Fashion Week: The Real N.Y.C. Marathon

After three months of resort road rage and frenzied shark attacks at our nation’s beaches, it’s time for New York Fashion Week. Once again, American designers and the foreigners who have adopted the city as their showroom-away-from-home will be hustling their spring collections. Not so many years ago, these runway shows were staged to exhibit designers’ wares to a small, professional audience of store buyers and fashion journalists. Today, the shows still ostensibly serve that purpose, but satellites and T1 lines have eliminated the need for live girls; their true purpose would seem to be feeding the insatiable infotainment beast. Fashion has captured the public’s imagination (yes, it has one!), and Fashion Week is now huge news. It’s even bigger than the weather. And in a world of 200 channels, designers and models are much-needed personalities. While we still require the occasional scatological or absurdist gesture from fine artists to prove their saucy irreverence, in the millennium nouveau , fashion design is settling in as the dominant “creative” mode of our culture.

This week, Metro Channel’s Full Frontal Fashion is providing 24-hour coverage of the shows, while an hour of their highlights will be shown nightly on WE, the Women’s Entertainment Network. The Style Network will provide two hours of coverage daily, to be distilled into a prime-time clip of highlights on E! This instant and comprehensive coverage will enable housewives nationwide to realize to what extent their wardrobes are grotesquely dated…albeit half a year ahead. It will also give H&M and other fashion-follower factories plenty of time to churn out their “homages” to Marc, Calvin, Michael et al. Fashion obsolescence now travels at the speed of light, and it’s quite possible for the knockers-off to beat the originators of a look into the stores. Meanwhile, the items most in demand by logomaniacal initiates of the Concorde-set cargo cult will be pre-ordered and sold out long before shipments reach the stores.

In other words, the shows are just there for show.

Blanket coverage means that the fashionably homebound need not miss a single runway look. Watching the shows on the tube while lying in bed will save me hours of traveling and waiting, as well as protect me from nervous exhaustion, dehydration and the possible injury or likely humiliation I’d experience in person. For fashion shows are like pro football: They’re really a lot better on TV. If there’s anything worse than joining the mead- and grog-swilling, face-painting proles of the N.F.L. in person, it’s a full schedule of fashion shows teeming with the rudest, shallowest, most grating and upwardly thrusting egomaniacs extant. At least at Giants Stadium, you know where you’re going to sit–and if you’ve paid enough, you’ll be seated well in front of the brawling, bonfire-starting barbarians. (And if the humans aren’t scary enough during Fashion Week, last season a crazed sheep ran amok on the runway, cowing the assembled fashion press. Yikes!)

The pre-seating crush of diehard fashionables can be every bit as brutal as a soccer riot. I remember the shocking spectacle of one of our most venerable and kooky fashion editors and one of our most glamorous, eligible-bachelorette fashion editors savagely elbowing a swath through the passively waiting “white trash” outside a show. It was brutal–especially when the younger fashion editor pushed an elderly, diminutive Japanese woman journalist to the ground. A fist fight ensued. The horror! But position is, in runway-show context, everything.

The attendees aren’t there to see but to be seen; the front row is the ticket to major cable-TV and paparazzi visibility, offering an ego boost on a global scale. It’s also the real fashion show. The major editors wear outfits that required their subordinates weeks of meetings to assemble, getting that unique dress, those crucial boots, that cult bag–and getting them exclusively. Runway-side seats are so important to second-tier “fashists” that they’ll get there by any means necessary, because in their world, life is a perilous quest to move down to the front row, then a death struggle to stay there. The tents are the totem poles of this strange tribe, and front row is top man.

Of course, the front row isn’t all editors and major buyers, especially at second- and third-tier shows. They’ll hold seats for Anna, Glenda and Patrick and pray they show up. Good luck. Chances are many prime seats will be occupied by rabid interns and junior-assistant handbag editors who know the boss isn’t showing and help themselves to major visibility and the freebie bag. The “muses”–the stars who depend on designers for free dresses for award shows–will be there applauding vigorously, and one may observe chairs marked, say, “Guest of Gwyneth Paltrow” or “Guest of Stephen Baldwin.” Entourages must be served as well. But some stars don’t seem to be there out of devotion to the designer. When you see Anthony Kiedis, Mickey Rourke, Steven Tyler or Jon Bon Jovi runway-side, you suspect it’s not about the clothes. Everyone knows that if you rush backstage fast enough, the girls will be naked.

But you never know who’s going to turn up. A few years ago, I arrived at Versace too late to take my seat. As the show started, I was poked in the back and wheeled around to hear a gentle lisp: “Thcuthe me.” I looked down, and there was Mike Tyson. He passed without delay. I also remember a recent Anna Sui show, where strobes began flashing and there was a palpable buzz of the sort that accompanies the arrival of a major star. It was Ronald McDonald. You know, life can be a cabaret, chums, and nowhere more so than in the tents at Bryant Park during Fashion Week.

It is truly amazing to see such a vast, complex yet ephemeral undertaking. It’s like a gay D-Day: dozens and dozens of designers, hundreds of models, hairdressers, makeup artists, dressers and stylists mounting extraordinarily detailed events all over town. And it all goes off like clockwork–well, maybe like sundial work. But it’s a remarkable outburst of creative effort that has enormous global impact. What walks down the runways will soon be walking down our streets, changing the looks and attitudes of the civilian populace. Well, some of it will reach the streets, anyway, after the hemline has been lowered a foot and you put a bra underneath that gauze. But for months we’ll be hearing about the aesthetic and social impact of the schmattas.

This week we’ll be hearing plenty of human-interest stories, like the comeback of SuperLinda, and discovering fashion’s newest enfants horribles and future gigamodels among the haute zombies. We’ll see the willful wannabes. If they aren’t showing, they’ll be partying: Shoshanna Lonstein, designer for the bra-challenged, bag lady Monica Lewinsky, Denise Rich’s loopy designing daughter and the precocious teen-designer daughter of Jerry Della Femina (not the same precocious daughter who wrote Jodi’s Shortcuts 2000: The Hamptons and sent all those psychos in unarmed personnel carriers past my house).

In addition to showing us what’s new, Fashion Week always promises us new geniuses! It was just two years ago that the designers who go by the name Imitation of Christ made their auspicious debut, sending out reconstructed thrift-store fashions on their muse, Chloë Sevigny. And this year we’ll have our third eyes peeled for the latest breakthrough kids, designers like Imitation of Imitation of Christ, who might just change everything. Please! I’ll be watching closely. And if I doze off, I’ll just rewind.