On the night of September 10, 12 hours before the World Trade Center catastrophe, the pier at 13th Street on the Hudson River held a glittering crystal palace, albeit one made of clear plastic. The fashion crowd, in tiny tight dresses and sharp-heeled shoes ill suited to a pier’s rough planks, forced their way through the crush at the door and into the elaborate tent, waving their invitations aloft lest they be mistaken for standing-room attendees and banished to the back of a line stretching toward 14th Street. Inside, the hard metal bleachers held Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker, Debbie Harry and Monica Lewinsky. When the catwalk show was over, one end of the runway opened to reveal a vast and lavish party space—lilies floating in a stunning if temporary reflecting pool, bright globes dangling from the ceiling, boats in the distance spraying arcs of water, all to celebrate Marc Jacobs and his latest collection. The show would turn out to be the last of Fashion Week, a semi-annual festival of stupefying pomposity and grotesque vacuity in which a series of outfits are stuck on desperately thin teenagers and paraded in front of sour-faced editors, fawning hangers-on, and jittery store buyers whose heads are on the chopping block if the stuff doesn’t sell.
In the best of times, the task of analyzing fashion shows, in which the conscientious reviewer attempts to wring significance from the hang of a hem or the heft of a pleat, can be tough going. In most cases, the critic simply ignores the cost of these items, the conditions under which they are made, the fact that most people can never hope to own them, and the cold reality that in any case, Americans seem increasingly content to don T-shirts and pants and view the runway as if it were a funny freak show or a chance to ogle half-naked teenagers on TV.
The spring 2002 Fashion Week (which Seventh on Sixth, the organizers of the event, insisted be called Mercedes Benz Fashion Week—they phoned each and every journalist on the press list with instructions to follow this product-placement dictum) started off with spectacular weather and the reassuring ladder of carefully calibrated privilege that the style world relishes. It was business as usual when Ivana Trump cut the line to get into the Ilona Rich show, an extravagance presented by Denise Rich for her daughter, a putative clothing designer, in the family’s penthouse apartment across from the Plaza Hotel. It was business as usual that the three blank-faced Hiltons (socialites Paris and Nicky and their mother) were among a passel of guests willing to pretend that Rich, whose very name seems like something out of an Archie and Veronica comic book, was a real designer.
It was business as usual to see sleeping homeless guys on benches across the street from Tavern on the Green—another glass house, this one with a wedding-cake plaster ceiling and a froufrou floral carpet and a vast collection of chandeliers—where Betsey Johnson’s tiny-skirted, fedora-topped models promenaded. It was even business as usual at Imitation of Christ, try as the designers might to pretend otherwise. Imitation of Christ, the team of Tara Subkoff and Matt Damhave, offered a skin-deep critique of fashion along with their trendy, reconstructed thrift-shop clothes, which hang with four-figure price tags at Barneys. This season they sat their models in the front row and marched the audience down the catwalk, turning hapless buyers and editors into mannequins, while the MC berated the crowd with facetious diatribes along the lines of “You better work.” It was all meant to place the stylish shoe on the other foot, though of course the unwitting “models” weren’t remunerated. By way of explanation, Imitation of Christ put a quote from the Marxist mystic Walter Benjamin on the back of their invitation that read, “The art of a critic in a nutshell, to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.” It seems not to have occurred to Subkoff and Damhave that they themselves may be indulging in spectacularly inadequate criticism, peddling their fake designer dresses at real designer prices.
And then there was the Jacobs show, with its crystal palace tent and its celebrities and its floating water lilies.
And then it was over. And all of the elaborate planning that attended Fashion Week, all of the fussing and begging for invitations, the gnashing of teeth on the standing-room line, the silent sizing up of who is sitting in what row, the hideous humiliation of being dumped entirely by Ralph or Calvin or Donna, evaporated like a splat of Evian on a lipstick-stained cocktail napkin. Fashion Week was called off, its passing of so little consequence that it failed to merit the merest mention on the endless list of cancellations running at the bottom of the TV screen, beneath the pictures of a burning city.