Retail Therapy

Natasha Stagg on New York Fashion Week

Rachel Comey Fall/Winter 2020. Photo: Gus Powell.

“WHAT I LOVE ABOUT RACHEL IS she has this alchemy,” said the former Olympic swimmer Casey Legler, by way of introduction to Rachel Comey’s Fall/Winter 2020 runway show on Thursday evening at the SoHo restaurant/showroom La Mercerie. “Her art form lends itself to people who not only do things, but do really powerful, impactful things.” She was referring primarily to the time her wife, Siri May, the United Nations program coordinator for the LGBT rights group OutRight Action International, wore a Comey dress at the UN Open Debate on Women, Peace, and Security, giving the New York label a diplomatic gravitas. “The idea for this salon was born of that moment,” Legler explained, mentioning a few of the night’s politically minded speakers.

The dinner guests were powerful people, too: At my table alone were fashion icons Debbie Harry, Cindy Sherman, and Molly Ringwald; The Cut editor in chief Stella Bugbee; and the designer Todd Thomas. Even with all the attempts to connect fashion to politics, the night couldn’t help but feel lighthearted, buoyed by Justin Vivian Bond and Nath Ann Carrera’s acoustic covers (“I’m starting out with a very obvious choice,” Bond said, before a rendition of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”) and impromptu celebrity speeches (“This is all Rachel, actually, that I bought myself,” Ringwald said into an open mic).

Justin Vivian Bond and Nath Ann Carrera performing at Rachel Comey Fall/Winter 2020 presentation. Photo: Gus Powell.

Harry expressed genuine admiration for the collection, especially the silver spoon chokers. “Sometimes you go to a show and it’s just same, same, same,” she deadpanned. Michael Stipe recalled how he used to wear Rachel Comey himself, back when she designed menswear. “He’d get it at Opening Ceremony,” said his boyfriend, the artist Thomas Dozol, raising an eyebrow to allude to the nearby boutique’s recent closing announcement.

Over dinner, conversation turned from the ketamine revival to raising teen twins. Alex Auder—who, despite describing herself as “some yoga instructor who lives in Philadelphia,” was the social glue binding together many of the guests—mentioned being asked to do a guided relaxation that evening, but only if “it felt right.” As dessert arrived, she took the microphone and began with a steadied, lowered voice: “I invite you to take part in this neoliberal meditation manifestation. Allow yourself to let go, into the clingy hand of the free market. Do you feel it?”

“No,” answered Debbie Harry.

“I feel it,” said Cindy Sherman, arms raised.

“You are now dissolving into little bits of human capital,” continued Auder. “Visualize green, from your consciousness—that is, in your head—trickling down into your pelvic bowl. Watch out! You might become incontinent. Don’t worry. It’s all an illusion. It actually trickles back up, ha, ha, ha. And that is how the state works.”

Eventually, a countdown to snap out of our trance ended in an a cappella rendition of the late-’70s Enjoli 8-Hour Perfume jingle (“I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never let you forget you’re a man, ’cuz I’m a woman, en jolie”).

Vaquera Fall 2020. Photo: Natasha Stagg.

Later that night, the writer Audrey Wollen turned twenty-eight at Clandestino, the bar where everybody knows your face. The talk here on child-rearing was aspirational. Babies are fashionable again, especially to millennials, at least according to the writer Kaitlin Phillips, who is usually right. (On Monday, looking at the show notes for a Ren Faire–like Puppets & Puppets presentation, a guest pointed at model Alexandra Marzella’s name, whispering, “I knew we’d see pregnant Ally all over this fashion week.”)

“Gen X loves music,” Phillips and Wollen agreed. “And we love fashion,” I ventured, not entirely believing the generational distinction I was drawing. Weren’t the guests of Rachel Comey, mostly Gen X, still enamored with the spectacle of a runway show, despite its uncomfortable self-awareness?

Vaquera Fall 2020. Photo: Natasha Stagg.

On Saturday at Dover Street Market, it was difficult to tell if a show was happening and where. No runway had been marked off for the secret Vaquera presentation that had been discreetly announced to friends of the designers via text and email. We might have been trolled, guests joked, clutching glasses of white wine. “It’s really escape room,” said Supreme designer Emily Gruca as she, DIS collective member Lauren Boyle, and playwright Leah Hennessey wandered through the store’s mazy levels. Suddenly, eighteen models holding numbered cards like those used in early fashion salons were marching around the floor. As soon as I could take in a sequined tuxedo jacket worn over a ruffle-front G-string, the show was apparently over. Someone tried to exit through a wrong door and a fire alarm sounded, but no one evacuated before finishing his or her drink and conversation. “The show succeeded in being a mystery,” Hennessey said. “I don’t mean a mystery in the marketing sense of creating allure where there is none, I mean I really didn’t know what was going on.”

The show notes, sent out the next day, took the form of an original play (A Confident Fantasy, by fashion writer Jack Sunnucks) which opens on the year 2030, when all the “fabulous people” have left New York. Liza Minelli sits front row at Vaquera’s “elegant yet divisive” show, set in a “nightclub deep in the swamp.” It then flashes back to the present, where the Vaquera designers, sad and penniless, are saving up to open a bar—their backup plan if their avant-garde collections don’t sell. “The collection,” the label’s Patric DiCaprio told me, “is about dead ends, feeling burned-out and destroyed, and the coping mechanisms one uses to deal with disaster.”

Indeed, “retail apocalypse” was the phrase on everyone’s lips this NYFW. Earlier, “Susan Alexandra: The Musical,” an off-Broadway show-cum-accessories presentation (with an open bar at 11 AM), had travestied the titular bag designer’s high hopes for her SoHo storefront, set to open when “Barneys and even fucking Payless” are closing. On Monday, Helmut Lang opted to forego a runway show in favor of exhibiting photos by Sunil Gupta that were inspired by his own earlier images of quite another New York. Posters featuring an image from his series Christopher Street, 1976 were handed out at the door. At Proenza Schouler, the show’s DJ, Michel Gaubert, and CR Fashion Book creative director Patrik Sandberg discussed the downward slide of the NYFW schedule. “I have, like, one show a day,” said Dazed editor in chief Isabella Burley, in disbelief.

Influencer-favorite Collina Strada’s afterparty drag show at the Dance culminated in models urging guests to take the stage, only for all to be ushered off by a security guard while Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell” played. At the bar, a stranger sidled up and offered a scoop: This would likely be the last party of its kind at the fashion week favorite venue. “Bottle service,” he sneered about the alleged new ownership. But here, and at so many of the week’s fashion shows, sustainable business seemed utterly beside the point. Instead, industry events acknowledged the vultures circling above, offering something like “alchemy” as a silver bullet.