February is often a dreary time in New York. It’s a month so replete with relentless wind and merciless cold that the overbearing aisles of heart-shaped paraphernalia seem to be the only distraction. To a certain part of the population, often with smoky eyes and handbags that cost a month’s worth of rent, the commencement of February has nothing to do with roses; it means Fashion Week is coming.
Once in September and once in February, New York is invaded by fashion. To those who have never experienced it, it probably conjures up images of inexplicably unwearable clothes marching down a narrow runway. I have been through three Fashion Weeks in the past, and I know full well that they are just as orchestrated, choreographed and scrutinized as opening night at the ballet in Lincoln Center, where fashion shows are now held instead of Bryant Park. Not only are they painstakingly detailed and specific, but they bring everything in that enclosed world of fashion to a halt: Nothing else matters.
A couple years ago, I spent five months employed by the public relations office of a prominent albeit relatively new designer. During my interview, they stated that the daily hours were from 9:30 to 5:30 each day, but in practice I never left before seven. The main responsibility of PR for a fashion designer is to handle the samples from their runway shows. This entails sending samples to magazines for photo shoots or to celebrities to wear to events. This process was never-ending, and I can still name the serial number and proper names of each piece from that collection, which I spent months cyclically sending out and checking back in.
However, the first few weeks of August drag in the fashion industry. Many magazine staffers go on vacation and there are not as many photoshoots or events to lend samples to. My office began to reach an unheard of lull. We got used to leaving maybe even at six, and being able to talk to each other at length over lunch instead of briefly over a few bites in the midst of e-mails and telephone calls. This luxurious serenity was unexpected, but unfortunately it was short-lived. The fervent New York heat continued to rise steadily, and as August inched toward September, the mercury in the office skyrocketed: The show was coming up.
Suddenly the phones didn’t stop ringing, to-do lists were made, scratched out, and remade every hour, and the energy went from comfortably relaxed to overwhelmingly chaotic. The weeks were fused with juice fasts, top-secret sketches, 13 hour days and half-eaten remains of all three meals left at our desks as we had to abruptly run out for errands — the kind of errands I never thought I would run. There were hours spent on an expedition for a certain kind of sock. This culminated in a heated argument with the perpetually unhappy proprietor of the Sock Man on St. Mark’s, where I tried to explain to him that yes, models do have large feet, but they also have calves like dental floss and men’s socks would not work. This was during the third hour of a tireless search all over Manhattan. I ended up grumpily buying the wrong kind from him and meticulously cutting them over my desk. Later I emerged from the office into the pitch black summer night only to fall into my bed with an alarm set for seven the next morning.
The week immediately preceding the show was especially trying. I spent more time in that office than I did in my apartment, as everyone employed by the designer did. My boss came back from the doctor one day with a huge bottle of water. “She says I should drink three of these a day! Does anyone drink that much water?” I said that I drank a lot of water. She looked confused, and said she never saw me drink water, just coffee. “I drink water at home,” I told her. This time she was even more confused, and she laughed. “But you’re never at home, you’re always here.”
The night before the show, the entire staff was there until at least four in the morning. The design team was there even later, napping for a few hours on the reception area’s couches before the show. I had woken up that morning grumpy, exhausted and ready to never step foot into a showroom again. In the few short minutes that any runway show takes, those feelings mysteriously evaporated. I had stared at those outfits for weeks. I had seen, touched and helped alter each look in the show. I had talked with every model stomping down the runway. I had heard the bass-heavy beat of the show’s anthem too many times to count. I had even walked down that runway myself with a dozen other staffers hours earlier so the coordinator could visualize the show’s pace. Nothing about the production was new to me, or anyone I worked with, but when the lights went down, each of us began to buzz with ecstatic pride, relief and rekindled love for the brand. The fashion industry is a curious little addiction: it can be sworn off and cursed, but can win you back in an instant with its gleaming exterior. It sucks you back in with lighting, music, beauty and of course, the after party.
I spent the next Fashion Week in February working for a modeling agency, and the weeks prior were spent at agencies and casting calls. Casting calls sometimes took place at studios but usually were at the designer’s office with specific time slots of two to three hours, and usually each model had to go to between 10 and 20 each day. We would go to the same three or four areas of the city over and over again, sinking into the hot subway seats for a few moments of rest. I had never needed an Unlimited MetroCard more. Days were spent literally running through SoHo or the Fashion District with a six-foot gazelle by my side. Models today are very young and the majority of them are foreign. Most of them are very timid and sweet, all of them fueled by dreams of being on billboards, but many by the incentive to bring home a check for their family. I often felt maternal toward them. One day I was taking around a young girl from China who didn’t have a strong grasp of English. I told her I liked her bracelets — two black cords like telephone wires — and she took off the second one and gave it to me with a smile. I still wear that bracelet.
The stress, snow, and sleep deprivation of that freezing Fashion Week had ushered in a crowd of flu symptoms. I distinctly remember sitting in the doctor’s office, staring blankly at the physician telling me to take some DayQuil and sleep more until it passed. “But you don’t understand,” I told her sincerely. “It’s Fashion Week.” She cocked her head, waiting for the rest of my explanation. “I physically do not have time to sleep,” I added firmly. She looked at me bemusedly as I begged for a prescription of anything as breathtakingly strong as a McQueen corset, anything to silence my body’s wail for sleep and health. It was the drugstore aisle of Duane Reade for me; modern medicine did not understand the steel bars those 10 days held on my life.
It’s like a Swarovski-studded club house that you have to learn the handshake for before being let in. You can’t be part of that crystal sphere without knowing the subtle difference between Brian Atwood and YSL pumps, being able to automatically tell the designer of any handbag by the particular zipper or clasp, or name the editors of each major magazine. The masses frown on high fashion for its vanity and self-indulgence. It’s true that it has an all-consuming life-or-death mentality, and yet even the most important parts seem trivial compared to many other professions. However, those who excel in the industry are extremely dedicated and hardworking with immense focus on detail and malleable circadian rhythms. When I interned at a magazine that focused on pop culture as well as fashion, I noticed that while the art, editorial, photography and music departments all left by five or six, the fashion department always stayed until 10.
It was hard for me to finally step away from fashion. Each new job offer or affirmation of being “in” it is like a guilty rush, something that kept making me second-guess my desire to leave. Originally, I had accepted my first job in fashion only with the future goal of writing about it or working for a magazine. Years after, I had found myself working in PR or doing freelance styling, and mainly all the writing I had done was in the form of press releases, model biographies and far too many e-mails. My initial enjoyment had transformed into annoyance with the time-consuming restrictions it held on me, even while pushing my initial ambition to the side. With dwindling passion, I did finally get out. I was no longer fueled by ambition to excel, and in order to stay relevant in fashion, there is no room for a lack of energy. This is the first time that my days have not been defined by the runway show schedule. Even if I missed the fervor and returned, I’d be two seasons behind, and that would require a suffocating cram session.
Fashion may not be seen as revolutionary in the eyes of the public, especially those who frown on it for its superficial nature. It’s the architecture of garments and fantasies: It’s as indulgent as cinema or theater, as instinctual and aggressive as the trading of a stock, as fast-moving and ever-changing as technology and as meticulously executed as a seven-foot sculpture. It is rooted in risk-taking and forward thinking, and fueled by those who never take a day off from constantly examining the world around them and figuring out how best to influence it. It is a form of creative expression like any other, but somehow fashion is taken less seriously than other outlets like music, art, or literature.
What is most interesting about this general condescension is that fashion is the only form that is accessed and used by each and every person in the world. Even those who dismiss fashion have to reach for a pair of jeans in the morning and buy a coat when the temperature drops. Every design scoffed at or ignored on the runway eventually trickles down to mass production in a diluted form, and the mainstream version often endures for years. There are those who laugh at fashion or think they are above it, and fashion can return the smug grin because chances are they’re wearing at least one watered-down reproduction of what was once a sartorial breakthrough. Though I don’t want to work in fashion ever again, I know wholeheartedly that the industry is nothing if not proactive, ambitious and under appreciated by many.