Tag Archives: j mendel

Access, Art and Engineering

A positive experience at New York Fashion Week is all about access.

41st Street, as seen from the entrance to the Bryant Park Tents

Ariel Kaminer, The New York Times’ City Critic, wrote a column (and made a video) about trying to talk her way into the Bryant Park tents. She posed as an earnest fan and didn’t invoke the name of her newspaper, but I would surmise that her stiletto heels and personal swagger certainly helped her successful attempts at entry. (Tory Burch: no; Nanette Lepore: yes) Thankfully, I have my post at Dossier to get me in the door at the shows I cover each season, so I didn’t have to do any fancy talking.

Well, almost any.

This season, I covered (these link to my reviews) John Patrick Organic, Rachel Comey, Cynthia Rowley, Karen Walker, Lorick, Simon Spurr, A Détacher, Bibhu Mohapatra, Sophie Theallet, 3.1 Philip Lim, and Alexandre Herchovitch, all in the name of Dossier. There was one more show, on a tentative spot at the end of my schedule, but my editor noted it was “pending confirmation,” meaning, we hadn’t received our official invitation: J Mendel. Sorry, she told me. She knew how much I wanted to see it.

I spent my final semester of journalism school reporting a story that took place largely behind the doors of Mr. Mendel’s Seventh Avenue atelier, primarily with one of his designers, and I was dying to see the fruits of her labor on the runway. I haven’t gotten permission to publish all I saw during my visits, but I think this little snippet from Mr. Mendel’s sample room should be okay:

The workers continued—pushing dresses delicately through sewing machines like giant wilted flowers, leaning over paper, rulers and pencils, and circumnavigating dress-forms, considering each angle of the dress they worked on. The dresses, even in this unforgiving blast of florescent lighting, hanging like skeletons in a science lab, made me forget all about my notebook, my class, my story, my graduation.

They were just beautiful.

A short-sleeved one the color of sand, covered in tiny silver beads that made the whole length shimmer, was suspended from hanger on a high rack, overseeing the scene like a glamorous ghost from the 1920s. A dress-form planted firmly on the ground wore a column—or two columns, rather, that met at the waist to become one, of feathery spice-colored silk chiffon, with pink ribbon fastening its layers at the shoulders.

And the blue one. I looked at it, stunned, then remembered my notebook. Storm cloud, I scribbled. And it was like a storm cloud, this deep marine gray gown standing in the stark white corner, enveloping the dress-form in swirls and layers so simultaneously wild and organic, it seemed they should only have occurred in nature. It was diaphanous and strong, fragile and commanding. It was absolutely beautiful.

“That,” said the designer, “was my baby for this collection.”

Just a half an hour before the show was scheduled to begin, I sat working at a computer at CUNY, telling myself I could always find the collection on Style.com later; that I didn’t really need to see that stormy blue gown in person. I kicked myself for not calling the designers directly. I tried to work on another review. I looked at the clock. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, pulled on my coat, and walked the two blocks to the tents. No invitation. No credential. No nothing.

It was crowded, very crowded. And there were two lines to enter the salon where J Mendel would show his collection. In the first, invitations were being checked against a list, and  small cards with invitees names were issued. In the second, said cards were collected as the crowd entered. No one would be admitted, I learned, without a little card.

“Just make it easy,” a barrel-chested fellow in a black tee shirt told me. “If you don’t have a ticket, leave.”

I did not.

I smiled, turned on my heel, and went to the first line. I told a man behind a table my name and affiliation. He told me I wasn’t on the list. (I already knew that.) I told him I didn’t have my invitation (true) but I believed we were meant to cover the collection (true) and that there was no other editor from Dossier present (true.) He spoke into his little earphone for backup. I was imagining holding my elbows stiff to make a forced removal as dignified as possible when an authoritative woman–maybe she had a clipboard–arrived. I told her my name, my plight, and spelled D-O-S-S-I-E-R. She left. I waited. She came back, scrawled my name onto a little card, and sent me into the second line, where I waited again. This time, my barrel-chested friend waved me through.

I was in. The girls all stood still on the runway, allowing editors, buyers and very special customers to get a closer look.

In the crowd, I found the designers who helped with my reporting in the Fall. While socialites shopped and models mugged for the cameras, Mendel’s fur designer opened up one of their vests to show me the strips of fur sewn inside with gold thread.

I loved my behind-the-seams look at the showpiece, but it was nothing compared to finding the blue dress I had met months before, when it was pinned on a dress form in Mr. Mendel’s sample room.

I don’t know whether to call this a work of art or engineering.

Sometimes, like in the Wizard of Oz, a look behind the curtain can dissolve all the amazement. Lately, I’m finding just the opposite. It’s a little overwhelming, thinking about how all these materials, people and designs piece together, and how best to present it to you readers.

But rest assured, I’ve got loads of reporting, and I’m working on it.

If all goes well, with some fancy feats of access, art and engineering, I’ll be able to share it all with you in such a way that you, like me, can find the “wonder” in wondering what to wear.

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Cathy Horyn, Behind the Scenes in the Garment Center

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you may be interested in Cathy Horyn’s most recent blogpost: a New York City pattern-maker’s observations of the changing American garment industry. It’s heartening to see the comments it’s already generating on The Times’ website.

Ari Magallanes Works a J Mendel Dress in his 38th Street Studio, Fall 2009

Those comments show readers are ready look behind the curtain, at what Ms. Horyn calls, “an industry in turmoil, the drastic loss of local factories and suppliers, the manufacturing dominance of China and other countries, the gradual decline of technical expertise in the face of apparent consumer indifference about fit and quality.”

Here’s another glimpse behind the scenes, in case you missed it the first time around, of New York City garmentos in their workplaces. You can also click here to read all the posts pertaining to the the garment district.

I’ll be reporting from the runways next week for Dossier, but I’ll do my best to get behind the scenes too. Maybe consumers aren’t so indifferent after all, they just might need more stories.

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Process and Production

I loved reading Michelle Slatalla’s Wife/Mother/Worker/Spy piece today in The Times, about what she, an impatient writer learned about herself and her creative process from her new sewing machine. 

I just finished a similar experiment, writing a 5,800-word story intertwining the design of J Mendel’s Pre-Fall collection with the act of composing the story. It was a story within a story, about the creative process–a bit of a mind-bender, but so much fun to write. (It was a final project for my Masters, if you’d like to read it, let me know. A 20-page assault on this website doesn’t seem right somehow.)

J. Mendel Pre-Fall 2010

J Mendel, Pre-Fall 2010, from Style.com

Anyway, Slatalla sort of did the same thing in column form today, providing a bit of insight into her process and its little tics via a story about garment (or, in her case, dish towel) production. 

We could take this a step further to compare the collective consciousness of creative types–designers and writers alike, but that might be taking this whole thing a bit far.

Let’s just go back to wondering what to wear.

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