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FASHION WEEK: TALES FROM THE FRONTLINES

FASHION WEEK: TALES FROM THE FRONTLINES
THE GUARDIAN UK

SEPTEMBER 22, 2010
BY JULIA ALLISON

Six years ago, when the now-storied New York Fashion Week was still held under huge white tents covering Bryant Park on the chaotic, touristy intersection of 42nd Street & 6th Avenue, I attended my inaugural fashion show.  Just twenty-three then, I sat fourth or fifth row and gaped, slack-jawed, at the models parading the clothing of a designer I’ve forgotten.   My first impression was the ultimate industry cliché: “Goddamn, these models are REALLY freaking SKINNY.”

Four years later, as the editor-at-large of Star magazine, my boss asked me to cover Fashion Week.  I had never reported on fashion before, and I had absolutely no idea what or how to do so.  I got there with my videographer and my press pass and expected it would be no trouble. And it was quite a bit of trouble indeed.

Unless your last name is Wintour or Roitfeld, Fashion Week requires – if nothing else – stamina, fortitude, old-fashioned wiles and a substantial amount of (preferably unassailable) of self-esteem, because it will be rocked heartily by the jockeying and politics of the FW pecking order.  You think you’re important?  You’re not.  You think you’re thin or attractive?  You’re not. You think anyone cares whether you get your interview? They don’t.

Many Fashion Week regulars fight this paradox: they adore it, they understand why it is what it is, why it has become what is has become. And they also count down the days until it is over and congratulate each other on “making it through,” as if it were some sort of physical therapy or painful experiment with dark green vegetables.

It’s been seven long seasons since I stumbled with my microphone into the tents for the first time, and there are certainly stages to the Fashion Week experience.  First, uncomprehending wide-eyed wonder as the glamorous chaos swirls around you coupled with a palpable fear at the mayhem – doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, sitting in the wrong seat, arousing the attention or ire of the ubiquitously lean, black-clad PR girls.  Then a gradual onset of confidence begins, oh yes, *this * is how it works: Only the neophytes ask Anna Wintour for a photograph.  Make your press requests early, but remember, there is no such thing as a confirmed interview.  Ever.  Accept you’ll be body-checking people – literally – to get that soundbite. That’s just part of the job.  Prepare for bruises, blisters, even blood (my camera guy once started bleeding after he was shoved in the giant pit of photographers that stand at the base of the runway).

Become a liminal figure – too aggressive and you piss people off, too passive and you won’t get any coverage whatsoever.  Dress in subtle designer frocks, but never jeans (unless you’re an editor) and always unconscionably expensive, outrageously high heels, preferably YSL, Jimmy Choo, Manolos or Louboutins (they are studied with some regularity, especially if you’re sitting front row). Too showy and you’ll attract attention as an outsider – only front row celebs & total newbies dress like it’s a red carpet – too casual and unless you’re a well-known editor or buyer, you’ll look (and feel) out of place.

Fashion Week – to the uninitiated outsider – sounds so … frothy.  In reality, it is anything but. This is a multi-billion dollar global business, but it’s also an enormous art presentation, bigger and more elaborate than all of the Basels put together.  The best comparison I’ve come up with – and one I use with some frequency – is that of 90 weddings, with 18-30 brides each.   All in the span of eight days.

I’ve never been in combat, but I’ve seen GI Jane, and from the looks of it, fashion week bears more than a passing resemblance to a regimented boot camp, completed in 6-inch YSLs and Herve Leger bandage dresses, in the middle of a highly organized, unrelenting mosh pit of well-dressed editors, reporters, buyers, models, photographers, press and flaks with competing agendas.

It’s this mix that makes Fashion Week so defiantly brilliant, so exhaustingly frustrating.

What began, in essence, as a trade event has been co-opted, at least in part, by the changing fixtures of the tents: the celebrities (mainly reality “stars” – Housewives, Project Runway alums, America’s Next Top Models – oddly sitting front row instead of walking in the shows – and their CW starlet professional counterparts), the celeb-stylists, the celeb-editors, the celeb-bloggers (an oxymoron?) and the inevitable hangers-on that come with all these.

This season, I asked designers, “Do you consider fashion to be an art – or a business?”  It is both of course, but it’s also entertainment. It isn’t, after all, a Fashion Tell.  It’s a Fashion Show.

And that show isn’t limited to what walks down the catwalk or the lighting or the thumping music.  The shows are really installation art, and the installation is the tents and the art is the people and their arrangements and their interactions and the way they react to the clothing (a standing ovation?  I’ve seen it before), and the way a beautifully constructed dress can actually make a crowd gasp.

To a certain extent, it’s also an incredibly nuanced, unbelievably complicated multi-layered competition – who will get the most press, the choicest front row seats, the hottest celebs & most powerful editors in attendance?  What results is sometimes a battle of egos, sometimes a celebration of craftsmanship.

Astounding creative visions are realized here.  But sometimes you’re cold and you’re bored and you’ve seen clothes like that before and you’d rather be in sweats and sneakers and your ego is wounded because some PR lady put you in the third row and you couldn’t think of anything else to ask Diane von Furstenberg other than “What was your inspiration?” and you absolutely hate hate hate that question and if you did make it into the first row by some chance, isn’t it true that your thighs are simply too big to be there and everyone will be judging you against the backdrop of 0% body fat and oh, god why are you here anyway?  You’re a fraud.  You just want to go home and eat a chocolate bunny from last Easter.

And I’ve done that, too.

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