the surface industry

Don’t Take It Personal — It’s Just Fashion

Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

For the first time in more than a decade I did not cover Fashion Week in New York, nor will I write about the upcoming Milan or Paris catwalks. Instead, I’m spending the time usually given over to the traveling fashion circus working on my book about the 1973 Franco-American runway extravaganza at Versailles. I did attend a couple of presentations. I went to Chado Ralph Rucci because the designer worked with Halston — one of the participants at Versailles — and because Rucci is a unique blend of traditional couture technique and American sportswear. I also wanted to see Thom Browne’s first runway presentation for his signature womenswear. Since First Lady Michelle Obama wore his expertly tailored coat and dress to the inauguration in January, I was sure that his work would figure prominently in future storytelling. His collection was indeed a wonder — a dazzling blend of crisp tailoring, dignified menswear fabrics, and romance. Set against a backdrop of a winter forest populated by men in gray suits, who lay blindfolded and tethered to cots with blood-red bandages, the show was erotic, magical, and tantalizingly twisted.

But that was it. Two shows. I was invited to a host of presentations and other events but I declined almost all of them. I did New York Fashion Week on my own terms: selfishly and sparingly. As a writer, I went where I had reason to be and I was treated warmly and professionally. Indeed, at Browne’s show, I was situated, as usual, alongside my colleagues from the Los Angeles Times.

I did not go to any show for pure amusement. I did not go to shop, to preen, to stoke my ego, or to catch up with friends. I kept it professional, not personal. I did not want to be the unaffiliated journalist on a fishing expedition confounding publicists and testing the ability of the individual to transcend the transactional nature of fashion.

I dodged the intimacy trap.

No other industry creates — through its products, marketing, and business dealings — such a misleading and malignant sense of intimacy as fashion. Clothes, after all, speak not just to who we are, but who we would like to be. When fashion designers are truly on their game, they can anticipate a shopper’s unspoken desires, vulnerabilities, and secret aspirations. Fashion engages the public in such a deep relationship that observers take it personally when the models are too thin, the clothes too expensive, or the silhouettes too unforgiving. How dare fashion not reflect me, be focused on me, celebrate me!

Fashion doesn’t shape identity, but it most certainly broadcasts it to the world. Ultimately, fashion is our personal spokesperson, but often what it has to say — through jeggings, harem pants, Ugg boots, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian — is not in our best interest.

The patois of fashion underscores this close, sometimes dysfunctional relationship. Designers “dress” clients — suggesting a laying-on of hands, not simply a mutually beneficial loaning and borrowing of clothes. The red carpet question is always who — not what — are you wearing? A starlet isn’t just wearing a ballgown; she’s cloaked in the designer’s personality, carrying his reputation on her back. The frocks are more than mere merchandise. Through fashion, intimacy has been devalued, exploited, and even turned a bit toxic. It has become a marketing tool in which the personal and the professional are difficult to tease apart. And that leaves people off-balance, heightening any self-doubts.

Nothing exacerbates this queasiness like fashion shows. The invitations arrive addressed to the individual — the writer, the editor — not to the media outlet. Instead, the individual serves as a living, fretful, insecure symbol — one slender editor representing a whole publishing empire.

In Europe, where design houses have not succumbed to the ease of electronic invitations, gilded notecards and elaborate pop-up works-on-paper arrive at hotels by courier in the days before a show. The envelope is ripped open: Such-and-such designer “requests the pleasure of your company.” Those sweetly intoxicating missives create an atmosphere of the personal and exclusive. New York designers mostly send out virtual invitations — a process that speaks of bits-and-pixel efficiency more than selectivity. But they still take care to note that the invitation that has slipped unceremoniously into an electronic inbox is “non-transferable.” It is for you. For you alone.

Who is invited and where people are seated is based on a complicated formula. The dominant force is the standing of the publication within the fashion realm. But that is intertwined with the individual’s skills, connections, likability. How can this not get personal when designers send flowers to say thank you for the review, welcome to New York, or please write about my new fragrance?

In the overcaffeinated, sleep-deprived, emotionally fraught month of fashion shows, it is possible to understand — although not excuse — how a trio of French editors at Zac Posen’s September show concluded that a seating snafu was a personal insult. The contretemps between the editorial team from Jalou Publishing and fashion publicist Lynn Tesoro, which culminated with Tesoro being slapped in the face, comes across like a medieval duel after someone’s honor has been maligned.

It is not surprising that exhausted and stressed designers take negative reviews personally, unable to separate a critique of a collection from an insult to their very being; everyone — restaurateurs, musicians, writers — finds criticism difficult to stomach. But banning an editor from future shows serves no constructive purpose; it’s simply petty. It should also be noted that those in the media often have trouble responding only to what is on the runway and not also to their good (or bad) seat, their treatment by a press handler, whether they were invited to the post-show dinner, and whether the clothes flatter them personally. Fashion’s now seemingly regular Twitter fights and full-page accusatory advertisements are a kind of primal scream therapy spilling into the marketplace.

It’s just business. Try to leave the ego at home. I learned that a long time ago.

My first job writing about fashion was for the Detroit Free Press. Almost immediately, I encountered fashion gatekeepers who ruled with an iron fist and a wicked tongue. It was not enough to say “No, you are not invited.” I was body-blocked from making my case to a higher up at Yohji Yamamoto and lectured on my unworthiness at Claude Montana. In both cases, after being psychologically pummeled, I could only respond with stunned silence. Later, I might have cried. The attacks felt so personal.

A year later, I arrived at the Washington Post. And in short order, I was having lunch with Yamamoto and watching one of the last Montana shows from a well-placed seat. The verbal assault had not been personal. I realized that with a sigh of relief. But the lovely lunch and the nice seat weren’t personal either. I realized that with a sigh of resignation.

I’ve made a few dear friends in this industry, built solid relationships on mutual respect and trust, vented on behalf of my various publications, and worked with colleagues who would go the extra mile for me and I for them. Still, I regularly remind myself of that early lesson. As on other beats, sources and reporters engage in the ritual dance of journalism, but in fashion the dance is done to the lulling accompaniment of candlelight, peonies, Champagne, and invitations with your name inscribed in calligraphy.

And it’s best for one’s ego, sanity, and the story itself not to get caught up in the romance.

Don’t Take It Personal — It’s Just Fashion