Where Angels Fear to Tread

Paige K. Bradley on New York Fashion Week

Gauntlett Cheng’s 2020 spring/summer collection. Photo: Mitchell Sams.

I WAS A TOUCH DISPIRITED, then thwacked by nausea—and that was before New York Fashion Week started. It was not an auspicious beginning to what’s supposed to be the most . . . perhaps not wonderful, but certainly most telling time of the year, especially for those in touch with Virginia Woolf’s frock consciousness and harboring a serious concern for the soul’s window dressing—aka “fits”—or for those who just really personally identify with their place in a seating arrangement. As RuPaul once noted in his autobiography, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” So, what guises for cloaking our ancient shame did a few of fashion’s most eligible new(ish) designers have to offer the people this—by which I mean, in the parlance of fashion, next—season?

We shall begin with last Friday night (which feels like ages ago), when Telfar premiered a short film that functioned as a trailer for the runway collection that will actually be shown as the opening salvo to Paris Fashion Week later this month. A certain audacity, which could be read as sly by those accustomed to insincere flattery, seems key to this brand, established as a “black-owned, non-gendered fashion project” in 2005 by Telfar Clemens. The unisex label has gained wider recognition in the past few years after parties at and uniform designs for White Castle; debuting an unfussy, attractive, and relatively affordable bag seen basically everywhere in New York these days; a series of runway shows that doubled as concerts, including their fall/winter ’19 collection last February that caused a mob scene at Irving Plaza; and a collaboration with the discount department store Century21. The theme of the spring/summer ’20 collection, “The World Isn’t Everything,” was migration. “We want our work to feel like a world,” the invite declared. “Marketers and journalists call this community—we like to call it conspiracy.” Telfar’s overarching narrative, like many a fashion brand, is something of a collusion (not a crime) between fantasy and reality, and the clothes they produce—like last season’s house logo and Budweiser branding mash-ups, along with installations such as one for the DIS-curated Ninth Berlin Biennial—jibe with direct addresses such as “PLEASE PARDON OUR PROGRESS.” The last word in particular rings with implications—do they mean aesthetically, or, like, structurally paving a path that didn’t exist? Is Telfar facetious, or for real? Likely, and conspiratorially, both.

Lou Dallas Spring 2020. Photo: Mitchell Sams and Diego Palomino.

The film was shot across Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and Ohio, and involves a long list of contributors, including playwright Jeremy O. Harris, musician Kelsey Lu, actor Ashton Sanders, and artist Juliana Huxtable. Between shots of the brand’s bags passing along airport luggage carousels and waterborne models wearing togs from the new collection while coolly stranded on snaky lines of gray Candock modular floating dock systems, Sanders and his cigarette perform a meandering yet intense monologue, the emphatic delivery of which drew me in for multiple viewings as it played on a loop while sliders were served just outside in a gray, chilly Bushwick courtyard.

A bright and early morning (10 AM) on Saturday ushered in Telfar’s sample sale on the first-floor gallery of the Swiss Institute’s East Village digs, and a party that night celebrated the debut of their crisp mint-green polo, designed to be worn back to front, as SI’s new staff uniform. Stocks of these were still on the racks by the time I arrived midafternoon, after being delayed by an emergency rescue operation for a Starburst-candy-pink vintage Yves Saint Laurent jacket that had been dealt a blow, by which I mean there was cake frosting left on a subway bench. Beasts! As for the hypebeasts, a polo-clad staff let me know that the hoodies went like hotcakes first thing that morning. I was charmed by a pair of blue jeans that had white thermal leggings swapped in place of denim legs (Style No. FW18-D-03, size XS), but I didn’t buy them because, regardless of the much-reduced price, it still would have amounted to a third of my writing fee for what you’re reading now. Also, on principle I refuse to undress in galleries (commercial or nonprofit). Attendees of that night’s “cocktail” party on the roof kept their clothes and wigs on for the evening while Budweiser was served. More slippery linguistics, compliments of fashion.

On Sunday, around the time morning mass would be letting out, the Lou Dallas show in Gowanus was letting in its own congregants. Objects of worship included a long color-blocked pastel dress worn by a model who had what appeared to be clusters of cotton dangling an inch or two down from her bedazzled statement nails, and a pair of jeans sourced from Goodwill, airbrushed with roses and sporting patches reading “SAVAGE CAPITALISM.” To perhaps the same degree that one might be able to say quite a lot online and little worthwhile in person, these days the clothes you wear ideally have a few bold and literal textual declarations to blast into the public sphere, and even better if your outfit trumpets its own caption or can advertise an entire cast of credits (cf: the Telfar T-shirts that spell out all the talent involved on a brand show or video). The overall vibe at LD, though, supported by the female models’ bouffant blowouts, was something akin to that at the baptism of a flamingo or the funeral of a canary, all presided over by a lumpen disco ball.

Jordan Barse, the new associate director at Lyles & King, accompanied me in her stunning post–Labor Day whites on a stroll around the local hazardous-waste site to preview her reading/slideshow “Charlize and the Gold World: An Investigation into the Maligned Universe of J’Adore Dior,” an entrancing narrative regarding actress Charlize Theron’s possible internment in a luxurious perfume prison that LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault has contracted her to since 2004. Barse was scheduled to promulgate this intrigue later that night at McNally Jackson’s new South Street Seaport outpost, as part of writer Fiona Duncan’s “Hard to Read” literature series. The introduction to her tale was a great cap to a summer that was one for the books of conspiracy theorists, whose scripture can leave reality in shambles, and, like a new form of folklore, can begin subtly or overtly influencing our own sense of plot, or cause us to lose it entirely. Owning and wearing dry-clean-only threads in NYC is, after all, a solid preamble to later lunacies, I’m sure.

During the moments of pause mixed into scooting around town to the various perches—usually folding chairs—from which to catch a glimpse of the future as it sidles up to the barely receded past, I read E. M. Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). Its heroine is a widowed single mother, Lilia Herriton, who heads abroad from the home counties of England to central Italy, where she makes a rash match with a local, her inferior in every polite respect, as a daring revenge plot against her in-laws. After being abandoned by those people in retribution, the lady’s romantic rebellion rapidly falters, entrapping her in circumstances far worse than the stuffiest of British society could have inflicted had she only stayed at home. Before the book is even halfway through, she’s already killed off by childbirth, consigning the tragedy to percolate through the conscience of each member of her remaining family, who variously consider the whole affair a grave eruption of evil, a vulgar drag, or a total logistical to-do. The book’s breezy severity was a reprieve from the socially enforced levity of Fashion Week’s rigmarole of looking at clothes, which the innocent might assume is a chic leisure activity. For all the intense scheduling involved, art and fashion both rely on a somewhat sloshy handling and understanding of time, with the present, past, and projections of the future all invested in the constant construction of the new. And it all starts late, always! A drop of tart ambivalence can help keep proceedings, and one’s involvement in them, from getting too embarrassing. I didn’t see any evil this week per se, but then again, as established on the last episode of my diary, I #resist soberly and therefore accept that I probably often miss out on bearing witness to the more sedimented layers of wickedness our nonsociety has to offer.

Lou Dallas Spring 2020. Photo: Mitchell Sams and Diego Palomino.

In conservatively poised novels, sex can often be introduced as the element of chaos that upsets or annihilates the peace. A heedless quest for romance results in the ultimate punishment of death in Angels, which made the designers of Eckhaus Latta’s and Gauntlett Cheng’s very chill approach to nudity generally all the more noticeable to moi this week. Eros morphed into Thanatos right before my very eyes. It may well be spring/summer collection time, but receiving the annual recommendation to wear an open-weave knit dangled just so over one’s breasts—a kind of Symbolist gesture toward clothing oneself, as seen in the Eckhaus Latta show staged last Tuesday in a former Chock full o’Nuts factory—feels a little pushy. They continue to refine their cozy clubber look, but Gauntlett Cheng’s transparency advocacy went a bit further by literally cutting out parts of garments in their show late Monday afternoon at the unhelpfully named Bridge Park, a lot of fenced concrete not far from the real Brooklyn Bridge Park and wedged between a wall of the BQE and the York Street subway station in the strangest invention of a neighborhood: DUMBO. A fact made all the more amusing by critic Christian Lorentzen’s proposal for a curious adventure novel in which a thrilling mission to Dumbo plays a central part—proffered on Tuesday night as part of a live reading at Bridget Donahue of the letters periodically commissioned from a range of authors for Negar Azimi and Pati Hertling’s “Deadlines and Divine Distractions” publishing series.

In Gauntlett Cheng’s show, dubbed “Yesterday was Tomorrow’s best friend then he met Today”—a phrase which, for me, triggered memories of torturous word problems from math class—I was taken by their “Bruised Hoodie Dress,” though puzzled as to what kind of bruise was being alluded to by the vaguely festive orange-and-green print. I was getting spring field vibes—had I lost the thread? Maybe I need to just give up and accept that fashion is a ground zero for broken language and mercenary meaning that fucks off on the job. Other pieces in the show hewed to the tight, see-through, or missing, such as a black knit with holes bored into both sides for a #freethetorso fit, as worn by a young Lydia Lunch look-alike. If the exquisitely mixed message in fashion of “Don’t actually clothe yourself, here are some clothes to help with that” isn’t a perfect conspiracy, then I don’t know what is.

Jordan Barse at McNally Jackson. Photo: Paige K. Bradley.

At one point on the soundtrack—put together by musician Esra Padgett, aka Chicklette—the familiar tones of No Doubt’s 2003 cover of Talk Talk’s 1980s hit “It’s My Life” resounded at a level I would have never entertained the notion of playing it at, and then a funny thing happened: I was moved. The models walking in and out of my sight line became incidental as I was hit with this wave of affect from an arrangement of lyrics and notes that mean nothing to me. I had no revelation either, besides understanding that this feeling of love, L-O-V-E, may well have sprung from a sublime lack; when there’s so little there, the “I” goes to work filling the void, like a fool rushing in. This inspired absence struck me as quite glamorous, and where, pray, would fashion be without such spells? Clothes are a byproduct of fashion, a term better understood as shorthand for our willingness to be struck, smote, or otherwise deluded by the backstory behind “nothing,” and then to mount a recovery or rebuilding effort, ideally every six months, toward a new image. Less is, cumulatively, more.

I’m feeling a bit better now—thank you for asking. But then again the YSL jacket is currently at the dry cleaners and I can’t bear to know if it was saved or not. Perhaps I never will. Since I can’t face facts, I prefer to believe my own story. Now that’s what I call glam.