The Fashion Flu

Fashion week was just getting started, but the models in Diane Von Furstenberg’s West 12th Street carriage house on Sunday, Sept. 12, were already whimpering about being tired. “Isn’t this fun?” gushed the 52-year-old designer as she darted around in a filmy white sundress with an ivy pattern. Models were splayed all over the floor in four different tableaux vivants : girls lying by an indoor pool; girls hiding behind palm fronds; girls sitting on a crumbling, white papier-mâché boulder; girls (and here were the ethnic ones) on a little desert carrying spears and playing bongo drums.

Suzy Menkes, the fashion editor of The International Herald Tribune , snapped their picture with a disposable Kodak and grinned beneath her bubble of hair. This is one of the couple of thousand fashion shows she is invited to every year. “I see about 90 shows in Paris,” she lilted, “about 300 a season, and I do men’s wear as well, I do couture twice … I can’t add it up, but that’s lots of shows.” Ms. Menkes snapped a shot of a girl lying on her belly. “There’s just fashion shows all the time.”

“That’s why we go first!” said Ms. Von Furstenberg with a wink, gliding by and then disappearing again into the crowd.

Ms. Von Furstenberg was one of the New York designers who, starting a year ago, began positioning themselves before the London, Milan and Paris fashion shows, a maneuver that has contributed to the unrelenting pace of the fashion world–a burden that has driven the fashion flock into therapy. Look around Manhattan when the spring 2000 collections are being presented all over town and you’ll witness it: fashion fatigue. With more than 125 shows in seven days in New York this year, fashion editors entered the tents of Bryant Park with dread. Shows start as early as 9 A.M., and parties last into the next morning. And that’s just the beginning of a two-month international tour on which most of them are required to go at least twice a year. Their frequent-flier miles are up, but their stilettos are worn, and their eyes are a lot less discriminating.

“There’s more than ever,” said Fern Mallis, executive director of Seventh on Sixth, an organization that puts most of Fashion Week together. “This whole phenomenon just keeps getting bigger and bigger.” In 1993, when Seventh on Sixth began consolidating and overseeing the shows, it had about 50 on its calendar.

The bigger the fashion community gets, the more its key players are inflicted by this syndrome. Designers are churning out several collections every year, often on two different stages–here and in Europe. Editors are rushing to make sense of the thousands of looks. Photographers keep on snapping, and models keep on walking. Somewhere, there is a runway show 10 months of the year.

Take American designers Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors. Each designs his own eponymous line, headquartered in New York and showing twice a year–in September and February. Each also holds the title of head designer for a French house: Louis Vuitton and Celine, respectively, headquartered in Paris and showing in October and March. Four fashion shows, four collections, two separate staffs.

The Marc Jacobs spring 2000 show was held at 9 P.M. on Sept. 13 at the New York State Armory on Lexington Avenue at 26th Street. The next morning at 6 A.M., Mr. Jacobs piled into a car for Kennedy International Airport to catch a flight to Paris, where he would immediately begin fittings and castings for models for his Louis Vuitton show on Oct. 12. He keeps apartments in both cities, but travels back and forth about 20 times a year. He makes practically every decision for his shows in person.

The typical fashion editor now sees upward of 700 shows a year. Vogue will send just two editors to London from Sept. 21 to Sept. 26 because several British designers–Nicole Farhi, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen–showed their collections in New York this season. From Sept. 24 to Oct. 2, Elle will send seven editors to Milan, and Vogue eight. Those eight Vogue editors will then go directly to the Paris collections–from Oct. 2 to Oct. 12–and so will eight from Elle . Editors in chief, like Anna Wintour of Vogue , Katherine Betts of Harpers Bazaar and a few others also go to Paris two additional times for the haute couture collections in January and July.

Until last September, New York’s designers showed their clothes last, after Paris. But a group of designers, led by émigré Helmut Lang, decided to reverse that trend and get supposedly fresh eyes on their new designs. “I remember doing those shows,” said Ms. Mallis. “By the time the press and everybody got here, they were exhausted. Burnt out. You had to kill yourself to impress them and make them happy.”

Now, on a typical day during the New York spring 2000 shows (from Sept. 11 to Sept. 17), there is an average of 15 shows and five parties per day. Shows might overlap. Downtown pants-man Tony Melillo, for example, is showing his Nova USA collection at the Passante Ball Field on Houston Street at 3 P.M. on Sept. 16; at the same time, across town, newcomer Angel Sanchez is showing at Bryant Park. And cowboy hat-wearing Diane Von Furstenberg protégée Catherine Malandrino will show at the same time as wedding dress maven Vera Wang, at 3 P.M. on Sept. 17. Mr. Jacobs reportedly told his models who were also booked for Mayor Giuliani’s New York 2000 show in Times Square, slated for 8 P.M. on Sept. 13, that he would not wait for them to begin his show on Lexington Avenue and 26th Street at 9 P.M.

Fighting for cabs–because the shows are spread out all over the city as designers try to out-spectacle each other–just adds to the frustration. Seventh on Sixth has a tent city at Bryant Park, but Ralph Lauren, for example, decided to show his collection at 10 A.M. on Sept. 15 at his showroom in SoHo. Donatella Versace lugged all the famous folks to a rock-and-roll extravaganza at the Roseland theater on Sept. 11, Cynthia Rowley is showing at the New Yorker Hotel on West 42nd Street, Tommy Hilfiger is showing at Madison Square Garden, Calvin Klein is setting up a runway in a studio in Chelsea, and the New York debut show of Alexander McQueen, sponsored by American Express, is planned for a pier near West 55th Street on Sept. 16.

Daryl K, who showed at Lever House on Park Avenue and 53rd Street at 3 P.M. on Sept. 14, set up her runway on an open rooftop, something she couldn’t have done at Bryant Park, and set it to sounds of chirping birds and thunder. Judging from the stampede for the elevators after the show– Vogue editors Hamish Bowles and Grace Coddington zipped right through the trail of models leaving the runway–even a midtown location proved to be a hassle.

“You know,” said Ms. Mallis, “one season we’re going to print up the shirt that says, ‘Hey, stupid! It’s the clothes!’ Make it easy, make it convenient.”

There is another schedule for after hours. Many designers have parties–Nicole Farhi at her new store on East 60th Street, Rebecca Taylor at Veruka, Marc Jacobs at Paris Commune. So do many fashion magazines–Ms. Betts will be feted at Fressen, and Allure is throwing creative director Polly Mellen a party at Barneys, complete with window installations. “In a day, you have to do so much socializing,” said modeling agent Michael Flutie. “You don’t eat dinner until midnight because you’ve been to three parties.”

The whole thing feels longer than it used to,” said New York Times writer Cathy Horyn. “Particularly for us who go back, say, to the early 90’s. I’m sure that we weren’t going to shows until 9 o’clock. It’s a bigger world, and it’s more hectic. There’s more designers who want to show. It’s their way to remind people that they’re in the game.”

“I got back from vacation, and I had this pile in the middle of my living room,” said Paper magazine fashion writer Lauren Ezersky. “Even r.s.v.p.’ing is exhausting. I’m tired and it hasn’t even started! By the end of the week, you’ve already seen, like thousands of dresses, and it’s just like, they all look the same.”

The day before fashion week officially kicked off, eyeing a belted, white Burberry’s raincoat at a “look-see,” Mirabella senior market editor Vanessa Fox Halpert had several issues to raise. “Paris is extraordinarily tiring,” she said. “You’re out till 3, dinner is at 11. You really do have to pace yourself. You notice, at the end of the week, you look across the room and everyone’s like …” Ms. Heilprin rolled her eyes up and lolled her tongue. She looked tired.

“That coat is very Vanessa,” said Michelle Morgan, the fashion director of Mirabella . The cure for fashion fatigue, said Ms. Morgan, is “a lot of coffee and a lot of cigarettes.” She laughed. “I’m really bad with vitamins. I’m not a vitamins type.”

“In New York, at least, the more of a peon you are, the more fashion fatigue you get,” said Ms. Morgan, “because you have to go to every single random show.”

On Day 2 of New York’s fashion week, photographer Patrick McMullan had already lost his voice. He was clicking socialites sipping champagne through straws at the Moët & Chandon Designer Debut in Bryant Park on Sept. 12, as Alexandra Lind’s geometric collection tripped down the runway. “Too much kissing,” he croaked. “It’s not physically possible to do it,” he said of fashion week in New York. “And yet I do it. I don’t know how I do it, but I stay up from, like, 9 in the morning to 5 in the morning, and I just sort of get through it.”

The next day, looking up at the packed bleachers at the Carolina Herrera show in Bryant Park, Marylou Luther, an editor of International Fashion Syndicate, a fashion news wire that supplies runway coverage to papers all over the world, said, “With as many shows as there are right now, it takes something pretty special to excite this room.” She’s been covering the catwalk since 1956. “If you have one bad season, well, that’s one thing. We can be very forgiving. But a couple?” She shook her head.

Backstage, there were models suffering, too. Frankie Rayder could hardly keep track of her tightly packed schedule, which included Marc Jacobs, Badgley Mischka, Daryl K, Tommy Hilfiger and John Bartlett. “I did four today, I’m doing five tomorrow,” she said, pausing to try on a shirt at the John Bartlett showroom on Sept. 13. “And beyond that, I guess my agent knows.” She paused again. “But I get paid a lot of money. So that’s, you know, motivating.”

Grown-up model Isabella Rossellini, at a party celebrating the evolution of the Coty perfume bottle on Sept. 10, seemed unsympathetic. “When I used to walk the runway,” she said, “it was hectic. Now, I am just amused.”

“It’s survival of the fittest,” explained Ms. Rayder’s agent, Michael Flutie from Company Management, referring to well-endowed designers rather than steadfast models. “It’s a natural elimination. If someone can’t afford her, if they don’t have the prestige or the image, then you say, well, if you can’t afford her it’s O.K. That will eliminate one show she doesn’t have to be at.”

And, sometimes, with a case of fashion fatigue, they’d rather not be there. “I travel with the girls. I keep them calm, I have dinner with them. In the middle of the night, if they’re not feeling well, then that’s what a manager’s job is. The girls get homesick, they miss having a grilled cheese sandwich. I remember James King standing in the Bristol Hotel in Paris, and she just looked so tired, and she said, I just miss everybody speaking English.”

Outside the tents at Bryant Park on Sept. 11, the fountain was gurgling, the air smelled nice, there was plenty of Evian. “It’s very hard to have sympathy,” said Ms. Mallis of the plight of the fashion editor. “I mean, I understand. It’s hard, but when push comes to shove, is it really the hardest job in the world? Running around all week to see a lot of fashion shows? Sit in a chair and criticize somebody’s work that they’ve killed themselves on? And make value judgments on it, get free gifts, free champagne, free lots of things?”

At least they have their expense accounts. “My assistant was like, O.K., do you want to leave for Milan on Saturday, or on Sunday?” said Ms. Morgan of Mirabella . “And I was like, I want to leave on Saturday. And she was like, you’re not going to any shows until, like, 5 o’clock on Sunday. And I’m like, n-n-n-n-no! I have to leave Saturday, because I have it all planned. I wake up, I order coffee, I take a bath, I watch pay-per-view, I order steak frites for lunch, and my room stays dark until 3 o’clock. Nothing’s stopping me from doing that! Nobody can call me. Nobody!”