Nina Garcia can’t act. She can barely conceal her revulsion when a contestant on Project Runway trots out a skirt the color of paprika on devilled eggs, and she certainly can’t act as if she isn’t personally offended by such a garment. She can’t act as if Heidi Klum’s constant waffling between German-dominatrix authority and Betty Draper-esque petulance doesn’t send her into a weekly rage coma. And she can’t act comfortable when she’s asked to strut around, along with regulars Tim Gunn, Michael Kors, and Klum, the green screen in Project Runway’s opening credits this year, woodenly declaring that it’s all about “attitude.” But why would we want her to act? Nina Garcia is a fierce—and I mean that both ways—fashion critic, an opinionated and fashionable lady, and an editor with 30 years of experience in journalism and design, but she is not a television personality.
Despite this, over the course of nine seasons, Garcia’s deadpan critique has become an integral, if not the integral, piece at the heart of Project Runway’s cult success, balancing out Gunn’s nutty professor, Kors’s catty curmudgeon, and Klum’s fussy, pretty, mean girl. Kors and Gunn are just as authoritative in their critical judgments, but they both also translate to television better (as does the indubitably foxy, stern, though surprisingly populist, Klum, but more on her in a moment). Over the years, Gunn has evolved into a kind of intellectual camp counselor, and Kors has mastered the art of the bitchy, cutting simile (“She looks like Barefoot Appalachian Lil’ Abner Barbie”), making them more conventionally legible presences on the small screen. In other words, whether it’s Gordon Ramsay, Tyra Banks, or that creepy fellow always leering about on The Bachelorette, the balance of Project Runway’s judges at least loosely conform to reality-TV character types.
Nina Garcia has a harder time packaging her expertise for television audiences, and she’s consequently a bit more inscrutable than her fabulous friends. She rarely finds anything charming, she wears a constant look of vague unease and disapproval, and while Kors and Klum affably roast contestants, Garcia withers them. She picks clear—and clearly talented—favorites early, she has no patience for sloppiness or dramatics, and she’s absolutely the force that keeps the show credible in the face of its occasionally hot and messy, who-ate-my-peanut-butter reality-TV inclinations. Indeed, when Garcia—alongside Kors—went AWOL during much of season six’s disastrous California adventure, it was hard not to imagine that it was her absence as much as a Woody Allen-esque L.A. allergy that caused the show to suffer. Project Runway is a New York show about the theory and practice of design, and Nina Garcia keeps it honest.
Never, however, has Nina Garcia been a more important presence, or a more fascinating character, than she is right now. To fully understand this, we must turn to the end of last season and the epic battle between finalists Mondo Guerra and Gretchen Jones. Over the course of the season, Mondo had become a fan favorite due to the domination of his exciting pattern-clashing outfits, his fun-to-say name, and the emotional midseason revelation that he’s HIV positive. Gretchen, on the other hand, started strong with a couple of early wins but clearly became exhausted as the season went on, a deterioration that reached its apex with a challenge during which she orgiastically engaged in the popular, though taboo, Project Runway activity of throwing her fellow designers “under the bus” in front of the judges. Gretchen was as clear a villain as Project Runway had ever created.
But villainy was not enough to put her out of the running. In the finale, Garcia and Kors vigorously declared themselves partisans for the unlikable but undeniably competent Gretchen, whose collection was wearable, smart, and, as Kors would repeatedly insist, “on trend.” Klum—who was backed up by guest judge Jessica Simpson on air, but who was also apparently supported behind the scenes by Gunn—insisted that Mondo’s brash, graphic collection was the culmination of a superior effort. Neither side seemed inclined to back down, and, in the end, Gretchen—or rather, Garcia and Kors—triumphed. But it’s readily apparent to anyone who watched that final episode that this controversy was rooted in a philosophical split, a paradigm crisis for a reality TV show that has always styled itself as something more.
Project Runway is a reality TV show, to be sure, but, as a kind of prestige program, it avoids many of the conventions that animate more garden variety, voyeuristic cringe-fests. The contestants on Project Runway don’t have sex with each other, they don’t go out to clubs, they don’t even seem to eat outside of the occasional gossipy sushi break during work sessions. The contestants snipe and cry plenty, but they tend to lead relatively spartan lifestyles after the obligatory opening champagne toast, and, going along with that, their judges seem infrequently swayed by the impulses that control competition shows that are less focused on discernible skill or more focused on public performance. Project Runway has always distinguished itself, along with Top Chef, as a competition between talented artists judged neither by B-level celebrities clawing their way back into the limelight or by the crowd, but by critics and professionals who are—but don’t necessarily belong—on television.
Gretchengate was indicative, ultimately, of a fissure in this structure. Mondo’s collection was fun and young, but more importantly, Mondo was an attractive winner and a great reality TV character. The people wanted Mondo and, in this bizarre circumstance, Klum—zillionaire supermodel and wife of Seal—was the voice of that people. But the vote for Gretchen was not necessarily anti-populist. Garcia and Kors are, respectively, a fashion editor and a mass-market designer. In voting for Gretchen, a designer with less magnetic talent, less ostentatious innovation, but with an eye for marketable fashion and a strategic curatorial impulse, they voted on behalf of another group: actual shoppers. And so these dueling populisms—the television viewer vs. the shopper, the crowd vs. the market—revealed a still visible rift in the judges’ panel.
At the heart of this controversy is the seemingly insurmountable problem of the imposing, confident, verging-on-pushy female lead—a problem both Gretchen and Nina share. In a recent episode of the current season, contestant Joshua McKinley berated fellow team member Becky Ross for designing “dowdy” clothes, refused to allow her any input into the design of their team’s collection, threw her under the bus on the runway for making the aforementioned “dowdy” clothes, and was rewarded with a special prize for leadership skills. This is not to say that Project Runway operates a rigid double standard (far from it), but that being surly, good at your job, and a woman doesn’t necessarily make you a sympathetic television character. It’s harder, it seems, for women to go full-on Don Draper and still capture the television audience’s heart.
This is a predicament with which Nina Garcia is familiar. Her unlikability is less kitschy than other reality TV bad cops like Gordon Ramsay, yet she has mercifully avoided—likely resisted—any image makeover from Project Runway’s producers. Indeed, her distinctive bristle and principled lack of patience have long made her a kind of folk hero among viewers. Which is why it’s so unsettling this year to see Garcia cavorting like an anchor on The View in the opening credits sequence. Traditionally, these credits had featured each of the new season’s contestants uttering an inspirational declaration about “making it work” or being “fierce.” This season, the contestants silently float in the background while the judges do all the talking. A distinct move to brand the show as belonging to the fearsome foursome, this sequence also seemed to signal perhaps the moment when Project Runway would finally begin its campaign to domesticate Nina Garcia.
These suspicions seemed to be confirmed in “All About Nina,” a recent episode in which contestants were charged with the formidable task (gasp!) of dressing the Cruella de Vil of the Project Runway gang. A few seasons earlier, the show had concocted a similar episode in which contestants designed an outfit for Klum. In that episode, she thundered around the workroom like Veruca Salt, broadcasting a predictable mixture of indignation, design ignorance, and pouting to the cowering designers. It was a perfect television performance, but it was clearly just that. As Klum barked at the contestants, she was also improvising—paying visible and individual attention to ways in which she could enrage or otherwise undercut them. Her job in that room was to create a nightmare called “Heidi Klum.”
What was most fascinating about “All About Nina,” though, was not how it depicted the blossom of a television personality, but rather how it depicted a personality stubbornly resistant to television. Garcia was brusque, awkward, and blunt to the point of rudeness in some of her consultations, and she made no effort to hide her overdeveloped gag reflex. But the performance was nowhere near as spectacular as Klum’s, though the producers quite deliberately edited the footage to make her abrupt critiques read more like zingers.
Moreover, the show’s climax featured a bit of delightfully telling palace intrigue straight from the halls of Marie Claire that only served to further cement the curious character of Nina Garcia. Joining the judges at the runway show, as she has for an episode each of the past three seasons, was Joanna Coles, editor of Marie Claire and apparent love child of Tilda Swinton and Simon Cowell. She’s also, notably, Garcia’s boss. This would otherwise be immaterial, but in this particular episode, it was a recurrent theme, as Coles repeatedly noted in regard to especially heinous outfits that if Garcia wore such a garment “to work,” she would be asking to be “fired.”
The tenuous status of her job—that she could conceivably be let go for wearing an ill-fitting coat dress to the office—as well as the explicit power relationship on display here added a fantastic roundness to the often impenetrable Garcia. But the imbalance between Coles and Garcia was not just revelatory of professional hierarchies. Coles, whenever she appears on the show, adopts a distinctly Cowellsian manner with the contestants, slightly harsher than Garcia, and more gleefully quippy. Seated next to each other, Coles appeared as an alternate-universe Garcia, transforming every act of criticism into a song and dance, grasping at every opportunity to recall Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Next to Coles, it was radiantly clear who Nina Garcia could be and who, thank heaven, she’s not.
At the end of the episode, Kimberley, the winner of the challenge, is filmed showing up at Marie Claire’s offices to meet Garcia for a photo shoot. Garcia is wearing both the new outfit and a look of mild embarrassment about the cameras following her to work. As the episode closes, we see a taxicab advertisement featuring Garcia in the winning outfit, and it’s a fitting image. Nina Garcia is such a strange, churlish animal because this show—a heartfelt ode to the sublimely mean, unpleasant, and occasionally bitchy creative process—needs her to be precisely that.
M.I.A. Teams with H&M for Fashion-Forward Music Video “Rewear It”
“Rewear It” literally and deliberately fuses environmental activism with fashion.
With its soft, flattering cinematography and dazzling, kaleidoscopic set pieces, M.I.A.’s music video for last year’s “Borders” risked turning the life-or-death plight of refugees into a fashion runway. The image of the artist as the fearless leader of an army of émigrés, however, was a simple, potent, and timely one, landing the clip at #2 on our list of the Best Music Videos of 2015.
Now, M.I.A., a.k.a. Maya Arulpragasam, is back with “Rewear It,” which literally and deliberately fuses environmental activism with fashion. A partnership with retail giant H&M, the new single and accompanying “visual content piece” aim to raise awareness about textile recycling, encouraging fans to donate unwanted clothing so they can be used to create new products.
The video, which opens with a series of media reports in multiple languages urging people to take action about the “environmental problem” and “climate change,” has a slick, commercial sheen that’s far removed from the scrappy, DIY style of M.I.A.’s early visual work. In the clip, the U.K. rapper dances atop towers of recycled textiles and in front of colorful tents made of fabric, while hip-looking young folk of myriad racial backgrounds—including French dancer Yanis Marshall, famous for his high-heeled choreography—move to the track’s clattering beats and catchy “regenerate the nation” refrain:
The World Recycle Week campaign runs from April 18 – 24. Bring textiles you no longer want to your local H&M in exchange for store credit.
Impressions from Frieze New York 2012
Bani Abidi’s Death at a 30-degree angle created a rich, at times humorous deconstruction of political monuments.
By the time I got back home last night from the final day of Frieze Art New York, the fair staff tweeted: “That’s it, I’m done. Gonna put on my jammies and take a long nap. See you @friezenewyork 2013.” But let’s rewind 2012: I had showed up at the South entrance, but the press attendant was on lunch break, so I walked along the tent north. The wind picked up and the skies looked glum. The outside of a giant white tent, constructed specifically for the exhibition, didn’t inspire visions of grandeur, but the walk allowed me to hear the Susan Philipsz outdoor sound installation We’ll All Go Together. There was Joshua Callaghan’s sculpture Two Dollar Umbrella, a heart-warming sight for any New Yorker who recalls into what bizarre disfigurement a cheap umbrella may be forced by gusts. By Rathin Barman’s intriguing Untitled, a wall of brick and wire with a single sunflower planted on the inside, the friendly guard warned me that I had gotten too close; a tiny red flag in the grass was meant to keep me off. The brisk walk got me thinking about the fair’s calculated spontaneity—the tent arising as if out of nowhere, in a precarious environment. The most visible manifestation of this was a large pit of muddy water fenced off, as if it too were art, by the north entrance.
Once inside, things got a lot more serious. This was the last day of the fair, and the urgency of everyone walking in was palpable. My first full stop was by the seductive works of Garth Weiser, at Casey Kaplan. One of the American artist’s online bios characterized his work as altering “the nature of perception.” As I stood before the three large-scale works with somewhat incongruous titles (My Name is Warren I’m fifteen and desperate to hear from any females into Blancmange, Coronation Street, and Motorheard. My CB handle is Pigpen was one of them), my first perspectival mistake was to believe that the works had been done on wood (in reality, linen and canvas had been used). Yet the surfaces’ undulating ripples made allusions to tree whorls, while their sprawling whiteness, slowly giving up the variegated shadings of blue, red, or of green and yellow, created an illusion of depth. Further on the New York front, Metro Pictures displayed iconic Cindy Sherman—the gory diptych Untitled 89 in which eyes and a tongue emerge from under what look like giblets, yolks, and semi-digested matter, and Untitled 1977, 35 black-and-white photo collages of Sherman figures in alternating costumes and poses—hinting at the wide scope of Sherman’s work.
The other instantly recognizable works included the Tracey Emin drawings and neons both at White Cube and Lehmann Maupin. The Emins weren’t breaking new ground, but London’s White Cube booth was impactful, with the Jeff Wall print Men move an engine back, Damián Ortega’s molten aluminum sculptures inside three glass tanks partially filled with water (Melting Point), and a Damian Hirst piece titled I Want You Too. After all the fuss over the dot paintings, it was refreshing to go back to Hirst’s morbid adventures with the very dead, very-still life: a glass cabinet of preserved fishes, each immortalized in its own glass tank, their magnetic, transfixing transparency as if a commentary on art itself, reminding us that what is captured and frozen, as essence, is already dead. Quieter, but no less impactful, was the work of Mona Hatoum, a London-based artist of Palestinian origin, whose work Afghan was both a physical object—an Afghan rug—and a political statement. In the rug that recalled the ones from her family home in Beirut, Lebanon, Hatoum rubbed out a more realistic map of the continents, restoring larger proportions to Africa, Asia, and South America, and showing diminished Europe and Northern America. Quiet power emanated from the work of this stateless artist, whose use of a modest domestic object further alluded to femininity and gender differences.
My personal discovery this year was the Pakistani artist Bani Abidi. Her Death at a 30-degree angle at Experimenter, archival prints on paper of various sizes, created a rich, at times humorous deconstruction of political monuments. Abidi’s conversation with an unnamed sculptor, quoted in the wall text, revolved around an unrealized 309-foot statue of Gandhi. What followed was a play between person and myth, between politics and art. In some of the photos we see Gandhi, his bronze bust, the sculptor and the politicians, thus displaying the full spectrum of persons involved in public-art decision-making, drawing our attention to the tensions between the sculptor’s personal if somewhat sentimental vision of a humble Gandhi (leading poor children by the hand in a trial cast) and the desires of government officials for a more imposing monument (reproduced in a promotional photo). The photographs served as both documents and artifacts, and as news, tourist promotion and government propaganda, some deconstructing and others perpetuating the myth. Into this narrative, Abidi inserted her commentary on the heavily codified language of monumental sculpture (raised arms, hands pointing to the sky). Playing with scale, she placed some images above eye level, making the visitor look up as if at a monument, while propping others on the floor, making the visitor peer down at Gandhi’s bare skull—an image of vulnerability rather than strength, illustrating the complexity of readings and representations of Gandhi as a spiritual leader on one hand, and a political figure on the other, whose image has been appropriated by the state and the media.
Further peregrination through the tent maze led me to the interactive Watchword of Brazilian artist Rivane Neueunschwander at Galeria Fortes Vilaça, where I pinned up a word to the artist’s board partially filled by previous visitors; to Wolfgang Tillmans’s stunningly formal inkjet print Nachtstilleben at Galerie Chantal Crousel, and to the thought-provoking Thomas Hirschhorn, whose work The Map of Headlessness, made of the artist’s favored humble materials (cardboard, tape, paper), was placed outside one of the food courts. The Hirschhorn word-and-photomontage incorporated a wide and disparate range of images: from a black-and-white snapshot of painter Francis Bacon in his studio, or press clippings of hooded war-on-terror prisoners in orange jumpsuits, to a design-mag glossy spread of Mondrian-pattern decorative pillows. From top to bottom, one could trace the mental map, from headings like “Assertion of Truth” and “The Friendship Between Art & Philosophy,” through “Ontological Abyss,” “Opening Toward Contingency,” and “The Void,” showing an uneasy tension between art and life, order and chaos, sublimation and anxiety, merging into a kind of pictorial madness, which in turn poignantly underscores how our most enduring cultural and socio-political nightmares refuse to be contained, or mastered, by any neatly delineated system of ideas.
One of my final stops on what now looked like a somewhat subversive route was Galerie Krinzinger, a veteran of the Armory shows. Here the circle of artists known as the Viennese Actionism group, founded in the 1960s, included Rudolf Schwarzkogler, whose vintage print Aktion telegraphed pain and mutilation; Günter Brus, whose performance art ranged from excrement and masturbation to vomiting, but whose print from the Starrkrampf series was almost lyrical compared to the more heavily scatological contemporary counterparts of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy in Heidi, displayed in the same room; and finally Materialaktion Nr. 16 by Otto Mühl, the founder of the ‘70s commune in Vienna espousing radical and revolutionary aspects of everyday life. Add to these the Ukrainian performance artist Oleg Kulik’s The Mad Dog Performance, featuring the artist, naked and on a leash before a crowd of street spectators, and you’ve injected a dose of the shockingly visceral into the fair’s offerings, blunted only by the fact that on display were prints and not the performances themselves.
By 5 p.m., as the fair’s pace slowed down visibly, with dazed gallerists munching on snacks or the lunch leftovers, the rundown and the weary visitors seemed to have taken refuge in the workshop of American artist John Ahearn. As part of the special Frieze project series, Ahearn restaged his famed 1979 South Bronx Hall of Fame exhibition, making plaster casts of the visitors’ faces. By the time I joined the spectacle, a volunteer with two straws up his nostrils to allow him to breathe was being warned that the substance (alginate) would feel cool to his face, before his features disappeared under its mass. A heroic act, and one-of-a-kind chance to have one’s face immortalized, for a fee of $3,000.
A little later, it was all over, my regrets perhaps typical for a visitor thrown into a happy cornucopia of art: not having had more time, having seen too little, but just enough for a whopping headache and the distinct sense of vertigo that comes from visual overstimulation. The fair had officially closed, the last few catalogues had been sold or given away, and the ferry taking the visitors back to 33rd Street was waiting in the docks. It was drizzling again and as the winds picked up I opted for a yellow school bus instead acting as a shuttle, which dropped me off in East Harlem. Here the mostly young art enthusiasts dispersed quickly among the commuter crowd, swallowed up by the evening rush hour.
Farewell, Frieze Art New York. Keep your jammies on, till next year.
Frieze New York ran from May 4—7.
The Spectacular Confrontations of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”
In his too-brief career, he managed nothing less than to broaden the possibilities of how bodies can appear and of what kind of confrontations clothes can provoke.
It’s a violent business, tailoring. Cutting, ripping, pinning, yanking, pressing, stretching, stitching; we put the raw materials of our clothes through quite a lot before putting them on our bodies. Typically, these exertions result in the merely presentable, occasionally the fetching, rarely the beautiful, and perhaps once in a generation, the transcendent. Throughout his career, beginning in the 1990s and lasting right up to his suicide in February 2010, Lee Alexander McQueen constantly laid bare the brutal qualities of his craft. In doing so, he upended our notions of bodily contours, movement through space, and beauty itself.
Entering its final week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” has established itself as one of the defining events of Summer 2011. The New York Times, in its print edition and Arts Beat blog, has devoted no fewer than seven posts and articles to it. The $45 hardbound catalogue is selling by the tens of thousands. People dress up in elaborate outfits to see the exhibit. And, when it’s all over, “Savage Beauty” will probably rank among the top 20 most-visited Met exhibitions since the museum began taking attendance. The Met has extended the show from July 31 to August 7, extended viewing hours during regular opening days, and has also offered $50 viewing tickets on Mondays, when the museum is normally closed. On the final two days of the show, the museum will remain open until midnight. News of these measures has only added to the buzz surrounding the show, and the crush of visitors continues to pack the exhibition rooms and queues for hours on end to see it.
What awaits as the end of the queue is a spectacular confrontation with McQueen’s wild and often troubling visions. Two terrifying mannequin sentries greet visitors at the exhibition entrance. The first wears a flame-red dress with a feathered skirt; the bodice has no neckline, but rushes upward, engulfing the mannequin’s face and head. The other mannequin, a wicked mer-creature, wears a dress and train constructed entirely out of razor-clam shells. Fire and water stand in opposition here, the first of many clashes—between body and garment, beauty and the grotesque—in this sartorial house of horrors.
In the first gallery, “The Romantic Mind,” are garments from collections titled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims (1992), Nihilism (1994), and Highland Rape (1995-96). Although the clothes are exquisitely tailored, knife slashes are everywhere, in plunging, curved necklines and slits sliced into the fabric. The aggressive cut is also manifest in the notorious “bumster” pants McQueen developed in the ‘90s, cut low enough to reveal the wearer’s buttocks, and sparking nearly a decade of not being able to find a pair of ladies blue jeans with a zip fly longer than half an inch.
In the remaining galleries, organized thematically by the curator, Andrew Bolton, things don’t get any more cheerful. The “Cabinet of Curiosities” gallery is a 19th-century mad scientist’s laboratory, walled with black cubbyholes of various sizes, housing individual accessories—a headdress here, a metal torso ornament there—giving the effect of rearranged dismembered body parts. Yet another gallery is decked out as an ominous banquet hall right out of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and meant to evoke the horror and romance of the Victorian Gothic. In here there are garments inspired by actual Gothic altarpieces of the 15th century as well as witchy, bondage-inspired pieces, including a billowing black dress and black cape from the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious collection (2002-03), which McQueen said was dedicated to Tim Burton. (The cape is kept in an appropriate state of billow by a wind machine.) Of course, Burton also traffics in such remembrances of historical horror, but absent from McQueen is any whiff of the juvenile fun that permeates the director’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Burton’s naughtiness is tongue-in-cheek; McQueen’s is genuinely dark.
McQueen’s historical references also include the violent past of his native Scotland. He used extensive amounts of tartan wrought into extreme silhouettes (who’d imagine a bustle reappearing in the aughts?) for two of his collections, The Widows of Culloden (2006-07) and Highland Rape. Widows of Culloden specifically invokes the final battle of the Jacobite Risings, which spanned from 1688 and 1746; Highland Rape is an elegy to the British displacement of the Scottish Highland population in the 19th century. Yet at the same time, McQueen also bore nostalgic feelings for England’s imperial past. The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008-09) is a collection inspired by “British Empire, the Queens of England, the Duke of Wellington.” Anyone who’s watched even one Jane Austen film adaptation will find the empire waists and velvet jackets familiar territory, and if there is any levity in the show, it came from this collection. A volcano of ivory tulle bursts forth from a red bolero jacket with gold bullion embroidery, and a scarlet dress cape with proportions of unfathomable amplitude balloons out in every possible direction. The head on the cape-wearing mannequin was adorned with a pair of ruby-encrusted Viking horns, making the whole thing look like a satanic Lady Russell. As if facing off, pieces from The Girl Who Lived in a Tree and the more severe Widows of Culloden line opposite walls of a gallery, as visitors walk the aisle between them, turning from one side to the other.
The historical galleries culminate in a room in showing a 3D hologram of Kate Moss rotating amid masses of wind-blown silk organza to the score of Schindler’s List. One could say that the hologram is the ultimate project for an artist who constantly worked the tension between the violence and seductiveness, and looked for beauty in the repulsive. If, on the other hand, one takes it as glib invocation of the Holocaust, it’s almost unforgiveable.
As Holland Cotter pointed out in the New York Times, such political unresolvedness is one of the more frustrating aspects about McQueen’s appropriations of the past and of other cultures, which include Africa, China, and Japan. These borrowings from other cultures are, like the everything else in the show, stunning monuments to exquisite craftsmanship, but the visual signposts—beadwork and stacked rings for all of sub-Saharan Africa, kimonos, anime, and chrysanthemums for Japan—smell slightly of tokenism.
Of course, we’ll never know if McQueen could have developed these ideas further, but in his too-brief career, he managed nothing less than to broaden the possibilities of how bodies can appear and of what kind of confrontations clothes can provoke. “Savage Beauty” shows McQueen’s work to its best advantage. Only a lucky few were able to attend his runway shows, spectacles involving human chess matches and spray-painting robots. The wonderful installation of the show, wind machines and all, allows for an approximation of the experience in a more imaginative way than merely running video clips of the runway.
McQueen’s work brings to mind another Met exhibition I saw a few years ago, “Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868.” In the armor exhibit was an Edo-period decorative helmet adored with a pair of black and red lacquer rabbit ears soaring into the air. There have been certain times in history when it’s perfectly reasonable, even called for, to strap a pair of lacquer rabbit ears onto one’s head. McQueen made his fantastical works for people who find such occasions in the everyday. It’s fun to see Lady Gaga dance in his 10-inch, hoof-shaped stilettos in music videos, but McQueen in all seriousness would have liked to see a woman wearing them to the city courthouse to contest her parking tickets.
For more information about “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” click here.
Designing Woman: Helen Rose
Rose’s designs placed a strong emphasis on the silhouette.
One important name missing from the plethora of tributes to Elizabeth Taylor was MGM’s leading costume designer of the 1950s, Helen Rose, who was largely responsible for intensifying Taylor’s distractingly sensual image at the height of her fame.
Rose’s designs placed a strong emphasis on the silhouette. They were elegant and understated, yet innovative, looking natural in spite of their theatrical nature. “Simple and dramatic” is how Rose described her dresses for Taylor. “If you have a magnificent jewel, you put it in a simple setting—you don’t distract from it with a lot of detail.”
This was the dictum which Rose followed when designing for Taylor, including the white chiffon dress with the deep V-neckline in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “When a Bust Inspector appeared, he took one look at me and called for a stepladder,” Taylor quipped. “He climbed up, peered down, and announced that I needed a higher-cut dress, too much breast was exposed.” To satisfy the “Bust Inspector,” Rose pinned a brooch on the bodice. But as soon as the man left, the brooch was removed and the legendary cleavage was bared.
The studio originally bought the property for Grace Kelly, but by the time the shooting began, she had become the Princess of Monaco, in a wedding dress designed by Rose. It’s hard to imagine the ladylike Kelly wearing the revealing clinging lace negligee that Taylor fills so seductively as Maggie the Cat. Given the time that it was made, the film played down the overt homosexuality of Tennessee Williams’s play, so that there was no doubt that Paul Newman’s Brick would finally forget his dead friend Skipper, and enjoy connubial bliss in the bedroom.
For the ravishing, wasp-waisted 22-year-old Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris, Rose designed a two-piece purple coat/dress ensemble, a black one- shoulder evening gown, and a sensational sophisticated red dress, each creation standing out like numbers in a musical. Taylor often asked Rose to make copies of movie dresses for her personal wardrobe. It is doubtful whether any star would have worn a gown in normal life by Adrian, Rose’s predecessor at MGM. His kitsch creations belonged on a soundstage. Young suburbanite women could aspire to wearing a similar dress to those designed by Rose for Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, and Cyd Charisse.
It was Rose who designed two wedding dresses for Taylor: the $1500 satin gown, with a 3/4 length veil with pearls combined with a pearl tiara, for her wedding to Nicky Hilton, and the other, even more spectacularly, for her fictional marriage in Father of the Bride: white satin, a sweetheart neckline covered with a chiffon overlay, and a bouquet of white orchids. It was extensively copied by New York fashion designers, and spawned a craze for lace gowns among middle-class brides.
It is not fanciful to speculate that our appreciation of Taylor would be severely diminished without Rose. Elizabeth Taylor was fortunate to be in her sublime prime during the height of the Hollywood studio system and especially at MGM at the time of image-makers like Helen Rose.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010)
The British designer’s aesthetic consistently reflected the music avant-garde, blurring the borders between runway and reality.
Today, the world lost a visionary. A little more than a week after the death of his mother, and just two years after his earliest champion, Isabella Blow, committed suicide, fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen took his own life. He was 40.
Since Issy bought his entire first collection back in 1994, McQueen had grown both as a designer and as an artistic force, not just for designers, stylists, and magazine editors, but spanning the scenes of art, film, and especially music. His vision reflected and simultaneously surpassed the constructs of stage and costume, moving from film to runway to the red carpet with the help of his loyal celebrity following, including Rihanna, Liela Moss, Madonna, and Sarah Jessica Parker, just to name a few. The British designer’s aesthetic consistently reflected the music avant-garde, blurring the borders between runway and reality.
That is, if you can consider the worlds of Björk and Lady Gaga “reality.” McQueen designed the iconic, Japanese-inspired ensemble Björk wore for the cover of her 1997 opus Homogenic:
Lady Gaga wore head-to-toe McQueen in the music video for her hit “Bad Romance,” including his infamous lobster-claw “Armadillo” stilettos:
And for his Spring 2010 collection, McQueen drew inspiration from James Cameron’s Avatar, pioneering a style that can only be described as out of this world:
Jennifer Mae Harris pays homage to all things fashion on her blog Haute Headed.
New Scent-Sation: Smell Me and…Run?
Last weekend I was out at the club and men were hitting on me more than usual.
Last weekend I was out at the club and men were hitting on me more than usual. I don’t really have a hard time meeting guys, but they were approaching from all sides and were particularly aggressive this night. They bought me drinks, asked me to dance, practically begged for my number. It got so bad at one point that the doorman had to come over and ask a few of them to leave. Sure, I was wearing my freakum dress. Yes, I had just gotten a bikini wax earlier that day. But it wasn’t until the bartender asked, “What’s that beguiling vaginal scent I smell?” that it dawned on me. It was the new fragrance I picked up in Chinatown! While shopping for some bubble tea (a delicious iced beverage with engorged tapioca balls), I passed a man holding a sign that said “Free Sun Tan.” I stopped and asked the man who Sun Tan was and why he was being held captive. He pointed to the tanning salon behind him. Well, you can imagine my embarrassment, so I did what anyone would do in that situation and went inside and got my cooter waxed, during which the man’s wife asked if I had a boyfriend. When I told her, in between screams, that I was happily single, she shook her head and insisted I try this ancient aphrodisiac that had been passed down from generation to generation in her family. It was called Vulva. When I got home from the club that night, after being accosted by my cab driver and the homeless man who hangs out outside my building, I went online to do some research and discovered that Vulva wasn’t an ancient Chinese aphrodisiac at all but a German fragrance that smells just like PUSSY! I don’t know how I missed this one, especially since its ad campaign bears a striking resemblance to the one for Tom Ford for Men. Vulva’s website is called Smell Me and Cum, and the company responsible, Vivaeros Special Products, describes it as “a precious vaginal fragrance filled into a small glass phial.” Vile, indeed.
New York Fashion Week: Fall 2008
Sometime in early November while passing by Bryant Park, I noticed a mock-up Fashion Week tent. After a minor panic attack, I realized, no Alexa, it’s not February yet.
Sometime in early November while passing by Bryant Park, I noticed a mock-up Fashion Week tent. After a minor panic attack, I realized, no Alexa, it’s not February yet; the girls from Sex and the City were shooting a scene for the upcoming movie. Stand down, Lipstick Jungle and Cashmere Mafia! Yes, the baddest bitches are back in town. Wanna see just how bad? Check out InStyle for a sneak preview of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha’s fresh fashions.
How ironic is it that I couldn’t find a thing to wear throughout the week? There were mornings where I would stare into my closet with a glazed-over look, talking to it, coaxing it to magically put together a slammin’ ensemble. Where’s the Jane Jetson conveyor-belt closet we were promised would be a staple of the future? For yet another season, things have been so hectic that I’ve employed the assistance of Patty the Intern. While I tried to find something to wear, Patty ventured over to the Salon tent to make sense of the Duckie Brown show. Known for their psychedelic colors, menswear designers Steven Cox and Daniel Silver turned the volume down on both their palette and their music. Blaring tunes gave way to pure silence as models clad in narrow somber black looks paraded down the catwalk. The eerie quiet gave the procession a bit of a slow- motion effect. Then again, Patty herself is a bit slow. I finally settled on an outfit and made my way to Nicole Miller. With Joan Jett, Karen Duffy, and Nigel Barker in the front row, Miller channeled Joan of Arc for fall ’08. Unlike the French heroine, there was nothing “brave” or “powerful” about this collection. In fact, a heresy against fashion was committed by way of the designer’s patchwork black leggings and ultra-sized cocoon sweaters. The play on dynamic proportions and sudden rocker grit from Miller, known for her casual feminine frocks, simply wasn’t believable. Later, at the Roseland Ballroom for the Baby Phat and KLS collections, Tyra Banks, Vivica A. Fox, André Leon Talley, Star Jones, Joss Stone, and Amerie were on hand to witness the heights of ghetto fabulosity. Oh, I’m not talking about the clothing, which was a hodgepodge of faux old-Hollywood glamour and customary poom-poom shorts. I’m not even referring to the proximity in which Kimora Lee Simmons’s ex-hubbie Russell Simmons and current beau Djimon Hounsou were seated, a step up in contrast to last year’s awkward negative-space adjacency. Instead, I’m dishing about the disturbing Kimora Barbie Doll dressed in a hot pink mini halter dress, black fish net stockings, thigh-high pink boots, and floor-length fur coat with leopard-print lining found in select gift bags (pictured). Um, I don’t plan on poppin’ out a kid any time soon, but she’s sure as hell not playing with that hoochie. Barbie Mariposa, on the other hand, I can get into. Unless I have a son, because those magical fairy lights that protect Flutterfield will surely turn him gay.
Looking for some midweek cheer, Patty headed for the tents where Betsey Johnson was celebrating the big 3-0—30 years in the biz, that is. Joan Jett, Tyra Banks, and Russell Simmons were among the front-row dwellers. The fashion veteran set the stage as if it were a beatnik bar, complete with bongo players at the end of the runway, Chianti bottles at the tables along the runway’s perimeter, and models sporting berets (pictured). (Jack Kerouac, eat your heart out!) After the faux fur, leather, and fringe affair, Betsey showcased a retrospective of looks from previous decades. And then, of course, that cartwheel.
Forgoing the confines of time, Cynthia Steffe creative director Waleed Khairzada opted for a “seasonless” collection where the layering of lightweight fabrics and leg/arm warmers prevailed. While I can appreciate the blend of textures and dimensions, Khairzada failed to come through on the “contemporary” manifestation promised in the run-of-show notes. Perhaps it would have helped to pick a damn season as opposed to being greedy and straddling them all. And can I ask, what was up with the back-of-house screaming louder than the music? “NEXT GIRL, NEXT GIRL! C’MON!” Sadly, the best part of the whole experience was the patent leather Manolo Blahnik booties. Nothing gets between me and my Manolos!
Showing for their second season in a row at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum, Hanii Yoon and Gene Kei of Y & Kei provided an enchanting Impressionist-inspired collection. What can I say? The duo consistently sends out the most striking prints and constructs the best silhouettes. Rock on with your bad Korean selves!
Since we’re on the topic of what’s in and what’s out, have you guys been watching Project Runway? What am I thinking? Of course you have. The final five designers, Rami Kashoú, Jillian Lewis, Chris March, Christian Siriano, and Kathleen “Sweet P” Vaughn (who’s already been aufed) showed their work to a packed house during Fashion Week. Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and guest judge Victoria Beckham may get to make the final decision, but in my opinion, there is no contest. The Fierce Award should go to Christian because he’s, well, kind of a big deal!
Speaking of judges, word around the Slant water cooler is that America’s Next Top Model, now in its 10th season and back in New York City, is bumping Twiggy from the panel and replacing her with Paulina Porizkova. We’re fine with the decision just as long as Tyra and Co.’s next move is to vote Marvita off our island! The contestant, who was cut before making it into the house in the ninth season, has found God (and a therapist) and yet somehow managed to pick a fight with standout Fatima. Let the catfights begin!
New Scent-Sation: Part Ew
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, here comes Mariah with her titties out, all breathless and moaning.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, here comes Mariah with her titties out, all breathless and moaning. The campaign goes something like, “An ethereal presence. Captivating like a song.” And apparently the potent pheromone ingredients in M by Mariah Carey are only activated when you apply them to your décolleté…while masturbating…in Heaven:
I haven’t smelled the stuff yet (my requests for samples were flatly denied), but something tells me M by Mariah Carey is not the start of the singer’s fragrance industry domination. All of this has got me fiending for a simpler time…
Looking for a new scent-sation for fall?
Looking for a new scent-sation for fall? For starters, there’s ever-yummy Tom Ford’s latest fragrance Tom Ford For Men. The print ad campaign, shot by Terry Richardson, features a strategically placed bottle nestled in between a nude woman’s labia. This much, we know: Ford’s not a shy guy (he was also responsible for this Yves Saint Laurent M7 fragrance ad, a campaign both of us could certainly get behind, if you know what I mean). But picture it: A husband and wife are getting ready for a night out. “Now where did I leave my cologne?” the husband asks. “Oh, that’s right. It’s in my wife’s vagina.” The ad might make more sense if the bottle was in any way reminiscent of a phallus. Or even a loofah. Ironically, Ford’s fragrance dares to go where Ford won’t!
And then there’s Diddy’s commercial for his new Sean John scent Unforgivable Woman. Not your average 30- or 60-second spot, the three-minute commercial, starring Diddy and model Jessica Gomez, plays more like a horror film…or a PSA for date rape. After having watched every painfully unsexy minute, I imagine it was banned from MTV for its unforgivable duration rather than its supposed raciness. I’ve read Dickens novels shorter than this. Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve never read Dickens. But I’ve always loved his name.
New York Fashion Week: Spring 2008
Read on to see how I tackled things with alarming sobriety…I mean bad breath.
It’s Alexa, bitch. As yet another fashion week fell upon us, I couldn’t help but feel slightly nauseated by the unorganized front-of-houses, jaded editors, bitchy buyers, and seat-stealing stragglers galore in the form of wannabe-fashionistas, hipsters, and fashion students. “Why bother?” you ask. Well, the boys at Slant held a pair of my red patent leather Louboutins hostage. It wasn’t so much the shoes I wanted, but the, um, Tic Tacs I had stuffed in the shoebox. Read on to see how I tackled things with alarming sobriety…I mean bad breath.
It wasn’t enough that I didn’t have…mints, but I had to wake up to the news that NYC cabs, a.k.a. my only mode of transportation, were on strike against the mandatory installation of GPS devices. Now I had to rely on the dirty-ass subway to get around. Can I just say that nobody quite understands how confusing Manhattan’s underground is? On second thought, I guess some people do because the train was really crowded. I stopped by the New York Public Library to take in my first show of the Spring 2008 season. The husband and wife team of Y&Kei presented a whittled down collection of about 15 “urban hippie” looks lined in a circle surrounding a high wooden ladder formation centerpiece. That was only a pit stop on my way to the L.A.M.B. show. I was as giddy as a Harajuku girl making her way to…well, a Gwen Stefani fashion show. The playful mod creations conjured up by our favorite platinum pop star were cute but not nearly as cute as Gavin Rossdale and Kingston James. Seated next to hubby and baby in the first row was Diddy, who apparently has, thank God, given up putting on his own fashion debacles. I watched in horror as Kingston reached for Diddy’s glasses. I continued to watch in horror as said Diddy then grabbed the one-year-old’s hand and kissed it.
I missed the Miss Sixty show. (It was at 10 a.m. What do you want from me?) My spy (who we’ll call “Patty the Intern”) tells me that Demi Moore and Hilary Swank will be seeing flashbulbs for days due to the throngs of shutterbugs. Mischa Barton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Clive Owen were also on hand. And apparently nobody informed the designers of the death of the skinny jean. And may I ask just how much lower low-sung denim can go? Whitney said it best: Crack is whack. The yellow fuckers were still supposedly striking but I managed to coerce a cabbie to take me to the tents without enforcing the silly $10 per zone fare system. At the Promenade tent, I took my seat for Gottex’s swimwear sextravaganza. Forgetting about the show, which started off with solid Bond-inspired looks, I instead focused on catching Nigel Barker’s attention. It didn’t work but I managed to get a nod from Matthew Knowles. Sources tell me that Daddykins is seeking a House of Diarrhea licensing deal. A massive amount of alcohol later, I chatted with some British jewelry designer who commented on how dirty New York is. I told her that Gotham is no dirtier than Amy Winehouse’s ballerina slippers and the shoddy ragamuffin shot me a horror-stricken look, told me to “sod off,” and stormed away. Next up at the Salon tent was Japanese designer Akiko Ogawa. Bored with her attempt at futuristic, I resumed making googly eyes at Nigel Barker. Post-Ogawa, I made a mad dash to the port-o-potties. Alas, I was denied by tent security. “They’re closed,” said the rent-a-cop. “Tell that to my vagina,” I said. A Conde Nasty gal pal came to my rescue allowing me to handle my business in the 14th floor facilities. After I relieved myself I came to a realization: “I’m drunk. I’m drunk at Men’s Vogue.” Hiccup.
I don’t care if you’re tired of hearing my constant rants regarding the presence of children in the tents but Ports 1961 and Vera Wang were kid central. Unless you’re Kingston James McGregor Rossdale—which, let’s face it, you’re probably not—then, to quote Donatella Versace by way of Maya Rudolph, GET OUT! At the Roseland Ballroom, I, along with (in order of importance) Mary J. Blige, Nick Cannon, young designer Esteban Cortazar, Mya, Ivana Trump, and Star Jones, bared witness to the hot mess that was Baby Phat. I’m not quite sure who organized the seating arrangements but in my book at least, placing ex-beau Russell Simmons next to Kimora’s current boyfriend Djimon Hounsou is a big no-no. I guess one can’t expect a Baby Phat show to account for taste, much less tact. Later, at the CK Underwear party hosted by Hounsou and two-trick pony Hilary Swank, everyone was damn near clad in white. Hotties scantily dressed in briefs served s’mores and cupcakes. Nothing gets between me and my Calvin’s…well, except the socks they stuffed inside the fellas’ undies.
Exhausted from the previous evening’s undie affair, I employed the help of Patty the Intern. At the Chelsea Art Museum, Patty furiously texted me asinine questions like “OMG! R u here?” and “Ms. Jackson, if ur nasty, is right in front of me! Can u c her?” Good grief. I wanted to punch the bitch through my phone, but alas, Verizon hasn’t perfected the technology yet. Anyway, turns out Janet Jackson paid a visit to Catherine Malandrino, as did a near-bald Mena Suvari. Patty said Madame M doled out orgasmic bonbons of femininity with avant-garde touches (not exactly in those words). Over on West 22nd Street, she nearly collided with Samuel L. Jackson on her way to Y-3. While it was sunny outside, inside the weather forecast called for rain as male and female models marched about on a drenched blacktop. Yohji Yamamoto’s high-end, Adidas-backed sports collection was an athletic urbanite’s wet dream. “I think Vincent Gallo, Veronica Webb + LL Cool J r here 2,” Patty texted poorly. “Don’t u just heart what Webb’s wearing?!?”
I skipped Day Five to help hold Patty’s hair back while she vomited the seven watermelon martinis she sucked down the night before (she claims she got some good gossip but can’t remember a thing). Lisa Marie Presley made her way to her seat last minute as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” blared in the big tent at Anna Sui. Cheery, lively stunners in Sui’s ‘70s, deco print creations (pictured) offered a refreshing break from the drone-like monotony of fashion week thus far.
I was supposed to go to Carmen Marc Valvo. But, then again, so was Vanessa Williams. She didn’t turn up, and neither did I. Beefcake Patty told me that Deborah Cox was there, to which I replied, “Bitch, DC is not VW.”
Officially the last show of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week lineup, eveningwear designer Tadashi Shoji was veritable icing on the cake. While some of his looks bordered on costume-y, there were a few elegant numbers. Nary a starlet or child in sight, the show started on time and ended with a bang by way of striking Estonian model Tiiu Kuik. Now that, ladies and gents, is what fashion shows should be all about.
Overall, the voluminous balloon-like proportions of seasons past have deflated, giving way to a more shape-conscious silhouette. The dress continues to reign supreme as do prints and vibrant colors. And if you’re Marc Jacobs, backwards is the new black (MJ, whose show went on a whole two hours late, reportedly thought it would be cute to flip the script and stage his exhibition in reverse order—designer bow first, model finale walk second, and individual model file last). Don’t be surprised if you hear “How very Kris Kross-chic of you” next spring.