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NEW YORK FASHION WEEK PARTIES: SERIOUS PLEASURES

 

By Alan Behr and Julie Hackett Behr

NEW YORK, 28 FEBRUARY 2007—In New York, each charity party, private ball, cocktail or luncheon is a ballet of status, with ultimate power in the hands of the choreographer controlling the guest list and seating chart.  You may be judged by who you invite and by who accepts, but you judge them back by where and with whom you seat them.  Some people join the proceedings to be seen doing it—to be photographed by Patrick McMullan and to be written up by David Patrick Columbia on everyone's morning read, www.nysocialdiary.com.  Others do it for business, to gain a favor or to do a favor: no one assumes that, when Donald Trump shows up for a party it is because he has heard the food is good, and no one thinks less of him if business is his motivation for being there.

New York may have reputation in the American provinces as the hedonistic "city that never sleeps," but that’s just good marketing.  New York is the pin that anchors the southern tip of Puritan New England; what you do here you do for a reason, and you had better do it well.  Unlike Paris, where parties go late, or Vienna, where balls last until nearly breakfast, the typical New York function is all but done by 11:00, the frozen desserts left melting in their bowls by professional men and size 2 socialites already home and in their pajamas, sifting through the goody bags for anything worth keeping.

There is, accordingly, no party circuit better suited for New York than the semi-annual circus of Fashion Week, where every party ends almost as soon as it starts and no one deceives himself or herself into forgetting it is first and absolutely foremost about business.  Circus?  It’s even held in tents.  Fashion, even at its highest rung, is about one of the most basic things everyone does—deciding what to wear—and is therefore one of the few obsessions of the rich and beautiful with which everyone, even those who hate the very idea of the instant obsolescence of expensive clothes, has a daily experience.  And everyone has an opinion: when The Rolling Stones came to town in the middle of a recent spring launch, Mick Jagger, on eyeing a fan close to the stage, called out, "I know it’s Fashion Week, but that’s ridiculous."

Just as Los Angeles women can be famous simply for being famous, New York women have become celebrities for being well dressed.  For the post-war generation, there was Babe Paley, and after her reigned Nan Kempner, the highlights of whose wardrobe make up an entire exhibition now on view at the Metropolitan Museum (until 4 March 2007).  The exhibition includes suits and gowns we had seen Mrs. Kempner wear around town and a red bikini she bought, and we can only assume wore to the beach—while in her seventies.  We last saw her in the spring of 2005, at a benefit for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center given at Calvin Klein on Madison Avenue; she paused outside, smiling at a determined rank of photographers.  She looked as elegant as always, which is how we prefer to remember her; she died only a few months later.


Nan Kempner: American Chic
Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936)
Evening Ensemble, autumn/winter 1983–84
Cape: yellow silk faille; gown: black silk velvet
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gift of Mr. Thomas L. Kempner, 2006
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Just as small literary reviews are read in the main by people who write for them or want to write for them, high fashion is a worldwide community of people who dress well to be noticed by other people who dress well.  Good taste becomes a unifying force that builds community.  It is a community that recruits its professionals—its taste makers—from within its own ranks, which is why people in the business and their top customers get to come and go through the tents of Fashion Week with the insouciance of sacred heifers on a Calcutta Street, and everyone else has to gawk from a distance.
 
By tradition, Oscar de la Renta gets the top slot in the tents—Monday, at 1:00.  To have the large square card that admits entry is to enjoy a tactile, if a transitory badge of privilege as powerful in the status it conveys as a bishop’s crook or a sheik’s entourage.  At the Oscar show, the badge kept its authority courtesy of three petite rottweilers at the entrance.  They smiled wondrously at all would-be entrants, turning away those without cards with the polite but devastating, "You are not on the list."

Although typical seating rarely denies even the backbenchers a clear runway view, a front-row seat conveys rank within rank.  The American Vogue team of Anna Wintour and André Leon Tally were side by side in the front row, as well you would expect.  But the only way you can acknowledge most the people you know in the semi-chaos of a major show is to perfect a kind of small wave of the hand and raising of the eyebrows that says, "I’d air kiss you, darling, but I’d have to climb over Barbara Walters."

Fashion shows always start late, and most follow a ritual: everyone sits down after that minimum of socializing, the lights dim, the music amps up and, as practiced at Oscar this season, expressionless eighteen-year-olds strut in a row to the music, past a critical assembly seeking prêt-à-porter for fifty-year-olds, then stop at the end, to pose for an improvised hillside of horribly dressed photographers, their Canon zoom lenses hanging like stalactites, their multiple flashes turning dark into syncopated light.  Even after years of attending the shows, old professionals still marvel how one man could direct the creation of an entire line (he will need to do it again within six months, for spring).

As she had before, Catherine Malandrino, who showed later in the week, abjured the tents.  For spring ’06, she had her models stand motionless on pedestals and let the onlookers walk around them, as if attending a vernisage.  This time, at the Chelsea Art Museum, a snaking runway was formed solely by floor space left by the placement of the chairs.  In the front row was Somers Farkas, one of those unique women who make tall, chic and thin look easy, and her seatmate, Tim Gunn, whom we had not met before and who proved as personable (and, needless to say, well dressed, in a gray, chalk-stripe suit) as on the TV series Project Runway, where he serves as the mentor of aspiring fashion designers.  The lights didn’t dim, but the music went up—which had the same effect as when the music turns off in a game of Musical Chairs: everyone not yet comfy ran to fill the nearest empty seat.  One of our number just missing being run over by a line of expressionless eighteen-year-olds; he slid into a chair next to the style commentator Mary Alice Stephenson, a spot fortuitously left vacant by a no-show editor from Pittsburgh.

Fashion shows are often compared by fashionistas to bad sex: over before you know it, never equal to the anticipation and (how best to put it?) anticlimactic.  Barely fifteen minutes after it started, the viewers were outside and the models, already in their civilian clothes, were slipping past, on their way to their next jobs.

It’s about business, after all.

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP.  Julie Hackett Behr is a private shopper at the New York flagship of a luxury department-store chain.  They have been married too long to remember why.

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