"What is it, Halloween?"
A teenager and his friends are sneering at me as I pass them on 10th Avenue. I've just left my very first fashion show, the Costello Tagliapietra Spring/Summer 2014 collection displayed at New York City's Milk Studios, and am walking over to nearby Studio 59 for another presentation. The kid is trying to insult the black lipstick and false eyelashes I'm wearing, which are both just parts of how I do my makeup normally. But given the scenes I observe during the time I spend at Fashion Week, his question actually seems to take on a degree of legitimacy.
This is because New York Fashion Week is, of course, a sort of dress-up party for rich people from big cities, clad in their nicest and most interestingly-assembled outfits, and scads of journalists and bloggers trying, in turn, to imitate the costumes of those elites—some more successfully than others. In a shitty pair of Forever 21 heels, a skirt from that same cathedral of cheap clothing, and an old Gram Parsons t-shirt ripped to a degree of near vulgarity, I feel like I've effectively forfeited any chance at looking like I'd even heard of Costello Tagliapietra before I was assigned to cover the show. (And although I consider myself moderately interested in fashion, I actually hadn't.) If this is Halloween, I am the kid halfheartedly cutting some holes in a sheet, throwing it over her head, and trying to pass it off it a costume. And although I'm not actively trying one way or the other to blend with my fellow attendees, my presence at Fashion Week is ultimately similar to that of an unremarkable ghost's. Although I initially worried a little that I might look like an outlier, I move around the shows fairly invisibly.
Well, for the most part, anyway. As I arrive at that first Costello Tagliapietra show, I can tell I'm getting close to Milk when people start taking my picture. At first, I'm convinced it's because I'm walking too close to the sleek, professional-looking couple in front of me: she with L'Oreal-commercial highlights, he in a vaguely paratrooper-esque coat the color of a C-note someone accidentally put through the wash. But then I realize that the cameras of these many, many people on the sidewalk, whoever they are, are directly pointed at my specific face and body. It makes me really nervous, so I immediately become hyperconscious of my wilting bangs and look down at the sidewalk all crosswise instead of acting like a normal human, let alone a cool and fashionable young style maven.
In the line for the show inside, which is long, I listen to two young women in front of me discuss whether Chloë Sevingny will continue her business relationship with Opening Ceremony, the high-end New York City-based boutique for which she occasionally designs clothing. The girls conclude that she won't, and that the consequences of this choice will be dire. It's loud in here, and one asks the other to repeat a sentence: "She ruined her what?" The other, raising her voice above the din, answers, "Life. She ruined her life." As the three of us consider the potential weight of Chloë's decision, the line moves forward and we move from the minimalistic lobby of Milk, which is as shiny and luxurious-looking as an empty Lamborghini dealership, to the show upstairs.
The layout of the space is roomy and open, and the big lanes of the runway are unraised or otherwise separated from the rest of the floor, but like those at a bowling alley, you immediately know not to walk on them yourself. Soon enough, the march of the models begins, and the clothes are fluid, elegant, and entirely out of line with my personal taste. And while I do love a parade, there's always going to be a discomfort I can't shake about a processional of women's bodies that are mostly steadfast in their teensy whiteness, especially if I'm participating in that weirdness by willfully acting as its audience.
I split my attention between thinking about that and surreptitiously eyeing Miss J. Alexander from America's Next Top Model and actor Alan Cumming as they assess the collection from their own excellent seats in the audience. I wonder if they realize that they're as much an attraction as the presentation of the clothing itself before realizing that, doye, of course they do—that probably accounts for at least half their motivation for coming to this particular Halloween party, where, instead of candy, they're trick-or-treating for nice pictures of themselves on the Internet, and for people like me to write about them.
Next up is the Fashion Palette show at Studio 59, where I, too, am not only photographed more, but also asked to give an interview to some Australian TV network. I say sure, beginning to get a bit more into the holiday spirit. Part of me can understand why people are eager to take part in this whole phenomenon—it's nice to feel included with the rest of the lovely-looking crowd, despite the relatively grody quality of my outfit and increasingly uncomfortable heels.
The host of the show, whatever it is, is immaculate-looking; his face and hair appear to be shellacked with a thin layer of clear nail polish. He has what people sometimes call a "big personality," which in this context means that his face is right in mine like we're about to French. "What inspired this look, this lip?" he grins at me. "Well, being a mall goth in seventh grade, I guess!" I answer brightly into the camera. We rattle off some more dumb pshaw about what he calls "the grunge revival" and then, just before I walk off camera, he yells, "Amy Rose, you really are a star! A star!" Me and everyone else here, dude. Or at least that's what we're all desperately hoping to hear today from someone, anyone, as we swan around these bizarre events with somehow both the most and the least amount of self-awareness of our lives.
At this point, I become fully immersed in the narcissistic dream that is Fashion Week. I love it. I momentarily forget my shyness, my skepticism about the value of all of this, even my reticence about the racist and misogynistic undertones that pervade fashion as a culture, especially at shows like these. In that moment, all that stuff doesn't matter. Who cares if these things perpetuate harmful, unrealistic standards of female beauty and fetishize materialism to an undeniably disgusting degree? Not me! I'm a star! Gross, right?
The Fashion Palette show features work from seven different Australian designers. My favorite of the lot is the Nicola Finetti collection, which looks like couture custom-made for Judy Jetson and showcases a healthy appreciation for both mesh and metallic silver. The models walk to the strains of Depeche Mode's "Everything Counts," which also helps to curry favor with yours truly. The incontrovertible fact is that I'm never gonna care about clothes as much as I do '80s synth pop, no matter how futuristic-looking they are.
The show ends and, after a few hours, I plot my next move. After conferring with two other pals covering similar stuff, our final destination for the evening turns out to be the after-party for the show of a truly awesome bathing suit designer called Chromat. The minute we walk in the door, one of my long-suffering cheapo high heels, which truly were not built for the kind of running around town I've been doing all day, begins to come apart. The sole flaps away from the body of the shoe with every step, lending an air of the "hobo from a 1940s cartoon" to my already-dubious look. "Your shoes," someone on a couch in the lobby says to me disdainfully—I'm not about to look up and see who. Fantastic! "Let's get drunk," I say resolutely to my companions, sapped of any delusional star power I felt earlier, but still determined to have some semblance of a happy Halloween.
So we do, and we dance like crazy with a group of people, some of whom are in the bathing suits and others who are wearing what have got to be the best platform sneaker- and neon suspender-based looks of all time. This kind of action is really quite inadvisable on a falling-apart shoe, the crumbling core of which has very fashionably revealed itself to be made of some kind of hard foam material, but I persevere...until it falls apart in the bathroom and I have to rip the whole bottom off and throw it in the trash. Glamorous, I know.
There's no way to continue on with my evening without having the shoe carcass I'm wearing severely impede my movement, so my friends and I decamp to McDonald's, where I eat a McChicken and leave the errant heel under a table. "Tomorrow is another day," I think after I pay an exorbitant cab fare to Brooklyn and prepare to pass the fuck out in bed.
I'm back in action bright and early at Studio 59 the next day to see the work of designer Tess Giberson, where sparse string instrument-centric music hangs in the air prettily, overlapping with the pleasant pre-show bustle of conversation, people finding their seats, and the people working the event rushing back and forth doing god knows what. I feel slightly less self-conscious at this show than I did at the other ones, possibly because I had already experienced the full gamut of self-esteem-based highs and lows the day before (or maybe just because I wore flats this time around). I resolve to take in this show more analytically instead of being swept up in some flawed idea of my place in the social hierarchy of those attending it.
Much like the previous shows I saw, the clothes on display are nice, but it's hard not to be more conscious of the staid uniform underneath them, on the models' bodies themselves. For all of the spectators of Fashion Week's meticulously zany outfits and dedication to standing out, the most striking thing about the events that all of that spectacle and pageantry is predicated on—the shows themselves—is their overt homogeny in terms of race and body type. While I note a few models of color during the presentations I see, most of the women I've observed walking in them are as white and thin as a bed sheet that someone is pretending makes a really good ghost costume, when it's actually totally obvious and lazy. As the show ends and everyone throngs back onto the sidewalk, I'm not looking up for the cameras anymore, but not because I'm reprising some version of my initial shyness. I don't care this time around because the thing about stars, it turns out, is that if you see them from a certain distance, they all kind of look the same. And although I didn't make it as far as the big tents at Lincoln Center where the tonier shows go down, for some reason I feel like it's not hard to guess what they might look like, too, no matter how different the costumes there are supposed to be.