Tales from the Back Row

BOOK: Tales from the Back Row
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For my parents


gh, I
it,” said a man in navy trousers rolled up past his ankles to a spindly woman wearing heels that made her feet look like hulking bronze insects.

it,” she agreed in Italian-accented English. “My favoreet show so far. De ripped tights! De attitude! Ee deliver.”

It was a cold and cloudy February Thursday in 2008, midday, and here I was in the bizarre and very intimidating position of exiting a fashion show in New York's meatpacking district—a post–
Sex and the City–
chic neighborhood characterized by nightclubs, $16 Bellinis, and Eurotrash. A young designer named Alexander Wang had titillated his audience with ripped black tights, leg warmers, and, evidently, some
exciting vests. This was Fashion Week, a biannual occurrence in New York City that lands like a tornado, sweeping up a whole bunch of fabulous weirdos, depositing them at one fashion show before picking them up and carrying them off to the next one. And so this repeats all day every day for eight days while everyone complains about it and non-fashion New Yorkers wonder why there are so many more traffic jams and really skinny people around.

I had been working in the fashion industry for, well, two days. I had just started my job as the first blogger at the Cut,
magazine's website dedicated full-time to fashion coverage. I had no clue what distinguished a high-quality, fashionable pair of ripped tights from ripped tights without fashion world–altering significance. I thought I knew a lot about fashion, but as I exited that Alexander Wang show, I was beginning to realize that being obsessed with
Project Runway
makes one an expert in fashion as much as watching
makes one an expert in prisoner psychology.

More than five years and countless fashion shows later, I was hired to edit the website for
which covers everything from politics to what to do with your leftover pizza (fold it in half and
put it in a waffle iron
, telling you). But fashion still fascinates me, and has had a greater effect on my life than any other beat I've been on, and not just because I can now look at a pair of ripped tights and tell whether or not they actually look cool or like they just came from an average person's Dumpster.

That day, I wanted to feel as moved by Alexander Wang's asymmetrical zippers as the real fashion people around me were. I could see by their pant-cuffing techniques and choices of footwear alone that they were capable of falling in love—a deep, moving love—with clothes, especially leather ones. These people looked at shoes and experienced the same emotions the average person does passing puppies in a window at a pet store: they fall all
themselves. Back then, I knew nothing about fashion, and therefore could not understand their reaction.
Project Runway
? Many feelings felt. Fashion? Just one: confusion.

Then, I felt about fashion shows and parties the way the editor of a prominent DJ magazine once told me he felt about teenage
girls who go dance at raves for hours wearing little more than bras and panties. When I asked him why all the girls who go to dance-music concerts dress basically naked these days, he recalled one show where he found himself sitting with a direct view of a group of teenage girls, wearing bathing suits, underwear, or some variation thereof, stomachs, buttocks, and cleavage exposed in a pulsating cluster before him.
“Am I not supposed to look at this?”
he recalled thinking.

“Am I not supposed to look at this?”
is something I, too, often wonder at fashion shows and parties. I can't help but look at human thighs as firm and slim and browned as breadsticks in an Olive Garden commercial, arrayed in front of me like an all-you-can-eat bottomless basket. Or gawk conspicuously at seemingly hideous denim and camel leather patchwork jumpsuits (I will find out I'm in the minority of fashion people who does not want one to wear tomorrow). Or feel jarred by the sight of celebrities showing up to 9:00 a.m. fashion shows in full cocktail wear, like they're not there to sit in a seat, but about to turn the letters around on
Wheel of Fortune

I see some things that others either choose to ignore or no longer notice. Like the thighs thinner than most arms. The desperation with which some people attire themselves in order to get photographed. The egos that seem to motivate so many people to do so many unnecessary things, like wear sunglasses indoors as though they are high on Ecstasy.

is the stuff you're supposed to ignore, because within the industry, it's all just normal.
the industry, it's anything but.

• • •

“Fashion,” I soon learned, was different from “clothing.”

At most fashion shows (and I'd only been to a few at this point) everyone acts as if the whole thing is about as exciting as vacuuming crumbs out of a couch. The fashion people can't wait to get out because they'll never be on time to their next show and everything about this is so exhausting and stressful. Lo, HOW HARD IT IS TO SPEND THE DAY GOING TO FASHION SHOWS. THE WOE. (
The woe.

And so, I felt that their reaction to the Alexander Wang show was different. This pair of ripped black tights was like smelling salts: it had stirred the bored, deadened insides of people who had looked at so many shoes in their careers that they were interested in only those that looked like a species deserving of its own Latin taxonomy. And I wanted to know why. What did these people know that allowed them to navigate—and dictate—the whims of an industry that has so much power over women in pursuit of a certain look? And why is what they themselves love so
? And, ultimately, unattainable?

Starting out, I understood some things about the fashion business and its people (fashion people). I understood that fashion people liked to wear all-black because they consider it to be the most fashionable thing to wear, at all times, for any occasion. I also understood that they regarded waiting in line for anything as a plebeian activity they did not deserve to suffer through. I understood that they almost never ate hors d'oeuvres, even though they are, for some reason, always around. And I understood that when they're not totally bored by everything, they tend to convey emotions most strongly through single-word proclamations (see: “Obsessed!” “Dead!” “LOVE!”).

But I also knew as soon as I hit the Fashion Week circuit in a pair
of hole-free tights and my finest high school holdovers from Dillard's that I was not like them. Though I did believe lines were a thing to be avoided at all costs and saw no shame in pursuing the status necessary to gain the privilege of skipping them—airline miles to skip the plane line, being female and with
females to skip the nightclub line. But present me with a tray of thimble-sized “mac 'n' cheese cupcakes,” and I am quite simply going to eat one.

Perhaps because of the differences between those who were born for this world and me, I found everything happening at fashion events perplexing and hugely intimidating and completely alien—the people, the clothes they wore, the clothes they refused to wear. They looked at certain shows as a religious experience. I looked at the same shows as a series of jumpsuits I would never wear.

I've since learned that this industry is defined by these people. When you see a celebrity wearing a designer dress on a magazine cover, you're not just looking at a specimen of fame encased in duchesse satin. You're seeing the work of the designer who created the dress, the stylist who told the celebrity to wear the dress, the hair and makeup people who made her look like she
in that dress, the editors who selected the celebrity and the dress as the emblem of taste in our time. On a less perceptible level, you are seeing the work of the various publicists who turned this celebrity into a star and who turned this designer into a label worthy of the star's body and magazine's most prime real estate. And you are seeing countless influencers of trends—not only the internet stars who cover the industry on a second-to-second basis, but also the trend forecasters who, two years ago, told everyone from the cosmetics companies who made the makeup to the designers themselves that everyone will wear moss green in eighteen months
because of some high-level reasoning relating to the economy and a feeling in the air. They say a picture is worth a thousand words—they're wrong: in fashion, it's actually worth a thousand people. And the thing that binds them isn't just the emblem of taste in our time, but also the eccentricity and distance from reality that movies like
caricature so well.

Some of these fashion people go from ugly ducklings to beautiful and eccentric fashion-famous swans; others emerged from the womb as full-grown adults in stilettos and leather pants who refuse to consume dairy products. Not me, though. Rest assured, I came out of the womb with ZERO style and a strong affinity for dairy products.

That's not to say I wasn't interested in clothes. Being a female with every cartoon Disney movie on VHS, I was positively obsessed with sparkly things and princess fashion. When I was around six, the children's shoe store where I bought all my Keds carried a pair of very glittery flats that I just
to have. When I first laid eyes upon them, I looked at my mom and exclaimed, “Those are my shoes!” No shoes had ever been destined to be worn by both Liberace and a six-year-old girl quite like these.

I couldn't stop thinking about them. But my parents wouldn't buy them for me right away. They were testing me—they said I didn't “need” them, but I figured they just wanted me to prove my commitment to this footwear, so I begged. I fantasized about how
life would be once I had these shoes. My feet would be so SPARKLY—how could my mother and father fail to see the immediate and lasting payoff of me owning glitter shoes I would ruin on the playground and grow out of in a few months? Some people don't understand anything.

One day, when they had realized I would not relent, they came around and agreed to buy me the glitter shoes.

We went back to the shoe store but they didn't have the multicolored glitter style I had been obsessing over in my size. The salesperson offered to order them for us and brought out a red style for me to try for fit.

No social injustice was greater in my kindergartener world than learning I'd have to WAIT for my glitter shoes. I had already waited long enough and flat-out refused to wait anymore. Couldn't the shoe store lady see this? Couldn't my dad?

I put on the red glitter shoes and skipped around the store. I didn't want to take them off and I
didn't want to wait for my multicolored ones to arrive.

“I'll take these,” I informed the saleswoman.

“Now, Amy, don't you want the multicolored ones?” my dad said. “We'll order the other ones and you'll have them next week. You won't like these as much.”

He turned to the counter, and I tried to convince myself that I really wanted the red ones and these old people were wrong. I clicked my heels when no one was looking because I'd seen
The Wizard of Oz
and knew that if I tapped my sparkly shoes together I'd be transported to a magical land where everyone understood the power of sparkly shoes and a giant cat would talk to me. That's the power of fashion. No one really understands the magical forces behind it, only that it has the power to take you to faraway, otherworldly places. Or, as the people at Fashion Week so often remind me, sometimes it just makes you look like you came from one.

In middle school, I really began to see how clothing could distinguish certain groups of people. Now let me be very clear:
I was not cool
. The hot football players were not sending me secret admirer roses on Valentine's Day. I was not in my high school's club of “Senior Girls,” composed mostly of cheerleaders or dance team
members, who would shoe polish football players' cars with hearts and clouds and decorate their rooms before games. (I know—
; don't get me started.) However, I was very much aware that the people who did also had perfect Abercrombie cutoffs and wore their hair in messy ponytails just to show how little they tried to look good. (The first law of looking good is you generally have to try to look good; the second law of looking good is making sure you don't
like you tried.) I first saw in grade school that social status and clothing were inextricably linked. Studying and analyzing this truth
would become my job as a fashion journalist. Because fashion is not just about dresses, it's about so much more—it's about who can afford the dresses, who is famous or important enough to borrow the dresses, where the dresses can even be worn because they're so outlandish and fancy that they'd look a fool in every single place nonfamous, nonfashion people spend time.

After high school, I moved to New York to attend New York University, where, in between going to nightclubs to make up for how dorky and book-bound I was in high school, I studied journalism. As an intern at the
York Observer
, I was desperate for clips and ended up covering red carpet events to get them. I went to fashion show after fashion show and fashion party after fashion party, trying to interview the grown glitter-shoe-wearing adults on the inside and make sense of it all from the outside.

I learned that the fashion industry accords status by row. The more important you are, the better your seat at fashion shows. Anna Wintour, editor in chief of
, gets the best seat—front row, center, always—because she's the most important person in the industry. As
documentarian R. J. Cutler said, “Well, you can make a film in Hollywood without Steven Spielberg's blessing,
and you can publish software in Silicon Valley without Bill Gates's blessing, but it's pretty clear to me that you can't succeed in the fashion industry without Anna Wintour's blessing.” Anna gets to do whatever she wants at Fashion Week, even more so than the other forty-nine people who get to do whatever they want. She gets to go inside and sit in her seat before the venue is open. She gets to go backstage and see the clothes at her leisure and take precedence over everyone else who needs to go backstage and schmooze with the designer. Other people who get to sit on the front row include more
editors, sometimes as many as five or six. And sometimes there are so many people from
a few have to sit on the
row behind Anna, which is always slightly scandalous to the people who have to turn what happens at Fashion Week into stories and blog posts. “
Editor So and So Relegated to SECOND ROW SEAT,” headlines blare. I don't understand why six people from one magazine need to be at one fashion show. I don't know if they're just there to be supportive of the designer in a self-­acknowledgment of their own importance (“
was there,” someone might say afterward) or if they're working (but how much work can six people
at one fashion show?). And is that much work on one fashion show actually needed? I really don't know the answers. The one thing I do know is that it is ­remarkable how calm and thin all the
people look all the time. Fashion Week stresses most people out, but being very well dressed and slim hides that stress remarkably well.

BOOK: Tales from the Back Row
2.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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