Fashion World: A Report From the Front Row (Mostly)

Save it for another diary.


I last left you in the middle of fashion week New York, but let me fast-forward to the present. I’m in Europe on the fashion trail, so let me kvetch and moan for a few minutes about life and fashion shows. When I tell people I’m off to Paris and Milan for the shows they may appear jealous, as if I were going to the Seychelles with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cast. Now I’m not saying it’s more like shipping off to Afghanistan, but try going to 29 fashion shows in Milan in four and a half days, not to mention about the same number of appointments and presentations (hard core merchandise briefings—notice this zipper—or fashion shows where the models just stand there.)  You’ve got to be tough, together, and in-shape for this stuff. You’ve got to be able to get by on five hours a night. You’ve got to be able to hold your prosecco. You’ve got to be able to smile when the advertiser who took out a single page complains that they only got five fashion credits.

Milan isn’t Paris or New York. It does have the advantage of being in Italy, which means that you can get a good cup of coffee, but Milan tends to bring out the worst in Italians: attitude, Nineteenth Century electronic services, and hotels that think you are lucky to be staying there.  The food is probably the worst anywhere in Italy-where else will you get pasta drenched in iffy olive oil or Bolognese that looks and tastes like it came out of a can or carpaccio that looks like an uncooked Philly cheese steak.

The Milanese are sophisticated and can be lovely, but the odds are against them in Milan Fashion Week because they cram everything that happens in New York in a week or in Paris in ten days into four and a half days. Supposedly this is because Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, told the Camera (that’s the group that organizes the shows there, like the CFDA in New York or the Chambre Syndicale in Paris,) that their fashion week was simply too long and they’d better shorten it. Is it true? Probably. If there is a queen in this women’s world it is Ms. Wintour. Nobody else could have told them that their city was intolerable for a whole week, and I’m sure she didn’t put it in words like that, but however this abbreviation occurred, it’s probably for the best. For me it means it’s more likely that my kid will still recognize me when I return, but those non-stop Milan days leave very little time for eating, sleeping or human life in general.

And while your time is taken up by a lot of actual work, there’s also a lot of racing and waiting. It’s like what they say about the army: “hurry up and wait.” You run out of the show. You run to the car. You race to the next show. The driver is crucial.  My driver Enzo is a sort of celebrity among Milan’s black car drivers-he seems to know every other driver, every cop and every cute girl. I asked him if he had ever been in auto racing and he laughed. “Il pedale al metallo!” But I wasn’t kidding. He is probably the best driver in Milan in terms of getting you from one show to the next quickly, and fortunately I don’t get car sick, but Laetitia, our fashion editor, tends to turn green as we drift into corners. Women seem more prone to motion sickness. I can do the Tribune crossword despite 3Gs of centrifugal force. But I do wince once in a while when Enzo is playing chicken with a giant trolley car as we skid across the tracks that seem to run down the middle of every major Milano thoroughfare, whizzing past the policia and the carabinieri (they are both cops, the former wear Armani, the latter Valentino,) nearly smacking motorinos and pedestrians who aren’t paying attention, and swerving around the mobs of paparazzi who show no respect for human life including their own as they run after the movie stars the designers have imported at high prices to sit in their front rows. Enzo is good. He’s got the flag position in an urban sports car rally-cum-obstacle course for black luxury cars. It’s like a Bond film opening without the shooting. So we almost always get to the next one first and then what? We wait.

And wait. We sit there for a half hour to forty five minutes waiting for the show to start, watching the editors with inferior drivers trickle in. And we wait.  Often we wait until the photographers start yelling.  It’s about the same wait as in New York, where it’s far easier to get around, although now that Marc Jacobs—once the king of lateness—started his last show three minutes before the announced hour, throwing the press into a panic. Some designers are now starting their shows considerably closer to on time thanks to Marc making punctuality chic. But now things are also iffier. You have no idea how to plan. Will it be on time or forty minutes late. The only check on this systemic lateness is the photographers who start yelling when the clock hits about forty minutes after the announced hour-because these guys have to pack up all their equipment to schlep across town to the next venue, and Milan is spread out like a little L.A. or London. One show you will be in a defunct factory on the North side of the city, the next will be in a theater on the extreme south side. Of course no one consulted anyone when making this schedule, and so in four days we left two shows before show time because they hadn’t started yet, forty-five minutes after the announced time and we had to go to what seemed like a more important show on the other side of town.

Everything in runway world is about importance. The ranking of the audiences by row (more on that later,) the hierarchy of the designers, and the hotels. Magazines are dropping like flies out there but editors feel that if they don’t stay at the Four Seasons or the Bulgari or the Principe then they will be discriminated against somehow. And they are probably right. In the spirit of the times I booked into the Westin Palace (an extraordinary euphemism,) across the street from my usual spot, the Principe di Savoia. I was also nursing a slight grudge about the Principe keeping me waiting for hours to check in last season after I arrived on a red-eye flight from New York utterly a dead man walking. And the Principe’s service, while sometimes excellent, can come with attitude on occasion.

The Westin has as many stars on the front as the Principe, and it does have some advantages over the latter. For example you can pay extra to check in immediately and avoid the punitive wait until the afternoon when “your room is ready.”  I did, and so at first, laying on the soft bed, I didn’t mind the small size of the room, the threadbare upholstery on the desk chair, the less than luxurious bath products, or the darkness on the gilt fabric around the air conditioning ducts. The place looks like it was decorated in 1950 to resemble 1850. The hotel is full of sensible, seasoned buyers and I didn’t miss the models and fabulous denizens of the Principe and its bar, although I must say I went across the street for a glass of champagne instead of hanging at the Westin. But what really began to bug me about the Westin was the feeling that I was interrupting the concierge when I asked them for my invitations, or for an umbrella. I seemed to be interrupting a rich social life.  

And when I finally made my getaway to go to the airport for Paris I was in an awful rush. I’d had four hours sleep and I dazedly packed my bags in a few minutes. Then I got my heart rate up when I forgot where I’d put my passport. (In a drawer.) Finally I rushed out, leaving my trusty Bose noise-canceling headphones (which are almost indispensable for transatlantic sleep, delivering true quiet in a jet cabin) on the floor next to the desk in their case. I realized this in the car on the way to the airport and I called the hotel. Unfortunately the concierge was too busy saying “Ciao” to beloved passersby to focus on my call and finally he told me to call back later. An hour later he had no memory of my query. Nor did another concierge who was about to go off on his meal break when I landed in Paris. “Please, call me after dinner.”

Finally I called the office in New York to get someone who had a half hour available to call the hotel. When they failed I had our Milano advertising agent Susie Scott to call to speak to them in her fluent Italian, but by that time the costly headphones had found a new home- whether with the housekeeper or the mini-bar stocker or the concierge I will probably never know. So please remember this the next time you are tempted to book at a Westin. And Senore Westin, I am returning your VIP card and I’m going back to the Principe, where they might have attitude but at least I’ll see Lapo and Olivier Zahm in the bar. Or if business picks up maybe I’ll check into the chicly modern Bulgari, so I can hang out with Stefano Tonchi from the Times. It’s nice to have some contemporaneity in a gray old city, and I hear the food is good and I had a wonderful lymphatic drainage massage in the spa. I have no idea what lymphatic drainage means but maybe that’s why I felt so good arriving in Paris.

The strangest thing about the fashion trek routine is getting used to the Groundhog Day aspect of it. You see the same cast of complex characters every single day for a month and every day you switch seats a half-dozen times. A lot of these people have complex ideas about themselves and their roles in the world, which is why this random clique of people who spend days with one another may not fraternize as much as you might expect. Yesterday I sat next to a very nice intelligent editor from a great and powerful magazine whom I had sat next to at a dinner a few nights before, explaining how that dinner was a little odd because I was sitting catty corner to another editor with whom I never speak. It is mutual. My colleague laughed and said that she figured this out halfway through the dinner and then noted that there are numerous folk among our loose-knit band of observers who do not speak to this one or that one. No one from Vogue speaks to her, for instance. I don’t know what that’s about but maybe it’s not personal. Maybe they are conserving energy. I try to be nice to everyone. In fact there are many lovely people in the front row and I enjoy talking to them one after another in our endless round of musical chairs. And generally if it seems that they aren’t speaking to me I say a nice big “Hi!” Surprising how well that works.

Paris is a relief after Milan. Milan is not beautiful. Paris is beautiful. The population is interesting and attractive. The food is good. The schedule lasts ten days, but hey, you’re in Paris! And after this it’s over. (PHOTO: GLENN, WITH ROBIN GIVHAN, AT LANVIN, IN COMME DES GARCONS. PHOTO: STYLE.COM)

This morning, waking up in Paris, in my lovely old hotel, where the service is wonderful unless it involves electronics, I spent a few grumbling minutes logging into the Internet, typing in codes and passwords that involve substantial sums of money to get onto the web which locally tends to go unexplainable haywire at odd moments. Was it the exclamation points or the italics? Is it the weather?  I wanted to get the news and maybe check in on yesterday’s shows on  I like looking at the “Front Row” section to see if I’m in there. This particular morning there I was next to Robin of the Washington Post at Balenciaga. (The most fantastic show so far.) I looked a little tired but I was glad I wore my old bright yellow knit tie from Comme des Garcons. Then I checked in on a fashion website Fashionista, which follows this bizarre world and can be amusing, and there I was mentioned in notes on the shows made by Britt Aboutaleb, with whom I haven’t had the pleasure.

Before I get to that, let me review a few of the interesting points Britt brings up.

1. “Everyone here wears fur. Seriously, it’s incorporated into almost every outfit.”
This is interesting. Many, many of the shows in New York, Milan, and Paris have involved fur. There is probably more fur used now than ever, or at least since the medieval era. Or maybe since we lived in caves. We didn’t see any protesters in Milan but they are here in Paris, an quite vocal, and their number doubles on the weekend. I was with our fashion editor Laetitia yesterday, who was wearing a fur jacket on a very chilly day, so we gave the protesters wide berth. They mostly looked sad and tired although they did perk up every time someone in fur walked by. Almost all of them were wearing leather shoes or boots (unpolished.) I said to Laetitia that they probably hang out at McDonalds between shows.

2. “The only champagne I’ve seen was an empty bottle on the Boulevard Saint-Germain last night. 1-0 London.”
Honey, I don’t know where you’ve been hanging out, but I have had numerous glasses here and there. At the Purple Dinner (it was actually heavy hors d’ouevres) at Olivier Zahm and Andre’s new restaurant or club the other night the Veuve Clicquot was flowing like, well, wine, alongside Andre’s Belvedere X vodka.  There is perhaps more prosecco served at shows in Milan than there is champagne in Paris, but if designers didn’t serve drinks and food in Milan no one would have time to eat or drink. Okay, here
I come:

3. “I’ve been captivated by the politics of seating this season. In Paris, the Carines and Anna Della Russos sit in front, naturally, but I’ve seen Derek Blasberg and Glenn O’Brien sit second row while Kate Lanphear is in the third.” Lets explain this. I don’t go to shows where they put me in anything but the first row. If I did I would “lose face” as the shoguns and samurai say, were I to assign myself to the position of an accessories editor or financial paper fashion writer. I am not a snob. (Well, not that kind.) And truth be told I probably have more friends in the second row than the first.

This doesn’t happen too often. Never in New York or Milan, but it sometimes happens in Paris. They sent me a second row invitation to two shows by Japanese designers, and naturally I didn’t go. I would lose face. Very bad.

This must be fixed or it means war.  I also got a second row invitation from Nina Ricci. Why? Well Nina Ricci died at 87 in 1970. Maybe the PR is very, very old.  Now I was spotted in the second row at Rick Owens. By the time I got there my seat was occupied. Rather than look for my name under the ass of all the people I see every day and in the absence of a doting clipboard I went to stand in the back, but a lovely person in the second row, sensing my possible consignment to humiliation, insisted I take her seat. I demurred but she insisted. So I sat in the second row. It wasn’t so bad. Really. I leaned forward a lot. I was almost in the front row. I don’t know where Derek Blaberg was for that one. Lots of people seem to move from first to second to third including Mr. Blasberg, the fur wearing bon vivant from St. Louis who has contributed brilliantly to this magazine. He has first row written all over him, but he’s young yet.)  Anyway, sitting in the second row is good once in a while. Keeps you humble.

But the front row thing is a big deal. Some people would rather leave than sit in the second row. I sat way back last year at the anniversary Margiela show which was “open seating,” but in fact had reserved seats. An associate of mine who shall remain nameless actually got a PR person to move someone out of the front, lest his large frame be consigned to virtual shame and oblivion, but I figured I’d sit with friends in the Margiela spirit. In fact the front row isn’t easy. There is so much pressure to be there that the PRs add seats in a last minute panic, so a row goes like this, 1,2,3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 9a, 10, 10a.  You have 12 people in a space that would comfortably seat 8.  It is, of course, ridiculous but this is the world we live in. As for Kate Lamphear, well she’s lovely and a true sport with no phony attitudes, and I’d rather sit in the second row with her than in the first row next to the people I’m not sure if I’m speaking to.

My favorite person to sit with in the front row is Glenda Bailey the editor of Harpers Bazaar. Glenda is cool and funny and every time they come near us with a camera she says “Oh…Glenn and Glenda!” Kanye West is at every show.  There’s a buzz about it. “Why is he at every show?” Ask writers and editors. He’s doing a clothing line, some theorize. But then designers don’t go to other shows. He’s doing research? A concept album perhaps. “The Front Row?”  At any rate I know that some of the buyers and beat writers were pleased when Mr. West was seated in the second row at Comme des Garcons, and his lady friend in the third. Nothing personal, I think, but they felt that their years of suffering for their job was somehow validated. (GLENN O’BRIEN AT MCQUEEN. PHOTO: GREG KRESSLER/STYLE.COM)

But let me tell you this, you people out there in public relations land, put Glenn O’Brien in the second row and you won’t be seeing him at your show! Ever! You and your has-been designer will be like the Westin Palace, a fading memory on a dim horizon, waiting for the wrecker’s ball or the redecorator’s estimate because I know the blogs will feel that I have somehow slipped down the totem pole. And I’m a top not a bottom.

What else?  Well the models don’t seem so skinny this season. Either they’ve weeded out the extreme anorexics or they died. There’s a lot of see-through and sexy stuff this season, and though models are still way on the slim side you do see some nice booty out there and some actually curvaceous legs and nipples galore! One of the gals in the Margiela show, a real beauty, has early signs of cellulite. (You go girl!) And Pam Anderson walked in Vivienne Westwood’s show, shaking that thang. And that thang. And that one too. Boomchakalakalaka. Also I see signs of a modeling revival.

I mean those girls are getting up there and modeling those clothes. No more marching androids with a lippizaner step, they swivel hips, turn, dip, and pull out moves from Eileen Ford class of ’64. It’s hot. The hottest models this season are the redheads. Coco Rocha, please somebody give her a movie before she boils over. And Vlada. Well, she’s just the best runway model out there. She’s so fierce.  She’s got that witchy red hair and those ice blue Aryan eyes and that steely straight ahead demeanor, shoulders held back so far you don’t know why she doesn’t fall over backward.  She’s dry ice, man, so cold she’s hot.

I have also been digging the music a lot more this season, trying to name that tune and iTunes it when I get back to my rooms. There has been a lotof heavy machinery music.  It was all over New York.  If you’ve every had an MRI or been abducted by aliens then you probably know all about this sound. Sometimes the music is truly terrible. I find in my notebook for the Brioni show, “shoot the DJ!” But lately I’ve been hearing more fun and more funk. Allesandro DellAqua played “Love Is a Battlefield.” Dolce and Gabbana rocked the house with U2’s “The Future Needs a Big Kiss.” Issey Miyake had the excellent taste to work Swayze’s  excellent “High Together,” “If you got the weed I got the pipe…”

I’m seeing lots of healthy trends on the catwalks.  Everybody started out this season talking about the economy, gloom and doom and black clothes-but in fact there has been a lot of joy on the runway. If you’re feeling depressed  or recessed there’s nothing like an utterly irrelevant excess to lift you up. The very irrelevance of it all is actually super relevant. More on this to come.