It’s a strange time for fashion. The 500-pound gorilla threatening to squash all the 98-pound models in the room is, of course, the crappy economy. You may remember that our city’s semi-long-standing Fashion Week at Smashbox died a sad death last October, just before the nation’s banks started self-destructing. The arts collective BOXeight has since thrown itself into the breach. So how do you do Fashion Week if belts are tightening and nobody has any money to spend?
At this season’s GenArt show at downtown’s historic Los Angeles Theater, there’s no celebrity guest “host” reading from a cheesy speech, just marketing guru Jennifer Egan in a short black dress, her long, straight, brunette mermaid hair streaming down her back, humbly thanking the people who actually bought tickets to tonight’s show. The young women at the check-in table are a tad less haughty. As are the older cougars lingering by the bar. Even the fashionistas angling to be the prettiest girls in the room seem more somber, despite having added obnoxious new words to their vocabulary (“recessionista”: yuck!). Undeterred, the photographer mafia once more jockeys for position on the risers.
There are even the requisite few celebs. Clint Catalyst, looking handsomely vampirelike, is sitting across the aisle. As the lights go down, one of the contestants from Project Runway Season 2, Nick Verreos (the nice one you want to hang out with at parties), scurries to his seat. What comes through with much of the bullshit scraped away is people’s dedication to fashion, glamour and beauty despite the rough times. It’s Scarlett O’Hara sewing herself a ball gown out of the green-velvet curtains with the war of Northern aggression raging and Tara smoldering in ruins around her. It’s touching, really.
GenArt, which every fall hosts the Fresh Faces show for emerging talent, this time presents three collections from designers whom insiders have had their eyes on for a couple of years. Society for Rational Dress does a vaguely military collection for fall ’09. Shirts are chopped up and tucked beneath bomber jackets. Fluttery, feminine chiffon dresses are harnessed with butch leather shoulder straps. Several of the girls — in cream cowl-neck sweaters and little chain-mail shawls — look like modern-day Joans of Arc.
Raquel Allegra does a kind of lonesome-Mexican-cowboy thing. Models come out with wide-brimmed black Zorro hats pulled down low over their eyes. There are little leather culottes and chocolate-brown leather tank dresses, which the girls wear with black ankle socks and oxfords: cute and eclectic.
But to my mind, the standout collection is the one from Grai, the line designed by Otis College grad Maya Yogev. According to her Web site, Yogev is interested in the Victorian era, Russian ballet, punk rock and goth aesthetics. She lives in Los Angeles with her “devil cat,” Kiki.
Looking at Grai’s clothes, I pretty much forget about the dire state of the world. The silhouette is long and tall — so tall the models look like they’re on stilts — with big, trapezoidal coat collars. The Grai line, I later find out, is based on the designer’s quest for the perfect coat. So, there are bat wing–sleeve leather coats and flowing black kimono wraps paired with slinky, floor-sweeping skirts.
The serious, unsmiling models are post-Apocalyptic Dune priestesses, all ascetic, pale faces, a smidge of black eyeliner and heads wrapped in black turbans. What hair is visible is shellacked into triangles, and feet, shoes and ankles are mummified in swaths of cloth. This is how to do goth if you want to seem like you are grown up and have gobs of discretionary income.
The overall impression is of layer upon complex layer of slanting, asymmetrical hems, and different textures of black — gleaming, dominatrix oil-slick black next to dull, light-sucking black-hole black. It is dramatic and emotional and simultaneously luxe and minimal.
“So, did you pick out your prom dress?” asks the guy sitting next to me. “I was thinking something in black. I had a smile on my face because one of my longtime friends is Elvira.”
Yes, for sure.
This fashion event is rough around the edges and has a sense of humor about itself. That last bit alone puts it leaps and bounds ahead of most other fashion events I’ve been to. For instance, the DJ at the COA show is playing Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” (“36-24-36? Only if she’s 5 feet 3 … my anaconda don’t want none unless she’s got buns hon”). I was waiting for the skinny girls to come out to fully appreciate the irony, but alas: COA is a men’s line.
The clothes are fine and wearable and should do well in the stores — any girl would be happy to have her boyfriend show up for a date in one of COA’s quilted biker jackets over crinkly acid-wash jeans. (Though, maybe not the peach-colored jeans.) One jacket is made of black-patent lambskin so shiny it looks like it’s been licked. Also, there are men — okay, gay men — in the ladies’ restroom. And what a restroom. There is nothing like peeing in a room done up in marble and gold.
Between shows, people browse the free copies of California Apparel News, which declares the cutting-edge trends to be “Boys Club” and “World Style” and “the plaid shirt.” After that, I start noticing plaid shirts and world style everywhere, though not so much boys club (mainly because I can’t quite figure out what it is).
The Future Heretics show is fun: everybody, VIPs and all, sitting on aluminum benches like at a football game. The whole shebang happens in a cozy downstairs ballroom with parquet floors and mirrors à la Palace of Versailles.
Oh, yes, the kids have taken over, and from the looks of the party girls hooting and carrying on across the aisle, they’ve raided the good stuff from Mom’s jewelry box and thrown on Dad’s tuxedo coat with nothing but tights and stilettos. The Heretics are doing a kind of preppy, streetwise, big-hot-mess thing. I can’t stop staring at this one pair of svelte black pants with Age of Innocence Edith Wharton–esque buttons up the back of the ankle. Hot!
I also can’t stop thinking that the designer must have had a really good time with bleach. There isn’t a stitch of denim that hasn’t been dribbled, or splashed or sprayed with the stuff. You’re sure to see at least one of the Heretics’ skull T-shirts (with the slogan “Fuck Skulls”) out and about in hipster enclaves soon.
There is more plaid at Laeken’s show. It manifests here in the form of jumper dresses. You know that game where you try to guess the designer’s references: Is that plaid dress more Holly Hobbie or Little House on the Prairie? Is that leg-of-mutton sweater sleeve more ’70s psychedelic or neo-Victorian? I’m deep into these kinds of thoughts when a model sashays by and the guy next to me, whose boyfriend did the styling for the Laeken show, exclaims, “Her walk is amazing! Unbelievable!”
It jolts me, that “unbelievable,” uttered so earnestly and enthusiastically. And I feel a little ashamed for grouching about the lack of goody bags, for noticing that they don’t repaint the runways perfect eggshell white after every single show. Who needs goody bags when you have a thumping bass line and a crazy crowd that couldn’t care less what Anna Wintour is wearing?
Yesterday’s Grai show at GenArt is still my favorite, but today’s martinMARTIN line is a close second. Can you grow tired of deconstructed black goth ball gowns? Sure. Six or so shows later. But I have a soft spot for goth. It’s melodramatic. And silly. Especially because it tries so hard not to be.
The martinMARTIN version of goth is tattered Victorian-maid aprons, leather tailcoats, men with creepy black-leather pathologist gloves (the better to dissect you with!), dudes in skirts, and menswear on innocent little girls. The Eurasian models coming down the runway are superyoung-looking. Earlier, I snuck backstage and asked one how old she is, and she said, in a hesitant way, “Um, I’m 18.”
The Skin.Graft shindig is the only one in which the audience is a better show than the actual show. There are vintage feathered hats, big honking platform stilettos, black lipstick, fur coats … and that’s just the guys.
The catalog explains the aesthetic well: The fall collection “is inspired by neo-Victorian royalty and overly tarnished motorcycles smashing into each other at high speeds.”
It’s the last runway walk of the night, but the energy is up, up, up. People are dancing in the aisles. We even had an unexpected star sighting: Margaret Cho (voluptuous, tattooed). Who knew she rolled with the goths?
Lastly, if you had any doubts, Doc Marten combat boots are definitely back. Resign yourself to it.
The final day. It’s nice to see that the two Taiwanese sisters who design the Battalion line are back and bohemian as ever. They showed at GenArt last year. This season, their theme is “The New World” (appropriately enough), and they’re dressing women in French military coats, Lewis and Clark–inspired cargo vests, sliced-up Pocahontas tunics, and tricorner hats.
Everything is impeccably tailored. I mean, can those girls sew a bamboo jersey jodhpur-type stretch legging or what? Not a ripple or bumpy seam in sight. The materials are eco-friendly — the leather and fur are “veggie” leather and fur. Not killing animals for beauty is always a plus!
Some conversations about beauty are hilarious. “Do you see any little hairs on my face in this light?” the girl sitting behind me at the Sahaja show asks her friend. The Sahaja show, by the way, employs the hottest male models. Dark, beefy guys with bulging biceps, huge afros and eyeglasses. The rumply plaid shirts and cardigan sweaters remind me of items you’d pick up at the Gap — not necessarily a bad thing, where menswear is concerned — but then later on, two guests rave about them. Rave. So, it just goes to show how subjective this stuff is.
One of the people who digs the Sahaja line is a woman who works in trend forecasting. For fall, she is predicting lots of colored denim, leather, plaid, romantic goth (not industrial), and 1990s grunge. She tells me this before the Native American–themed Sjobeck presentation. The Sjobeck line is inspired by the designer’s grandfather, who takes a bow from his place in the audience, which gets me feeling sentimental and warm and fuzzy and hopeful about fashion as an egalitarian art form. Sjobeck specializes in denim but also has some of the sweetest, most sophisticated dresses of the bunch. There is one pouffy gray taffeta empire-waist number with a navy-plaid bust that, with a little lengthening, would suit most women. As is, it looks simply adorable on the blonde model.
Maxine Dillon’s focused, quirky/elegant collection is one of the entire event’s strongest and best-put-together. And not overpriced, either. Her black-and-white woven silk hooded dress and matching “Tuffy” jacket are unusual and, well, cute. Sorry, but there’s just no other word for it. You can buy the dress for $118 and the jacket for $160. Not bad, right? I imagine that her drapey silk dresses cover a multitude of sins, and that her curvy-collared jackets will sell like hotcakes.
While we’re on dresses, one of the BOXeight sponsors sitting next to me at the Yotam Solomon show happily snaps photo after photo of the sex-x-x-y gals coming down the walkway in tight silk-tube dresses fit to burst their seams. “Hel-llo!” he says when one girl in an impossibly short black dress has an embarrassing moment with her hemline. She recovers gracefully. Hey, what’s a little crotch between friends?
Sponsor guy doesn’t mince words about Smashbox. “I don’t like those people,” he says. “They think they’re hot shit, and they’re not.”
“I don’t like them, either,” says the journalist to my right. “They treated me like I was a second-class citizen.”
That’s the biggest, most crucial difference between BOXeight and Smashbox. Those who prefer their fashion mean, bitchy and snobby won’t find it (too much) here. It’s a contrary notion: fashion that’s inclusive rather than exclusive.
Are there glitches? Sure. DJs miscue songs. Models materialize onstage at the wrong moment, like deer caught in headlights. BOXeight is not a corporate conglomerate. As such, its members have heart. They are a group of artists. So some polish and tightness are sacrificed in how the game is run. But the tradeoff is a warmer, friendlier vibe.
As one of the several BOXeight collective members who get up on the runway to take a bow after Jazmin Whitley’s Li Cari show (closing out the weekend) put it: “This is not Paris. This is not Milan. This is not New York. And this is definitely not Culver City. This is downtown L.A.”