Fashionable dudes stunting outside the Nautica NYFW show.
I was sitting in a cafe at the haughty Chelsea Market in downtown Manhattan, stuffing my face quickly with carbs, sugars, and caffeine before I had to drag myself uptown to another handful of NYFW shows at Lincoln Center. An elderly white woman in her 60s with short gray hair was sitting next to me with a newspaper laid out across her table and smeared red lipstick around the corners of her mouth. She started complaining to me about things, as I've found strange old ladies in New York tend to do. She complained about the weather—it was too hot. She complained about the food at the cafe—it was too expensive. And then she complained about the economy, or at least the young people who've been griping about it.
She said to me through a mouth half-full with lox and bagel, "I hear that young people can't find jobs anywhere. But when I look all around this neighborhood, especially this weekend, all I see are young kids with tons of cash. What are these kids moaning about and where is all the money coming from if they can't find work?"
"Oh, what you're seeing is kids on the street putting on a show almost as elaborate as the ones on the runway," I said. "Half of these people don't even have a pot to piss in, they just have nice clothes."
Fashion kids waiting outside the N. Hoolywood show.
I, of course, was a part of that grand farce, parading down the sidewalk of the Meat Packing District wearing a collage of designer clothes that retail for nine times what I have in my checking account. Like everyone else, I wanted to be seen this week, to be noticed on the street, to be mistaken as someone famous or special. And so I splurged, as I will often do, on clothes that would broadcast a life of glamour, even though mine is one of backbreaking student debt, eating canned tuna, and paying penalty charges for being late on my phone bill.
But even worse, I knew that there are others struggling much more than me—at least I have a steady gig and a degree. In the midst of Fashion Week, it's easy to forget about all the people who were fighting to make ends meet long before college grads started working at fast food restaurants and protesting for Occupy Wall Street. If and when the middle class pulls itself out of this national economic malaise, those people's situation won't likely change. It'll be swept under the rug. And the thought of that makes the lavish over-the-top pomp of NYFW that I had longed to be a part of curl my innards.
The final model of Venexiana's NYFW show doing a fancy twirl.
One of the most ostentatious displays I saw this week was at the show for Katie Stern's brand, Venexiana. All the models looked like the long spider-legged fashion doodles of a teenage girl and were clothed in elegant courtesan dresses with long trains that dragged across the floor. Katie used the most rarified material—fine lace, crystal, and organza—the kind of stuff fit for a literal princess. As I sat there caught up in the magnificent beauty of it all, I couldn't shake one nagging question: Who can actually wear this shit?
But maybe that's the point—the glamour is an escape from your shitty life. For a moment you can live vicariously through these lavish models on the runway. For a moment you're not broke, unfamous, and ugly. And there's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes it's OK to daydream when you're struggling to cope with the monotony and disappointments of day-to-day life. But when you lose your grip on what's real or at stake—as I occasionally worry myself and some of my peers have done—you've got to reel yourself back in. It wasn't until I started writing this piece that I realized I had been so caught up in Fashion Week I hadn't seen one speech or read one article on the Democratic National Convention. As a citizen in a democracy and a black man at a time when the first black president is in office, I feel ashamed.
Daisuke Obana spray painting his trampled white canvas.
But sometimes fashion isn't always about escape. Japanese designer Daisuke Obana's show for his reverent line N. Hoolywood subverted that notion by taking inspiration from the rebellious spirit of the hip-hop and punk kids who pioneered graffiti in the 70s. Daisuke had the models, who were covered in black paint, walk across a huge white canvas that was laid across the runway in a weird Yves Klein-influenced stunt. The finale of the show was punctuated when he came out after the models had walked off the runway and spraypainted the canvas covered in their footprints with his own graffiti tag. There was a lesson about affecting and engaging in your own environment in this act, even if it was a bit muddled by the controlled and commercial nature of a fashion show.
I don't think after NYFW is all said and done I'm going to go out and graffiti pinko phrases on walls across the US to spark some kind of rebellion among my petit bourgeoise fashion friends and my homies in Cleveland who never finished high school and are still living at home. But what I will do is take some time to make sure I don't get so geeked out on this fashion shit that I forget what's really important, like paying my bills and using the platform VICE has blessed me with to give you more than "the dope looks for next season." As a young person in times like these, I can't afford to escape. And most likely, neither can you.