DO YOU REMEMBER that girl in high school who always dressed in quirky outfits and roamed the halls with an air of imperiousness? You know, the one whose zany styling choices – knee-highs with a tutu and stilettos or rainbow-colored hair in pigtails – shocked yet fascinated your carefully put-together teenage self? “Does she know something I don’t?” you might have asked yourself, thumbing for answers in the latest issue of Seventeen magazine. You were right to wonder.
I recently attended a few spring 2016 designer presentations during New York Fashion Week (NYFW). It was my first time there, and I was expecting something like a concert atmosphere…maybe some bustle and fanfare before the show, but focus on the performance once it started. Rookie mistake. It turns out that the real show is the side show, its ad hoc runway being the street and its models being stylish “It-Girls” with varying levels of sophistication and polish, but all with a burning desire to be noticed.
When I saw the crowd gathering outside the entrance to the Ulla Johnson show, I had reason to believe that I had missed my stop on the train and was back in my college town of Berkeley, California. The grunge look that I thought we had grown out of in the last decade was de rigueur among these buyers? stylists? bloggers? groupies? Who knows. The highlight of the evening occurred when a large black SUV drove up to the entrance and a petite woman in a white jumpsuit and a fur stole (mind you it was easily over 90 degrees that day) jumped out and cried “ULLA!!” to the swarm of photographers who pounced on her to capture the moment. Turns out that woman was Keri Russell, so I guess I get it.
The presentation itself was held in what looked like a garage, in the back of which the models were assembled in a sort of tableau vivant. One by one, they strutted in their haute bohemian ensembles to the spot where a bevy of photographers was assembled to take their pictures. No one seemed to be paying much attention to the poor girls, other than the designer’s stylists making adjustments before each shot. Eventually, the beauty of the collection and even the perfect creatures wearing it was eclipsed by the wackiness and noise of the crowd. At one point, a woman held up a pregnant Barbie doll and snapped a photo of her with the models in the background. She handed me the doll’s business card (her name is “Tureen Trailer Park Queen,” and she’s on Facebook and Twitter, in case you’re interested). I took this as my cue to leave the party and find a cab back to reality.
Next, I attended a presentation by Tanya Taylor, a designer who had been featured by Bergdorf Goodman as a “rising talent” earlier that week. I had high hopes for the collection and, obviously, the scene. Other than the blogger from Tijuana wearing the acid-washed jeans, cornrows and a cut-off black T-shirt proclaiming “Will Twerk for a Birkin” (to be fair, she was carrying a Birkin and was perched on highly covetable white-and-black Valentino Rock Stud heels), this crowd did not disappoint. I knew that I was rubbing elbows with fashion’s power brokers when I bumped into Linda Fargo, Bergdorf’s creative director. Almost everyone was impeccably groomed and wearing the latest designer swag in impossibly chic combinations. The designer’s collection itself, which was bright, feminine and playful, was presented by immobile models on an elevated platform (the better to see the shoes, which in my opinion nearly stole the show), and the vivid colors of the clothing were echoed in delicate streamers hanging from the ceiling. Before leaving, I stopped to take in the crowd, which once again was in some ways the main event.
By the time the Tibi show rolled around, I thought I had the hang of the NYFW thing (i.e., show up, see and be seen, capture some details of the collection on your iPhone, leave). This was the only actual runway show I attended, and I was looking forward to the more layered and dynamic display of the designer’s vision afforded by the format.
The show was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., and I got caught in traffic and arrived in a slight panic at 1:45. I needn’t have worried. I watched from my perch as a steady stream of fashion executives, journalists, the usual street-style favorites and well-known fashion bloggers made their entrance. Meanwhile, photographers scrutinized the crowd for photo ops – of which there were many.
Once the last well-known blogger (Leandra Medine, aka Man Repeller) took her seat at around 2:45, the lights were dimmed, the music started and the models cat-walked. The effortless, relaxed feel of this collection was a sharp contrast to the outfits most of the people in the room were wearing (myself included, since I had opted for very high-waisted skinnies from my favorite French designer’s fall collection which felt like a body cast at that point). For the 10 or so minutes that the show lasted, all eyes were on the collection, and every woman was imagining herself in one or more of those outfits, rather than in what everyone else at the show was wearing. This felt like fashion at its best: when admiration replaced envy. The show was over all too soon, and back out to the catty sidewalk we all went.
Here’s the thing. New York Fashion Week is all it’s cracked up to be, if you genuinely love fashion, are open-minded, have a sense of humor and can handle being humbled by the level of sophistication, creativity, exhibitionism and superior genes that characterize this crowd. There are definitely shows outside of the shows, and everyone wants to be in them. To this end, New York magazine recently ran an article entitled “How to Get Noticed by Street Style Photographers 2015” suggesting eye-catching (or garish, depending on your taste) accessories. The irony is that the girl with the quirky and irreverent fashion sense who used to be original – strange, even – has become the norm, while looking normal is on the way to becoming counter-cultural.
After the Tibi show, a photographer approached me and asked if she could take a picture for a piece that may or may not run in New York magazine. The subject, she explained, would be fashion show attendees dressed like normal people. “All those girls wear the weirdest things they can to get attention, and photographers fall for it. Our idea is to feature people who are stylish without looking like they are trying so hard.” I know that in the highly competitive fashion editorial world, recognizing the virtues of simple chic probably won’t make the cut. But I’m going to take her solicitation as a compliment, and stop looking for answers to that lingering doubt from high school in the latest issue of Vogue. For now, at least.
Sylvia Colella blogs about fashion and lifestyle-related subjects. A former Parisienne, she is obsessed with all things chic and glamorous.