It is a beautiful sweater, hand knit in lovely shades of green and beige and patterned with little trees and people, and it’s the first item—the first “look,” as editors call it—on Pierrot’s fall 2003 runway. There is only one thing wrong with it—the back of the pullover shows, hanging from one of those trees, the silhouette of a man. “What’s on that sweater, a lynching?” an incredulous editor whispers to her seatmate. “Looks like it,” he replies.
One might expect this item to be greeted in the fashion press with a firestorm of protest, but nary a word is written anywhere. Could the sweater have whizzed by so fast it escaped notice? And whatever could the designer have been thinking?
A call to Pierrot, who sounds like a very nice guy, elicits the following: The sweater isn’t about a lynching at all, it depicts a story of lovers. “Two people, a boy and a girl on the front of the sweater, run away from the other lover, and the other lover hangs himself,” he explains in a charming French accent. But didn’t anybody you were working with notice what else it looked like? Any of the models? Stylists? Photographers? “No! But the people from Barneys did ask if they could order it without the man.” So then they did notice? “No. They just thought it was too sad, too melancholy.” Oh.
The reluctance to speak out about, or even take note of, politically iffy elements in fashion is an old story, though this may in fact be the last season of such willful innocence. For even in a field where a man dangling from a tree evokes absolutely nothing, one cannot fail to sense the simmering unease in the Bryant Park tents. The skittishness travels from standing room to the front row, as buyers and editors gaze at $10,000 beaded evening gowns even as the television news exhorts them to stuff their Bottega Veneta satchels with plastic and duct tape.
The paradoxical mood at the shows is reflected in the bipolar nature of the collections themselves: Marc Jacobs’s offers secondhand escapism, in the form of a total rip-off—far beyond an homage—of pre-Vietnam Courrèges and Cardin clothes from the early ’60s; Sean John has three huge screens showing scenes from Apocalypse Now along with models dressed in stylish air force jackets that make them look like decommissioned officers from the World War II epic, The Best Years of Our Lives.
But of course this schizophrenia—a wild veering between political tone-deafness and a clumsy grasping for relevance—is also nothing new, even if this is the first time we’ve been asked to ogle orange miniskirts while living under code orange. Still, the current pre-war jitters make the crazy world of fashion seem even more irrational. Consider these instructions for the overwhelmingly working-class readers of the Daily News, from that paper’s fashion coverage last Thursday: “Start working out now, ladies. And put your pennies in the bank. Come September, if you want to slip into Michael Kors’ sliver of a crocodile mini, you’ll need lots of dough and a dynamite body.” Or a column called Thaw & Order in the Daily, an Us magazine-type publication distributed free at the shows, that surveys fashion editors on the popular practice of sporting bare legs in winter, an apt question given the week’s sub-freezing temps. One answer: “Bare legs when it’s raining or snowing are absolutely fine. After all, it’s fashion. You don’t have to be serious or sensible.” Another: “Fashionable women want to defy the laws of nature without revealing any struggle or pain.” Only one respondent, a British editor, brings up the obvious class privilege attending this style: If you’re naked and it’s freezing, you’d better have a car waiting.
But most women don’t have a limo at their disposal, and if the fashion industry fails to engage the majority of consumers with their vision of what’s hot, the stores will end up stuffed with stuff no one wants. No great chic warm coats at reasonable prices? Women will buy down parkas. Shoes impossible to walk in? They’ll wear sneakers with pants instead of spike heels with bare legs.
Perhaps the paucity of creative solutions is what accounts for the ascent of fashions like the Juicy Couture velour sweat suits. They certainly didn’t start life on any runway, but women love them: They’re cheap, fun, comfortable, and warm, four things to please a sad shopper in a sad winter. The shame of it is that there aren’t more mass-market, aesthetically pleasing variations along the Juicy Couture model. After all, fashion, when it’s done with imagination and heart, can lighten the atmosphere in times like these.
Thus it was a relief to see, of all things, a sock monkey, or rather a whole gaggle of sock simians reconfigured as bathing suits and sweaters and shawls on the runway at Liz Collins. Collins, a highly skilled knitwear designer with the soul of an artist, is just one of a group of accomplished young designers who are completely uncynical about what they do. At Gary Graham, there are caveman sweaters and delicate wood nymph gowns; at Y & Kei strings of sequins join artfully shredded chiffon; garters and buckles flap joyously at Arkadius. Gaelyn & Cianfarani, an East Village-based design team, put on a show sponsored by PETA, an organization that used to spend fashion week scaring fur wearers but changed tactics this season and got in the game themselves. The good news is, their fake-leather clothes are fabulous, especially the clinging, fluted-sleeved evening gowns; the bad news is, the clothes are made of latex rubber, so spectacularly uncomfortable you have to powder yourself all over to even get them on. (The models have powdered faces, in a wink to this practice.)
On the penultimate evening of Fashion Week, a day when Americans are being urged to stock up on bottled water and bank enough food to last three days, a young guy named Ben Cho presents a collection at Exit Art on Tenth Avenue. Cho offers an exquisite group of clothes—bumsters that manage to look elegant; perfectly cut striped sailor shirts; silk dresses with necklines like flowers—far more interesting than most things you see in the tents.
After the show, Cho, who has blue hair and had himself modeled in the Pierrot show earlier in the week, is asked if he’s been freaking out the last few days. “I’m actually loving it! It’s just so crazy, we were making clothes up to the last minute. I really enjoy making clothes.” When it’s explained that he’s being asked about the world situation, he says, “Actually I worry about it a lot in my real life. It sounds self-indulgent, but working took me away from my regular existence, when I’m so tortured by what’s going on.” Is he worried that a faltering economy will wreck his career? He laughs. “I never was so successful business-wise anyway.”