinds, and all in all looked more like denizens of Wigstock than objects of heterosexual desire. Though they exhibited great spirit as they wriggled and sashayed down the runway dressed in naughty negligee dresses, glittery harem-girl ensembles, crinoline-petticoated cotton-tailed sundresses, and other Johnson confections, there was something a little sad in the end about these rabbits, forced to rely on a wink and a grossly distended bosom to make their way in a rough world.