"Luxury is not shopping," says Rem Koolhaas.
And yet here we are, gearing up for another Fashion's Night Out. Anna Wintour's holiday dedicated to no nobler goal than consumption is in its third year, and it's only getting bigger. Do you want to see A.J. from the Backstreet Boys host a karaoke night at Kiehl's? Or maybe you want to catch Pam from True Blood at Sephora? Or maybe you'd like to see an America's Next Top Model winner at a shoe store? All of these things are possible. But what I don't understand is why they are supposed to be appealing. Perhaps Fashion's Night Out bothers me because it's about accretion, and actually possessing things was never the goal, or even a goal, of my engagement with fashion.
There's a bit in novelist Michelle Tea's Believer profile of Beth Ditto where Tea discusses "visiting" a Rodarte dress at a department store, "the way I have gone to the SPCA to visit with various animals I can't adopt." I identify with that. Tea also says, "I don't love a painting on a museum wall any less for not being able to own it."
I get — oh believe me, do I get — that fashion is a consumer product, and that the fashion media exist largely to provide content that'll set off nicely the ads that underwrite the enterprise. (Sometimes the content is the ad.) But growing up as I did in a small country, before the Internet was really A Thing, back when you had to wait for "your" copy of Vogue Paris to arrive at the only newsagent in town that carried such a thing to see the new stories, I never really connected my love of fashion with a love of brands. I began learning the vocabulary of fashion, the images and the references and the aesthetic concerns, without ever really considering that the dresses and bags and shoes I saw so beautifully photographed on Shalom Harlow's or Tasha Tilberg's bodies actually existed as things. The idea of, say, a Dior dress as an object someone could own, an actual piece of fabric that hung on a rack somewhere with a pricetag and a shopgirl, that wasn't an idea that mattered to me. Nobody in Christchurch, New Zealand, had a Louis Vuitton bag; where would you have bought such a thing? And why would you buy such a thing, when you could look at Karen Elson holding it so beautifully in a magazine? In high school, I consumed fashion magazines with an avidity that now strikes me as almost obsessive, but I never coveted the things that I saw. I don't think I even coveted other, cheaper, things made by (or manufactured under license) by the same name brands, though I suppose I did once buy an Yves Saint Laurent lipstick at an airport duty-free in Singapore when I was 16. (Yves Saint Laurent was yet another thing we didn't have in New Zealand back then.) I loved my magazines, and I loved the things in them — in the way that you "love," as Tea writes, a painting. But the things also didn't seem real to me. In fact, their unreality, the refusal of this or that image that I loved to intersect with the commercial plane, was a great part of the appeal.
Fashion's Night Out gives lie to all that. It's about buying things, and celebrities, and people buying things because they are in the presence of celebrities. It's about sales. And we're not talking sales-sales; discounts are verboten. Of all the possible points of entry to fashion, consumption seems perhaps the most limited and limiting, the most prosaic, and the most rife with potential for disappointment. (Once an idea becomes a thing, isn't it always disappointing? Or maybe it is never disappointing to actually own, like, a Lanvin dress; I am not in a position to know.) Stores spend absurd sums on celebrities, entertainment, security, alcohol, food — all because Anna Wintour says so. There was an item in today's Daily — the fashion week glossy, not the Murdoch boondoggle — that puts Bergdorf Goodman's, Saks Fifth Avenue's, and Bloomingdale's Fashion's Night Out budgets in the six figures each. Is it really possible that the stores even make that much back in the tills?
I'm not opposed to the idea of fashion having a holiday; the fashion industry is a huge part of the U.S. economy, and particularly, the New York City economy. (That is doubtless why Mayor Bloomberg has been so quick to embrace it as an event.) I just feel like if fashion were going to get a Night, it should be special. It shouldn't just be about shopping.
Now, I wrote all that yesterday afternoon, after getting home from possibly the weirdest fashion show I've ever seen — Imitation of Christ, where an actual Catholic priest, Father Andrew O'Connor, presided over the mock-wedding of Lydia Hearst and some dude named Miles. The wedding party/models entered two by two and took their places at a rose-petal-strewn altar; Lydia Hearst walked down the aisle in a white dress covered with a kind of chitinous plastic peplum; and then Father O'Connor led Lydia and Miles through the vows. "You may now kiss the bride," he said. Miles did. A publicist assured me afterwards it had been "real" — which it turned out it wasn't, I think, although it did give me the opportunity to Tweet "Real Wedding At Imitation Show" — but more than anything else, I couldn't entirely shake the idea that Lydia Hearst and Miles whoever were now married in the eyes of God. That in using a private ceremony, something that's usually holy, to sell clothes to buyers and give the press a little tidbit to talk about, something had gone a little wrong with the mix. Which is some pretty weird metaphysical shit to be pondering during an otherwise normal day at the collections.
Experience has taught me that it's best to pick one party and stick with it, because getting around on Fashion's Night Out in New York bears certain similarities to getting around on New Year's Eve, so my experience of Fashion's Night Out red in tooth and claw was limited. But — while I still have reservations about the nature of the event — I have to say I had a pretty great time. There was a party at the Miu Miu store on 57th Street hosted by Tavi Gevinson and Shala Monroque, and guests were asked to dress in the style of the 1940s, so I busted out a black crepe vintage dress and a feathered hat of the same era. I ran into several friends and old colleagues, drank more than a couple glasses of champagne, and when I ducked out for a burger, Bill Cunningham took my picture. Like a lot of things, Fashion's Night Out is easy to dislike in the aggregate, but it's much harder to maintain that comforting, bloggerly animus at close range.
I didn't imagine, when I remembered that Michelle Tea story yesterday, that my night would end at a tiny karaoke bar downtown at 1 a.m., long after Fashion's Night Out was over, when Beth Ditto — fresh from an appearance at a makeup store — turned up, clambered onstage, and belted "Chain Of Fools." The whole bar — all, like, ten people who happened to be there — sang along. That was pretty great. I suppose I have Fashion's Night Out to thank for it. But the only thing I bought all night was a beer.