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Fashion Weak

The retarded Chihuahua may have been the highlight of my trip

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It was last Thursday night, quarter to ten, when I had finally had it. I'd been waiting half an hour on a New York City sidewalk in the bitter cold for a fashion show that had been scheduled to start at nine o'clock. I overheard a twink whose tight jeans were tucked neatly into his boots tell his companions, two floppy-Mohawked guys also in tight jeans and boots, "Say the editor in chief of Vogue is at a show. They want her to get here and they'll hold this show for her. They don't care about you or me. We wait outside until she comes." Well, I thought, maybe you do.

A week ago I thought I'd do anything for fashion. I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that before leaving Chicago to cover New York Fashion Week I scoured the runway-show photos and backstage reports on Hintmag.com and Style.com just in case I found myself in a conversation with a member of the "fashion elite." While packing I cataloged all the dresses, skirts, blouses, tunics, sweaters, jackets, pants, leggings, boots, pumps, and platforms I was bringing and made elaborate lists of which items went together. While unpacking at my friend's place in Brooklyn, I realized I'd forgotten all my tights. I had my roommate overnight them to me.

Thursday's show, by Zaldy--who's most famous for working with Gwen Stefani on her L.A.M.B. clothing line--would have been my 12th in seven days, and by then I was accustomed to being forced to wait ages for people more important than me to arrive. The upside of being a nobody was that I was able to form opinions unbiased by a single person showing me any kindness.

But standing there freezing my ass off, I had a moment of clarity. I realized that there are actually some things I won't do, not even for an event as momentous as the fall 2006 collections. I took off and met a friend for dinner.

That was my breaking point, but there were about 17 bazillion other disappointments in the course of the week. For example:

Friday, February 3: Today started off with a United Bamboo show at the gallery Exit Art. I had a fourth-row seat--between Harper's Bazaar and Fashion Calendar. Not bad--certainly better than either Footwear News or the Tote Report got. I started to grasp something of the byzantine rules determining Fashion Week seating: buyers, celebrities, editors in chief of big glossies, and hyperwealthy clients in the front row, then the general press, ranked in order of perceived importance, a calculus that changes according to the designer and the day--as the week draws to a close the shows get bigger and more expensive, and good seats (or any seats) are harder to come by.

I noticed tons of Marc Jacobs and Mulberry bags, purses so ubiquitous on the streets and in the pages of Us Weekly I thought no self-respecting style geek would dare carry one. The dress code was likewise confounding: Why was everyone in tight jeans and boots? Rubber wellies? Hoodies? I assured myself that it was only because it was 4 PM--far too early for anyone to care what they looked like.

The show started with a glitchy lo-fi techno remix of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and girls with I-just-woke-up hair emerged wearing supersoft empire-waisted jersey dresses and tunics with ballooning backs and hems that gathered around the thighs. One pair of men's pants had slim zippers like tiny pleats at the waist.

Afterward I had time for a quick romp through Saks Fifth Avenue, where I was addressed as "madam," and a slice of pizza at a deli, which I ate off a plastic tray in a cavernous white room full of mirrored columns and fold-out tables. A dozen groups of Latino workers laughed it up over six-packs of Corona.

The first thing I noticed at the Gen Art Fresh Faces show, which highlights up-and-coming talent, was how the ass of a plastic-surgery victim in tight leather pants looked exactly like her lips, all shiny and stretched out. My mood lifted when I saw a dude in a polo shirt carrying a tray of Johnnie Walkers on ice, then darkened again when I realized he was serving only rows one through three. I was in row four. The Chicago Tribune was in two.

The models finally came out, and I had a hard time staying interested. Last year every designer seemed newly obsessed with volume: loose, air-filled shapes that let the body do its thing separate from the clothing. Now everyone's still doing it, and they're all doing the same shapes--the bell, the tulip, the trapeze, the tent.

I went to Chelsea for the Myself by Kai Kuhne show, from a onetime member of the polyamorous design team As Four. A woman in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, Speedo stretch pants, one huge mirrored earring in the shape of a handgun shooting a heart, braces, and a French braid was chatting it up with the people in the front row. There were lots of good-looking, stylish people here--I was kind of intimidated, which was satisfying.

As soon as the first beat of Front 242's "Quite Unusual" started blasting, the lights blared and a striking model appeared from the wings in a short knit bathrobe-cum-trenchcoat-cum-dress. Fuck yeah! This was what I came for: drama and goose bumps, a packed room, clothing I'd probably never have the guts to wear, models who make me feel like an inferior species.

Saturday, February 4: I'd walked not 50 steps out the door of my friend's apartment when a white limo pulled up next to me. A young guy with spiky hair got out. "So my friends and I are kind of feeling you," he said. "And we're wondering if you'd like to go to Atlantic City with us." I realized that the outfit I thought looked chic and interesting--a tight dress and holy-shit-heeled boots--actually made me look like a hooker. Still, any other day I probably would've joined them.

Outside Jasmin Shokrian's show, a photographer for Jane magazine asked if she could take my photo for their street-style section, and I felt vindicated (though I tried to act like I didn't care). Inside an airy, eighth-floor hair salon in the Meatpacking District, Chicago expat Shokrian presented a collection called "Phases Alighting," which, to be honest, struck me as a little pretentious. But one jacket with material gathered and stitched down in the back, suggesting wings, made me excuse the highfalutin premise.

Next was Alice Roi, my first stop at the tents in Bryant Park, site of the official Olympus Fashion Week shows, which is to say the ones by designers your mother has heard of. Last time I was in Bryant Park, two summers ago, a pack of cops were shoving their bicycles into about a hundred people who were protesting the Republican National Convention. I was arrested and spent 50 hours in jail. Now, just a year and a half later, I was standing in line wearing six-hundred-dollar shoes. What had I become? But then British Elle took my picture and I was happy again.

I've known Alice Roi's creative director, Liv Wildz, for several years--I even modeled and sang in her first solo show when she moved to New York from New Orleans four years ago--so I got to hang out backstage, sipping champagne and watching silent, diligent, black-shirted stylists tease teenage models' hair under insanely hot lights.

I met one of Liv's other friends, Poppy King, a cosmetics entrepreneur who was named Young Australian of the Year in 1995. We were both given spots in the standing-room-only area behind all the seats. I couldn't figure out why we didn't get seats, and then I noticed another of Liv's friends also standing and I figured out that standing room is even cooler than the front row because it's filled with die-hard fans and people who actually know the designer. But when Poppy and I found some vacant third-row seats we snapped them up.

Roi pulls off a pretty subtle mixture of tough and sweet that when done right makes a woman look like Edie Sedgwick and when done wrong makes her look like a mallrat. My favorites included a distressed ivory jersey tent dress and ribbed knit leggings worn with patent leather fingerless gloves like hand spats; a charcoal crushed-velvet dress delicately held up with black patent leather ties that looked like garbage bag fasteners; and a sort of off-kilter deconstructed baby-doll dress with sleeves that were carved open to expose the armpits.

I capped off the night with Sue Stemp's show in the Players Club on Gramercy Park South, a stuffy members-only establishment filled with beat-up old silver steins, yards of polished wood, and sepia-toned portraits of mustachioed men. Stemp's claim to fame is her friendship with Kate Moss, so I was expecting some serious glamour here. At first I thought I'd found it: everyone was older, was wearing all black, and had British accents. But then their coats came off and they all looked a little too comfortable, in soft cashmere sweaters and easy pants, like they were dressed for an overseas flight.

A few hundred people waited around the place--and waited, and waited--for the show to begin. And once it did most of us didn't even know it had: the models walked languidly down a flight of carpeted stairs into the main foyer wearing short flouncy dresses, cozy hooded sweaters paired with lacy tap pants, and abstract animal-print tunics with leggings. There was no runway: the models sort of gathered in the middle of the ballroom and shrugged, looking lost. Then they stood and talked to each other like they were hanging out next to a water cooler.

Monday, February 6: Cathy Horyn called Stemp's show "brilliant" in today's New York Times. I guess compared with the stuffiness of the tents the disorganization must've seemed fresh, but I've seen too many confused little indie shows in Chicago to be charmed by sloppiness anymore.

I could not motivate myself to get out to today's shows. Instead I slept all afternoon, ate Fritos with hummus for a late lunch, and petted Mr. Toast, the mentally retarded teacup Chihuahua the friend I was staying with was pet-sitting, then ended the night snorting morphine with friends in New Jersey. And I was still three days from hitting bottom.

Tuesday, February 7: I really did mean to make it to the Heatherette show tonight in hopes that club-kid moguls Richie Rich and Traver Rains would come up with something so gloriously frivolous that it would pull me out of my funk. But I was having drinks at Beauty Bar and got to the subway too late. So I met a friend at a Brooklyn gallery and performance space called the Glass House, where a few dozen hipsters in tight jeans and boots sat on scraps of shredded Oriental rugs, watching a lethargic, darkly folksy Greek-goddess-by-the-brook duo called Cosmic Western Mystery Tradition.

Wednesday, February 8: Oops, I missed Peter Som. But I made it to Brian Reyes at the Sony Recording Studio in Midtown. More puff sleeves, more high waists, more tulip skirts. Yawn.

I decided to cheer myself up by going shopping and came back with a pair of tight jeans, which I promptly tucked into boots. This would be my uniform for the rest of my trip. What's the point of trying to stand out? All it gets you is a tiny little picture in Jane that will end up embarrassing you. If you're lucky.

Thursday, February 9: Went to see Araks, who showed supersoft, understated lingerie, muted knitwear, and classically sweet tailoring. Then I checked out Joanna Mastroianni's show in Bryant Park.

Mastroianni's collection was full of magisterial silhouettes and ornate fabrics, which makes sense because her program said she was influenced by Faberge eggs. Here I also saw my first celebrity, if Fairuza Balk counts, which she probably doesn't.

The standing-room area at this show didn't feel so cool. Women in Uggs carried nylon LeSportsacs; everyone looked ready to shovel some snow then take a nap. Can people not even dress up for freaking Fashion Week? I'm used to seeing people dress for comfort--I live in Chicago, for chrissakes--but at least here people appreciate it when someone makes an effort. I'd figured New York, the fashion capital of the country, would also be the style capital. But everyone at the shows looked the same, like cookie-cutter versions of Kate Moss circa 2003, like being different meant being uncool, like we were all back in junior high again and anyone not in an oversize I.O.U. sweatshirt and Cavariccis couldn't sit with the popular girls at lunch.

Then there was that last straw at Zaldy.

Friday, February 10: I'd already made up my mind that I was going home tonight, despite my invitations to the Jeremy Scott and Karl Lagerfeld shows--I couldn't take one more disappointment, especially from designers whose work I covet insanely. Instead I looked at their collections online, where distance restored some of the illusion of glamour. It almost made me want to be there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Liz Armstrong.

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