The Dead Zone


“I’m thinking about love these days. A lot about love,” said Seth Shapiro, a young downtown designer lingering curbside after the Diane Von Furstenberg fashion show. Shapiro, who was sitting the season out, didn’t mean the kind of love you feel for a lover; he was talking about the blood that rushes to your face and the way your heart flips over when you see someone dressed in a wild new great way on the street.

If Shapiro’s heart wasn’t doing cartwheels over the DVF show, a perfectly respectable lineup of flowery department store styles, he wasn’t alone. No one else was dancing on air as they left Von Furstenberg’s West Village townhouse, nor, as the week progressed, were they salivating over Nicole Miller or Kenneth Cole or BCBG or DKNY, all of whom put on perfectly respectable if hopelessly mundane runway presentations.

Not that the bulk of the New York shows are ever all that earth-shattering, but this season things seemed especially sad. Surely the economy has something to do with this—you don’t feel like taking chances when your business is hanging by a literal and figurative thread. Maybe these predictable, ordinary clothes would look better in a showroom setting, but on a runway? It almost—but not quite—made you want to throw in the towel and go shopping with Cathy Horyn, the fashion critic for The New York Times, who admitted in a recent Times article that she buys a lot of her clothes at Wal-Mart. There are things to be said for the Wal-Mart empire, to be sure, but its ability to produce heart-stopping clothes is not among them. (And then, of course, there’s the company’s obscene violation of overtime laws, but that’s a whole other story.) If Horyn, with the eyes of the style world upon her, would just as soon shop at Wal-Mart as Saks, why should anyone else bother to fuss about clothes?

On the first day of the spring 2003 shows, Horyn’s paper ran an article called “A Dismal Retail Season—Some Blame Climate; Shoppers Say Dull Clothes.” The article quoted a teenage California shopper, who had just treated herself to a $2 1950s poodle skirt, as saying, “I have my own weird fashion thing; I’m a thrift store junkie.”

It’s funny that someone like the Times‘ Californian ends up having more in common with a couturier like John Galliano than she does with Calvin or Tommy or other American mass marketers. There’s a freedom at the ultra-high end of fashion: Absurd and offensive as couture, with its $50,000 dresses, may be, it is a country where unbridled, lunatic imagination is king. Couture’s screwy penchant for doing stuff like tying garbage bags to a skirt or making a dress from flattened Nikes with shoelaces for fringe (Dior had the trash bags; the sneakers were at Givenchy) is echoed in the style of the East Village Dumpster-diver, the sidewalk aesthete who carefully matches overalls with a sequined tube top, a pair of Ecuadoran fingerless gloves, a piano shawl, and high-tops. In its abhorrence of the middlebrow, couture is the drinking buddy of the street.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best collections of this bleak season were infused with a fearless eclecticism—fearless in a real sense, since store buyers may well shun this stuff. On the other hand, the stores aren’t doing so well with the merchandise they are buying, so maybe they’ll find room on the racks for stuff like Michael and Hushi’s red and yellow leather McDonald’s-meets-Versace catsuit. Or maybe not. Maybe the customer for these wilder shores will continue to buy a single item at a place like Seven on Orchard Street or Steven Alan in Soho and mix it with cheap stuff and thrift finds.

As ever, the most interesting looks during New York fashion week were in the audience—frequently among the crowd that the organizers of Seventh on Sixth, who run the uptown shows, piquantly call “standing room guests.” They hung out behind the bleachers at Marc by Marc Jacobs, going that designer one better with their own army pants and miniature skirts; they were out in force at Heatherette, where a giant Hello Kitty sat in the audience and the runway was awash in plaid poufs and ruffles. Last Saturday, these freethinkers overflowed the Dietch gallery, where Paper magazine hosted an all-day event that featured a sock-puppet show by Andrew Andrew and the Church of Craft, with attitude-y socks parading in the looks of the season.

Tara Subkoff, the designer behind the winky, ironic Imitation of Christ label, didn’t offer any puppets, but she had plenty of other ideas for spring 2003. Subkoff, a master shredder and mixer, offered a series of tableaux set up in the big windows of the Maurice Villency furniture showroom on East 57th Street, so that passersby could see the clothes along with the usual complement of press and buyers. (This made even someone running for the subway, at least for a moment, a standing room guest.)

The clothes were reconstructed vintage finds, cut and slashed with a surety and whimsy that made the models, the kind of downtown girls for whom these items are intended, look really happy. (This is not always the case. More than one glum-faced young woman has trudged down a runway, her tattooed arms and back twitching uncomfortably under an Oscar de la Renta ball gown or Bill Blass car coat.) Even the bevy of mannequins clad only in black cashmere underpants and pushing vacuum cleaners—were they sucking up the stale old clothes all over town last week?—wore bright smiles.

It seems almost beside the point that no one will actually buy most of these creations—that, for the most part, they aren’t even for sale. But then of course the whole idea is that you should visit the Goodwill like Subkoff did and treat fashion as a funny art project.

Fringe designers, if they’re any good, argue mightily for the ascendance of fantasy over common sense—for vanquishing the tyrannical notion that you must keep on acquiring dull clothes exactly like the dull ones you already have. After endless days of dreary, monotonous runway shows, the glee and glorious abandon with which people like Subkoff and her compatriots in standing room put their nutty looks together made you want to jump up and hug a sock puppet.