The popular vision of a runway show includes the glamorous image of a broad avenue congested with black Town Cars from which well-groomed women emerge with smooth bare legs and remarkable shoes. Inside, people are squinting and shuffling in a black-walled room lit by a single blinding spotlight. Hundreds of lips are pulled into a pucker as they kiss the air next to a Creme de la Mer moisturized cheek.
Conversations are difficult because the room is loud with the sound of metal camera cases clanging into place and the beat, beat, beat of incongruous music belching from speakers. No one bats an eye -- but it is hard to suppress the giggles -- upon hearing the rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat opening beats of Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You" as Oscar de la Renta's cool beauties saunter down the runway. And if there are celebrities -- it doesn't matter if it's an Oscar winner like Hilary Swank, a pop culture phenomenon like Joe Millionaire or an alumnus of "Survivor: Thailand" -- the paparazzi descend.
But there is another kind of fashion show, too. It might cause traffic jams, but only because it's located off some narrow alleyway. The only honored guest in the house is the designer's mother. It is hard not to admire the designers who bravely go on with their show knowing that the publicist has herded every live body in the room -- and maybe a few off the street -- into the front rows so that the house looks full in the photographs.
Sometimes these shows are by designers who, truth be told, should not be putting their frocks on the runway. They're simply not up to snuff. But often, they are presentations by new designers who are simply trying to break through all the clatter. Indeed, designer Monika Kowalska of A Detacher had to shout and stomp her feet to get anyone to notice her sexy secretary collection of handknits while the boisterous Baby Phat presentation was going on uptown. Designers like Kowalska believe, down somewhere deep where sobering statistics, dire warnings and harsh criticism cannot penetrate, that they have a unique, personal vision that must be revealed.
Behind these fashion industry extremes are the roots of two business plans. There are designers who not only are selling their clothes, but also a lifestyle, a personality and philosophy. One needs a big stage and a large audience to accommodate all of that.
Other designers simply are selling the clothes. They are selling curious cuts and exotic fabrics. In their presentations, a single message is articulated: the clothes rise above all else.
To some degree, the size of the company dictates the runway package. It is difficult to grow into a corporation the size of Polo Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan New York and not extend one's range to incorporate housewares, paints and other accoutrements of life. So, perhaps the ability to stay focused on the frocks is a luxury of smaller companies.
But there are tiny companies that sell personality with as much determination as the conglomerates. Zac Posen was already thinking about a secondary line before he'd even proved the commercial viability of his first main collection. Posen sells his charm and chutzpah, as well as his celebrity connections, just as surely as he sells godet skirts, silk gowns printed with antique topographical maps and banded blouses. For fall, his easy silk gowns with their relaxed construction offered a welcome reprieve from the complicated seamed, tucked and ruched dresses that can be so exhausting to look at, let alone wear.
In contrast, Nicolas Ghesquiere, who designs for Balenciaga, happily uses the brand as camouflage, satisfied with creating clothes without seeing his name on the label.
His fall collection included an exquisite variety of cropped jackets in a pastiche of materials: shearling, nylon, fleece, leather. Barely falling below the breasts, the jackets swung back away from the body as if caught in a breeze. The sleeves were curved and tapered like crescent moons. And they were a perfect foil for the slender pants and short skirts. The pleated and ruffled white and pastel mini-dresses were more difficult for the eye to adjust to. (They will also be a challenge to wear.) But the multiple textures and competing lines nudged fashion along in a more adventurous direction.
Selling a bold, sweeping lifestyle on the runway is a different undertaking from constructing an image. All designers have to find some way to distinguish themselves from the other guy. But the marketing of an entire persona, of a world, is something far grander.
Lauren is not alone in this hucksterism, but he has set the standard. His personal dreams and aspirations are woven into his loden tweed jackets and stitched into the gently ruched legs of his suede trousers.
At one of his shows, including the one today, it is difficult to stay focused on the clothes. There are so many satisfying distractions. Is it fair to bring a designer's family into the story? In this case, it would be remiss not to, for they are so picture-perfectly styled and presented as accessories to the runway show. There is David Lauren, with his hair grown past his shoulders and with the same kind of scruffy beard that appears on models in his father's advertising. There is Andrew, who consulted on the music and looks as though he wore his first ascot while still in the crib. Dylan, the daughter who runs a candy shop across from Bloomingdale's, is wearing a red knit skirt and midnight sweater and posing for photographs. Ricky, his wife, will be the one that Lauren kisses when he comes out at the end of the presentation to take his bows.
In looking at the help -- a crew of fresh-scrubbed young women bearing clipboards and guest lists -- it is hard not to think of a nice prep school class photo. They are all neatly turned out in dark sweaters and jackets and crisp white shirts, with their hair all cut in variations on the bob.
All of this is part of the afternoon's sales pitch. The earthiness of the setting, coupled with its location in a West Side neighborhood filled with art galleries, is the tipoff the look of the collection. It is an enticing one, filled with country fabrics and urban shapes. It was filled with skinny pants in rough tweeds, cropped shearling jackets and luscious suede and leather coats adorned with buckles and belts. For evening, Lauren suggests pairing white satin and sequins with a short satin parka trimmed in fur. There are antiqued lace tops and a particularly grand skirt of burgundy velvet that flows down the body in gentle waves like water lapping against the shore.
Lauren was inspired by the mod rockers of the '60s. But he blended that with references to John Singer Sargent portraits, Dickens and Lauren's omnipresent taste for luxury.
Other designers were captivated by mod style, particularly Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs. And in contrast to Lauren, they simply go about the business of selling the clothes even though they have celebrities in the front rows and memorable advertising. Jacobs has announced a plan to use convicted shoplifter Winona Ryder to promote his clothes. Ryder regularly wore Jacobs's clothes to court and also pinched one of his $760 cashmere pullovers. (There aren't enough hours in a day to fully discuss the ridiculousness of a designer, particularly one with his own stores, using a thief in his ads.)
Hilfiger's love for music is well known and so it is in keeping with his sensibility that he would be inspired by the tailored hipness that he remembered in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. His clothes had a youthful sleekness to them and his skinny suits for men offer a little pizazz in the dull menswear industry.
But nothing in Hilfiger's audience -- not even the unfulfilled promise of Neil Bush in the front row -- distracted from the clothes. Hilfiger's runway bow, for which he wore a slim charcoal suit, simply underscored the fact that nothing but the clothes were for sale.
The same is true of Jacobs's presentation. It is always something of a game at a Jacobs show to guess precisely how late it will be before the first model walks down the runway. Forty-five minutes? An hour? But no matter, the main event is almost always worth waiting for. Almost. This time the collection was a cartoonish interpretation of mod style and the Courrege archives. It was filled with short starched dresses with pockets slit like smiles, coats with oversize buttons and harsh shades of tangerine and turquoise. It was too childish, overdrawn and unflattering.
After so many seasons of Jacobs beautifully damaged silks, antiqued military jackets and saucy day dresses, one has to admire the designer for flexing his artistic muscles. Perhaps, there will be some detail, some perfect line, a bit of fabric that will inspire him and take him toward a fresh, more attractive aesthetic. But these clothes are not good for Jacobs's loyal customers and they certainly are not enticements for new ones.
Ralph Rucci, Vera Wang
The art of selling the self, of making the runway personal, leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. It is a way of announcing that the house stands for a specific point of view rather than a certain style. A brand is defined by a mood rather than a signature garment or a particular fabric.
Ralph Rucci, who designs under the Chado label, is known for his extravagant fabrics and his sharp cuts, not for his spirituality or sense of humor. Rucci is perhaps the most indulgent of the designers who show their collections in New York. Not content to create an alligator trench coat, he lines his in sable. His jeans are made of cashmere. His pullovers are made of sable. His backpacks are alligator. His suits are double-face cashmere. Watching his presentation is like overindulging in foie gras: A little is bliss; too much, and you start to get woozy.
And while Vera Wang may spend time on the socialite circuit, that never seeps into the essence of her runway presentations. Her collection for fall 2003 was nearly pitch perfect. A black broadtail jacket was trimmed in jet beads, the armholes of a pale gray satin evening gown were rimmed with frayed threads as delicate as eyelashes. Her clothes are meant for viewing up close. They are not grand red-carpet clothes but rather dresses meant to be seen in the close confines of a cocktail party or from across a candlelit dinner table.
Calvin Klein, Donna Karan
Whether a designer sells the purity of the clothes or a more complicated personal vision of the world is to some extent dependent on how close a relationship he wants with his customers. Calvin Klein sells sex in his ads for perfume and underwear, but his women's collection is presented in an aloof, distant manner. Down a long runway in a vast studio, his models march. For fall, there are modest pleated skirts, narrow pants and fitted jackets. Occasionally a chiffon dress floats by. Surely there is a heart and soul involved in the creative process, but it is jealously shielded from view.
Donna Karan sells mood. She sells her interest in spirituality. And she sells her affection for New York. With her sleek black suits trimmed in patent leather and her wool jersey goddess gowns with cutouts rimmed in Robert Lee Morris body jewelry, she celebrates feminine power and the art of seduction. It was a collection that captured the sensibility of the Karan known to her customers, and with deep emotion spoke of the essence of Manhattan.
To see more of Robin Givhan's coverage of the fall 2003 shows, go to www.washingtonpost.com/style/