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October 4, 2008

Chicago Manual of Style

This summer I escaped unscathed, but last summer I wasn’t so lucky. A year ago, I was a Fashion Week Hostage.

I had spent the summer working in an art magazine’s SoHo office, delighting in my daily routine of lunch breaks spent in the Prada boutique next door followed by a frantic dash to the notoriously unglamorous Sabrett stand for a lunch that was friendly on the budget, but not the body. Despite the fact that the greasy food turned my stomach, I was convinced that ombré pumps, feathered trenches, and structured purses nourished me more than a balanced lunch of grilled fish and steamed vegetables ever could.

I wasn’t bothered by the fact that I stood out in Prada like a Canal Street fake in an uptown Louis Vuitton. Though I worship the cult of chic, I am hardly the picture of poise. On one memorable morning last summer, I forgot an umbrella, got soaking wet, and spilled an entire cup of tea down the front of my white sundress on my way into the office. I accept the fact that my ensembles will never resemble the concoctions featured in fashion editorials: my light-colored shirts always feature prominent pit stains, and since I can never seem to remember to hang up my linen pants instead of rolling them into a ball in my closet, my trousers are perpetually tousled. But until the models invaded my world, I thought I looked pretty OK.

Ever since I bought my first fashion magazine, I have swooned over Lily, Coco, and Sasha without ever resenting their sinewy thighs or razor-sharp clavicles. I thought of models as lovely, fictional characters, who, like Estella Havisham or Elizabeth Bennett, were confined to distant pages. Imagine my shock when they leapt out of Elle and onto Houston Street, landing safely on their Jimmy Choo–clad feet. By the beginning of September, no Manhattan street was safe.

Fashion Week has the potential to make women feel like ugly ducklings. The allure of couture is its whimsical fantasy—those impossibly high heels, impractically long dresses, inappropriately bedazzled bodices, all displayed on an incredibly beautiful human hanger. Models’ physiques and faces are also fantastical; their proportions and striking features are largely unattainable for the majority of women, save those with the bank accounts and spare time to accommodate strict exercise regimens and extensive cosmetic surgery. I was never bothered by the fact that my thigh would always be bigger than Giselle’s torso until I saw hordes of models in person. When the most famous models in the world gather in one place, it becomes difficult to remember that they are the genetic anomalies. When the glamazons descended upon Manhattan, I felt like I was the only non-model left in the city.

This year, I made it out just in time. My museum internship ended at the end of August, and I left New York just before Fashion Week. I watched the shows from the comfort of my couch, wearing slouchy pajamas and a decidedly un-chic ponytail. Those who did score entrance to the hallowed Bryant Park tents or watched the shows on TV or online saw some gorgeous presentations, and some garish ones. I lusted after Project Runway–contestant Leanne’s ethereal space-chic dresses. They appeared both delicate and utilitarian and seemed to draw inspiration from both organic and industrial shapes. I hope that PR judges Heidi, Michael, and Nina loved them as much as I did!

Surprisingly, wunderkind sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy faltered with the collection they designed for their label, Rodarte. The brand is known for creamy confections like tiered dresses and ruffled skirts and blouses, but the new collection reads more schoolmarm than sumptuous treat. The holey spiderweb knits left me cold. Also, despite my hopeful optimism—and the best efforts of Diane von Furstenburg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America—many designers still failed to prominently feature black models on their runways. Rodarte and Calvin Klein used one each, and Jill Stuart used four, but dress diva Monique Lhullier and East-meets-West glam girl Vivienne Tam didn’t use any. Chicago’s Fresh Faces fashion show, presented by Gen Art, will take place October 1, and I hope that our hometown producers and casting directors strut in the right direction.

With the models who dwarfed me and inspired my insecurities relegated to the television and computer screens, I was able to view Fashion Week for what it is: a glorious, somewhat gratuitous opportunity to fawn over fit and fabric. Fashion is decadent but, like most things, is fine in moderation as part of an otherwise healthy lifestyle. I love the New York, London, Milan, and Paris Fashion Weeks because they feel like Thanksgiving: a few days of delicious gluttony before returning to normal eating. I appreciate a few days of gorging on yummy designer treats while remembering that my own clothes are more mac-and-cheese than filet mignon. That fits me just fine.