Fashion in Paris: Everything I Know About Style in Nine Easy Lessons
- Published on Monday, 07 October 2013 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
It’s Not Even
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings
Paris Fashion Week just ended, so naturally I’ve been thinking about the early-20th-century French philosopher Paul Valéry. Valéry coined a term, les professions délirantes (the “delirious professions”), to designate disciplines that have no clear objective criteria of achievement.
For example, if you’re a fund manager or pole dancer, your income is directly correlated to the way you move your money (or its maker) around. Not delirious.
But, for another example, if you’re a painter, choreographer, humor columnist or early-20th-century French philosopher, there is no concrete meter-stick of excellence, so getting ahead is based largely on reputation, connections and personality. Or, to put it another way, hype, schmoozing and chutzpah.
From this viewpoint, the world of fashion is about as delirious as you can get. And Paris, of course, is the world capital of delirium. I mean fashion — most of the world’s XXL-name fashion houses are based here, and those that aren’t sometimes, in the middle of the night, wish they were.
We even have, as alluded to above, a special week devoted to fashion. Two, actually: one in the spring and one in the fall, when all the local labels host runway shows to unveil their collections. Unless, of course, they specialize in veils.
The spring Fashion Week is for unveiling the winter collections, the fall Fashion Week is for unveiling the summer collections, and both weeks last eight or nine days. And that’s not even the delirious part.
Personally, I am not a very fashion-conscious person. Not caring enough about what I wear is a lifelong habit that started at a very early age.
After I had mastered my two first fashion lessons — 1) the underpants label goes in the back, and 2) wearing white socks in junior high will get you a wedgie that will make you wish you had never even heard of underpants — my sartorial apprenticeship was pretty much over. As long as I left the house with shoes that more or less matched and my glasses on right side up, that was about as stylish as I was going to get.
Even as a young adult, I didn’t pay much attention to how I dressed. Possibly as a result, I tended to look like someone who didn’t pay much attention to how he dressed.
So when I met my then-future-wife Nancy, who has a real understanding of style and a talent for finding nice-looking clothes, even for men, I was only too happy to turn over the task of choosing my apparel purchases to her.
She was even happier. And happier still when I allowed her to throw some of my former wardrobe mainstays, most of which were purple, into the trash. She still looks back at that experience as one of the high points of our life together.
From her I finally learned my next three fashion lessons: 3) anyone smart enough to invent synthetic fabrics should be smart enough not to wear them, 4) pasty-skinned, beige-haired people (e.g., me) should stick to dark colors, and 5) purple is never going to be the new black.
My stylistic enlightenment then continued when, during one of the Fashion Weeks in the mid-1990s, I got invited to a show. Or rather Nancy did, because a Hong Kong-based magazine she worked for asked her to report on a few collections. The editor made some calls and got her name on some lists, and she received a batch of very fancy printed invitations.
Since one of them was valid for two people, she asked me if I wanted to go. I said yes, mainly just to see what all the fuss was about. As it turned out, there was indeed quite a lot of fuss, although I’m still not entirely sure what it was about.
The show in question was for the new women’s collection by a “hot” up-and-coming designer and was one of the most eagerly awaited events of the entire week. The invitation specified a time and an address, which of course made sense, and specified two specific seat numbers that were reserved for Nancy and her “assistant,” which, in light of what ensued, made no sense whatsoever.
I don’t remember where it was exactly — some cavernous empty building in the middle of town that had been fitted out for the occasion — but I do remember that the show was supposed to start at 7pm. So we dutifully appeared at the door shortly after 6:30, figuring that there would be an orderly entrance process for people with invitations.
Anyone who has ever been to a major fashion show is already laughing. The terms “orderly,” “process” and even “invitation” did not apply to this situation. That was my Fashion Lesson Number Six: the first step in the runway show attendance procedure is to wait in an ill-organized crowd while a team of security guys check everybody’s credentials.
Actually, the term “ill-organized” didn’t apply either: the place was surrounded by a huge, surging, amorphous mob of voguivores held back by two huge, strapping and definitely morphous doormen.
And they had their hands full. It was easily the rudest, most unruly, disorderly throng I have ever been in. Counting (this is true) a queue at the immigration office on Ile de la Cité during the Iran-Iraq War that was about 50 percent refugees seeking political asylum who would likely have been summarily executed if they got deported. They were patient and polite, whereas the fervid fashionistas were all pushing and shoving as hard as they could toward the door.
But very few were being allowed in. And every time someone was, someone else would shove out of the mosh pit and try to weasel through behind them as though they were together, even though they obviously weren't. One guy tried this tactic five or six times.
The interesting thing was this: nearly everyone was waving an invitation exactly like ours. This was F.L. no. 7: runway shows are as overbooked as the last helicopter out of Saigon, I guess on purpose to make sure that they’re SRO (shoving room only).
Fortunately, Nancy has another quality that serves her well in the fashion world: she’s an absolute ace at both squeezing through crowds and charming bouncers. Which she did.
I’m not sure what she told the gatekeepers, but they finally let us crowd-surf through the door, bruised (literally) but free at last to proceed to the next step in the runway show attendance procedure: waiting in an ill-organized crowd while a team of security guys checked everybody’s credentials.
I thought I had died and gone to hell, but the delay turned out to be relatively short, its purpose being to determine where we would sit. The numbers on our invitation meant nothing: the maître d’autel, so to speak, gave Nancy a nice prime spot in the second row, then looked at me as though my glasses were on upside down and sent me to the back row, regretting that he couldn’t get me any closer to Irkutsk.
My seat happened to be next to that of a very carefully groomed young man, the kind of guy who looks as though he spends as much time in front of the mirror as I do sleeping, who was calling out cheerful greetings to various acquaintances around the room. Obviously a friendly fellow.
As I sat down, I turned to him and said, “Whew — it’s great to be out of that mad crush outside.”
Or something like that. I don’t remember my exact words. But I do remember his exact words, because what he said in reply was: “[dead silence].”
Thus teaching me F.L. no. 8: if you want to get ahead in the hyped-up schmoozefest of fashion, don’t waste your time talking to chutzpahless beige-haired guys. I made a mental note not to talk to myself for the rest of the evening.
At this point, I noticed that there was an entire row of empty chairs in front of the risers on the other side. When they finally filled up, I understood why (FL9): they put the A-list guests up front to ensure that they have a good view. And no doubt to ensure that everyone else has a good view of them.
In keeping with my fashion-unconsciousness, I was not able to identify many of the movers, makers, shakers and breakers in the top-seed seats, although I did recognize three accomplished celebrities from other delirious (and in one case downright unhinged) professions: Jean-Paul Goude the photographer, Andrée Putman the designer and Nina Hagen the, ah, Nina Hagen.
Just as I was wondering what a supposed queen of darkness like Fraülein H. was doing at an haute couture défilé (and which door she came in), the lights dimmed and the music started.
And then my real fashion education began. Or rather should have but didn’t, because I don’t remember much about the show.
I can only clearly recall one of the ensembles, and not for the finesse of the stitchwork: it consisted of just two outer (and no inner) garments: a miniskirt and a filmy, billowy blouse made of a material so light and translucent it might as well not have been there. And essentially wasn’t, since the model was wearing it unbuttoned to the waist.
This made me sit up and take notice. And then wonder: who in the world is ever going to wear such a thing to an actual social event?
I sincerely hoped that the answer would be: someone I knew, to an event that I could attend. Just as I was imagining a list of women to whom I would gladly have offered the outfit as a gift, the show ended and, after a bit of milling around, everyone moved on to the next clustershove.
Except me. I never went to another show and never got my 10th lesson. In other words, to this day what I know about fashion is exactly what that one memorable model was wearing on the catwalk that night: next to nothing.
The thought still makes me delirious.
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