News & Runway

New York Fashion Week Ate My Brain: A First-Timer Tells All

NYFW photogs

NYFW photogs

I wore my pajamas to Rachel Roy.

About a month ago when I decided I wanted to go to fashion week for the first time, the problem of what to wear was the first thing that came to mind. I'd never attended shows before, but I understood that guests were expected to put forth some effort. Show off their fashion chops. Mine are very understated. That is, I'm something of a slob. I considered going shopping, but never made it to the stores. Instead, I did my laundry and took my shoes to the cobbler to get resoled and cleaned. I suspected that as long as I had nice shoes and generally tidy clothing, I'd be fine.

I learned that there's a good reason fashion editors plan their outfits weeks in advance: dressing for the shows, even if you're not trying to land a spot in a street style slideshow, is exhausting. When you come home late at night after spending the day running around the city / in addition to doing your job / in addition to eating and going to the bathroom / in addition to doing normal life things like going to the bank and seeing your friends, you are going to feel like a disaster. When you wake up bright and early the next morning, you'll still feel like a disaster, even after you take a shower. And then you'll peer into your closet, see all the flimsy garments hanging on the racks and piled on top of each other on the shelves, and none of it will mean anything to you. You won't, for the life of you, be able to figure out how you've ever gotten dressed before, how you've managed to leave the house before, how you managed to end up with a wardrobe filled with unwearable things. Every bit of uncertainty and anxiety you've been hauling around with you from day to day will concentrate into this single, sharp point: you, standing in front of your closet, with nothing to wear.

I'm sure some people thrive on moments like these and manage to whip together magical, unbelievable, head-turning outfits that leave their fellow NYFW attendees salivating with jealousy. I did not do that. Instead, I pulled the dress and sweater I'd worn the previous day over the leggings and tank top I slept in. I smudged on some eyeliner and poufed up my hair with dry shampoo. I looked a little rumply, but it was not altogether a bad look.

And I don't think anyone noticed. That's the best part of fashion week: it's so big and so frenzied, overpacked with photographers and their flashing cameras, with furs and leather pants and minor celebrities—and even though everyone's so eager to take in what's in front of them, most people are just hoping to be seen. And so you can choose whether you want people to pay attention to you or whether you want to pay attention to them.

For a few years, I didn't care about going to the shows. In part, it was laziness. Getting decked out at eight in the morning, taking the subway all the way up to Lincoln Center, and hurling myself into hysteric hubbub of the tents never seemed worth it. So many people are attracted to the glamour of fashion, but I've always been a little repulsed by it—a little scared of it. Anyone with an even passing interest in the industry knows that the world of the tents are governed by strict and unspeakable hierarchy; that as much as New York Fashion Week might be about the clothes, it's also the status. I wasn't interested in the status, or at least not in a personal way.

It's easy enough to justify working for a fashion website and never going to the shows. The Fashion Spot subscribes to photo services that beam runway photos to our computer screens mere moments after the final walk. And we have a team of writers that have been attending and covering the shows forever (most notably, Sharon Feiereisen). I didn't particularly want to learn the ropes, and I also didn't need to.

When people talk about how technology's changing the face of the industry by giving anyone with an Internet connection and a will unprecedented access to every aspect of fashion week, they're talking about people like me. And in some sense, it's true: the TFS Forums were leveling the fashion landscape long before YouTube, smartphones, or Twitter were on anyone's radar. The eroding authority of the traditional gatekeepers—glossy magazine editors and department store buyers—has been happening for years, and I don't think it'll slow down soon.

The amount of stuff happening online makes it hard to justify leaving your computer. Shows run concurrently, and while the Internet lets you be in a million places at once, reality is still governed by the rules of space and time. But in a weird way, the easier it gets to cover fashion week remotely, the harder it becomes: the amount of information and content coming in from the tents every second of every day over the course of the shows is overwhelming. Everything is everywhere, but nothing seems to matter more than anything else. On the Internet, fashion week is like a constant, high-pitched hum.

The fashion gods (Anna and Karl?) must have approved of my newfound curiosity, my willingness to abandon my computer and see New York Fashion Week for myself, because I ended up sitting front row at my very first show, BCBG.

I arrived a little late, per Sharon's recommendation (shows typically run about thirty minutes past schedule. "If I go too early, I end up falling asleep," she told me). I had standing room tickets and I joined the mass of fashion bloggers huddled together behind the rows, peering out into the room. Out of courtesy, I stood behind everyone who had arrived before me. I tried to kill time by eavesdropping on nearby conversations—"Oh my god, is that Cameron Diaz?" (It wasn't)—but the wait was a long one, and soon, I couldn't pay attention to anything but the huge, loud heating vent right above me. I decided not to deal, and wormed my way out.

I went down to the runway where guests were mingling and taking pictures, and walked back up the aisle to another standing section. This time, I wasn't very polite. I tried to hold my ground at the very front of the crowd, but I was elbowed back to the second row of the cluster.

About five minutes before the show started, a gaggle of PR people appeared to escort standing guests to seats. Everyone around me perked up, and after a few extremely short moments, everyone in the section seemed to have an almost luxurious amount of personal space. I was standing toward the front of the crowd now, with a perfect, unobstructed view of the entire runway.

I would have been perfectly satisfied with my situation, but then a PR woman looked over at me and smiled: "Do you want to sit down?" She said it like I might not want to sit down, like it might be preferable to stand, so I shrugged my shoulders and pressed my lips together, like I was saying, "Sure, why not?"

She led me down to a seat in the front row. I looked around, half expecting someone to rush in and tackle me, screaming, "No, no, no! Not her — anyone but her!" I put my head down and started texting.

A few minutes later when everyone was seated, I watched as a man pulled the long piece of plastic grey tarp off the runway. It folded together like an accordian, exposing an immaculate white runway undearneath. It was so blinding and bright it looked like there was light shining out of it from below. The room went dark and spotlights went on. I thought it was one of the most incredible sensory experiences of my life.

And then, the models came out. At first, I couldn't even look at the clothes, because there were these aliens stomping past me, their shiny skin lit up by the overhead lights. Every cliche I'd ever heard about models passed through my head: they were so beautiful, so thin, so young! I watched their ankles tremble in their heels as they walked by.

"What do you think of the shoes?" the man sitting beside me asked. I think he was a buyer for Saks. "They're much better than the dresses." I mumbled something about how they looked uncomfortable.

Herve Leger

Runway shows are produced by a team of mostly theater-trained techs in collaboration with the designer, and the theatrics of the light and the set elevate a collection, making the fashion seem larger than life in the way a presentation simply can't. Once I stopped staring at the models, they become irrelevant. It seemed like the clothing was carrying down the runway, as if the collection had come to life. A video clip or a photograph doesn't capture that kind of movement, but it's the lifeblood of a good collection.

But it's also insane: a 10-minute runway show costs up to $1 million to produce. After all the intial planning stages, on the day of a show about 1,000 people have to be herded into an auditorium and seated. If it weren't so fun to see a collection coming down the runway, you'd think the attendees were just using the shows as an excuse to catch their breath and rest their stilettoed feet between appointments.

Nothing I saw throughout the week matched that first BCBG show. The brand did put together a good collection, but my experience was the thing that was hard to top: in part, because it was my first-ever show, but also—and saying this makes me feel like a caricature—there's nothing like sitting front row. Even though I had standing room tickets for everything I saw that week, I managed to snag seats everywhere but at Nicole Miller (which happened to be, maybe not coincidentally, my least favorite collection). But when you get higher up in the rows, everything seems less impressive: the garments seem flat, the lighting less dramatic, the models a little sickly.

Only one thing came close to matching the excitement of the BCBG show: on Sunday, I went over to Milk Studios to see Carlos Campos. I'd been at the venue earlier that day for Antonio Azzuolo, but when I returned, the place was packed. Even though I RSVP'd, I wasn't on the list. I talked my way in, which turned out to be as much of a thrill as sitting runway-side at a major show. Three labels, Campos, Assembly New York, and Public School, were showing concurrently on the same floor and the hallways were jammed with people chatting and laughing and taking pictures. There was an open bar with strawberry rum punch and you could sip on a drink as you wandered in and out of the presentations. It was a party, and the different collections were the centerpiece.

At Carlos Campos, the designer created a runway leading from backstage to the center of the room with stacks of books. The walls and floor were all white, and the decorative piles of autumnal leaves on the ground and saturated pops of orange-red and blue of the collection made everything but the clothes and decorations seem clean and bare. The white was more textured and less sterile than the runway at the BCBG show, more like a canvas and less like an open Word doc on a computer screen. I moved around the room as the models walked out; the collection showed several times, on loop, over the course of about an hour. I stood at the front of the room and took pictures on my phone. I moved to the side for a different angle. And I stayed for a long time before I went home.

So is fashion week worth it? Going to the shows demands a huge amount of mental and physical energy (Fashion Week really did kind of eat my brain), so if you're in it for the swag, definitely not. It seems pretty improbable that I'm ever going to use my complimentary Diet Coke notebook.

Images via SnappyLifestyle, IMAXtree