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Straight from the Front Row: Fall 2007 New York Fashion Week

Ah, the fashion week stereotype: gorgeous girls, never ending champagne, celebrity mayhem, and parties that rival Carnivale! From the perch in the Moet et Chandon lounge, where models more stunning than those on the runway freely pass out long-stemmed fuchsia flutes, it would appear that way. This is the experience of VIPs, those celebrities and friends of publicists who are given the black card, a one-way pass to the glitz, glamour and money-is-no-object flamboyance that personifies New York Fashion Week to the mainstream.

Alas, that fashion week is a fantasy even to me. I am not one of the lucky ones privy to the inner circles of the high powered KCD, People’s Revolution, Bismarck Philips, et al PR lists. I am not Anna Wintour (Editor of Vogue) or Michael Fink (Fashion Director of Saks Fifth Avenue), I am only a girl who loves fashion, one who imprudently chose to work under Julie Gilhart, Fashion Director of Barneys, instead of pursuing investment banking or consulting in that pivotal summer before senior year.

The first time I was invited to New York Fashion Week was the fall after my internship. I was representing Barneys at Alice Roi, Rachel Comey, and even Baby Phat. I hopped on the Chinatown bus, arrived at 2pm Saturday, attended six shows and five parties, one right after the other in a whirlwind taxi ride. I was back in Boston at 10am Sunday morning. I was still in school. I needed to finish my homework.

Now at my tenth fashion week, spending eight straight days at the Bryant Park tents from February 2-9 2007, here are some bits of wisdom, observations, and warnings to get you through this glorified trade show, if you ever choose to attend yourself.

1. Dropping the H-Bomb won’t get you much. The fashion world puts its creatives on a pedestal, and, in general, considers the business side a necessary evil. Even retailers value the “art” and emotion of choosing vendors. So few, save Ralph Lauren and LVMH (Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs), seek to hire MBAs. That said, waiting in line for the Cabbeen show, I heard “HBS” being used by two men trying to woo a former model turned freelance journalist. While it would not impress the stone-faced PR girls in front, the model-journalist instantly opened up, smiling, flirting, and laughing at their jokes. Chances at getting into a show may be up in the air, but “HBS” may still get you a hot date.

2. You’ll need a vacation at the end of fashion week. In one day you can attend more than ten shows scattered all over Manhattan. The only break you’ll get is hopping in a cab to the next show. The parties start in the afternoon and continue past midnight. As you spend most of your time waiting, from public transport to the seat assignment line, to sitting, waiting for the fifteen minute show to begin, boredom kicks in and drains all the energy out of you.

3. Beware of the fashion week diet. Last season Delta gave out cookies and frozen coffee drinks in the Bryant Park tents. This year DHL ran out of biscotti in three days. Luckily, I discovered a stash of chocolate-covered strawberries, cookies and cupcakes in sponsors’ booths. Espresso, energy drinks and alcohol are plentiful and free. While models are being criticized for having low BMIs, the attendees are artificially energized with complex carbs. I sure hope the two types of diet pills given to journalists in their gift bags weren’t the organizer’s solution to the high sugar influx.

4. You are judged by what you wear. It’s surprising how many people turn up in jeans and a non-descript sweater. While it may have been cool x years back to be the guy who shows up in grunge at a party, you would now be assigned the tourist title. Top buyers and editors dress in style: a structured jacket, the shoes of the season, and an oversized fox-trapper hat perched on the head. Avoid the crazy fashion students who wear head-to-toe costumes to get attention. It’s the wrong kind of attention, the kind most likely to end on Glamour magazine’s “Don’ts.” If you have any doubts about your outfit, the paparazzi will signal whether you’ve arrived.

A clamor of photographers surrounded me at BCBG, blinding with their flashes. “Is that Vivienne Westwood?” asked Lauren Ezersky, front row fixture and Paper columnist, gesturing to my bustier dress over a collared shirt with a skinny tie combo. Chastising myself for forgetting to practice my pose in front of the mirror, I sighed in relief when the attention turned towards my shoes, five inch Marc Jacobs clunky black and gold wedge platforms with Swarovski crystals dotting the ruffled ankle.

5. That said, Marc Jacobs is God. If you’re in a clothing rut, wear Marc Jacobs even if it makes you look like an overswaddled homeless person. Although this season the celebrity turnout has been mediocre, front row at Marc is like being at Madame Tussauds: Lil’ Kim, Russell Simmons, Rod Stewart, Michelle Rodriguez, Harry Connick Jr. His show is the hottest ticket in town. For fall ’07, he kept the fashion pendulum swinging, away from layers on layers di rigueur to streamlined 1970s Parisian. (Do something completely different from last year and you’ll always be called an innovator!)

6. Speaking of celebrities, only B listers bothered to show up for fall 2007. One can assume they’re there because they’ve got nothing better to do. Sure, you get fabulous treatment, even whisked into that champagne lounge, but who but “Joan of Arcadia” actress Amber Tamblyn and former Destiny Child singer Michelle Williams could spare so many hours a day to attend the shows? Even Paris Hilton skipped the shows, choosing instead to up her party girl image at Butter Monday night with ex fiance, Paris. Bona fide celebs are too popular and time-constrained to spend eight hours getting bored at their front row seats. Other notables that I saw: former N’ Sync-er JC sat next to “Laguana Beach” alum LC at Luca Luca. MTV’s “Making the Band” Danity Kane showed support at Heatherette. Cynthia Nixon, formerly of “Sex and the City,” being interviewed at Chaiken. Yes, I missed the legitimate celebrities: Vivica A. Fox directly in front of me at Marc Bouwer (I thought she was Rihanna), Camilla Belle across the runway at MaxAzria, and the Olsen twins front row at Jenni Kayne. It’s too hard to play pictionary even with the paparazzi leading the way. They even took pictures of me for goodness sake! Just because they’re surrounding one camped up tartlet in a blue and white tiered cupcake dress at Betsey Johnson, how can I discern one overzealous fan from a “Making the Band” made-for-TV celeb (Aubrey, the lead the singer)? It’s a circus, and everyone looks like they could be a “celebrity” anyway.

7. Editors and top buyers are the true star attendees. Editors can make or break a designer’s career, and buyers can provide enough financial support to get a fledging designer to next season. Whether you’ve arrived as a designer is determined by one person: Anna Wintour. If she attends your show, you will be featured in Vogue, and every fashion addict will muddle through your name in faux nonchalance when asked about the future of fashion. Other barometers of style include the top fashion directors, Roopal Patel (Bergdorf Goodman), Ken Downing (Neiman Marcus), Michael Fink (Saks Fifth Avenue), and Julie Gilhart (Barneys New York). They were all there at Costello Tagliapietra and other unpronounceable collections.

8. While editors prefer their Proenza Schoulers and Derek Lams, there are four other types of shows for an attendee to choose from. Socialites and celebrities prefer American couturier Chado Ralph Rucci, where top clients (mostly flown in from Texas) go down their checklist and place an order for their must-have gowns. Other favorites include Zang Toi (flirtatious Parisian), Luca Luca (ski bunny) and Tuleh (Vasser girl getting married). Mass retailers flock to Ellen Tracy and Charles Nolan. Of course there are the quintessential American designers Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Cal
vin Klein. Everyone goes to those shows, not because they’re particularly interesting, but because they define American sportswear. Finally, there are the spectacles like Heatherette. More of a party than fashion, every drag queen and Chelsea party boy turned up at designers Richie Rich and Travis Rains’ Tuesday night presentation. Transvestite Amanda Lapore closed the Wizard of Oz themed show as Glenda the Good Witch, pink tutu dress and all.

9. After Heatherette’s show, very few parties can compete. Almost every promoter in town capitalizes on the “fashion week” moniker to sell out their clubs, but the best parties are invite-only and thrown in venues closed to the public. Zac Posen, whose PR firm KCD claimed to be the most requested show (even more so then other client Marc Jacobs!), held his party at Chelsea Hotel’s Star Lounge. Lower East Side’s the Box threw two major soirees, one for the official Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week kickoff and the other for Edun, a socially-conscious denim line co-designed by Bono’s wife. The best way to get onto style.com or even into Vogue magazine is to crash the Barneys party for the U.S. launch of Vionnet. Held right in the flagship, it’s an early party, 6-8, but no industry heavyweight ever misses out.

10. Fashion week is not all about parties, open bars, and gift bags (though I usually collect enough hair products and makeup to last me the next few years). It’s about the clothes. Fall 2007 turns away from the add-yet-another-shapeless-wrap mentally of fall 2006 to a chic, polished woman. She prefers architectural jackets, perhaps cropped (Y & Kei, Badgley Mischka) or perhaps not (Yoehlee, Michael Kors); fitted (Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez) or hooped skirts (Rodarte, Calvin Klein); loose, unbelted shift dresses (Diane von Furstenberg, 3.1 Philip Lim); black tights covering her legs; over the elbow gloves covering her arms (Narciso Rodriguez, Carolina Herrera, United Bamboo); and a bucket hat (Abaete, Max Azria) or fedora (Marc Jacobs) perched on her head. For evening, jeweled-toned (sapphire, emerald, ruby) or black chiffon cocktail dresses, either pleated, draped and flowly (Doo.Ri, BCBG, Erin Fetherston), or fitted (Proenza Schouler). For men, it is all about suits, some with technicolor accents (Duckie Brown), skinny, skinny pants (Rag & Bone), or even skinnier ties (DKNY). The leather blazer is a popular option, showing up at John Varvatos and Z Zegna.

Fabulous clothes, beautiful people, and over-indulgence: all of that is true at New York Fashion Week. But it’s mixed with stretches of long wait times, rejection (because there is always someone better, and she is probably standing behind you), and overall (unnecessary) melodrama. It is sometimes easy to be sucked into the madness and sense of entitlement-why do I have to wait in line? why didn’t I get invited to that hush hush party?-but once you’ve been through the cattle call a couple times, you don’t forget that, above everything, you’re at a big tradeshow. Like all things rich and decadent, it is optimal to experience in small doses. My best advice really is, skip the shows, no matter how good the gift bag promises to be, and head straight for the parties. OK, make a small detour to pick up a model-turned-journalist along the way.

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Sonya Lai first became aware of fashion in elementary school when she was deemed “uncool” for not wearing jeans like everyone else. She put on jeans for the first time in fifth grade. They had a rose pattern. The swoosh-swoosh noise bothered her so much she vowed to wear only dresses and skirts in middle school. Her high school graduation present was black velvet Gucci logo steel-heel stiletto boots that Lil’ Kim owns in red. Her only excuse is that she was young, and it was the beginning of logo-mania. Junior year in college she beat out 400 applicants and was hired on-the-spot as Julie Gilhart’s intern at Barneys. Nowadays, Sonya spends most of her week in Ralph Lauren and J Crew working as a researcher for two finance professors at HBS.

February 26, 2007
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