A Fashion Week primer

The best way to think about a runway show is that it is
(a) a trade show,
(b) a moving exhibit of fine art, and
(c) an opportunity to grab ideas for your own closet.

By Catherine Berlin and William Altreuter; photos by Catherine Berlin

Loris Diran
Evening gown by Loris Diran.
Fashion isn’t rocket science, we guess, although we are not really sure what rocket science is. (Rocket science is probably a whole lot simpler than the rocket scientists would have us believe.) Anyway, our point is, fashion may not be the most difficult topic to get a handle on while soaking the scrambled egg pan and watching the Style network. Anyone vaguely aware of the colors of the rainbow and able to recall at least three outfits from the past eight decades can spot a trend the moment a model’s bony knee appears around the backstage wall. And that’s a nice thing about fashion. It can get comfortable right away. You are probably already pretty good about guessing who is going to get bounced from Bravo’s Project Runway before Michael Kors has a chance to crinkle his designer nose in utter disgust. Unlike a lot of situations in life, such as fixing a ceiling fan or trying to get rid of whatever it is that is making your computer run so slow, a little bit of knowledge is not a dangerous thing. In the world of style, a little bit of knowledge is something to build on.

Another nice thing about fashion is that it can get as complicated as you want. There is an entire industry of artists, financiers, business masterminds, technical geniuses, and material suppliers, dedicated to satisfying a component within each of the first four levels of Maslov’s hierarchy of basic human needs: clothing to keep us (1) alive, (2) secure, (3) accepted, and (4) confident. There it is, a psychological explanation as to why, when it comes to apparel, we can so completely lose control. Of course, this particular industry does it in a really big, “Look at how great I am that I was able to do this for you” way. This might be the reason why we feel as if the clothes are designed for the runway, and not our closet or our time zone. We would be right to feel this way because at this level of a line’s development, it really is all about the runway—and very little else.

Loris Diran
Evening gown by Loris Diran.
Before the lighting is dimmed and spotlights roam, during that pre-action action when models slouch about in curlers, and designers, assistants, and interns run around in black, all snippy and clutching clipboards and plastic clothing bags, we could see it. The long riser looks as ordinary as the covered tables at everybody’s wedding. Then the lights dim, the photographers take their places, the guests fill their chairs, and the music starts. We expect the combined effect of Newtonian principals (material hangs), aerodynamics (material flows), body mechanics (a necessary component of how the first two work), ancient trades (fibers, dyes, warp and weft), new age trades (Plexiglas and Lycra), fine arts (sculpture, painting, and photography), business acumen (guest lists and buyers’ focus), and home economics (“On the bias, dear, I said to cut it on the b-i-a-s”), all done well enough so that when the outfit appears for the very first time on that blonde pencil with the Lipizzan carriage, there is an audible intake of air and spontaneous applause.

We experienced this first hand at the Olympus Fashion Week in New York City, a semiannual trade show that will take over Bryant Park once again in less than two months. Yes, while the snow here still swirls, the industry will tease us with next winter’s designs, filling the media with images of what is not readily available, but we need this minute; what is not affordable, but leads us to subconsciously consider whether it would really be so bad if Junior went to a less expensive college. That would be the worst way to think about a runway show. The best way to think about a runway show is that it is (a) a trade show, (b) a moving exhibit of fine art, and (c) an opportunity to grab ideas for your own closet.

Costello
Costello Tagliapietra’s collection was in milkshake hues.

A trade show on stilts

Runway is all about business. As you walk up the small flight of stairs in Bryant Park, you look squarely into the mid-section of three men in black with security earpieces and shades, standing in front of a huge white tent. It seems a little Hollywood, but only for a second. There is no red carpet, nor any pampering. If you have a pass, you can get in. Once in, it’s work. Folks dressed for business either gather information and pass it back to the home office, man the vendor booths, prepare the clothes for viewing, wear the clothes for viewing, or make the decisions as to what Bergdorf and Neiman’s will be carrying next year. It would seem more like a trade show if each designer had a booth and kept the clothing on display for the entire week, with models a-plenty handing out pens and notepads with “Your name here” on them. The packaging of this trade show is a little different, but the purpose is the same: marketing and sales.

Gottex
Swimwear from Gottex.
Each person has a place to be. No one is allowed to venture beyond that area. If a tiny woman in black with a clipboard asks you who you are and if your name is not on the pre-admit list, you will be asked to wait outside with the others and then witness her chewing out a door guard three times her size. The press is relegated to the back seats where they gossip about who is on the B list and titter over those who don’t even make it to the E-K list. Photographers stand in the mosh pit, using a slice of masking tape and a Sharpie to lay claim to a precious square foot of space. Store buyers and celebrities likely to drive up potential sales get front row seats. Many get presents.

In the weeks and days leading up to the show, the designers and their business assistants have mailed or hand delivered invitations to these VIPs. The designers hire and fit the models. Interns from the various fashion colleges run clothes in and out of Brooklyn. On the day of the show the backstage is filled with hair and make up stylists, with dressing assistants assigned to outfits and the corresponding models. The designer sets the order of presentation, and walks the runway to demonstrate to the models how it is to be done. No matter where situated, everyone here is thrilled to be here. There is an electricity in the air that only hard work, an unyielding hierarchy, and towering expectations can produce.

Much more than outsiders can imagine often rides on these productions. At a backstage gathering after one successful show, the designer son put his arm around his old country father and said, “See, Papa? Now you don’t have to be embarrassed anymore.”

mosh pit
l-r, at ringside; activity in the mosh pit, where the photographers hang out;
fashion business types, dressed for action.

Fashion as an Art Installation

It is unlikely that we would ever own anything that hangs in the Albright or the MOMA. Neither do we have any expectations of acquiring a designer piece on display. We like to think of them as prototypes. Anyone who has ever tried to hold a paintbrush, sew a garment, sculpt a statue, work with color, or weave a rug, can begin to understand that there is nothing frivolous about the process of haute couture. Designers and their troupes are twenty-first century Renaissance artists. They have to be able to produce an item in three dimensions that is visually striking, made in a material that a body can handle, and of properties necessary to complement the design. The piece must be unique enough to demonstrate rare talent, yet practical enough to satisfy financial backers looking for sales. The designer and his or her consultants must work the same magic for each piece in the collection, season after season.

Perhaps Project Runway can help educate the public on the benefits of assuring passage of arts funding in a public school budget. It takes training in just about every art medium to make it in this field, as with designing cars, home interiors, and buildings, scale notwithstanding. Every time we watch the hit reality show about upcoming clothing designers battling to beat out the other creative types, we try to imagine what outfit we could produce in twenty-four hours. The result in our mind’s eye is always a funny and scary combination involving duct tape and a Glad garbage bag, something only suitable for bad weather at a soccer match. On a good day we could probably do a toga. Certainly not the sort of concepts and execution coming from one who has an artist’s eye, a sense of balance, and an understanding of all that is available from today’s suppliers. No amount of 4-H or Singer sewing classes can prepare you for the total demands on a clothing designer. Mastering Barbie’s Fashion Plates at the age of ten doesn’t cut it, either. As with any recognizable painter, a designer’s success depends upon originality and a broad-based, finely tuned reservoir of talent. With this as a guide, an outsider can look at the various shows and begin to see what, out of all the offerings, insiders will deem truly remarkable.

Seasonal Style Lessons

Paige
Buffalo native Paige Habermehl, demonstrating the job of a backstage helper at Fashion Week.
Watching a runway show, whether for an education or to gather ideas, can be overwhelming. Only NASCAR moves faster than the models taking their six-foot strides up and back. To figure out what will be hot next season, we first try to spot the colors. We don’t worry about finding “the” color. There is rarely just one that is the color of the season, no matter how many times you read otherwise. That would assume one dominating designer, one controlling flesh tone, and only one place we wear our clothes. Buyers have a lot of needs to fulfill. They know that consumers want colors that work best with their individual coloring and fit a lifestyle.

Instead of just one, runway reels will show five-or-so new colors, and one predominating tone and a secondary. There are usually three colors for women’s blouses and dresses, and two colors offered for suits and coats. As for evening wear, bathing suits, and ski wear, you can see colors chosen from the preceding categories, and, of course, black and white. Black and white never count in the tally because they are always there and always an option, for anything. The color that everyone pretends is the new black (nothing is ever really the new black) will end up being one of the subtler of the aforementioned five, or white. Also, the color for men’s shirts and sweaters is the same as the women’s, with a little more blue or grey thrown in for manliness. As for tone, look at the five colors and evaluate whether the overall presentation of them is fresh, muted, electric, classic, or edgy.

This year we were pretty good at spotting the trendy colors; we were less good at naming them. We were told that the “yellowey, light greenish” color we were struggling to monitor was melon, as in honeydew. Bright orange and lively pink seemed to be elbowing each other for front-runner in the yellow to red section of the color wheel. For the blues that seemed to surface, like finding precious gemstones in a pile of backyard sod, we had to look to the Crayola system of identification. The shades ranged from pale periwinkle to even paler cadet blue. We found melon, orange, pink, and blue-ish blouses and dresses; pewter and shimmering gold suits and jackets; and black, white, silver, gold, melon, orange, pink, and blue-ish evening wear and bathing suits.

If that’s too many color choices for your signature look, figure out which of the season’s hot colors you like best and likes you best. Consider that one the color of the season.

Costello
Costello Tagliapietra’s dolmans; four-way stretch denim.

Costello Tagliapietra (two heavy-duty dudes who took their post-show bows in hillbilly attire) presented the muted tone aspect perfectly in a collection best described as milkshake hues. Pale vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate struck a subliminal chord with a crowd that responded with oohs and ahhs. Solid color predominated their line. With most of the designers, in fact, solids ruled. When patterns appeared, designers worked with innovative leaf themes (Carolina Herrera, Oscar De La Renta, and Cia. Maritima); bold, fresh, almost whimsical, sometimes Mondrian-goes-to-Africa, designs (Diane Von Furstenberg, Alexander Herchcovitch, Beckerman Custo Barcelona, and Betsey Johnson); or something you might expect a computer board to come up with all on its own (Brian Reyes).

Although Costello Tagliapietra’s lines took the audience back to the seventies (light jersey wraps and dolman sleeves), other designers’ collections headed for the sixties, with empire waistlines baby dolls, short hems, and snug jacketing for men. This was demonstrated most elegantly by Loris Diran, who produced both a men’s and a women’s line, showing colors and materials that demonstrate how rich a subtle color palate could look. His structure brought Rat Pack stars and Twiggy to mind. The materials he used—including chiffons, linens, silk dupionis, and wool shantungs—added sophistication and elegance, real substance to sixties funkiness.

The structure, as well, was a welcome sight. As our own shapes become a little less shapely, structure can help. Just a week before the show, we spotted a lovely woman who seemed to be somebody’s grandmother, short and a bit thick in the middle, but hip enough to venture into a thirty-somethingish store. She had put on a chocolate brown, dolman sleeved, deep-v sweater. She looked in our direction and asked, “What do you think?”

“Nobody can wear that style,” we offered, feeling a bit the queer eye. “Everything about a dolman sleeve and deep-v neckline drops the shoulders and breasts straight to the waist. It’s a more effective optical illusion than those darn stairs that always seem to be going up,” we said, standing behind her and demonstrating with hand movements how the sweater cut off her shoulders. “Nobody can wear that. Everybody looks better with a collar or sleeve style that pulls the eye up.”

“You’re right,” she said, never taking her eyes from the mirror. “and thanks. These guys here wouldn’t have told me that.”

We relived the scene again and again at the fashion show where we saw a lot of wrap style, loose sleeves, and slouchy soft shoulders. In theory, the style is pretty and feminine. Unless genetically inclined toward linebacker shoulders and a zero waist, however, a woman can disappear in this look. Or worse. So when the Loris Diran outfits appeared, we immediately appreciated the tailoring of the shimmery silver linen suit, the empire lift of the tunic dress, and the piping of the gold jacket that because of its placement, effectively pulled the eye up. The outfits also demonstrated that we do not need to go back to Dynasty-era shoulder pads to enjoy the visual effect, although having said that, we are certain it will return.

Costello
Costello
Costello
Costello
Costello

Loris Diran’s men’s line was lean and modern. As we marveled at each piece, we thought, gosh, it would be great to see guys in these. Then we began to wonder, “Are we gonna see any guys in these?”

“I can’t get my husband into anything new,” a wife has been known to say. “He has his (fill-in-the-blank) that he wears all the time, and that’s it.” The blank gets filled in with jeans, sweaters, button downs, khakis, or “whatever he wore in high school, only bigger.” It’s one reason men get so many ties as gifts. Better to give him a tie he won’t wear than a suit he will never touch. It’s more spatially economic. Here again is how watching a collection like Diran’s, and lots of patience, can help.

Of course denim is not forbidden. Hardly. Ask anyone who has picked up a fashion magazine in the past two years and perused the prices for tragically bejeweled jeans and, more recently, the skinny jean. We love the stovepipe cut because it gives us a chance to smile and say, “Boy, will this be short lived.” It’s a tough look for even the slimmest elite to pull off without looking hippy and sloppy. Unless stuffed into boots, the lengths can be troublesome, and the way denim has a tendency to give and grow over a twelve-hour-day, hips and laps seem to spread with each passing hour.

Do not panic. Mainstream stores like the Gap carry modified versions of the pencil-leg pant. In addition, Invista, the owner of the Lycra brand, has just come up with XFIT, a new stretch denim that boasts a revolutionary cross-weave technology that gives jeans a four-way stretch, instead of just two. The benefit, we were told, allows jean styles to fit more shapes. Don’t think jean girdle; think no more gaping waist or sagging seat.

Whatever the secret of the fabric may be, we are a big fan of Lycra. Around since 1958, the material first hit the scene as a replacement for rubber in undergarments. (Rubber. Women must have been puddles of water by the end of the day.) Lycra was first introduced into denim in 1970s. We visited the LYCRA Denim Lounge during Fashion Week. We were offered a pair of jeans for our own sampling, and learned that they should be on the market at Saks, and at stores across the country within the next six months. Our opinion so far? The pair keeps its shape as promised, and because of it avoids a sloppy appearance that can otherwise make jeans a questionable choice when you want a sharper look. In other words, the jean is a good complement to an attention-grabbing bag or to-die-for top and boots.

If, however, less is more when you think spring, we can give you the low down on the bathing suit lines, which are appearing in shades of gold, copper, silver, deeper browns and greens, and plenty of white. It is hard to get good seating at the bathing suit shows. Because of the sex appeal, the first rows are full of far more men than usual. It also gives the event a kind of prizefight aura, but we were as far away from ringside as the room allowed.

It really didn’t matter where we sat. The beauty and actual elegance of the designs, cuts, and patterns was unmistakable from any distance. Neither did all the suits suggest that the wearer had to have a perfect body to look stylish and turn heads. We did wonder whether it would be a good idea for any of them to get wet.

Not all of the runway suits make it to a convenient location. They should. However, review the offerings and remember that with some effort, a terrific, distinct bathing suit is out there for you, just waiting to be discovered.

William C. Altreuter and Catherine Berlin are attorneys living in Buffalo.
They received credentials to cover the Olympus Fashion Week for
Buffalo Spree.


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