It’s Fashion Wake

Midway through New York’s Olympus Fashion Week, it seems that no one cares any longer to tell fashion designers whether they’re right or horrendously wrong. Or is it that the press has realized that their fashion opinions just don’t matter in the American marketplace?

“It used to be,” said John Fairchild, the former rip-roaring publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, by phone from the Ritz in Paris, “that you’d go to the theater, you’d write a review. Now people are being politically correct in fashion—they go to the shows and sit there and get a sore bottom. They sort of swim around, and their criticisms are rather soft.

“I think they’re being politically correct because things have changed and everything is advertising-driven,” Mr. Fairchild said. “I think the big thing is that people really are interested in the comings and goings of society and movie stars, rather than writing endless reams of critical descriptions of clothes.”

Still, Mr. Fairchild referred to the reviews as just so much “blah-blah-blah,” noting that, in fashion, it all comes down to the buyers.

He has a point about the “blah.” In late 2000, after the sale of Yves St. Laurent, the influential New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn essentially announced that we now lived in a sad age devoid of fashion titans. This week, she has ladled out just faint (albeit intelligent) praise and the mildest of spankings. It should also be noted that, yesterday, her 950 words on eight different shows were placed on page B11.

More notably, Women’s Wear Daily, which once pronounced disasters and triumphs with the immediacy of a telegram and the force of a heel in the face, has absolutely eviscerated its critical viewpoint.

“I think there’s still a fair amount of critical press out there,” said Fern Mallis, the executive director of the I.M.G.-owned 7th on Sixth, the producers of New York’s Olympus Fashion Week. “If you were the designer, you would think it was critical.”

Feh! Remember when designers would go out of business—or at least flee the country for a bit—after a big slam in the trades? Now it’s far more likely that a publication will go out of business rather than a designer, and that has made all the difference.

Editor in chief Brandusa Niro sat in her office yesterday, picking cover photos for today’s candy-colored edition of The Daily and recovering from the thrills she said she got from the Marc Jacobs, Doo-Ri Chung and Alice Temperely shows.

“I think people have decided some time ago—I don’t know what WWD is doing, and I would never speak for them—but I think people are deciding to give ink to what deserves it, instead of negativity,” she said.

“The times have changed,” Ms. Niro added. “The fashion world is not as bitchy and as nasty as it once was. Personally, I consider it a good thing …. I think everyone’s kinder and gentler because we don’t have enough space to cover the bad stuff.”

On Monday morning, it wasn’t just the yawning white wedding tents that stretched over the lawn, or the rarefied absence of anything resembling a straight man, or the unusually leggy ladies who had replaced the homeless men and mid-level office-workers who normally populate Bryant Park.

It was the country-club types who had lined up bright and early to get into the Carolina Herrera show, twenty- and fortysomething women who had grabbed their pointy shoes (so over!) and Balenciaga bags and Paris-sized engagement rocks (set off against pale cream manicures) and now stood in lemming-like formation waiting for the doors to open.

A tiny epiphany made itself evident about why fashion is so underwhelming these days. It is because it’s being run by these women, for these women, who may have the money to buy fashionable clothes and look all put together, with everything perfectly matched and tucked and creased, but who—unlike the women of Paris—wouldn’t recognize cool if it bitch-slapped them in the face.

But what else can you expect from an industry whose guiding business principle might be described as an aestheticized equivalent of Reaganomics?

Ms. Herrera’s show itself featured drawing-room dullery, waifs wrapped in upholstery fabrics that looked like they’d been ripped from the pool cushions of some Florida hacienda. While some gowns were gorgeous, the most egregious by far was the gauzy sheath dress made from some diaphanous brown fabric dappled with … radishes.

Backstage, star-struck fans pawed their way through the changing room, full of air-kisses. “Let’s just say we’ve been flooded with stories,” said one lanky black-haired fashionista, who was presumably an editor, to a nattily dressed gentleman. “I don’t want to read any more about that hurricane. But what can you do?”

On Friday, the shows began, and in the afternoon it became apparent that designer Brian Reyes had sold himself on the strength of a few lovely sketches. The countless profiles of the upstart designer who managed to blag his way past the authorities to head up design teams at Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren proved that he had also managed to endear himself to the media—without showing them a single dress. Before a teeming audience that included essentials like Vogue’s Sally Singer and André Leon Talley—who perched on a far-away window sill behind the standing section—Mr. Reyes sent out 24 risk-free looks, all excessively, tediously wearable, featuring elements like pencil skirts, flimsy camisoles and low-slung, well-tailored trousers.

At 9 p.m.—after Liev Schreiber, Jimmy Fallon, Gabby Hoffman, Cecily Brown, Rachel Feinstein and Yvonne Force Villareal crammed themselves into the first row at Tara Subkoff’s Imitation of Christ show for an eyeful of denim and dildos—chaos ruled in Bryant Park for Tommy Hilfiger’s 20th-anniversary show. A thin-looking Jay-Z arrived, without Beyoncé. The disappointment was palpable. At 9:10 p.m., the show was over. Jesse Metcalf walked out alone in a green sweater and jeans.

“It wasn’t over the top, but it wasn’t under,” said Princess, a finalist contestant from Mr. Hilfiger’s reality show The Cut. At the back of the tent, a model sneered: “Are you guys going to Crobar?”

At midnight, it was discovered that the Hilfiger models did in fact go to Crobar. They even danced in a cute model circle together. A girl tried to peel one off, plugging his phone number into her cell. “Are you going to remember me if I call you?” she asked. “Yeah,” he said. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Yeah,” he said, “I always remember.”

“Tommy sucks,” said a stylist named Sebastian, who had styled himself in a shredded T-shirt and a burnt-orange fedora. “I didn’t like it all. The show was very outdated. I didn’t get it, especially for the spring. You know what? I think a lot of the creativity has kind of maxed itself out. There’s always room for it—but it seems like people don’t know where to go. There’s been so much done in the past that you have to be very creative to come up with something completely fresh and new. It’s hard to do. So with that said, you have to be one talented motherfucker.”

On Saturday afternoon in the Proenza Schouler Chinatown loft, Lazaro Hernandez held up a light-gray coat with elaborate embroidery and assembly. “The clothes are a lot more expensive this season,” Mr. Hernandez said. He wouldn’t disclose the coat’s price but said it was in the high four figures. “It’s all about discretion,” Jack McCullough said. “A minimal baroque. You see, the people who can afford to will buy clothes, whether they respond to a social context or not, and when they chose to buy a coat from us instead of another brand, they are responding to the discreet luxury of the thing.”

The two business partners were making what looked like very healthy sandwiches with their design, production and casting crews. Racks of their collection stood ready to be fitted: creamy whites, pale grays, charcoals, blacks and a hint of pale green. Spirits were high.

“You know, after we did our last collection, we went on a trip to L.A. and spent a lot of time at the Arts and Crafts Museum,” said Mr. McCullough. “The Arts and Crafts movement,” Mr. Hernandez added, “was a reaction against industrialization, a reaction to mass culture. That’s something that has always interested us.”

The duo followed up their journey west with a trip to the Mayan city Tulum. They weren’t looking for a “cheesy ethnic aesthetic.” What they found was that “there was nothing there.”

“And since there are no sewing machines,” Mr. Hernandez said, “everything is made by hand. And so it’s all about taking time.” They promptly hired a new pattern drafter from Rochas, Nicolas Caito, schooled in the swiftly disappearing techniques of couture.

“Sometimes we find we’re in a bubble,” said Mr. Hernandez.

Models traipsed into the loft to effusive greetings. In a sort of easy dance, the pair worked around the girls, sometimes crouching, standing or rolling around on an office chair in earnest thought. An elaborately crafted and embroidered bolero/ tuxedo ensemble was fitted on a Brazilian model called Anna J.

Anna was asked to walk back and forth. The duo decided wordlessly to change the shape of the trouser. For the next 45 minutes, they sat legs akimbo on either side of the model, pinning and pulling and rearranging, calling in a seamstress and readjusting until the leg was perfect.

Half an hour later, Mr. Hernandez commanded a razorblade to cut three invisible snippets of string from the jacket.

And that night, at Kimora Lee Simmon’s Baby Phat show at Radio City Music Hall, a staffer walked through the crowd asking for Hurricane Katrina donations. He held out a bright blue purse with gold studding. The purse was empty. Star Jones wore an all-white suit.

Sunday night, at 7 p.m., a dark-haired beauty managed to pass beneath the lighting structure of Diane von Furstenberg’s runway just as it fell. She walked offstage like nothing had happened.

“I didn’t understand,” she said outside afterward, blinking gorgeous blue eyes. She took a drag from her cigarette. “I was the first one to go in. And all the girls stopped and ran the other way.”

“You look so amazing,” said her companion, a man in a red fitted T-shirt and jeans, seemingly unaware of the flashing lights and the sirens of the fire truck and the two ambulances behind them. And she did! Even in the face of tragedy, the shiny bouffant hairstyle and feminine, Mediterranean-inspired Dreamscape dress designed by Ms. von Furstenberg were impeccable.

Sarah, Mrs. von Furstenberg’s gorgeous young niece, surveyed the pandemonium and said the show’s abrupt ending was a shame after all of their hard work. “I’m shocked and shaken, but everyone is O.K.,” she said. She felt bad for her aunt. “It’s a lot of work to put on a show, and for this to go and happen …. ”

A woman in a lighting-maintenance uniform held her hand against her forehead with her eyes squeezed shut. The production crew sat cross-legged on the floor inside the entrance tent afterwards, smoking cigarettes and discussing what had happened. What were they going to do next?

“I have no idea,” said one dressed all in black, her brown hair pulled back. They, too, were resignedly smoking cigarettes.

In the St. Vincent’s emergency room, where the lighting-disaster victims had been taken, Ms. von Furstenberg crossed her arms protectively across her chest. “I am just shocked,” she said wearily. She was still clad in one of her bold prints, a pattern of black Celtic braids interspersed with pink diamonds. “But I’m glad that everyone is O.K.”

With that, she was escorted by a gentleman in a beige suit into a dark Mercedes coupe. No one was aware of any after-party.

Designer Matthew Earnest, the ginger-haired 26-year-old Texan who was known for his exceedingly preppy aesthetic until he sat out last season, had spent the last two months in his tiny one-bedroom, subsisting on three hours of sleep, large amounts of caffeine and “background noise” to put together his new collection.

On Monday, mere minutes before his show, several pieces had still not arrived from production. But when the lights dimmed at 12:20 p.m., and his first model stomped onto the runway so hard she brought down a sign attached to the wall, a collective sigh of relief could be heard. Monochromes, plexiglass, contrast stitching and an almost architectural structuring called to mind Courrèges.

At 3 p.m., Fern Mallis sauntered through the tents. Fashion Week has grown, she said—2,700 people from 1,000 media outlets. But has all this growth come at the expense of innovation?

“It depends on how you define innovation,” she said. “When we started these shows in 1993, everybody thought by 2000 everybody would be running around in silver Mylar jumpsuits.” Oh, aren’t we, Ms. Mallis?

Nearby, Full Frontal Fashion’s gumshoe fashion correspondent Lloyd Boston read lines from cue cards with the passion of a man who really believed he was breaking news. “In Bryant Park, the trends don’t stop on the catwalks. Behind the scenes, the stage is being set for the hottest hair and makeup of the spring season!”

“This is the biannual rite and ritual of how the fashion industry does its business,” Ms. Mallis said. “This is how you get the information out in 20 minutes to the widest, biggest audience in the world. And it helps the retailers decide what they’re going to buy, the editors decide what they’re going to feature, the agencies decide what they’re going to advertise.

“And then,” she said, “there’s the priceless publicity.”

Priceless? Katy Rodriguez, co-founder of the Resurrection Stores, was flying back to L.A. on Monday, totally over it. “It’s not for lack of talent that young designers aren’t really doing anything new,” she said. “It’s because they don’t have a moment to develop their ideas. The market doesn’t allow them to.”

Half an hour later, the Hilton sisters sashayed into the tent on each other’s arms, a Jungian archetype of a frat-boy’s wet dream. Their hair was blonder than blond, their shorts shorter than short, Paris’ engagement ring so big it looked fake.

Just as one might have been tempted to commit hari-kari right there in the center of the photographer clusterfuck, a hilarious little dumpling of a man wearing a red bandana tied shmatte-style around his forehead started shouting, “That’s hot! That’s hot! That’s hot!”—over and over and over.

This man was named Richard Spiegel, who works as a fashion photographer and editor for Lucire, which just last week featured Nicky Hilton on its cover. His breath smelled like coffee and nicotine.

Wasn’t Carolina Herrera boring? “I think Carolina—she has her clientele, and smart designers cater to their clientele,” he said. “You want to keep them happy, because if you don’t do that, all the society girls panic, and they decide they have to call up Oscar or Zang Toi. Certain designers fill a need for the society girls. And it’s very critical—because you can’t go to the ball if you don’t have anything to wear.”

The press is just plain wimpy, it was suggested. “I read Women’s Wear today, and it seemed like they liked everything they saw,” Mr. Spiegel said. “There’s a lot of politics in fashion, with magazines and so forth. Advertising dollars play a big part in this industry. And therein lies the rub. Say there’s a designer spending $75 million on advertising, and it’s not the greatest collection; the [media] are going to turn around and say it’s great because of the advertising dollars.

“It’s the truth,” he said. “If you don’t have the advertising, you don’t have a magazine, and magazines go in and out of business, left, right and center.”

Late Monday night at the Marc Jacobs show, Irene Chung, the mastermind behind the Marc Jacobs accessories line, explained Mr. Jacobs’ absolutely visually boring but socially spectacular show. “He was thinking of Heathers and Carrie and schoolgirls gone crazy,” she said. The artist Hope Atherton, who has been designing costumes for the Narnia movie, said, “He really re-created a specific sliver of Americana. It was very cohesive.” Sure … it cohered.

When Mr. Jacobs himself arrived at his own after-party, he promptly opened the doors to the uninvited milling masses in front. “Come in,” he offered. Later, his muse, Lil’ Kim, performed. “I heard she’s being taken to jail right after this performance,” said Lydia Hearst-Shaw, a professional muse herself. Cannonballs shot silver confetti onto the dancing masses. Lindsay Lohan, having changed into a blue potato sack, asked incredulously, “Isn’t there another exit?”

By Choire Sicha, Jessica Joffe, Lizzy Ratner, Raegan Johnson, Nicole Pesce and Brad Tytel.