Outside Cipriani, the restaurant in the former Bowery Savings Bank across from Grand Central Station where the Sean John show was being held, 42nd Street was packed with gawkers and goons, the former dying to get inside the building, the latter intent on making sure nobody sneaked in. But there was no reason, really, why the gate crashers had to feel so desperate: maybe only invited guests got to ogle Cipriani’s velvet portieres and sniff the $40 Dyptique candles lining the marble counters that once held deposit slips, but Puffy’s fashion show could be seen by anyone with a cable box.
Years ago, people were banned from Paris fashion shows for surreptitious sketching, so closely guarded were the new styles. Now the shows are broadcast nonstop on television, an innovation that has just about vanquished the aura of exclusivity that until recently surrounded the runways. And good riddance. After all, if the glory of fashion design is its ability to express our collective fantasies with fabric and thread, why shouldn’t all Americans get to see their fellow citizens’ dreams writ large on a runway?
At the Sean John show, the longings were distinctly cinematic. Instead of the souped-up street styles Sean John presented last winter—exotic furs, diamond crosses, and bare, superbly waxed chests (was there a TV showing softcore porn backstage?)—this time the house evinced a surprising yen for the era just before black-and-white Philcos started turning up in living rooms, a time when casual Friday meant carrying a checked hankie instead of a plain white one. Swaggering to a suave Sinatra soundtrack, Puffy’s men wore the kinds of natty ensembles associated with the halcyon days of the great American store Brooks Brothers, before that sad shop was bled anemic by a succession of dunderheaded corporate owners. As if the soaring setting weren’t enough, Sean John articulated his vision with a sky-high video screen that aired an array of clips—Josephine Baker! Bogey and Bacall! Cab Calloway! Roman Holiday!—so dizzying it was hard to keep your eyes on the models.
Despite the hoopla and hard glamour at Marc Jacobs, there was a special poignancy in the air, more potent than any dream—a nightmare, in fact, come to life. Jacobs held his show at the 26th Street armory, a building that a few months ago served as a center for families affected by September 11. You couldn’t help but think about the tragedy while waiting for the show to start: Jacobs’s last presentation, on September 10, took place in a glittering edifice set up on a pier on the Hudson, with a lavish after-party that turned the tent into a crystal palace. It would turn out to be the last show of September’s fashion week.
This time Jacobs, who is from Brooklyn but now lives in Paris and is pushing 40, pledged allegiance to his real country, that Atlantis of floating addresses inhabited by college kids and post-debs, where the denizens are painfully skinny, forget to wash their hair, and like to pile their clothes on every which way. For this crowd, the party that started in the prep-school dormitory has never ended. Jacobs is in love with thrift-store sparkle and army-navy surplus military jackets (though that’s where the resemblance ends; they’ll no doubt sport four-figure price tags). He has a tendency to stick an ordinary trench coat over a long party dress, making the model look like she just grabbed a coat off a pile and beat a hasty retreat from the site of some debauchery even she couldn’t stomach.
At Bob Mackie, the models wore glittery dresses too, but they were far from Jacobs’s hollow-eyed celebutantes—in fact they looked like the closest they got to a rave was tea at the Ritz. Mackie, who’s been around for decades (he got famous designing clothes for Carol Burnett and Cher’s TV programs), called his show “To Broadway With Love!” and offered a deeply personal homage to the American musical theater. Perhaps it was so touching because it brought to mind all those lonely kids stuck in the middle of the country watching the Tony Awards on a TV in the basement and dreaming of escape to New York. (Now they can watch fashion shows, too.) Like Sean John, Mackie is in love with America’s theatrical past, but instead of screening a collage of movie stars, he dressed his models up like Lorelei Lee and Eliza Doolittle and Annie Oakley (for her, he suggested white ostrich chaps over a black-velvet cat suit). The whole thing was reminiscent of all those Mickeys and Judys putting on shows in the backyard, only Mackie had a real runway to play with.
Unfortunately, not every reverie is as innocuous as Mackie’s Broadway babies or Jacobs’s dissolute debs or Puffy’s Rat Packers. Despite all that post-September 11 talk about how we’re being nice to each other, the worst kind of racial and ethnic stereotypes continue to pop up on runways in what is, at the very least, atrocious taste masquerading as artistic freedom.
This season, some designers just starting out were guilty of trafficking in pernicious, downright dumb fantasies. (Maybe they should have classes in sensitivity training at fashion school, the way they do for police officers?) One newcomer, whose show was held practically spitting distance from ground zero, sent out an invite in an empty plastic bag marked “Evidence.” Another thought it was fun to dress her models in lumberjack coats (that rough red-and-black plaid is big this year) in a parody of inbred country yokels. Swinging possum tails, crossing their eyes, limping, and sporting blacked-out teeth, these Pappy Yokums should have been consigned to the dustbin of history 100 years ago. At yet another show, a sequence devoted to African-print miniskirts, baggy pants, and hoodies featured exclusively black models. When the ladylike dresses came out, so did the white mannequins. “What is this, South Africa during apartheid?” someone in the front row whispered.
If the great progressive movements of the 1960s (now there was a collective fantasy) escaped some designers’ attention, nobody could ignore the sartorial revolution that went along with it. Tommy Hilfiger, who put parkas over business suits (a mixed metaphor, like a sweater with a ball gown or high heels and jeans, that is now so common it is hardly worth remarking on), played the Who’s 1965 “My Generation” during his show, but what generation was he rhapsodizing about? The Who’s original generation, Hilfiger’s own? Those people, now in their fifties, were the first to jettison all the old rules about appropriateness in dress, tossing out neckties and garter belts and making a fetish of comfort. On the other hand, maybe Hilfiger just meant the generation of his mannequins, those fresh-cheeked fellows with the sullen, silly, implacable expressions that male models wear while they make the clothes look good.
It was easy to tell what was on the models’ minds at Indigo People, an installation of menswear in a Nolita storefront where the blanket-checked jackets and trousers had a vaguely Tyrolean air, like something Cary Grant might have worn when he wasn’t dressed in one of Puffy’s three-piece suits. The mannequins stood in rows and the audience streamed past, an innovation that would be welcome at more shows, since, in addition to doing away with the long waits, it allows you to eavesdrop on the models’ conversations. The Indigo People may have been dressed like extras in Christmas in Connecticut, but their own thoughts were traveling in dramatically different directions. “That movie Clockwork Orange is really nice, man,” one model dressed like an urbane lumberjack whispered to his neighbor, who was wearing plaid moccasins. Maybe he was excited about Alex, the movie’s main character, whose Droog outfit—bowler hat, cane, codpiece, and single false eyelash—offered a vision as powerful and lurid as anything cooked up on a runway. In any case, his recommendation came with a caveat: “It’s an old movie, though, you know. Seventies or something.”