Man Who Mistook Helmut Newton For Magritte

I’ve always been intrigued by the term “fashion victim.” As I understand it, it’s a phrase used by people who write about fashion to sneer at the people who take what they write seriously–the ones who actually buy the extremely pricey clothes the fashion writers promote.

I could be wrong; as a complete outsider to the fashion subculture– someone who is less a fashion victim than a hopeless fashion non-entity –I’m nonetheless fascinated by the rhetoric of those who are paid to describe fashion, who have to twist themselves into verbal knots to give an aura of seriousness to proceedings like Fashion Week. And after reading The Times ‘ coverage of Fashion Week and watching the fashion commentators on MetroTV’s nonstop Full Frontal Fashion coverage of Fashion Week, my heart goes out to them all. It is my outsider’s opinion that the real fashion victims are not the ones who wear the clothes, but rather the ones who have to write the prose.

After all, fashion writers are for the most part intelligent, highly educated people, often talented writers who are condemned to pretend (or to deceive themselves into believing) that fashion is a very serious , highly intellectual affair, that expensive designer clothes are not just high-priced, but high art. (I think there is a parallel to “baseball intellectuals” among sportswriters.) Meanwhile, they have to, on a daily basis, interview and pretend to take seriously designers and fashion gurus who express themselves exclusively in what might be called “About-speak.” As in “It’s all about a look,” “It’s all about a vision,” “It’s all about clean lines” (wouldn’t it be great if someone came out in favor of fuzzy lines?), “It’s all about clothing for the real woman” (even though it almost never is), “It’s all about being classic and yet contemporary,” It’s all about being about something.

It’s all about enough to drive you crazy. The response of many fashion writers to this bombardment by “about-speak” banality has been to insist that it’s really about Big Ideas: It’s about deep thinking. One can see this preoccupation with intellectual depth throughout The Times ‘ coverage of Fashion Week. Just to cite a few examples, we are told early on that “what fashion needs at the moment is optimism and a lucid point of view.” We are not told what an example of “a lucid point of view” about fashion might be, only that we need one.

And then we’re told that one Nicolas Ghesquière, the new darling of fashion insiders (“The right people know who he is”–Anna Wintour), has “something fresh to say about modern dressing.” We’re not told what he has to say, although we’re told that his clothes have “a vocabulary” and use “language”–but not enough of a vocabulary to tell us what that “fresh thing” Mr. Ghesquière “has to say” actually is. It seems to have something to do with slim cargo pants instead of baggy ones. (Fresh!) And the thing he has to say about modern dressing may have something to do with his “boleros sprouting with yarn curls, their effect like an eccentrically shorn lamb.”

Maybe that’s it–maybe the “fresh thing” he has to say is encoded in the “vocabulary” of those “shorn lamb” boleros. Maybe in an arcane way that only “the right people” can discern, he’s making an analogy to the fashion process itself: Fashion people are like sheep being “shorn” of their cash by eccentrics (the designers), and fashion writers are the ones who sprout the “yarns” in their prose that lead the lambs to the (fiscal) slaughter.

The demand for deep thinking is relentless, not just on the part of The Times ‘ fashion correspondents: In Vogue’s March issue, we learn of one designer who is “think-tanking” a pink dress for a client. And in The Times we’re told of one designer that he’s fatally “uncertain about the point he wanted to make,” and that another has “no clear line of thought.” Again, alas, we’re not given an example of what a “clear line of thought” might be if we were to glimpse it. But the idea of it is important.

Another fashion-writer favorite, Geoffrey Beene, is described as being very “didactic” and “angry” and his clothes as “more intelligent.” His clothes are more intelligent than what, though? Than the people who buy them? In what way do these angry, didactic clothes demonstrate their scary IQ?

But God help the clothes that fail to live up to the requisite intellectual standards. Consider the way a Times writer sneers at a designer who used ribbons printed with lines of poetry. “That she chose from the hit list of Byron and Emily Dickinson and not from, say, the oeuvre of James Merrill indicates precisely the level of challenge the clothes present.” Ooh, that hurt. But what can you do? Clothes that merely pretend to the level of an Emily Dickinson–an astonishing slander on one of the most profound and difficult poets in the language–are really (“precisely”) beneath the notice of the fashion intellectual. Only clothes that aspire to the inscrutability of James Merrill–and inscrutability automatically means “deep,” right?–would be challenging enough intellectually. (What are “challenging” clothes, by the way? We’re never told. Are they difficult to put on?)

No wonder, then, the thirst for deep thought, the thirst for intellectual sustenance in the Times fashion prose: “I couldn’t help wondering, what does Mr. [Charles] Nolan really think?” one writer asks plaintively. And then there was the issue of one designer’s deeply meaningful if somewhat inscrutable choice to go with “looser pants.” After much deep discourse among the fashion intellectuals, “No one could understand what he was up to.” Well, of course–with an idea as complex as “looser pants,” it’s going to take a while for us to fully get our minds around it. Looser pants may be just too deep, too complex for anyone to get to the bottom of, so to speak. (Maybe what we need is lucid pants.)

It’s fascinating after a while: not just the demand for intellectual content from fashion, but the repeated assertion that it’s there in some designers (Benjamin Cho demonstrates “a fine mind at work”), but not in others: “Mr. [Lars] Nilsson’s clothes do not lend themselves to big thoughts.” Um, remind us again what some of those “big thoughts” on display on the runway are. It’s possible I missed the really big thoughts, but I don’t recall, in all this demand for thinking, thinking, thinking–for “big thoughts” at all costs–a single example of a “big thought” in fashion. Could it be because, really, it’s just fashion ; there are no “big thoughts?” Because the emperor’s new clothes are being described in the Emperor’s New Prose?

Of course, it’s not all fashion writers. My old friend and colleague Blair Sabol (recently profiled in Fashions of the Times) broke the mold of fashion seriousness awhile ago; and The Observer ‘s Simon Doonan does it with wit and irreverence now.

But I’ve been trying to figure out what this year’s thirst for the cerebral, this recurrent poignant demand for “big thoughts” in fashion, comes from. I wonder if it may reflect the exhaustion of the last simulacrum of a “big thought” in fashion writing, semiotics. Talk about the Emperor’s New Pose: for years, fashion writers had subsisted on crumbs from the tables of Parisian thinkers such as Roland Barthes, whose Système de la Mode gave a gloss of postmodern sophistry to their big thoughts.

It allowed American fashion writers to proclaim that clothes were signifiers . It just sounded so much more cerebral than to say “clothes can mean stuff”; you could instead say that the “signifiers” had “referentiality.” But while semiotics had a good long run, it has really burned itself out in self-parody, and it’s hard to take seriously anyone who deploys that trope, as they say. (Then you’re not so much a fashion victim as a “literary-theory victim.” Well, same thing.)

But “referentiality” still appears to be going strong. Consider one of my favorite moments on the MetroTV Full Frontal Fashion coverage of Fashion Week: the moment when Vogue ‘s irrepressible André Leon Talley was mock-scolding MetroTV’s charmingly wacky co-host, Robert Verdi, for missing a Magritte reference in the extremely intellectual, highly demanding Helmut Lang show.

The Magritte reference had something to do with an open-toed sandal, as I recall it. “Did you catch the Magritte reference?” Mr. Talley (resplendent in a feathered Tyrolean fedora) demanded of a flustered Mr. Verdi. “This is an extremely important moment. Very referential . You’ve got to have the artistic background to get these clothes!”

(Perhaps a brief art-history quiz before admission to the fashion tents, or before one is allowed to purchase these highly cerebral works of art?)

I think Mr. Talley was slyly sending up the notion of being reverential about being referential. I won’t say Mr. Talley is the main reason I was watching Full Frontal Fashion ‘s coverage of the runway shows, but his were the high points of the commentary. Because you had the feeling he was mocking the earnestness of the fashion intellectuals with his witty delirium. But I could be wrong; it could be he believed that the Magritte reference was “an extremely important moment.”

For me, though, there was a different “Extremely Important Moment” (actually, two of them) that I believe represents the new “big thought,” or at least points the questing soul toward a new direction in the rhetoric of fashion, a more spiritual direction, a kind of Zen-koan-like language: the rhetoric of Cosmic Paradox.

The first indication of the new Zen-speak trend came from tireless trend-setter Paris Hilton, who was being interviewed on the scene after the Mathew Williamson show. She told the camera that she liked the collection because “it’s very simple, and yet it’s not.” Think about that: It’s got that “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zen panache.

And the very next day, I witnessed a discussion on Full Frontal Fashion between guest commentator Hal Rubenstein of InStyle and wide-eyed MetroTV co-host Judy Licht, in which Mr. Rubenstein said, apropos of some collection: “It’s simple, but it’s not really simple,” and Judy Licht responded, “Simple is very hard to do.”

Clearly, it’s in the air. (Could this be the big thought?) It has the ring of that classic fashion koan, “Pink is the navy blue of India.” In fact, it has a rather Indian mystical ring to it: “Simple is the new hard.”

I’m not sure it’s precisely related, but I recall another exchange in which someone said of a designer, “He is not more at this point. I’d like more. We’ve had too much of less .” Too much of less. Again, it has that paradoxical koan-like resonance.

One can detect the riddling of a Zen guru as well in this exchange between Judy Licht and Tommy Hilfiger on the paradoxical nature of “authenticity.” Mr. Hilfiger and Ms. Licht were commenting on a tape of his runway show.

Mr. Hilfiger: “The peacoat is something every man should own. The authenticity is there.”

Ms. Licht: “It becomes hero-wear … by authenticating authentic looks.”

Mr. Hilfiger: “Authenticity spells real quality.”

Ms. Licht nodded, authenticity radiating from her saucer eyes. The exchange may have gotten a bit too cosmically deep for me with that notion of “authenticating authentic looks” relating somehow to “hero-wear.” But it must have something to do with how making an expensive version of a garment sold in Army/Navy stores for way less “authenticates” the authentic look. The clone paradoxically becomes more authentic than the real thing. Now that’s a very spiritual, very Zen, Very Big Thought. Man Who Mistook Helmut Newton For Magritte