Fashion people may claim blithely that they never pick up a newspaper, but that doesn’t
exactly mean they are immune to current events. Even if they’re not talking about anything except how much a model should weigh or what killed Anna Nicole Smith, serious matters have apparently been percolating under their sleek, shiny bobs.
Not once during the fall 2007 Bryant Park fashion show
does a designer explicitly mention troop surges, and a lot of the clothing on the catwalks seem ready to go to a party and get drunk, but after a few days of show-going it becomes clear: The runways this season are heavily under the influence of the dogs of war.
Of course, no one is admitting this outright. Vera Wang skirts around the issue—no pun intended—by claiming that the theme of her frothy collection is White Russians running for their lives from the 1917 revolution; Gosford Park–esque chambermaids with feather dusters, oblivious to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, open the show at Betsey Johnson, where tea tables for the elite have been set up replacing the conventional front row. (One commoner, making his own statement in a fur-trapper hat and a T-shirt that reads “Mother Fuckin Mountaineer” catapults from the second row to an empty party chair two minutes before the show starts.) At least the seating at Marc Jacobs, if brutal, is egalitarian: Everyone from Anna to the lowliest Jane magazine gofer is squashed on metal bleachers and forced to wait an hour and a half for the show to start. But once it begins it is worth it: To the funereal strains of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, the crimson curtains part to reveal a tableau vivant of severe 1930s elegance straight out of the garden of the Finzi-Continis.
At Rodarte, the label of two sisters, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who still live with their parents in Pasadena, California, the cheery background music includes Leonard Cohen’s dolorous version of Anna Marly’s “The Partisan,” the anthem of the Free French during the Second World War. Rodarte is the current darling of the fashion flock, and their exquisitely wrought, airy-fairy gowns have an undeniable “Let’s play dress up!” appeal. But their prices are so forbidding, even by designer-clothing standards, that it’s hard to know what the sisters’ future holds, business-wise. Is it only a matter of time before they get a deal like the Proenza Schouler boys, two guys still in their twenties who likewise offered prohibitively pricey garments intended for the racks at Barneys, until they were taken up by Target? (PS for Target is in fact an assortment of undistinguished skirts and T-shirts; who says the Rodarte ladies can’t throw a few polyester ruffles on an acrylic sweater and raise some cash? ) This matter of prices—in short, how obscenely expensive high-end clothes have become—is another subject that rarely comes up at the shows. When a brief discussion (initiated by this reporter) does take place, fashion journalist Lauren Ezersky, who has heavy glitter on her eyelids and a new skull tattoo at the small of her back, laughs and says, “Who cares? When I die I hope my last check bounces.”
When they aren’t preoccupied by the war at home, designers are apparently fretting about global warming. Sitting in the 7th on Sixth tents on a freezing afternoon and watching the millionth tiny chiffon frock sail by on the runway—Erin Fetherston’s silvery baby doll minis; Diane von Furstenberg’s bare-shouldered polka dots; Doo.Ri’s tiny silk jersey tunics—you couldn’t help get the impression that the New York designers have been dazzled by the hole in the ozone level. Aren’t these supposed to be the fall collections? Hardly anyone, it turns out, has bothered to design a coat—and there aren’t that many pants either.
But even as your legs freeze your arms will be toasty: For some reason, many designers gussied up their creations with opera-length gloves. A glance at the audience offers its own object lesson in class and temperature: The more important you are, the less you’re wearing—a bare black dress, naked legs, and a silly, flimsy little coat means you’re running from show to limo to show; leaky down and fuzzy boots says I’m traveling via MetroCard.
If there’s one thing missing at these warm-weather-obsessed, saddened-by-war New York shows it’s the shock of the new, the one item so outré you just have to own it no matter how much it sets you back—the sort of thing an avant-garde artist like Isabel Toledo once delivered. Now the highly respected Toledo has hooked up with Anne Klein and presents a pleasant—at times lovely—collection for Klein, though it leaves you longing for a few wacky flourishes. ThreeAsFour—they used to be AsFour but one decamped and now has his own line—could at once also be depended on for an infusion of nuttiness, but not this season. They offer an artfully seamed, restrained collection at the National Arts Club, one of several oak-paneled venues that young designers have lately taken up, replacing the cement basements and fetid grottoes they led their audiences to in previous seasons.
Ben Cho has his show at the Salmagundi Club on lower Fifth Avenue and reveals an affection for Schiaparelli-esque surrealism—his dresses are held up on one shoulder by a wooden hand. (Surrealism itself was a reaction to the horrors of World War I.) Not to be outdone, James Coviello sends his models out under the watchful eyes of dead jurors at the American Bar Association. But the star venue of the week is the Box, Serge Becker’s new club on Chrystie Street where the Citizens Band, a troupe of cool-kid
cabaret artists, perform dressed in Edun’s ecologically correct clothes. (The designers of the achingly PC line include Bono’s wife.) As further
proof that combat fatigue is brimming just below the surface, their program includes downtown
darling Lily of the Valley singing Phil Ochs’s Vietnam era “Draft Dodger Rag” and actress Zooey Deschanel trilling “When the Lights Go on Again” (not a Con-Ed blackout—it’s about the London blitz.) The venue itself, with its faded wallpaper and bordello chandeliers, looks like it could pass for a replica of the Albemarle Club in 1895 where Alfred Lord Douglas’s father passed Oscar Wilde that fateful note accusing him of “Posing as a Sodomite.”
But just when you think that the New York runways 112 years later offer a lamentable lack of Wilde-worthy transgression, you encounter someone truly oblivious to such plebian concerns as weather and war who would make old Oscar proud. Renowned street photographer Bill Cunningham arrived at the ThreeasFour breathless with excitement over a rare creature he had just encountered preening on the Bryant Park steps wearing a Ralph Lauren upside
down. And then there is “It” girl Aimee Phillips at the Box, wearing a down coat cut like a man’s tuxedo she had just bought in Tokyo, and the redoubtable club doorman Kenny Kenny at Fashion Week’s opening night party, chicly bald and heavily made up and resplendent in a court jester’s outfit he confesses is 1980s Norma Kamali.
Even as temperatures climb and battles rage, who says there isn’t still time for a little laughter in the dark?