New York Fashion Week 2011: Showmanship by Michael Kors, Thom Browne, Derek Lam

IN NEW YORK Nothing says excess like Fashion Week. There are too many shows, too much fur. And far too many people in your way as you clamber over knees and Birkin bags to squeeze into your seat. Or to dash out of it on your way to another show.

With so much going on, how does a designer make his work stand out?

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He has to create a memory.

In fashion, as in so much else in life, success is a matter of how unforgettable you are. If your show is forgotten, you're finished. And during the pell-mell festival of fall looks that ended Thursday, everything hung on how runway semiotics play to fashion editors and buyers. Designers have just a few minutes to make an impression with their models, music and lighting. It all has to yield some insight into the marketability of their lines.

The smart ones turn into showmen. Or they hire showmen. A theatrical touch in a runway show is not just creative indulgence; it's good business. Shows with a high element of theater stick in the mind. Start with those choreographed by the trim, bearded Frenchman Alexandre de Betak.

De Betak, 42, has been called "the Fellini of fashion." His shows in Europe - for Christian Dior and Prada, among others - are known for their mix of surreality and Vegas: models on rotating stages, clothes that are wired to fly off into the air; manufactured snowstorms and laser-light shows. In New York, he works on a smaller, more straightforward scale for such designers as Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Jason Wu.

But even his minimalist work for Rodarte, the spacey bohemian line founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy and lately cherished in Hollywood, garnered attention. Earlier in the week, this show, in a whitewashed Chelsea gallery space with guests seated on wooden folding chairs, drew rapper Kanye West, director Sofia Coppola and actress Kirsten Dunst. It was noon, bitterly below freezing; still, attendees crossed the dusty concrete floor in beaded chiffon gowns, strapless leather bustiers and ice-pick heels. Anticipation was high, but this is, after all, a tough economy. (As a reminder: One guest's fur coat trailed duct tape at the hem.) The show was all about earthy, deconstructed glamour. The theatrics were spare but eloquent.

The seats were arranged in an angular figure eight, and as the models in crinkled silk, wool gauze and lots of horsehair strode up one aisle and down another, their paths crisscrossed and overlapped. The lighting was especially warming, the soft gold of an early autumn afternoon.

Before the show, the diminutive, boyish de Betak had been darting around in a dark suit and a headset, peering intently into a row of laptops or dashing backstage to speak with models who towered over him. With the catwalk a series of intersecting trajectories, he was concerned about traffic jams. A hand-held microphone was jammed in his belt like a six-shooter.

After the show - elated by the absence of collisions - he perched cheerfully on the edge of a chair, body still but words pouring out excitedly as he described his concept: wheat fields, sunlight and haystacks. And the models like waves of grain.

His work is all about "raising the level of emotion," he said. "It's not just about selling the clothes; it's about the need to create memorable moments. And there is nothing like emotion for creating memorable moments."

De Betak says the efficiency of the fashion show - delivering its message in minutes - has prompted his newest fantasy: to choreograph political demonstrations. After all, he said, despite months of planning, what happens on the catwalk is more spontaneous than rehearsed. At most, he has the models to do a quick run-through before it happens: "It's all live, and you only do it once."

It was a massive public party that first inspired him: the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989, in his native Paris, where hundreds of thousands of revelers took to the streets. So why not top that, and plot out the movement of millions?

Why stop there? In keeping with the dreamy hedonism of the fashion world, de Betak has no shortage of ambition. Nodding in the direction of the backstage door, he says, "I'm ready to take these girls to the moon."

De Betak crafted a runway out of gilt-framed mirrors for Jason Wu, punctuated with a crystal chandelier at the end. (A sign of further East Room aspirations from the designer of Michelle Obama's inaugural gown?) De Betak sent models through mirrored arches for Diane von Furstenberg. For Marc Jacobs, he created an exploded, grand-scale boudoir, with a looking-glass floor and fat, shiny, tufted pillars. It was a fitting stage for such high-concept clothes: rubberized snow boots that gleamed like waxed Corvettes; vinyl skirts and cashmere-Lurex hoodies.

Michael Kors

The Michael Kors show - always one of the week's most eagerly awaited - was glitzy in a more human way. It drew the full spectrum: the beautiful and the damned-if-I-can't-take-a-peek. Wednesday morning in a tent at Lincoln Center, the spectacle began well before the lights went down. The stars of this show were not the ho-hum chiffon caftans and jersey jumpsuits but front-row attendees Catherine Zeta-Jones (aflutter), Michael Douglas (asleep? hard to tell behind the shades), Bette Midler, Anjelica Huston and Deborah Messing. Around them, the runway became a mosh pit. Getting to one's seat was a contact sport; camera crews, photographers and quote-stalkers swarmed the benches until bodyguards were called in to hold the hysteria at bay.

If the Kors looks - in gray, camel, black and more black - were boring, the sparks were in the kinetics of the show. Moving in a crisp tick-tock to the beat of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," a stream of models marched along a simple U-shaped runway that suggested a silver city sidewalk. Sixty-four looks flashed by in nine minutes. A new one emerged every eight seconds.

The effect was at once mechanical and witty. In this stylized streetscape, high fashion had its eye on the speedometer. There were always exactly four models on each side of the runway, and everyone was in step. It was a Teutonic utopia, as orderly as a close-order drill.

"Ultra sexy, ultra fast, ultra energetic," as de Betak described it. And with the absolutely perfect pacing and timing of it, a bit creepy, too.

Thom Browne

What better refuge from the noise, the omnipresent flashbulbs and the crowds of the typical runway show than a library? Oh - the happiness - to glance at one's invitation and see that Thom Browne's show was at the New York Public Library.

Running late - it's my third show of the day, on top of interviews and backstage reporting - I dash up the great staircase, jump into an elevator, tear down a wide hallway and, following signs, burst into a reading room. Straight into the arms of a security guard, who sends me over to the wall with the rest of the onlookers.

Had I stumbled into a prayer meeting? At the far end of the room, two priests are kneeling at an altar. Gregorian chants play softly over the hush. The media lining the room are whispering.

Then: silence. Nothing but the click of footsteps on the wooden floor. Now that Browne has our attention - effortlessly - it's showtime. The footsteps belong to a line of magnificent nuns. (Did I hear gasps? Or was it just me?) They're wearing long gray capes, with heads covered by cornettes, stiff white wimples bent like wings: The Flying Nun meets Doctor Who. Their eyes are downcast, weighted by thick, extravagantly long false eyelashes. Ladylike heels peek out from beneath their hems.

The song "Maria" from "The Sound of Music" starts up. ("How do you solve a problem like Maria/How do you catch a cloud and pin it down," from the abbey scene - of course!) One by one, the nuns stand before a supernaturally hunky pair of priests, who somberly strip off the women's headgear and robes to reveal wonderfully quirky creations underneath: menswear-inspired suits in mismatched plaids with shrunken jackets.

One woman looks like Humpty Dumpty, encased in a stiff, egg-shaped cape in cream wool. Another wears a cagelike hoop skirt of red, white and blue ribbon. It brings to mind the sculptural dance costumes by Bauhaus designer Oskar Schlemmer. Exultant gospel music - recordings by Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin - fills the air.

"I like to make people think," said Browne after the show.

Browne, who grew up Catholic in Allentown, Pa., said he thought it would be funny to have the priests disrobe the nuns. But he was also going for the larger idea of freedom- expressed in the undressing, in his playful takes on classic American silhouettes, in the soaring vocals and even in the wimples and eyelashes, which he said made him think of butterflies.

The drama in Browne's show added panache to the clothes. There was a powerful momentum in the metronomic action - the disrobing, the walking - and in how the looks were sequenced, with their increasingly oddball twist on age-old ideas. In this contemplative setting, there were surprises at every beat. And turning mock-prayer into straight-faced play was perfectly in line with the slightly kinky nature of Browne's clothes. (Bondage came to mind as much as freedom.)

The designer acknowledged there is a dark side to his looks. "When you put clothes on six-foot-tall, beautiful girls, you have to make sure there's something interesting in it - something you may not exactly understand. . . . There has to be something that throws it off a little bit, or it becomes sort of - " he pauses. "Normal."

Derek Lam

Derek Lam confronted normal head-on in his Derek Lam + eBay collection. A crowd formed on the sidewalk outside Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center during Lam's hour-long presentation in the sunny, glass-walled lobby earlier in the week. Sixteen models stood in a wedge formation at one end, wearing Lam's moderately priced crisp summer shirtdresses. (After a public vote, some of them will be available on eBay next month.) The frocks were simple, as was the living-sculpture arrangement. And the effect was stop-you-in-your-tracks stunning.

It was a showdown of chic, at once stark and charming. The lobby's airy, modern architecture and its tidy, unfussy human artworks felt like the antidote to the week's excess. The ponytailed models looked like the kind of idealized young romantics that populate a Jerome Robbins ballet.

Surveying his creations, Lam said he was inspired by a quote from choreographer George Balanchine: "There are no new steps, only new combinations."

"That's not just about dance but about anything we do in life," the designer said. "You know, the body doesn't change. We're not growing a second set of arms. The art is about dressing the human body, and how do you do it of the moment?" Lam found a way with fashion's greatest asset: simplicity.

Wintour classic

Then there's the native drama in cramming thousands of harried, image-focused humans together in small spaces spread throughout a wintry megalopolis. Watching much-feared and fawned-over Vogue editor Anna Wintour is a terrific spectator sport. She arrives at shows with an entourage of assistants and bodyguards, strolling slowly down an avenue of calm to her premium seat, sunglasses in hand. Everything about her says keep your distance. Weirdly, some don't get the message.

As she stood in the aisle before the Michael Kors show began, the young man she was chatting with placed a hand familiarly on her shoulder. Oops! What followed was like that slow-motion scene in "The Matrix" in which Keanu Reeves's character is dodging bullets. With creamy smoothness, and no change in her mildly attentive expression, Wintour thrust the offended shoulder into the air and arched away, all in one seamless move. The poor guy responded with a backward tip of his own, snatching his hand back as if he'd been scorched.

Behind the scenes

Backstage at Alexander Wang: It takes a village to put on a fashion show. Armies of hair and makeup foot soldiers, mani-pedi obsessives, clothing stylists who dress the models like dolls, seamstresses, caterers (I've never seen so much uneaten food). Models doze through their pedicures. Clothes hang like cuts of beef in a meat locker, all disembodied parts, ready for assembly.

And always, cameras and more cameras. Where there is one photographer, more are sure to follow. I spied several zeroing to shoot a gleaming, polished set of . . . fingernails.

Models never say no to a photo request. One still in her own skinny jeans and riding boots stands with chin tucked and eyes glowing, as a camera flashes inches from her nose. As soon as the photographer is finished, all that sultry composure evaporates and she runs - sprints - to the ladies' room around the corner. The thrill of seeing someone that tall move so fast!

What a waste that all that physical power is smothered once the models are strapped into five- or six-inch heels for the runway. If the cameras want drama, they should focus on the feet. That's where the train wrecks are lurking, where surely the height limit has been exceeded.

"They hurt," confessed Shanina Shaik, a raven-haired Australian model. "At one show we had to have a special run-through because of the shoes. Some of the girls were crying, taking their shoes off as soon as they got off the runway."

Even the designers fall victim to this fashion. When she was finished fielding interviews about her new line, "Pearls of Wisdom," Donna Karan, standing in a pair of devastatingly high, pointy-toed mules, lamented to her assistant, "Can I please change into flats now?"

As designers wrap up Fashion Week, all the excess and overload have gone into mere minutes of highly scrutinized walking. In hoping to craft an unforgettable performance, it's too bad so many of them overlooked one critical asset: the beauty of a natural gait.

 
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