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The Sports Bro at Monique Lhuillier
Traveling outside your media lane in New York is not unlike visiting a new country: It helps to have a translator. My wife and I went to Spain this summer, and I would have been an ugly American embarrassment had it not been for her passable Spanish.
This time, the foreign land is New York Fashion Week, and I don't know who Monique Lhuillier is.
"She does pretty stuff," my wife assures me over an early dinner, then adds, "A lot of celebrities wear her dresses." My wife follows fashion bloggers on Instagram and has Pinterest pages dedicated to seasonal styles, but, like me, she's never actually been to a fashion show. She pauses over a bite of tomato salad. "How long does it last?"
I genuinely don't know. Thirty minutes? An hour? I have never in my life considered how much time a fashion show could or should be.
Do you realize this is goddamn insane?
Our tickets say The Theatre at Lincoln Center, which lends the event some heft. Lincoln Center! The opera! Balanchine! But it's not a theater at all—at least not the permanent structure that you expect one to be. Most of the year, the "Theatre at Lincoln Center" is a concrete open space, treeless and unshaded, its small tables and chairs rarely enticing to people taking their lunch outside.
But it's Fashion Week, so a metallic building emblazoned with the Mercedes logo stands there instead. Inside: luxury branding and a sheen of artifice. The walls are draped in black fabric to hide the collapsible nature of the building; the temporary floorboards creak underneath a shark-gray carpet. The restrooms are cramped and insufficient, rented trailers carefully grafted to a tent.
Do you realize this is goddamn insane? I look at the capitalism at work—the luxury brand partners, the expensive clothing, the $13 glasses of wine in tiny plastic cups and front-row celebrities and general media boondoggle—and marvel that this happens in something as permanent as a yurt. There are billion-dollar stadia with the primary purpose of hosting eight football games a year, Fashion Week. Get your shit together and rent a building with plumbing.
The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Yurt is a human zoo filled with peacocks in crop tops and track pants. It may well be the best place in the world to people-watch. In the time it takes me to drink an $8 Peroni (the only beer available: I am not Fashion Week's target demographic), I see:
· a man in floral pants
· a woman with lavender hair that looks stunning against her white dress
· a man in heels and a jumpsuit who just has a vibe of, "These are my clothes, no big whoop"
· a woman whose hair ombré transitions from blue to blonde
· probably half a million dollars in high heels
· a man in a pin-striped, wide-lapeled suit wearing a wide-brimmed straw boater hat; he looks terrific, but also incomplete without three friends to harmonize with
The seats along the runway are clearly designed for women who weigh 110 pounds or less. I'm 5'10" and 170, and the petite man with the leather handbag and hair swept up in a proto-Macklemore is crammed against me like a straphanger on a rush-hour F train. The chairs, like the walls, are draped in black fabric, Fashion Week's version of fresh paint on the cracks.
Get your shit together and rent a building with plumbing.
The lights fall at 7:28, fashionably behind the 7:00 call time. Throbbing bass fills the room, and the models appear, slinking forward in the familiar sexless stomp peculiar to the runway. Most look malnourished, tired, or sullen, and the blankness of their features pulls my eye away from the clothes—blouses with flowers, pearlescent pastel dresses.
My eyes are drawn, instead, to people with life in their eyes, the audience members clearly enchanted by things that I'm not wired to appreciate. There's Sophia Bush! And Miss J! Some asshole in the fourth row is taking pictures with an iPad, because no crowd is complete without that asshole. And Jennifer Morrison, who I recognize from somewhere (House M.D.) but don't recognize as a blonde, is positively transfixed by the show. She follows every model with obvious fascination and delight, wide-eyed like a child in a butterfly exhibit. She appreciates this in a way I never can, and I take comfort that there's art in all this artifice.
The thumping music intensifies, iridescent flowers fall from the rafters, and the models stomp once more down the runway en masse. The crowd erupts in applause, and Lhuillier emerges from backstage to wave in thanks. It is 7:39.
Eleven minutes, I learn, is how long a fashion show takes.
The Tech Bro at Yigal Azrouël
I'd just gotten to the line outside the Yigal Azrouël show, somewhere west of Chelsea. The sun was out, making for a beautiful day for New York's beautiful people. But things weren't off to a great start.
"Hi, is there a press line?" I asked the attendant in the black dress.
She never looked up from her iPad. "Can I have your name?"
"Uh, yes, it's Kwame Opam. I just want to know if..."
"How do you spell that?"
"Oh. K-W-A-M-E... This is the right...?"
"Sorry one more time. Autocorrect." She flashed something somewhere between a smile and a grimace that made me want to die on the spot. We went on like this for a minute or so more before I gave up and she walked away. I have a feeling we were both relieved.
It's hard to put into words how basic I felt next to these people.
At least I made it, right? Hello, Spring Fashion Week. You're much warmer than Fall Fashion Week. I've been making a habit of lightly covering fashion for The Verge, and even found my way to Lincoln Center earlier this year looking for stories. It was fun. Still, anything beats risking frostbite to find a tech angle at Venexiana's runway show.
By the time we were let in to Yigal, I made a beeline for my seat—a hot commodity at these things—and planted myself as the rest of the crowd filtered in. The show was running late, so for 20 or so minutes I just...sort of sat. People who I can only assume were press, fashion devotees, or the disgustingly rich took up the seats around me, the rows creating a large square in the hall. I started to recognize the distinctions. Here alone? Probably press. Here gabbing merrily with your friend who looks vaguely like Skrillex? Probably a fan. Here with your well-coifed kids? Obviously rich.
Now, let me say here that I don't think of myself as unstylish. I clean up nice when the occasion calls for it. But apart from my coveted seat, it's hard to put into words how basic I felt next to these people. I don't know what it is. Maybe I was just self-conscious. But the people in there could somehow make jeans and a T-shirt seem like they were dressed to the nines. Not that I can pull off knee-high gladiator sandals. (Would that I could.) Not that I even really want to pull off chino shorts and a face mask. (What?!) I'm just saying.
Anyway. Time passes, and two ladies step into my field of vision. I feel a pang of fear. I am supposed to be here right? Well, yes. I'm just in the wrong row. Oh. Well, shit. "Sorry, ladies." I collect my things and move a row back, feeling a vague sense of shame and a sudden distaste for my favorite reasonably-priced purple shirt. Probably to make peace, they turn around and ask, "Hey, would you mind taking a photo of us?"
"Sure!" I say.
Focus. Click. I think it came out okay, all things considered. They look and laugh. Obviously it hadn't. I gamely try again. And fail. They whisper to themselves, and I hate them a little as they take selfies together. If I had my lighting kit and a wind machine I could've pulled off a proper photo.
They whisper to themselves, and I hate them a little as they take selfies together.
The show starts and the room falls silent save for the piano house pumping out of the speakers. According to the program, Yigal's spring line is "a tribute to the early surf culture," displaying "a sophisticated reconstruction of Pacific influence, paired with signature architectural form and utilitarian prestige." Which is mostly meant to describe the airy blue, gray, and white outfits that wouldn't be at all out of place in the Hamptons. They look great, actually. They even look like clothes you might see in real life. Not just, you know, worn by bloggers.
And then the show ends in what feels like five minutes. Everyone applauds, and then everyone leaves.
But just as I'm leaving, I hear, "Hey, would you mind taking a photo of us?" It's the same ladies, but this time they've asked the guy next to me for the favor. And they exalt when they see how good they look. And I'm offended! I mean shit, wait until I've left the room at least.
By the time I'm back on 10th Avenue and a little ways away from the beautiful people, I duck into New York Burger Co. to decompress. The lessons I took away from the experience are these: 1) Never ask if there's a press line; 2) If you can afford it, spring for an extra expensive purple shirt; 3) Never, under any circumstances, take people's pictures.
The Food Bro at VFiles
VFiles, a social site and store for avant-garde fashion, held its spring show at Webster Hall in New York last Wednesday night. As a bonus, the venue had a bar advertising free vodka Red Bulls until 10:30. Say what you will about that caffeinated potable—the nightlife version of a 6 a.m. coffee with whiskey—but free booze is always the right call. And since the most logical thing one can do upon entering a restaurant, wedding reception, sports venue, golf clubhouse, or high school party is request a drink to smooth out all the rough edges of daily life, I ordered one.
The bartender shook his head. "No alcohol until 8:30." It was 8:10. Really. Instead, there was a guy handing out Aqua-brand electrolyte water next to a bucket of glow sticks, the official combo pack for those who pop Molly. I suppose we should all give the promoters credit for breaking the fashion show stereotype of being a high-class affair overflowing with champagne. VFiles, despite its invite-only door, managed to feel like a nightclub curated by Eddie Huang and the cast of Desperately Seeking Susan. Related: MTV was filming.
Worst of all, I saw a man wearing shorts.
Audience members wore sun visors, bow ties, nose rings, T-shirts, suit jackets, tennis skirts, sneakers that probably cost more than my Goodyear-welted leather shoes, and, in one case, a Pharrell-style Smokey the Bear hat. Worst of all, I saw a man wearing shorts. If one were to put all of these people in the same restaurant, it would be called Roberta's, which is another way of saying the crowd at VFiles felt infinitely more diverse than about 95 percent of the places I review as a food critic for Eater.
Now here's the thing: Like most of humanity, I'm not normally in the business of attending or critiquing runway shows. The bulk of what I know about fashion comes from the 45 seconds I spend skimming the Vanity Fair best-dressed list every year until the urologist or whatever doctor I happen to be visiting asks me to take my pants off. But that might change, because what I experienced at VFiles got me invigorated about an industry that I've long been willfully ignorant about. It also taught me how fashion and hospitality could learn a thing or two from each other.
For example, when a restaurant opens for the evening, so does the bar. The same should apply for a fashion show. Imagine walking into The Breslin for dinner at 7. "Sorry no bourbon until 9. Only food." Sounds pretty ridiculous, non?
Some other observations: In the fully unisex loo, I watched a guy take leak with the stall door wide open. Then there was a dude openly vaping what smelled like a Cinnabon-flavored e-cigarette; good luck enforcing the digital smoking ban, Mayor DeBlasio. And those ecstasy glow sticks? They make for great navigation in dark rooms—which means virtually every modern NYC restaurant would be well-served to hand them out as well.
Oh, there was a fashion show too. Briefly: It was brilliant. VFiles showed off the work of four designers; best of all was Russia's Tigran Avestiyan, whose gender-bending garments ranged from graphic prints on boxing robe coats (think: Rocky-meets-Roy Lichtenstein) to oversized boyfriend T-shirts for tall skinny dudes (dare I call them girlfriend shirts?). A close second Sutton Prize goes to Dasha Selyanova, another Russian whose Space Age sportswear possessed a paradoxical elegance that would be just as fitting at Equinox as at Per Se (if one were hoping to get kicked out of Per Se).
My digital reader frequently registered 100 decibels at Webster Hall, which is about as noisy as a commercial jet taking off from 300 meters away.
Those collections felt about as progressive as Alinea or Atelier Crenn, two of the country's most cutting-edge restaurants. Or put more simply, just as those game-changing culinary establishments serve food that people wouldn't normally eat (or even identify as edible), the far-out designs of Avestiyan and Selyanova showed off garments that everyday people wouldn't normally wear, but possibly should. I've long been a believer the envelope-pushers are what propel the arts forward, and it was heartwarming to see so many young folks rally around such non-conformity, especially as my beloved hospitality industry undergoes a somewhat sleepy and conservative year.
A few criticisms: Just as "culinary civilians" don't normally attend thought-provoking food camps like MAD in Copenhagen, it's too bad everyone doesn't have access to these wonderful fashion shows. It was also aggravating to realize that today's shows—at least this one—are even more taxing on the ears than stripped-down, budget gourmet restaurants without tablecloths or soundproofing. My digital reader frequently registered 100 decibels at Webster Hall, which is about as noisy as a commercial jet taking off from 300 meters away. This is not the type of environment to discuss the compelling ideas being presented at VFiles.
Halfway through the presentation, I dropped by the bar for that long-awaited cocktail. Time: 8:45 p.m. "We're not serving until the show ends," the bartender said. Two minutes later the show finished, and the bar was suddenly three-deep with glow stick-toting fashionistas clamoring for free booze. Translation: No vodka Red Bull for Sutton. So be it, I'm happy enough getting my alcohol at restaurants. But this fashion thing is cool.
The Gaming Bro at Kate Spade
I am jealous of the young man in the Def Leppard shirt.
I lost an hour this morning in a debate with myself about which J.Crew shirt would gird me from humiliation at my first Fashion Week presentation. Meanwhile, this guy is sporting a rock T-shirt and a Team USA baseball cap and he looks like the King of Fashion.
I'm sweating through my plaid. When it comes to clothes, I'm cheap and uninformed, and it's never been more obvious than this moment, squeezed into a freight elevator with three dozen beautiful people—my wife being one of them, in her darling cat-print dress.
The freight elevator door opens from the opposite side we entered, the way elevators do on rides at Disneyland. Enter from the real world, exit into fantasy. Fittingly, on the ground someone has printed the words "Escape the Ordinary" in large black text.
The scene is an attack on the senses, certainly, but I wouldn't call it unordinary. Everyone has a similar sheen to them. Everyone is strikingly attractive, even the people who aren't standing on foot-tall pedestals plotted throughout a room roughly 20 times the size of my apartment. The music is what I'd expect from a hybrid car commercial.
The scene is an attack on the senses, certainly, but I wouldn't call it unordinary.
The floor is covered in what feels like real sod, the walls are stark-white, and the ceiling is rigged with more lighting than my high school's theater. If reality TV had been around for the Kennedys' garden parties, this is what the set would have looked like.
The room is only unordinary if you believe ordinary means dirty and lived-in. The room looks like the rest of the world, just cleaner and prettier and drastically more expensive.
I feel bad making that judgement, because everyone I meet in the room is lovely. Sure, most people ignore my existence, and a couple publicists give my backpack an eye-roll that could be seen from the Top of the Rock, but most people smile or answer the dopey questions of a lost outsider.
The nicest person in the room is a model who takes a moment to chat with me about what it's like standing in merciless heels on a white steel box for three to four hours a day. She prefers runway shows, though she likes Kate Spade's presentation because she's allowed to smile and talk with people like me. Apparently very few people talk to the models, except to ask them to pose in a way that's just so. I didn't even get her name.
I understand why the models are hardly approached. They're staged like human mannequins. Nothing moves, except their eyes, which follow certain people across the room—talent scouts, designers, I couldn't tell. If I were a model, I'd want to be one of the handful wearing sunglasses.
Scratch that, I want to be one of the young men and women that carries tiny paper cups full of tiny pretzels and tiny gummy worms from one model to the next, offering a tiny boost of energy. No no, I want to be this model, because she goes for the gummy worms with the way I go for hot wings, and she looks better than any human should in a visor.
Jennifer Morrison, who played Dr. Allison Cameron on House M.D. and now stars on Once Upon a Time, is strolling amidst the pillars of well-dressed humanity. The eyes and cameras follow her like ghosts follow Pac-Man. Whenever she wants, she can turn around and eat them up with her smile. I can't tell if she's in fashion or someone who buys fashion or both. Probably both. Who cares.
I want to be this model, because she goes for the gummy worms with the way I go for hot wings, and she looks better than any human should in a visor.
A Google search doesn't tell me much more, other than that she "missed the mark" at another fashion week show. [Ed note: That would be the Monique Lhuillier show which fellow Vox Bro Matt Ufford attended.] She wears a skin-tone skirt-suit at Kate Spade and I think she looks fantastic, but then again I think everyone looks fantastic.
I can't shake that awful article. There's an uncomfortable conflict happening in the criticism of Jennifer Morrison. She's accomplished and confident, but that look simply won't stand. We love her, but we hate what she's wearing. Or for other women in the pages of the Daily Mail, we hate her, but we love what she's wearing.
How we talk about fashion—or more broadly, how we talk about how people look—demands a give and take between championing outer beauty and the inert beauty, the manufactured and the natural. It's everywhere in this room. Heck, this tension appears midway through the official Kate Spade Spring 2015 press card.
"These are pieces that can take you anywhere, on any adventure," says the card, written by Deborah Lloyd, Kate Spade's Chief Creative Officer. Lloyd follows this line with a quote from famed fashion editor Diana Vreeland: "A new dress doesn't get you anywhere, it's the life you're living in the dress."
These clothes can take you anywhere; these clothes will take you nowhere.
I'm curious if this mixed-messaging has so long been part of fashion that it's become a go-to truism. I'm reminded of another quote I hear on every fashion reality show: "Confidence is the best accessory." Well, if confidence isn't enough, there are always $500 handbags.
I wonder if anyone else noticed the young man in the elevator wearing the Def Leppard shirt. I ask my wife, and she tells me probably not: "He's a photographer."
I should tell you about Kate Spade's collection. It is spectacular. The collection uses lots of blues, greens, and bright prints, like one that resembles a swimming pool refracting sunlight. Dresses are slim and sharp, or as they press card puts it, they have "subtle athletic influences."
These clothes can take you anywhere; these clothes will take you nowhere.
I'm especially enamored with the outfit of the model I spoke with. Her look is Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's meets twee 2014 indie heroine. According to my wife, what I think is "fringe" is actually "tulle"—which is not spelled "tool" like I at first thought. I adore the tulle almost as much as I adore the little pocket at the waist. It reminds me of an old black-and-white romance set in Europe that I fall asleep watching at Film Forum.
A group of men and women surround her, holding their iPhones (everyone uses iPhones, everyone) inches from the hem of her skirt and the cuff of her sleeve, getting shots of detailing I'm both too untrained and too uncomfortable to notice.
I get out of the way and stare at an empty pedestal. Is this a comment on fashion? Is this fashion? A model is guided past me and onto the box. The model, a beautiful blonde girl, who looks a little frazzled, whispers, "All better," and is back in the performance.
The only thing I don't really like in the room is the bucket hat, which reminds me of the lead signer of New Radicals. I've always found these hats repulsive, essentially large cups of fabric meant to hold your head sweat, but I'm changing my mind looking at this bucket hat on this model and I know it's just because the woman is so pretty that I'm impartial to love anything she wears.
After an hour, the room is full, with camera gear boxes mounting in the corners and circles of colleagues forming at the opposing sides of the gauntlet of fashion. Even the servers—who I'm keenly aware I'm dressed all too similar to—struggle to keep their plates of guilt-free-sized quiche bites and beyond-mini-eclairs from being elbowed into oblivion.
My wife, who has been my guide and photographer and life preserver, says it's okay to leave, so we do. The second we get to the stairs, we're in the ordinary again. It's gray and a little dirty. Sixth Avenue's even worse.
"It's weird," I tell her. "I thought Kate Spade specialized in bags."
She laughs, "You realize that the models were holding them, right?"
My plaid shirt is drenched in sweat. I can't go back. Ordinary will have to do.