Fashion Week: Clothes in the Time of Katrina


Poor fashion week. Not enough that there’s something inherently dopey about a week of back-to-back runway shows, so dreary and uninspired most of the time, so pathetic in their desire to wring some excitement from a pair of beige pants, but their timing of late has been spectacularly unfortunate: four years ago the World Trade towers collapsed the morning after a particularly lavish Marc Jacobs show; this time around the catwalk didoes are being played out in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina. Try as you will to ignore the contradictions—it’s unsettling, to say the least, to analyze $2000 jackets with the memory of a near riot at the Astrodome, as FEMA was handing out $2000 debit cards, still fresh.

Oh well. Life stumbles on, as gawky and sad as a 14-year-old model in platform shoes on a runway, and those of us in the field of fashion try to make some sense out of the endless stream of outfits paraded before us.

In order to squeeze a drop of pleasure out of this lemon, we always try to concentrate on the more obscure shows, what are called the “downtown” designers, where we hope—usually in vain—to discover a nascent John Galliano whose idea of high fashion is to spray-paint a trash bag puce and make a birdcage into a hat.

To that end, our first show of the season is Tara Subkoff’s Imitation of Christ, which, though hardly new, still manages to maintain a whisper of street cred. (Maybe this is because Imitation has no real business and is rarely to be found in any store?) This season, Subkoff choses to show in the Surrogate Court building, which means the audience has to file through a metal detector (another creepy echo of 9-11). The first model is Subkoff’s pal Scarlett Johansen, wearing high-water denim jeans and dangling a cigarette, for a not unappealing beatnik effect. The subsequent jeans-sporting models couldn’t smoke if they wanted to, since they are wearing handcuffs. (“Stupid,” someone behind us mutters.)

Just time for a pizza, then off to that other pillar of hipness, AsFour, where practically everyone cracks the same joke: “Shouldn’t it be AsThree?” since one member of the quartet, Kai Kuhne, recently defected (he’s having his own runway show on Thursday). This is set up in a temporary AsFour store on Broadway in Soho, taking a page from the Comme Des Garçons guerrilla shops like the one on Dover Street in London. AsFour always starts hours late, but since they provide alcohol, no one but us seems to mind. We think the stifling heat renders the whole thing nightmarish, but then again we are notorious for being no fun.

When the show finally begins, to piano accompaniment by Sean Lennon, whose mom is in the audience (we get to meet her, which still means something to us, oddly enough, even after all these decades), the shirred, smocked, petalled, and otherwise worked denim are as exquisite as ever.

The rest of the weekend passes in a not particularly pleasant blur. There is nothing wrong with the long stream of dresses at Costello Tagliapietra, though to our taste they are a bit tame and Ali McGraw-ish (no birdcages on heads); likewise the beautifully finished offerings from Ruffian, with their ’70s Ethel Scull vibe, are anything but ruff. At Thom Brown’s installation at Bergdorf Goodman men’s store the suits, frequently featuring shorts rather than long trousers, for some reason remind us, with their obsessive attention to detail, of Henry Darger’s Vivian girls.

It turns out that a host of latter-day Vivian girls, along with other strange fantastical types, show up to march on Saturday afternoon in the Art Parade, a collaboration of Deitch Projects and Paper magazine that makes us remember what attracted us to fashion in the first place. This nutty homegrown affair, a processional that wends its way from Crosby to Wooster along Grand Street, offers clowns in balloon suits, hoop-spinners with bird beaks, a gaggle of fellows in white powdered wigs, ghosts wearing tablecloths, dudes in bedspread jackets, Kembra Phair with her naked bod spray-painted fuschia, and the model Karen Elson, taking a break from the uptown runways, dressed like a punk fairy princess. A gaggle of fashion police in fishnets and hot pants are on hand to keep order: “I need to separate the art from the not art!” one policewoman shouts, trying to organize the proceedings and inadvertently raising a question that has haunted civilization for centuries.

The whole thing brings a tear to our eye and hope to our heart.