Sometimes ego triumphs over aesthetics.
That happened in terrible fashion Friday night when Marie Claudinette Jean showed her Fusha collection. There is no reason to jot down the name of this label, which specializes in cocktail clothes and evening gowns, because it is best forgotten. But those who keep abreast of music industry minutiae might recognize the designer's name: She is the wife of musician Wyclef Jean. And that fact succinctly explains how she and her unflattering designs came to be on the runway. She had a show because she had the money to pay the bills and a group of willing souls to fill out the audience.
Wyclef Jean opened her presentation with a guitar solo. What followed was a spring 2005 collection in which the designer offered no evidence that she has a sense of color, a feel for texture, an eye for silhouette or any understanding of the female shape. The models marched along gamely, but even they, with all of the hip swiveling and shoulder throwing at their disposal, could not save the clothing. It was a doomed display of hubris.
It's a lesson that must be repeatedly learned in the fashion industry: Tame the ego or it could leave one looking like a fool.
An hour before the scheduled start of the Baby Phat show on Saturday night, it was relatively calm backstage. A phalanx of hairstylists busily braided the models' hair into delicate ropes. The makeup artists, with an enormous cache of MAC cosmetics spread on counters, dug into little pots of iridescent turquoise and fuchsia eye shadow and swept it dramatically across perfect eyelids. The models' nails were already manicured. They were wearing two-inch fake acrylics that had been painted to resemble slices of wood.
Workers who were to dress the models lined up waiting for their marching orders. Security guards mopped their brows. And television cameras stood poised to get a shot of Kimora Lee Simmons, in all of her dark-haired, long-limbed, speed-talking, tough-diva glory.
Simmons, wife of music mogul Russell Simmons, is the woman whose name is on the label and who is, as she says, "very involved" in the designing of the collection. That is the euphemistic way of saying that she doesn't design the collection, but she makes her opinions loudly known.
She made her backstage entrance dressed in Baby Phat denim pedal pushers, a crocodile-patterned camisole and many, many, many carats of sparkling diamonds on her fingers, wrists and neck. The gems are pieces from several fine-jewelry collections that the company -- sold this year to manufacturing giant Kellwood -- is launching.
Simmons was also wearing a pair of shoes similar to those that the models would wear in the show. Metallic gold with slim leather straps that tie around the ankles, they had approximately a one-inch platform and a dagger of a heel four or five inches high.
"I have on the shoes for all of you guys," said Simmons, a former model. "So I hope nobody falls. If I can do it, you can do it."
But it is one thing to walk slowly and sedately in five-inch heels. It is another to wear them while sashaying under the spotlight in a pair of basket-weave hot pants. During the show, several models wobbled and flailed for their balance. Another landed with a magnificent thud on her tiny derriere.
The Baby Phat collection is known more for the enormousness of Simmons's personality and the ostentatiousness of her lifestyle -- a mob of servants, Bentleys, rose petals in her bathwater -- than for its aesthetic finesse. And in recent months, there have been additions to Simmons's renown: a lawsuit filed against her by a disgruntled former employee and a legal problem involving marijuana possession. She has pleaded not guilty.
Her Imelda Marcos-size collection of shoes and her china from the Versace estate also have been well documented. An enormous billboard of a naked and air-brushed Simmons looms in Times Square. And anyone who has ever seen one of her advertisements is intimately familiar with her two young daughters, who are also trotted down the runway in an example of relentless, nothing-held-back marketing.
"My children are in the ads because I want to depict Baby Phat as a lifestyle brand. So I show that," Simmons said. "That diamond watch? It's aspirational."
In the past, the collection has been overwhelmed with ensembles that a woman might wear if her profession involved a pole and a G-string filled with $20 bills. But Simmons described the collection for spring as "multicultural" and "very wearable." Given that so many clothes on the Baby Phat runway in the past would embarrass a hooker, there was every reason to be skeptical of that assessment.
But indeed the first ensemble down her runway was a printed silk bathrobe coat with an asymmetrical hem over a pair of shorts. It is wearable in a South Beach, poolside kind of way. Sprinkled throughout the show were cropped pants with button details, whimsical platform flip-flops with intricate patterns on the heel, and sexy tuxedo pants in berry red paired with a fragile rose-colored blouse.
Yet there still was the usual rigmarole that reflects bad taste and shock marketing. There were stupendously short skirts. Lots of cleavage. And for the finale, the models paraded out in ribbed tops bearing Simmons's mug shot above a "Wanted" sign.
"I do this for the drama, the fantasy, the inspiration. I'm thinking fun and diamonds. It's kind of like a party," she said.
It is the Kimora Lee Simmons party. She is both the host and the guest of honor. "I need mirrors," she yelled backstage in between photos and interviews. She needed to adjust her jewels.
All designers must exude confidence. They need strong egos. But Simmons never tempers the ego with even a teensy-weensy hint of humility. Her shows began as extravaganzas. There were no early presentations that quietly focused on the clothes. And there appears to have been no time spent sussing out the different between sexy and sleazy, provocative and deeply disturbing.
Because Simmons presented her show on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a message that "We should never forget America's heroes" was projected onto the stage backdrop. It disappeared once the show began. It was hard to remember the "heroes" when faced with bared nipples and the underside of a model's derriere poking out from a miniskirt that seemed to be the product of nanotechnology. The Sept. 11, 2001, reminder was not a way of honoring the deceased but a way for Simmons to loudly announce: See how sensitive and thoughtful I am. See!
On any given day, in a New York subway, a rider will see young women dressed in Baby Phat jeans, T-shirts and jackets. They aren't wearing any of the outlandish ensembles from the runway, since most of those aren't produced. But they are living proof that Simmons reaches a particular customer with her ego-fueled marketing and tart sensibility. Yet simply because she is reaching a customer doesn't mean that she is doing right by her.
Access to money and publicity can be detrimental to a designer just starting out. They make it too easy to leap into the center ring long before the designer would be propelled there by talent, experience and hard work. Fashion's most perfectly domesticated ego just may belong to Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. He came to the industry already a self-made man with enormous resources, a huge fan base and a background in hip-hop -- an aesthetic that nurtures the ego into blimp size proportions. But Combs took the initiative and knocked himself down to size.
He admitted publicly that he had much to learn. He heaped praise on veteran designers. He expressed desire for a mentor. His self-confidence was undiminished, but he avoided hubris. The recent opening of his first store, in midtown Manhattan, was a reflection of that control. It is not an enormous monument to his brand but is meant to be a moneymaking endeavor. And the Thursday night party celebrating its grand opening was a relatively controlled affair. Combs did not court the paparazzi mayhem that so often is mistaken for importance.
Miguel Adrover, Carolina Herrera
Lack of money can lead a designer to believe that his ideas and intellectual wanderings give him an authenticity that sets him above and apart. He suffers for his art, therefore it must important.
The perpetually penniless Miguel Adrover, with the help of generous friends, put his rich talent on display in a downtown park Friday with a collection he called "The Americans." As late afternoon sun shone through clusters of trees, male and female models walked along in beautifully tailored trouser suits and smart references to the American West, Native Americans and street culture. But as soon as Adrover turned his attention away from controlled tailoring, he indulged in unwearable costumes. "Amish in the City" may have done wonders for the UPN network, but no one wants high hats and suspenders for the big office meeting or date night.
Occasionally, Adrover shows a garment that is both exquisite and accessible, such as a navy halter dress with rows of tiny pleats, and one almost weeps. Why be so stingy with such beauty?
Carolina Herrera has always kept her ego in check and welcomed the input of her daughters, as well as design director Herve Pierre Braillard. As a result, her collection retains the cool sophistication of its namesake but also has the verve of youth and the benefit of fresh eyes. For spring, it is given a jolt of energy with lively abstract bathing-beauty prints.
Vera Wang, Bill Blass, Zac Posen
Vera Wang stands quietly behind her brand, producing elegant and simple evening wear such as a chartreuse silk gown with a dynamic swirling corsage of fabric along the hem. There are brocade skirts and tiny boleros that barely cover the shoulders. Wang has created a brand that evokes sophisticated weddings, cocktail parties and dinner parties without ever having to rely on tours of her own house, her closet or family photo albums.
In contrast, Michael Vollbracht, the designer at Bill Blass, needs to swagger a bit more. When Vollbracht creates a dress, he displays a tantalizing sense of color and an understanding of the ways in which a woman would like a garment to move. In these light and colorful frocks, such as a raspberry mirror-embroidered shift and a white pique halter dress, one has the sense that Vollbracht's work is directed by his own aesthetic, with only a quiet nod to the Blass legacy. Is it insecurity that compels him to put sterile trouser suits on his runway? Boxy jackets honor the memory of Blass but do nothing for a woman's curves. Tame the ego, but do not obliterate it.
It is still possible to describe Zac Posen as supremely confident rather than egotistical -- but only barely. His presentation Friday evening, his first since forming a financial partnership with Combs, was a chaotic affair. It had the air of a fashion show overtaken by its own hype. Celebrities perched in the front rows. A mob of guests waited outside, frustrated that their entry had taken on the push and pull of rush-hour commute. All this for a designer who has yet to make a profit or produce a collection that is consistently splendid from start to finish.
There were ensembles in Posen's spring collection that highlighted his skill as a tailor, such as a sexy white trouser suit and a trim white jacket with ivory piping. There were his usual extravagant dresses with intricate seaming and flirtatious hemlines. And he made fine use of a Bali print with a long, filmy gown. But Posen still struggles with evening wear and with his desire to make every dress as complicated as possible. His black evening gowns with their Swiss-cheese trains had the look of costuming for a coven.
Posen's greatest talents are his technical skill and his marketing savvy. One wishes that the technician in Posen would make more room for the artist. And one hopes that the marketer avoids slipping into the trappings of the egotist.