It is too hot to be fashionable. Everybody is damp. Manhattan is reflective and confining, a griddle on even the least of summer’s scorchers. This is not the least. On my phone, I masochistically have the “feels-like” temperature set as the default display; it is three digits. I am wearing heavy, bulky jeans, my Nice Jeans. I am dying in them. Again, it is too hot to be fashionable. But a woman in front of me is wearing a clear plastic raincoat-looking thing over a normal tank top. I cannot fathom why or how. She is a one-woman mobile banya, and she is gushing. She looks as uncomfortable as I feel. She is not a model, which is to say, she is not wearing that because she has to. She is a random person, in line to watch a fashion show. Welcome to New York Fashion Week.
I am here for the 11th annual Supima Design Competition, where the country’s elite fashion students will to go war. This is, to the thinking of the Deadspin-Jezebel braintrust, the perfect fashion event to send a sports writer. Competition is competition. There are seven contestants, from places like RISD and FIT and SCAD and other acronym schools. Each contestant is given five materials from which they must make five different womenswear looks. A panel of judges, from the fashion and fashion media worlds, have already picked the winner, it turns out, but the designers and we observers won’t find out until the close of the show. The winner receives $10,000, and that ever-important exposure.
Supima, I learn, is a non-profit representing growers of pima cotton, a specific species of cotton created for its extra-long fibers. A trade organization, but also a marketing arm and branding agency, in function. It is all very strange, I think. It raises some concerning-to-me questions about proprietary genetic engineering and patent law and the ethics of trademarking a living thing. For some reason, no one in line wants to talk about this with me. Instead I eat my 18th bruschetta thing from the trays going around.
Yes! There is free food and wine. Fashion Week owns. There is so much wine. Everyone is holding a glass. My spot in line is right near the entrance to the kitchen at this Chelsea Piers photography studio/event space, and the wine comes and goes, not by the bottle, not even by the caseload, but by the triple-decker dolly laden with cases. I am there for probably 20 minutes and there is never not one wine dolly or other being unloaded. Logic dictates that, around me, wine is being consumed at the same rate I am watching it be unloaded.
Fashion, I am coming to believe, runs on wine. This is not unexpected. I catch one of the caterers and ask him how work during Fashion Week differs, if it does, from during typical events here. It’s busier, he says. Makes sense. Also, food comes back uneaten way more often than at other events. This is also not entirely unexpected.
People here are very skinny. And not only the models, who are immediately identifiable even in their civvies—that unworldy, absurdly cheekboned look is real, and more striking in person than even in print or on television, and they all have it. The... I don’t want to say “uniformity,” because it feels rude, but there’s no other word that’s quite right... the uniformity of the models is a little jarring, as is the fact that to my eye, that specific look has been the norm for decades. My eye is untrained, sure. But it feels odd that in an industry where what’s in can change from season to season, what’s demanded from the looks of the people actually wearing the clothes does not.
Waiting in line makes for great people-watching. I think, within minutes, I am reasonably good at picking out who’s a designer, who’s media, who’s a proud family member of one of the student contestants (they are so proud! It is all very sweet), who’s a random person who fancies themselves a fashionista or fashionisto. There is much networking going on, and a whole lot of distant colleague–greeting, the sort of thing that goes on at any industry’s biggest shindig. At the Super Bowl, reporters from across the country will catch up with folks they haven’t seen each other since... the last Super Bowl. There’s that vibe here too. There are also famous people, or at least powerful people. I do not know enough to distinguish the two here, but there are people with their own gravity, people about whom other people clearly orbit, or find their orbits disturbed in the powerful person’s wake. I do not recognize any of them. At one point I think for a second that I see Perez Hilton, but I do not.
“Everyone looks the same this year,” I overhear from someone who looks like they know what they’re talking about. “It’s like Coachella.” I do not know if this means that everyone at Coachella looks the same, or that everyone here looks like they should be at Coachella, or both, but I am livened by the petty spite. Are these my people after all?
I am a fashion idiot. This is not a brag and it is not a confession. It is just a fact that I do not know or care all that much about it, either as it affects me or in the abstract. I dutiful-boyfriended my way through many an episode of Project Runway, but the largest fraction of my attention was on my phone. I do not know fashion, and I am not, I think, particularly fashionable. (I am uncertain, still, to what extent those two concepts overlap.) Being assigned to cover a fashion show, at Fashion Week, was a low-hanging fish-out-of-water angle. Obvious, and yet I was surprised at how stressful the idea became to me. Not the unfamiliarity of the experience, but the incongruity of my involvement.
I am going to struggle to successfully convey how psychically fraught this whole process was for me, and it will probably come as a shock to whichever editor first reads this, but I’m going to try. I was handed this assignment by editors; I certainly did not volunteer for it myself. So I naturally wondered, of the dozen or so Deadspin staffers in New York who could have done excellent jobs with this story, why pick me? Am I the funniest person to select for the task, as the single least fashionable or fashion-minded, viz., the worst-dressed person in the office? It would be humiliating enough that my co-workers might perceive me this way, but even worse would be if they’re objectively right about it. So, then, none of my prep for this assignment has come without significant background angst: Is this a gag I’m in on, or is the joke on me? And if this low-level neurosis is the result of forcing an unwilling person to think about fashion for roughly one day, I can’t even imagine the deleterious mental and emotional effects on those people who are forced to confront this every waking hour (read: women).
I truly stressed about what I would wear for this. I am used to sporting events, where male reporters tend to wear whichever shirt has the fewest mustard stains. The night before the show I consulted with a fashion writer with whom I went on like three Tinder dates two years ago, and while she found this whole thing very amusing, she approved of what I told her I was going to wear, and that made me feel much better.
Hence, my outfit for Fashion Week: a raiment of paranoia and my Nice Jeans (Uniqlo!) and a fine-enough dark T-shirt (Target!) and sneakers (New Balance! I know they aren’t cool but I can’t really fix that until the non–dad brands start making shoes in my freak size). None of this mattered. At the show, I never once felt like anyone was judging me. In retrospect, in fact, I find it very sad that I stressed so hard about it in the first place. But I am not, on the whole, particularly self-confident. The fashion world might not be a healthy place for me.
The doors to the show opened late, and the actual show itself didn’t start until about a half-hour after the time printed on the invite. (That, too, felt like a Super Bowl. At least there was no anthem to stand through. Or sit through, according to taste.) I may have felt out of place, but once I realized I had some primo seats—right behind the judges and the host of the event and the students’ mentors—I immediately felt superior to everyone else in the room. Eat shit, people in the standing-room-only. Buzz Bissinger, in coming out as a shopaholic, talked about his entry into the fashion scene and his glee at becoming such a big deal that he was given front-row seats. Or, in the parlance, a FROW. “[N]ot that I knew what the term meant before now, but I am fucking FROWING,” Bissinger wrote. Well, reader, I am scrowing.
I had a whole lot of questions. Was I supposed to clap? Cheering in the press box at a sporting event is one of the biggest no-nos. There was a swag bag under every seat, and there appeared to be some really, really nice stuff in there; clothes and a towel and maybe a napkin set? I panickedly messaged the Jezebel editors and my own boss, asking if it was ethically okay to take the swag bag. (I did not take the swag bag.) Luckily for my general ignorance, I was seated next to an impossibly friendly staffer at a major fashion magazine which I will not name on the chance that being associated with me with lowers her standing in the eyes of her editors. She patiently listened to my nervous stream-of-consciousness observations and answered my stupid questions, and if you are going to go to a Fashion Show for the first time, I highly recommend having a cultural attaché.
Finally, the lights went down. A Supima guy in a Matthew Lesko–ass suit welcomed us, and then introduced our host, fashion icon (whom I had not heard of but whose C.V. I was lectured about by Jezebel editors after the fact and whom is a legit superstar and I have only my own ignorance to blame for not knowing all this going in) June Ambrose. Someone whispered something to the guy; June was not ready. She would scamper from backstage to her frow seat right before the actual runway walk began, and later joke that she had stepped out because she was “too in shock at all the beautiful designs.” I bet she was pooping.
A video aired featuring quick glimpses of the clothes and sound bites from the contestants. One noted that the inspiration for her back-front asymmetrical designs was “someone who posts online differently than they are in real life.”
Then, showtime. The show was great! The outfits I saw (the constant caveat about my fashion idiocy continues to apply) looked to me just as impressive as any “professional” designer. One thing I was truly not expecting, and I’m not sure why I wasn’t, was the amount of personality each designer was able to convey in their pieces. One designer was clearly taken by whites and icy, muted shades, something I might not have noticed had the next designer’s work not popped so visibly with bright, primary colors. One designer’s work was decidedly, as I noted approvingly in my notebook in the darkness, “whimsical.” One’s work felt entirely accessible, as if I could picture normal people wearing it, as opposed to another’s clear bent toward “high” fashion, as I understand it. (On the whole, I would put this show’s highness rating at about a 7.5, with 0 being a track suit and 10 being, I dunno, a giant Fabergé egg with leg holes.)
It is striking to me, now, writing this, how deeply I lack the vocabulary to talk about this stuff intelligently. I am having real trouble putting into words what I saw, and that’s because I simply don’t know the words that are appropriate for fashion talk. It’s humbling, and it’s something worth me keeping in mind when talking about sports with people who don’t think about them every waking hour of the workday.
Another thing that I did not expect at all: I had takes. Instant, visceral opinions. I had wondered about clapping, but specifically about clapping harder for some looks and designers than others, because how do you know who’s “better” when everything is subjective? But I found myself doing exactly that. Not obnoxiously, mind you—no fashion clap goes very far beyond “golf,” apparently—but noticeably. There were looks I liked, and looks I didn’t, and looks that puzzled me at first and I thought I didn’t like and then I looked at them from the rear and then on the video screen and while I still didn’t precisely like them I felt engaged enough in my puzzlement to come away with an entirely positive reaction.
And then, the contestant whose work I liked the least won, and I was bummed. Genuinely disappointed! I did not think I had that in me, nor my excessively catty observation to my notepad that her floral inspiration featured a dress with physical “petals” that looked on the whole more like a kindergartner’s construction-paper Thanksgiving turkey.
Note to my editor: Is that too rude a burn? Is it bad to be rude here? Everyone in fashion is trying their hardest, and wants so hard to succeed, and I wanted them to succeed, but does that mean I shouldn’t say what I feel when I feel a look doesn’t work? Why do I feel strange about having a strong opinion here? That’s all sports-watching is about. Does it matter that these designers are young? I wouldn’t think twice about pointing out a college basketball player’s on-court fuck-up. Should I? What makes fashion different than sports, that one feels to me more like a rah-rah we’re-all-in-this-together lovefest and the other like pure competition? In both, aren’t participants competing with each other for a limited pool of money and fame and success? Would fashion writing be better if reporters acknowledged that so bluntly? Would sports writing?
More wine at the afterparty. I am less hot now, and feeling calmer about mingling with fashionable strangers. That’s the wine talking.
The models from the show I watched have disappeared, to go get changed or wherever they go, but there are four different shows going on at any given time in this complex, so there are many other models milling about. I am talking to one, because she is beautiful, but because I am still thinking about competition. Do you want the designer of the stuff you’re modeling to succeed?, I ask? Does that matter to you? Do you feel like you have a horse in this race?
“Sometimes, definitely,” she tells me. “I can believe that I played some role in their success, because the best clothes aren’t going to look as good as they should on someone who doesn’t feel good wearing them. And can show everyone that they feel good.”
Do you ever not care?
“If I think the designer is a bitch,” she says. Pause. She is drinking an espresso, which I think is a weird thing to do on a hot day and when there is free wine. “That’s a joke.”
She tells me that even if she’s not particularly enamored with a show, she’s still going to give her best, because models are competing against each other too. It’s not just the designers who are here to get noticed. This sounds to me like nothing so much like a sports team, where there is genuine teamwork and sometimes genuine camaraderie while at the same time athletes all recognize that they’re playing for personal enrichment and achievement.
She excuses herself to get another espresso, so I assume I’m being blown off, because who needs a second espresso on a 100-degree day? But without me saying anything she explains that when she’s working—and the endless hours of Fashion Week are the worst—she drinks espresso pretty much nonstop. It’s the only way she can be sure she’ll be as up for things at midnight as she was at noon. If you take nothing else from this blog, it’s that the secret to modeling is espresso. A 40-something woman nearby us overhears and says “they all drink it. Ten years ago it was cocaine, but nobody in this city does coke anymore.”
I leave before the sun goes down. I am not capable of hanging, not at the hours and the speed required of the people who do this for a living. For one, I can’t sleep if I have any caffeine after 1 p.m. or so. This is not my world, but it is one that from time to time feels legible. Even potentially relatable.
There’s a big crowd making the long walk to the subway. It is still far too hot. A woman in front of me is carrying a swag bag and is nose-deep in her phone as she crosses the bike lane on 11th avenue. A cyclist who has to slow to avoid her yells, “Fuck off, Fashion Week!”