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

Designers played up the drama at New York Fashion Week with theatrical runways and plenty of fur, sheers and silk.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 10:24 PM

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?

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."

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