It was a miserable, rainy, and windy Friday afternoon, but despite how badly the J, M, and D trains did not want me to make it to the Badgley Mischka studio in Midtown, I was in their dressing room, tits out, squeezing myself into a dress. I was trying to find something I could wear to Saturday's New York Fashion Week runway show. After I zipped myself up, I immediately heard a coo from behind me.
"I like that better than the other one," one of the assistants told me. There wasn't a mirror, so I sincerely had no idea what I looked like. The last dress I'd tried on was a highlighter yellow off the shoulder cocktail dress, and I thought it looked pretty great. But why settle for "pretty great?" The entire reason I was there was to embody the fantasy that Covet Fashion offers.
"We dress for women CEOs. That's some of our core customers."
Covet Fashion, which launched seven years ago, is like a competitive paper doll app that boasts more than two million monthly players. Players are given prompts to style their models, along with a few requirements (use a red lipstick, include two pieces of silver jewelry), and then other players vote on who has the best looks. The night before I tried on Badgley Mischka dresses I fulfilled a prompt that was loosely based on The Princess Diaries, which asked me to style a look for a San Fransisco teen turned princess. Covet Fashion also uses real brands, including Badgley Mischka. According to Covet’s own statistics, Covet is the third highest traffic driver to the fashion label's website. In fact, to celebrate the company's Fashion Week event with Covet, they had a specially themed challenge: Players in the game could dress up Sarah Fuchs, Vice President of Covet Fashion or Christine Currence, president of Badgley Mischka.
"We dress for women CEOs," Currence said. "That's some of our core customers."
Badgley Mischka's gowns and shoes certainly aren't for women who are afraid of taking up space. The showroom was an explosion of colors, textures, and patterns. When I had my chance to scour the racks, I made a beeline for the loudest pieces in the room—that highlighter yellow cocktail dress rendered in a buttery scuba fabric with a mermaid hem, a bright magenta off the shoulder dress, two different dresses covered in sequins. I thought briefly about how to turn these beautiful dresses into outfits, which shoes and lipstick shades I have at home that might complement them. Covet has trained me well for this moment.
"I think Covet provides an opportunity for people to experience Badgley Mischka that wouldn't otherwise have that opportunity—if it's a financial limitation, whatever it may be," Fuchs said. "They can imagine that they're styling themselves. They can imagine that they're a world-class stylist. They can do anything they want, but they have access to these clothes and these shoes and these pieces that they normally wouldn't have access to in some cases. It really opens their eyes."
Covet's audience is serious about the game, and about fashion. According to Covet's statistics, 89 percent of players say they know more about designer brands after playing. Though any mention of brands gives me hives, I do know that I recognize more brand names after having spent some time in the game—though clearly not enough. Between last October and now, I had been kicked out of my Fashion House, a group of players that can work towards bonus goals together, for being inactive. While my sense of style was sometimes wildly different from the other women, the experience of dressing up a paper doll and then seeing everyone else's immaculately dressed paper dolls never got old. I wasn't being judged by an algorithm or Covet staff. Every time one of my offbeat looks got a high score, I knew it was because other women in the world saw my looks and deemed them worthy, which made me want to reward other players in turn.
I think that Covet is fun, but I don't know if it's good for me. My relationship to the fashion industry is complicated in that I love beautiful clothes but am both lazy and tend towards cynicism. That not only means I can't keep up with the challenges that Covet presents, but also that I am more likely to spend money in digestible one or two dollar chunks to skip the game's waiting times. When I stop and think about what I am giving money to—an industry that has driven women to eating disorders, which in some cases relies on sweatshops to create their garments, which has been historically racist on the runway—I don't know that I feel okay doing that. And yet I keep coming back, because Covet is also one of the rare kinds of games where women are the assumed audience, and their interests are treated with respect.
It's not just that it's a fashion game—the challenges in Covet feel like they're written by and for women, because they are. In the male-dominated world of video games, I have to respect that. I'm also glad that Covet also has the option to use characters with larger frames, and that it makes a big deal out of events like Latinx Heritage Month and Black History Month. When I first started playing the game, I was tasked with styling an outfit for a latina New York representative who favored glasses and red lipstick, an obvious reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. According to Fuchs, Covet has also become a close knit community of women who lift each other up.
"I think that's one of the most special things about Covet is that we really do bring women together," Fuchs said. "I have a story about a fashion house in England. This one woman was playing and she told her Fashion House she was going to have to stop playing. She was going to have to drop out of grad school. It got too expensive and her circumstances had changed. Her Fashion House started a Go Fund Me for her. I get goosebumps when I tell this story, because then she went back to grad school and she's still playing Covet."
To look good, know you look good, and also feel good about it is as close to feeling drunk as I get since I stopped drinking.
With me in the showroom was the winner of a recent contest that Covet held wherein the winner would visit New York and attend the Badgley Mischka runway show. The winner, a diminutive older woman, told me she'd never been to New York before, and that the night before she and her daughter caught a Broadway show. She actually found out she won while sitting at a salon getting her hair dyed, and screamed out loud in the chair. At the Badgley Mischka showroom, she was grinning ear to ear. The next day, she insisted on taking four or five group pictures of me, Christine, Sarah, her daughter, and any and everyone else she could pull into frame. Watching her joy was infectious. It made it hard to be cynical.
New York Fashion Week used to be held in tents at Bryant Park, but is now held at various locations across New York. This show was held at Spring Studios in Tribeca. There are two fashion weeks a year—one for the Spring/Summer season and one for Fall/Winter. This Fashion Week is for Fall/Winter. New York's Fashion Week is one of the major fashion weeks of the world, including Milan, Paris and London. I have wanted to go since I was aware of what a Fashion Week was, since the show was held in Bryant Park. My introduction to it was through reality television, like America's Next Top Model or Project Runway. To be there, in a designer dress no less, feels like dipping a toe into the edges of surreality.
The feeling of not belonging is very strong. On most days, I don't wear makeup or do much of anything to my hair, and while I love dressing up I usually just wear T-shirts and jeans. I stopped shaving in about 2012. It isn't that I dislike fashion, I'm just lazy. The morning of the Badgley Mischka runway show, I got up at six in the morning to get ready, and by the time I got to Tribeca I still hadn't fully woken up. I don't even hate fussing over myself like this, I just hate the idea that it's expected of me. I stopped shaving my legs because it was such a boring task, and I no longer wanted to feel like I needed to fix my body in order to be attractive. Fashion as an industry can very easily peddle the idea that you are wrong in some way in order to sell you the cure. I know that it doesn't have to be like that, that it can just be about self expression and creativity, but I also was a girl in middle school who was bullied because she wasn't allowed to wear makeup.
That said, when I put on an outfit that I truly adore, I am confident in a way that I don't feel otherwise. To look good, know you look good, and also feel good about it is as close to feeling drunk as I get since I stopped drinking. Sometimes conforming to a beauty standard is the quickest shortcut to getting the kind of attention and respect men get automatically. When it comes to holding up a beauty standard, though, if you're in for a penny you're in for a pound. If you're willing to shave off your pubic hair and get a $50 manicure every two weeks in order to be respected, then on some level you're now helping to enforce those beauty standards.
On the day of the runway show, it was very, very cold. As soon as I stepped outside my eyes started to water from the frigid breeze. I was dutifully wearing the dress I borrowed, but it was cocktail length and as I waited in line to enter Spring Studios I swore my calves were going numb. When I finally did make it inside, the kindness of the fellow guests surprised me, though they were all very amused when I say that I live in Brooklyn. The woman I sat next to, who told me she works for Fox Business, asked where the VICE offices are, and when I said Williamsburg, replied, "How edgy."
I don't want to be a snob, though. Being in a room full of women who are all telling you how beautiful you are is the dream. While I was waiting for the elevator, I asked two employees for directions and they ended up taking pictures of me in my dress, which I styled with a lavender beret, fuzzy black coat, thigh high stockings and nude heels. As I walked down a staircase, a gaggle of models walked past and one shouted out, "I remember wearing that dress for the lookbook! So fun!"
These are clothes for people who actively want to be seen.
Badgley Mischka's runway show was titled Downton Abbey Road, though I found the Downton Abbey influence a little easier to read than the Beatles. The fashion of the series, which takes place between 1912 and 1925, is on display in the gauzy silks, empire waists, and princess sleeves. The color palette, which moves from steely grays to deep reds to pale pinks, also suggests the Britain of World War One and the period between the two great wars. Most of all, everything glitters and sparkles. The beading on each and every garment is impossible not to notice—even the tights have sparkling rhinestones sewed into them. One dress has black beads dripping down the model's hands; a practical black winter coat has beads sewn into every inch of it. It isn't that the clothes are frivolous or fussy (in fact I noticed that quite a few are made from the same deliciously wearable scuba fabric I slipped into the day before) they just delight in being feminine. My favorite, a pink gown with a deep V neck, has feathers sewn into a gauzy overskirt which floated down the runway as the model walked. She seemed like she'd just emerged from a cloud, basked in the pinkish light of dawn.
"There was a time when women dressed so, so beautifully and they did every day. So it was just par for the course," Mark Badgley, co-founder of Badgley Mischka, told me backstage before the show. "That's why we get such a kick out of doing these kinds of clothes. Women don't dress like this every day. You just can't, you know, but when they do, it makes them feel so great."
"We're going into this election now and it's gonna be a very fraught couple months," James Mischka said. "So women, we want them to feel powerful. In the past it might have been female warriors—that's the obvious solution—but we don't think we need to do that. We think you can do it through femininity, through being beautiful but strong, and they'll be empowered that way. There are different kinds of battles you can fight."
The women of Badgley Mischka's Downton Abbey road are often sumptuous, but they're not soft. These are clothes for people who actively want to be seen. Although these aren't female warriors, some dresses do cling to these women's skin like sheets of liquid metal. I can envision the battles I would fight in these dresses—I might not need a sword, but my words are often sharp.
Yet I'm also skeptical of this kind of aesthetic messaging. It is easy to present the appearance of doing good while you're actually only empowering yourself. I watched the idea of feminism become a commodity throughout the 90s, sold to me in the Spice Girls's "Girl Power" movement, and I know that empowerment isn't something you can buy. While it's good to fight battles, you also have to consider who you're fighting for. As I conducted all my interviews, I recorded them on my phone, which has a Bernie Sanders sticker on the back of the case. The whole time, it felt like something everyone in the room politely didn't mention.
The dress I selected for the Badgley Mischka show is not too dissimilar from the kinds of things I gravitate to when I want to dress up. It's a sheath dress that's covered in iridescent sequins that rustle loudly when I walk in it. It looked like I was covered in mermaid scales and it fit me like a glove. Mark Badgley and James Mischka complimented me on how I wore it and styled it with my glitter eyeshadow when they saw me. I never want to take it off, but I know I'm only borrowing it for the day. My journey into the world of fashion was temporary, and despite how welcoming everyone was, I knew that I didn't belong. I was daydreaming about my cat in Brooklyn, a borough that I don't find very edgy at all.
As I left Spring Studios, it was like I could feel something sealing off behind me as the door shut. Before last weekend, the closest I could get to Fashion Week was Covet, through its catalogue of designer clothes and accessories. I was content playing backseat driver to the larger industry. Feeling the energy of it, dressed in a costume that made me look like I belonged, lit up part of my brain that doesn't see a whole lot of action. I love clothes, I love beauty, and I can fake being comfortable in social situations for up to an hour at a time. What if instead of leaving, I stayed?
I think that's what Covet offers: reassurance that you can learn the language of fashion, that you could fit in this world if you wanted to.
The tag of the dress that I am wearing has a suggested price on it: anywhere from $220 to $400. When talking to the people who work for Badgley Mischka, I hear over and over again that they design for every price point, though the lowest number they ever mention is $200. The dress that I was wearing also cost more than the out of pocket doctor's visit and prescription for Tamiflu I just put on my credit card. I am lucky in that I could, if I wanted to, buy a $200 dress, but it would still mean that now there is something else that I won't buy in its stead. A $200 dress might mean cooking at home exclusively until my next paycheck, or asking my boyfriend to spot me for dinner. I don't know how much money I would have to make until $200 is money I'd just be able to blow on something. Or maybe I'd just have to be someone else, someone whose experience wasn't formed by those constant trade-offs and worry.
Costumes let us try on those different personalities. This Fashion Week, thanks to Covet, I was able to try on the personality of someone who went to runway shows. Wearing it, I got a taste of the kind of confidence that's suggested when you see those models gliding down the runway, beads glimmering in the midmorning sun. I wish everyone could feel that way, and that it didn't come with a price tag or a sense of conformity to other people's standards of beauty and presentation. I think that's what Covet offers: reassurance that you can learn this language, that you could fit in this world if you wanted to. But in the end, after hanging up my dress in its garment bag back at my apartment, I decided it was fun for a day but overall, I don't have the energy to be the kind of person who dresses to be seen all the time. I had already changed back into my sweatpants, opened Covet Fashion, and started a new challenge listening to the hum of my purring cat.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.