Is Fashion Really Screwed? Alaïa, King of Sexy Design

I was scampering through midtown on my way to COOGI–yes, the Australian company responsible for those endearingly cheesy, Technicolor-vomit, Bill Cosby sweaters was having a fashion show–when I noticed a homeless person half a block away, clutching a cardboard sign. The scurrying fashionistas ahead of me were responding to this bedraggled unfortunate with alacrity–reading his sign, then rummaging in their purses and tossing cash in his cup. I speculated about the exceptional tale of autobiographical woe inscribed on the makeshift sign–fire damage, H.I.V. status? What could possibly be motivating such a high response rate? As I drew level with the unhappy hobo, I instantly understood. His sign consisted of one word: “FUCKED.” The lack of minced words–and, more importantly, the sentiment–had clearly struck a deep and resonant chord with the exhausted fashion professionals, me included.

Fashion is, at this particular moment in time, well and truly fucked: The meaning of the word “fashion” has splintered into a thousand shards; the fashion cognoscenti are all awaiting a new generation of designers who will produce the Next Big Idea. The old guard, with massive fiscal responsibilities, focuses on marketing and positioning. Originality, craft and design wane. Pastiche and plagiarism wax. Confusion reigns. To use a lovely English expression, nobody knows if it’s “arse holes or breakfast time.” Small wonder radical kooks like Imitation of Christ are trying to deconstruct the system.

Despite the absence of great design and innovation, the Fashion Week entertainment factor is still quite high. “Creative directors” and show producers do their best to stave off boredom. This season they tickled our fancies with a wicked mix of opulence, smut and nostalgia–not necessarily in that order.

Nostalgia

During any revival it’s always the stinkiest fromage that is dragged out for gourmet consumption; the 80′s revival that raged through spring-summer 2001 Fashion Week provided much hilarity. For example, remember scrunch boots? (The early-80′s boot–ankle- or knee-length, often heel-less, often in gray leather; the soft excess length bunches and scrunches à la the leg warmer, making the wearer look as if she is retaining mashed potatoes in her calves.) Wolfgang Joop accessorized his tough, kinky collection with high-heeled, warm-beige scrunch boots. Do the words “Jackie Stallone” mean anything to you?

Anna Sui wittily mined the early 80′s: Banana- rama, early scroungy Madonna, Stevie Nicks and even Sheena Easton. Daryl K’s approach was less literal: though she showed iconic 80′s styles–tight vests with swooping lapels, ruched dresses, gathered tops with bat-wing sleeves–she twisted and tweaked her Bianca Jagger- Charlie’s Angels looks into some of the grooviest clothes of the season. Ralph Lauren gussied up his tough black and white “separates” (a very 80′s word) with contrasting pearls and corsages suggesting a confrontational lunch at La Mirage with Alexis Carrington. Rich bitches are back.

Opulence

“This is how we would like to live if we could have anything we wanted: nonchalant, simple, rich. Days by the pool. Nights on the town. Weekends at Goldeneye”–thus read the handout for Badgley Mischka, red-carpet eveningwear designers, prompting me to wonder how much less money our homeless person would garner were this to become his solicitation text. Maybe he would get even more money. After all, New York is feeling phenomenally posh right now.

The most eagerly anticipated event of the week was the opening of the Hermès Store, orchestrated by Jean-Paul Goude (remember the Grace Jones videos?). Despite the collective cringe of disappointment that rocked Manhattan when it became known the day before that there was to be no goodie bag, there was still a Day of the Locust turnout. The craze for bourgeois luxe–so long antithetical to high fashion–is now central to it.

Designers who formerly busted a gut to get Courtney Love or Lenny Kravitz to their shows now make personal overtures to ensure that Aerin, Pia, Brooke, Marie-Chantal and Marina are all present. And they are designing with them in mind: The avant-garde is dead, long live the new upper-echelon elegance. It’s Ungaro and Lacroix redux, and everyone is doing it. I wasn’t surprised to see pouf skirts return to Oscar de la Renta, but Donna Karan? The Queen of New Age has hocked her crystals and moved to Beekman Place. The result: a refreshingly kicky collection of belted jackets and knee-grazing chiffon tea-dresses with lots of dangly bits, colored predominantly in “caviar” and “champagne”–very Robin Leach.

Tuleh not only showed at Sotheby’s, they accessorized their Lauders-who-lunch collection with ostentatious, jolie-laide bijoux from the upcoming Flora and Fauna jewelry sale on Oct. 23. The green garnet, diamond and white gold crocodile brooch on the previous page, for instance, is expected to fetch between $8,000-$12,000. (Call 606-7000 for more information.) The auction catalog was placed on each chair, and great amusement was to be had from watching the rich girls in the front row attempting to inhale the bejeweled lots off the pages.

Michael Kors’ Palm Bitch (last season–i.e., in the stores now) has spawned a faux-hippie daughter, and despite her high-heeled Jesus sandals (these shoes, along with Carolina Herrera’s Blahniks, were the best runway shoes of the season), she’s running away from home on “a nouvelle trip down Route 66.” She was, however, smart enough to bring lots of cash, trunks of gorgeous clothes and her personal trainer.

Smut

Thongs, nipples, pubic triangles and short-shorts are a great way to perk up the largely hetero photographers and get them clicking. “I’m going to have to saw my pants off when I get home,” I heard one remarking somewhat crudely as he packed up his equipment. But gay or straight, who isn’t fascinated by a bit of old-fashioned nudity? I know I am.

While Betsey Johnson did lewd things with Playboy Bunnies, James Purcell drew from Hitchcock for his delightful Marnie -inspired collection. Funny, I just don’t recall the scene where Marnie’s ass was hanging out of gold hot pants and her nipples were bazookering through her diaphanous chiffon blouse.

Helmut Lang got moist with a collection titled “When Love Comes to Town.” This well-timed homage to the great designer Azzedine Alaïa confirms one of the all-time inviolable truths of fashion: Alaïa is the only person to design great fashion and make it sexy. If you wish to marry sexiness with high fashion, the Alaïa archive has it all. Mr. Lang’s fiercely fitted graphic collection rides the Zeitgeist of a renewed interest in the great, yet diminutive, Tunisian-born genius. (F.Y.I.: Y.S.L. was from Algeria.)

But the buzz about Alaïa has nothing to do with the 80′s revival–and it has nothing to do with his new Prada partnership, announced last week. It has to do with a renewed appreciation of his design talent and his commitment to his craft. There were a few tentative pockets of design-and-construction skill in the spring collections–William Calvert’s formal Beene-esque explorations; some pin-tucks and faggoting at Katayone Adeli; a roped bustier at John Bartlett–but comparison with Monsieur Alaïa’s work is not possible. Nobody comes close.

“Fashion is sick because the world is sick,” said Mr. Alaïa, with a smile, when I spoke with him last week.

He was in town for the Sept. 22 opening of a retrospective of his work–providing an optimistic end to Fashion Week. The key to Mr. Alaïa’s success has been his unwillingness to mount the hamster’s wheel of the current fashion system. He is oblivious to deadlines and seasonal deliveries, and yet he has never disappointed his customers by producing an ill-conceived collection. As he told WWD last week, “The collection will be ready when it’s going to be ready.” The singing stops when the song has ended–not when Fashion Week has arrived. His unwavering commitment to his craft has paid off: His sell-through (full-price sales) at Barneys has always, despite erratic deliveries, been the highest in the store. The balance of creation, supply and demand is as it should be.

“Alaïa: An Installation,” sponsored by the Brant Foundation, runs now through Nov. 15 on the second floor of 575 Broadway. The exhibition shows edited highlights from the Alaïa archive juxtaposed against Peter Brant’s collection of Warhol’s Last Supper paintings. I will never speak to any of you again if you do not run immediately to this astounding exhibition.

Correction

In the Sept. 25 issue ["What a Week! I Mean It!"], a gentleman in a photograph taken outside the Imitation of Christ show was misidentified in the caption as Jefferson Hack, the editor of Dazed and Confused magazine. In another caption, three models were said to be wearing the designs of Diane Von Furstenberg. In fact, though the designs were Von Furstenberg-like, they were those of renegade label Maione Weisser, which stationed models outside most of the major fashion shows during Fashion Week. In this case, the three models were outside the Marc Jacobs show on the night of Sept. 18.