The other night I was out at a pre-fashion week party, where my goal was to eat as many little rolled-up pieces of salmon on little slices of brown bread as I could without drawing attention to myself. I may have also been drinking pink champagne from a coupe. A friend of mine who works at the Paris Review happened to be there, and she asked me how many shows I planned to go to. I suppose I felt like being glib, so I shot back, "As many as I can go to, without completely losing touch with reality." And I munched another canapé.
She wrinkled her nose. "Don't you think that's weird? The way people talk about fashion week, like it's this momentous struggle?" she asked. And right then I realized — I was being a huge asshole.
One certainly not need look very far to find evidence of the rhetoric of fashion week as Struggle and against-the-odds Triumph. Google "Fashion week struggle": 1,060,000 results. "Fashion week survive": 679,000, including six posts and articles on the front page alone all titled, "How To Survive Fashion Week." "Fashion week grueling": 105,000. "Fashion week hell": 7,840,000 "Fashion week long hours": 72,900,000.
And examples abound in fashion writing. Fashion blogs compile "Fashion Week Survival Packs" so that you can "make it through alive." Last September, a piece in The Daily, headlined "Rag & Bone's Grueling Fashion Week Itinerary," explained that the designers behind the label Rag & Bone intended to risk life and limb by showing their clothes to buyers and press at some kind of formal, invitation-only event, and then attending two parties for Fashion's Night Out. "We hope not to be too exhausted for the after party!" added one of the designers. Meanwhile, Lincoln Center fashion director Stephanie Winston Wolkoff finds she has to carry a lot of things during fashion week. "I throw everything into one of my Birkins," she explains. And then there's Vogue:
New York Fashion Week officially starts today, and Vogue.com has linked up with a new website, The Coveteur, to find out what the key players (from the designers to the models to the nightlife kings) think necessary in order to survive their grueling schedules over the next ten days. Once we got their lists, we asked them to assemble their essentials for a portrait shot by photographer Jake Rosenberg (with the help of cofounders Erin Kleinberg and Stephanie Mark). Here are the enviable — and informative — results...
Emphasis added. Actually, my friend dug up that last example after the party with the canapés and the champagne. And emailed to me with an "I mean..." at the top.
Now, obviously, there's a huge dose of humor in this rhetoric — there's something very mock-heroic about referring to a trade event where some people wear dress perhaps more elaborate than that seen at your average American Dental Association Annual General Meeting (Western/Mountain Division) as though it were some kind of voortrek in heels. This kind of talk — this discourse of survival — is self-deprecating. It's not intended to be taken just at face value. The rhetoric has plausible deniability.
But at the same time, the Discourse of Survival inevitably comes to color how we see fashion week and the (very real) labor that takes place there. Jokes have the ring of truth, and anything repeated often enough and widely enough can affect perceptions. How else to explain the pervasiveness of the construction? This week's universal email sign-off seems to be "Hope you're surviving!" I've had more than one friend ask me how I "cope with" or "survive" this week. Let me be clear: I work pretty damn hard during fashion week, between the blogging and the going to shows and the thinking up of questions to ask people at events that would be even vaguely worth their time to answer and the walking from 8th Avenue and 14th St. to 18th St. and the West Side Highway, and back, and again. I mean, it's actually 3:07 a.m. right now and I have my first show at 10 a.m. tomorrow, and this isn't even the last piece I have to work on tonight. But no-one need fear for my survival. Basically, twice a year I pay $80 and get my name on a plastic card that guarantees me entry to a week-long open bar. I think, somehow, I'll make it through.
I think what the Discourse of Survival is gesturing at is some kind of greater recognition for the labors that are performed in fashion's name. And there are many: there are models and hairstylists and dressers and makeup artists and interns and seamstresses and PRs who are at the tents for 5 a.m. calls and keep working through to the late night, and their work shouldn't be diminished. There are editors and photographers and writers who go to eight shows a day and turn out incisive reviews, interviews, and more slideshows than you could possibly look at in a human lifetime. Fashion is a kind of liminal industry — not really art, but definitely commerce with strong artistic feelings — and one senses about fashion a persistent yearning for cultural legitimacy. That yearning sometimes expresses itself in surprising ways. Arguing — even half-mockingly, even self-mockingly — that what we do is like, so hardyouhavenoidea, is one way of staking that claim. It's one way of counter-acting the alleged "glamour" of our work, forestalling the assumption that it's all just parties and dresses and bullshit, anyway. But it's just that the Discourse of Survival has the teensy drawback of, you know, making the industry look like it's populated by people with absolutely no sense of perspective. People with car services at their beck and call who think their designer shoes are too tight and the street style photographer is taking too long to snap their picture. Which is unfortunately sort of how the rest of the world already sees fashion people already, I think.
Most people with jobs work hard. Most people with jobs don't enjoy every part of their work, or every day's work. Fashion is no different. But I need a fucking break from the Discourse of Survival. I'd prefer that kind of language be left for situations where it actually applies unironically.
Because he has eminently sensible opinions about most things regarding fashion, I asked Tim Gunn about this "survival" business. He laughed. "Well, I think it depends on the job," he said, very sensibly. "Editors are beginning a long month of going to these shows, there's lots of traveling involved and certainly that can be grueling in its own way, I'm sure." He frowned; that's true, by the way, for people who do the full fashion week show circuit (New York, London, Milan, Paris), it is a slog. Though of course, they tend to work for large institutions with plenty of resources at their disposal. "There's also a kind of a — a fatigue that sets in, when you have to find new and original ways of describing these things that you're seeing, and it's like, how many things can you say? I used to struggle with that sometimes at Parsons, giving my students critiques — it was like, we-e-ell..." He paused. "So perhaps if I were an editor or a buyer, I might feel entitled to use language like 'surviving.' But if you're just an attendee?" He shrugged and gave a look that said, We're not going off to war! We're going to Lincoln Center.
Fashion week is probably, at base, like almost any other conference or industry event (only run by and for people with much less punctuality, which by the way suits me just fine) and next time I catch myself beginning to dramatize its impact on my person or to my sanity, I'll stop. Besides, the challenges fashion week poses are far more mundane than the Discourse of Survival would hold. Spending a week waiting in line after line for the chance to be evaluated by people in uniforms who seem thoroughly indifferent to your situation, whatever its particulars, and are as likely to sigh and tell you to go to the back of that line as they are to look at you? It reminds me of nothing so much as spending a week at the DMV. Only everyone's skinny and the uniform is event black and, like I said, there's a bar. That and a book to read, and I'll be fine. Really.