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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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A Man and His Tweed

The night before Fashion Week began, I read an article in which the Financial Times’ style editor lamented the lack of a common lexicon when it comes to sustainability in style. She asked a variety of designers for their definitions and, of course, they varied greatly. Incidentally, the first show Dossier assigned me to cover was John Patrick Organic, a collection one might presume to be made of entirely organic fabrics. But one might be presumptuous. 

There were, indeed, some pieces, like the turtleneck on the left, made from fabrics that were, well, conventionally organic. But the most interesting fabric was not organic–at least, not according to the federal regulation. My favorite pieces in the collection–high-waisted shorts and trousers and a riding jacket with peaked shoulders were made of something called Harris Tweed. 

Just as John Patrick was beginning to tell me about it, a rather distinguished looking continental type strode into the show, donning  a great deal of tweed himself. John Patrick, flitting between photo opps and interviews, looked relieved to hand me off to an authority, and so I was introduced to Mr. Alan L. Bain, the Director of Harris Tweed Textiles:

Mr. Bain told me all about the Act of Parliament that protects the name of Harris Tweed, 100% sheep’s wool that must be spun, dyed and handwoven (at home!) by the islanders of the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Each bolt is stamped with a Maltese cross and orb, the stamp of Harris Tweed–a coat of arms that John Patrick, incidentally, integrated into the arm of a coat:

It’s beautiful stuff, full of multi-colored flecks–the result of tossing together different colored skeins of dyed wool before spinning the yarns. 

“It’s like baking a cake,” Mr. Bain said. “You have a recipe of different percents of colors.” (I was partial to an orchid pink shade used in a pair of high-waisted shorts.) It’s a recipe the Scots have been using since the 1800s, for a natural, bio-degradable, and, dare I say, beautiful fabric. But my guess would be that it isn’t cheap, which might be why Harris Tweeds’ production is down to one quarter of what it was 15 years ago (400,000 meters per year vs. 1,600,000 in 1995). The Act of Parliament was taken up by Prince Charles and the wool lords (not to be confused with war lords–we’re not talking about Blood Tweed) to protect the traditional techniques of farming and fabric production. The girls from Vogue arrived while I was chatting with Mr. Bain. They loved the tweeds. J Crew has apparently taken up the fabric as well. 

“But is it organic?” I asked Mr. Bain. Well, not exactly. Not the dyes, he said. There is one gent on the island, said Mr. Bain, doing organic, but they just didn’t have the demand yet. So, here’s a strictly defined fabric made of natural fibers using a 200-year old method that’s keeping a few Scottish farmers in business. It’s been in a slump, but might make a comeback if the right designers create demand. 

So while it may seem a little dodgy to use the word “organic” as a brand name for a line in which all the fabrics are not organic in the strictest sense, it also seems it wouldn’t make sense to throw out the baby with the bath water. I agree with the Financial Times’ editor, that the fashion industry needs to set some solid, scientifically definable standards of sustainability to adhere to. But I also think we need to leave a little room for interpretation and let it develop, well, organically, to leave a little room in designers’ lexicons for fabrics like Harris Tweed.

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F/W10 Fashion Week Part 1

Hi! Good thing I got those boots fixed, cause they’re running all over this fair city for Fashion Week. (Thank you, sun, for shining!)

Here are the shows and events I’ve covered over the last few days (those that don’t link aren’t up on Dossier yet, I’ll link them up as they come.)

Taking a load off Sunday morning at Lorick

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All’s Well That Ends Well

As I mentioned this morning, Day 2 of Fashion Week presented a bit of a challenge. It was the footwear, or rather, the combination of snow and footwear, that threw me. On Day 1 I wore my Yeti boots (and even got some love from NBC for it!), but today I planned to work straight through until an event this evening at the New York Public Library, and they just didn’t seem appropriate. 

Aftermath of Day 2 Dressing

My plan was to go straight to CUNY to get the pictures posted from yesterday’s Rachel Comey show, then pop by a panel on Entrepreneurial Journalism, then go to Gotham Hall for the Cynthia Rowley show, then go back to CUNY to write up yesterday’s John Patrick show, then go swim some laps and finally head to the Bryant Park Library around 8 for a party given by the CFDA and the South Korean Ministry of Culture.

Today’s Outfit: Designed for Endurance

But it seems every day needs a bit of drama. Yesterday my iPhone imploded (see new white one in photo above) and today CUNY was closed for Lincoln’s birthday. So, in place of actually attending the Paley Center panel on “Solving the Challenges of the News Frontier,” I set out to solve a few of my own–all of which stemmed from my lack of workplace and computer. 

Bill Blass Reading Room, New York Public Library

As I wrote this morning, I ended up at the library a bit sooner than I expected–not for a party, but to run up to the reading room and request reinforcements via a library laptop. I wasn’t carrying a laptop, but I was, however, carrying my portable hard drive, my camera, my cords, my iPhone, my FlipCam and my swimsuit. But the laptops at the library don’t have Firewire ports, so I was S.O.L., as they say. I broadcasted for help via Twitter, email, Facebook (maybe I forgot about Facebook), and text. Just two blocks west, at The New York Times building, a message landed in Drani Datta’s inbox.

Well, it’s a good thing the grey lady hasn’t succumbed to the “Challenges of the News Frontier,” and that may be due in part to the hard work of interns like Drani. She kindly loaned me her laptop momentarily, so I could publish a post about a calmer moment at Rachel Comey’s show on Dossier, and even brought me up for quick lunch before I had to hit the road for my next show: Cynthia Rowley, one of my very favorites (see notes from last season), at Gotham Hall. I was a little bit early (which is to say, on time) so I was nicely settled in my seat, and gazing happily at the ceiling when the rows began to fill up. 

I’m beginning to realize that I really love those few hushed moments in the dark, after the lights go down, but before the music begins to thump. (Maybe ladies like Rachel Comey and Cynthia Rowley exacerbate this by using terrific bands like Hex Message and Preacher and the Knife.) Of course, I adored what was to come marching down the runway too, but you’ll have to wait to read about that on Dossier

Since I didn’t have anywhere to work after the show, I headed back home to do my post for John Patrick Organic before turning around (without a wardrobe change) and heading back to the Bryant Park Library to cover the Concept Korea event, with Kristen Joy Watts on photography. Wonderful wing-girl that she is, Miss Mega-Watts held the camera to get this little video gem below: a dance number taking place in the very lobby I dashed through this morning in a rush to the reading room. 

And that brings us to this very moment, sitting at my desk, still wearing that dress, tapping away, supremely sleepy. 

If only there weren’t all those clothes on my bed.

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