New York Times Fashion & Style ~ By CATHY HORYN
New this year was an invitation tracker with a barcode for checking in.
FASHION editors are not as spoiled as their perilously high shoes might indicate. On the contrary: When it comes to seeing exciting new fashion, they will trek anywhere and savor, along with the bragging rights, the experience of seeing a great talent. I have sat on floors and on a washing machine in a Salvation Army branch, and waited in abandoned buildings. Was it worth it? You bet.
I have also seen shows at Versailles and in the Medici gardens in Florence, in Seventh Avenue showrooms and the maisons of the great couturiers, and they were pretty good, too.
For 17 years, the primary home of the New York collections, as they were called in the beginning — before the week received the upgrade of a capital — were the tents at Bryant Park. Though the tents were a bit scruffy and became cramped as more people, including corporate sponsors, demanded seats, they had the advantage of being close to the garment center and to various media and retail buying offices. There was a physical connection to the business of making, selling and promoting fashion.
And while the sidewalk scene in front of the tents could be disruptive, the park itself was disconnected from any power or cultural center. That could be good for your head.
Now Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week is at Lincoln Center, the performing arts complex on the Upper West Side, and the first run of shows will end today — though the last major showings, those of Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta, will take place somewhere else. Has the new, larger home been a success? And beyond merely accommodating greater numbers of people and speeding them to their seats with bar code check-in stations, does the new environment help engage them in the process of looking at fashion?
To be blunt, no.
Although an argument can be made that fashion has attained a cultural distinction, and therefore deserves a place among the performing arts, an equally strong argument can be that this perception of cultural significance is partly, if not largely, a result of effective marketing. It has long been fashionable for designers to support art initiatives, or to serve as special curators. And Anna Wintour, by overseeing the annual Costume Institute gala, has helped to raise millions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Be that as it may, Fashion Week is operated by IMG, the global events and sports management company, and why should we trust it to treat fashion as anything other than a commodity?
A reality check occurs once inside the Lincoln Center tents. Although the atmosphere of the lobby is a bit like that of an upscale trade fair, it seemed to work well for most guests. It is spacious, people used the blogging station and the drink bars, and staff members were eager to be helpful.
Once inside the show spaces, however, I began to pick up differences. The tents are larger and certainly cleaner than those in Bryant Park, but they don’t necessarily improve the presentations. Indeed, because of their size and the ability to have somewhat fancier backdrops, they encourage the perception — hardly a new one — that what takes place on the runway is often secondary to what is going on in the rows of seats. The real show is the audience.
This seemed especially the case at Tommy Hilfiger, where a rope line had been put in front of a row of celebrities to protect them, lest the photographers got too close. Or was it to draw attention to the fact that so many celebrities were there? Many of the backdrops, far from being theatrical, simply enhanced the artificiality of the scene. At Bryant Park, scruffier though it was, the backdrops came in two basic styles: black or white. But this plainness helped keep the focus on the clothes.
Of course, designers are also responsible for choosing a proper context for their fashion. Vera Wang didn’t have a great collection this season, but the subtle details of her mostly dark clothes would have benefited from a smaller, better-illuminated space. As it was, she showed them on a wide, darkly carpeted runway, making it difficult to engage in them.
On the other hand, for Michael Kors, a popular, no-bones-about-it designer of commercial clothes, his beach-girl collection played well in the new tents. He put down a rough plank runway, like a boardwalk, and had a greenery backdrop. He didn’t try to do too much.
For many reasons, designers like Marc Jacobs and Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte present their clothes in downtown spaces. To be sure, they like the intimate setting of an art gallery or the ability to construct an elaborate set that ideally will express the mood of their clothes, as Mr. Jacobs has done in recent years. But choices of this kind go beyond a personal preference. These designers also feel a professional responsibility to protect their creative assets and individuality.
Despite the proximity to the arts, the new space at Lincoln Center doesn’t allow much room for this concern.
On Tuesday night at the tents, in a small space called the Box, I sat on the floor to watch Sophie Theallet’s show. It was supposed to be a walk-through presentation, so there were no chairs set out, and I didn’t really mind sitting on the floor. I had done that before.
Ms. Theallet, who was the winner of the most recent CFDA/Vogue Fund award, was running late, and the presentation was more of a show, with models walking out and pausing in the dark on a raised platform. I craned my neck to see her beautiful, delicate dresses, and I thought: “These clothes don’t belong here, they are too good. They should be seen at close range.”
If this smallest, most intimate space at Lincoln Center can’t help the audience engage in the clothes, what hope is there for the other spaces, and for American fashion?