Style June 2009

Fashion in Dark Times

During the fashion boom that began in the 1980s, the relationship between fashion and its customers was the same as the one between art and its rich, often unlovely patrons: all that money sloshing around led to excessive consumption, but it also created a fertile soil in which works of beauty and integrity could develop. Last year that boom ended with breathtaking rapidity and finality. Luckily, a contingent of people at the heart of American fashion has for years been readying for post-crash style.
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Sybille Walter

It was a splendid relic, this February’s New York Fashion Week. Twice a year, in February and September, some 250 designers introduce their collections for the upcoming season. Most of the superstars stage runway shows beneath improbably glamorous temporary tents in Bryant Park, while the Next New Things and the famously edgy hold presentations in galleries and formerly grotty lofts in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. To the natives, it’s a semiannual rite to be endured: a constant stream of town cars and cabs cleaves the middle third of Manhattan, relaying models and editrixes, photographers and trust-fund interns, store buyers and fashion aficionados and their hangers-on (beauties with surly boyfriends, celebrities of various grades with somewhat dicey entourages). Hotel bars and neighborhood boîtes close for private parties, and block-long lines of Parsons/FIT/Pratt students, sartorial exhibitionists, and other species of the young and hip take over downtown sidewalks, emitting their Gauloise smoke and studious sullenness (the latter exacerbated when the fashion world’s A-listers steadily breeze past them to the head of the queue).

The point of it all is hardly obvious. Decades ago, these presentations were hushed, semisecret affairs for a very limited audience made up of a designer’s select group of private clients (the ladies who lunched at the Colony and Le Pavillon); buyers from Bonwit Teller, Bergdorf Goodman, Peck & Peck, and, probably at the top of the heap, Saks Fifth Avenue, who would place orders for the dresses they would sell to their ever so slightly less select clients; and the elite of the fashion press (actually, fashion being then so rarefied, there was hardly a non-elite fashion press)—the blue-rinsed Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar and the equally blue-rinsed Edna Woolman Chase of Vogue, along with their minions, “tall, cool Vassar graduates,” as S. J. Perelman described them, all in their pillbox hats and white gloves. Fearing piracy of their upcoming designs, the handful of American fashion houses shunned publicity and prohibited even sketching.

Although small-scale and discreet, those old-fashioned shows clearly served a mercantile purpose. Fashion Week, on the other hand, was invented in the 1990s, at the height of New York’s giddy, gilded age, as a pseudo-event to generate froth, a quality that may be priceless—or worthless. And all of the collections are now photographed and, in quite a few cases, filmed, so they’re available, sometimes within minutes, on dozens of Web sites (most prominently, Style.com), where they can be studied in detail. In this environment, sketching is unnecessary, and fashion-besotted kids in Kankakee get a closer view of the sculptural seaming on Narciso Rodriguez’s rigorously tailored, cropped khaki wool-twill jacket than do Suzy Menkes and Claire Danes in the front row. Which makes those blingy, Sex and the City–ish tent shows rather quaint. “Kind of like a Shriners’ convention—people get together and wear funny outfits,” the gimlet-eyed fashion critic Lynn Yaeger observed while filing into an unusually celebrity-engorged show.

The Colony closed in 1971, Le Pavillon in 1972, Peck & Peck in 1974, and Bonwit Teller in 1990; Saks, as we’ll see, is another story. And though an elegiac mood suffused February’s Fashion Week, few there cared a whit for the long-vanished world of fashion doyennes. Indeed, if today’s standard-issue fashionistas have thought at all about that former era, it has only been to congratulate themselves on how much more “free,” diverse, and glittery is their own new nexus of money, prestige, and fashion—an agglomeration of the wives, girlfriends, and aimless daughters of Manhattan’s entertainment, media, and financial titans and mini-titans that forms the gelatin in which are suspended the candied fruit of Ivy-educated actresses, charismatic DJs, scenesters with great bone structure, and rap stars given to obscene gestures on the most unlikely occasions.

During this gray February week the nostalgia was, of course, for the gaudiest spree in New York’s history—a binge that began sometime in the Reagan years, accelerated for two decades (despite brief and minor slowdowns at the end of 1987 and 2001, and what in retrospect was a trifling breather in 1990–91), and ended last year with breathtaking rapidity and finality. With one eye on the Dow and the other on the lonely stretches of Bergdorf’s main floor, Yaeger marveled, “It’s getting worse so fast.” Sally Singer, Vogue’s director of fashion news and features, who has the most sociologically and historically sophisticated antennae in fashion (honed by her fanatical childhood home sewing, her Berkeley-dropout stint as a beautician in Oakland, her graduate work in American studies at Yale, and her quasi-Marxian rigor as an editor at the London Review of Books), was noticing a new trend on Manhattan streets: cute young women putting skirts and little lace-up shoes together with the expensive suit jackets and crisp striped shirts their newly unemployed banker boyfriends no longer needed. “Great look,” she allowed with a shrug.

Fashion’s strange career and the city’s boom years entwined. Not only was Fashion Week that era’s creature; the period had essentially created that event’s very locales. Before the boom, Bryant Park meant methadone addicts, Chelsea meant shabby gentility, and the Meatpacking District meant rough trade, transvestite prostitutes, and, well, meatpacking. By boom’s end, all of Manhattan (and a good part of Brooklyn, and even some of Queens) had, it seemed, become one vast, hip neighborhood. This meant that soaring rents were eroding the traditional centers of garment manufacturing, but it also meant that talented young designers now had swaths of new territory in which to open their own boutiques and build an ever-growing fashion-conscious customer base.

The main store of Tracy Feith, for instance, one of the bevy of young designers Singer has nurtured and championed (Feith was relatively unknown outside fashion circles until Michelle Obama wore his dress at the National Prayer Service the morning after the Inauguration), moved last September from Mulberry Street, which was transformed in the 1990s from goombahville to a center of insouciant hipness, to Williamsburg—which was transformed in the early 2000s from a pool for poor immigrants to … a center of insouciant hipness. More generally, the relationship between fashion and the few who populated the boom-engendered scene under the tents, as well as between fashion and the vast army of boom-engendered fashion customers, was the same as the relationship between art and its rich, powerful, often unlovely patrons: all that money sloshing around led to excessive, vulgar creations and consumption, but it also created a fertile soil in which works of beauty and integrity could develop.

In 1931 and 1932, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote two essays, “Echoes of the Jazz Age” and “My Lost City,” in which he described how in just two years New York’s “vaunting pride” and “steady golden roar” born of “fantastic success” and fashionable, youthful free spending came to seem “as far away as the days before the War”—and how the reckless élan that characterized those vanished years had been replaced by a chastened awareness of dashed hopes and circumscribed ambition. Indirectly, Fitzgerald’s pieces remind us that the Depression had insidiously but rather slowly worked its way into the life of New York. The October 1929 crash had been a jolt, but the Christmas shopping season following on its heels was a prosperous one. The market’s precipitous drop seemed, if not a healthy correction, then at least, probably, a manageable one; indeed, Wall Street had recovered a good portion of the losses from the October crash in the mini-rally of early 1930, and the market wouldn’t find its bottom until July 1932. It was really only in the autumn of 1930, perhaps even later, that it became clear to New Yorkers that what Fitzgerald called “the most expensive orgy in history” was irrevocably over.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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