Talkin' Fash

Rhonda Lieberman on The New Yorker Festival

New York

Left: Behnaz Sarafpour, Alice Roi, and Tara Subkoff. Right: The capacity crowd.

Everyone who has any clue about fashion is over everything (I mean idea-wise, silly, not shopping!). So I was curious to see how this panel of pros—designers Alice Roi, Behnaz Sarafpour, and Imitation of Christ’s Tara Subkoff, chatting with New Yorker writer Judith Thurman—would vivify the deadish horse of “Generation X Fashion.” Of course you gotta wear something (as one was painfully reminded that September day, when the transitional weather presented huge challenges) but lately new ideas in fashion are as scarce as decent Gucci at Century 21: It’s all recycling, vintage, “modernity,” blah blah blah. “It’s a conservative time,” said Roi. “People are sick of extremes, think extremes are all cliché. So what do you do?”

The surprisingly healthy turnout for the panel looked mostly like fashion press, fashion students, and a smattering of schleps who maybe just go to anything branded The New Yorker. I sat next to a Boston-based gal with a power bob who sold ads at the mag. We had ample time to chat because the panel—at the sleek new Alvin Ailey studios, a multi-culti paragon where fresh white tweens were being fetched by their Upper East Side-looking moms after Afro-American dance class—started half an hour late, fashion standard time.

The ever-canny Thurman presided in a sheerish navy blouse and tailored skirt, gold bangles going up both arms (potentially gypsy-lady, but well pulled off), and brown pumps with navy opaque hose, striking the perfect note of polished but edgy bluestocking (literally). The all-girl panelists were contemporaries whose points of view emerged in wonderful contrast. Thurman cited Imitation of Christ’s echt-Gen X t-shirt of the early ‘90s: “Sincerity is the new vulgarity.” If she teased out a generational trait, it was perhaps a heightened self-consciousness about sincerity vs. irony, originality vs. copying. Far more interesting than the panelists’ shared zeitgeist was how their M.O.s were so different.

At a moment when the fashion center does not hold, Thurman opined, “There’s anarchy in the street, yet there seems to be a lot of creativity.”

“Creativity is pretty much dead,” Subkoff declared, “Vogue America is still dominant. It’s politics. How much you advertise.”

“There’s a lot of fear in the air,” said Roi, “A lot of propriety. For some people that feels good.”

Left: A design by Imitation of Christ. Middle-left: A design by Behnaz Sarafpour. Middle-right: A design by Alice Roi. Right: Tara Subkoff.

“I don’t agree,” said Sarafpour, who emerged as the Vogue ideologue of the bunch. If the panelists were fashion designer Barbies, Sarafpour would be Fashion Biz Barbie: A true believer in “modernity” (exclusivity, craftsmanship, whatever merits the crazy price points) and not—G-d forbid—lazily recycling vintage. Poised in a no-nonsense button-down shirt, knit tank-vest and slacks, she had on tomato red ballet flats that added a knowing burst of color to her neutral ensemble. Self-described “extremely wacky” Roi would be Artsy Barbie: Pudgy, in a white T-shirt, black smock-like jumper, shiny black tights, and flats, drawing attention to her face with an asymmetrical braid. Subkoff, rolling her eyes as Thurman listed her fashion credentials as a former preppie/actress/art school dropout, would be Bad-Girl Barbie. Adept at throwing attitude, she looked like a knockoff Gwyneth Paltrow in a skimpy sundress, jean jacket, and strappy sandals, but was refreshingly candid.

Subkoff brazenly de-mystified designer “originality,” revealing that she had worked as a “ragpicker” for big names (Isaac Mizrahi!), which meant combing thrift shops for stuff “they’d send to a pattern-maker, then down the runway with nothing changed.” “Something exclusively aesthetic is depressing,” added the art school dropout. “I’m interested in something that says something.” Imitation of Christ imports ‘80s art ideas to the shmatte set: Appropriation, the virtues of recycling, having shows in weird places, agitating against globalism, sweatshops and world hunger through fashion, rather than art because “the art world is tiny, and those (art) people know all this already.” She mentioned being influenced by “Situationist texts” (as Guy Debord rolled in his grave). The panel didn’t shy away from juicy topics, tackling whoppers such as: Why are there so few high-profile women in fashion and so many gay men? “Women are very unsupportive of each other in the fashion world,” Subkoff observed. “Anna Wintour only supports young gay men.”

“I only know a few straight designers,” added Roi. “And they’re horrible.” Sarafpour, the only female in her class of eighty to succeed as a designer, speculated, “Maybe I wanted it more than the other girls in my class….”

Moving from fags to fat: “The average selling size in America is sixteen plus!” Subkoff declared with conviction, after which a skinny live mannequin modeled one ensemble by each panelist. Subkoff showed a red suede trapeze mini-dress with cutout armpits and a hoodie. “It’s nice to have something on your head in the winter,” she glossed. “You waste ninety percent of your body heat through your head.” And you’ll need it, if you’re wearing little else. “I don’t think that would look very good on a plus sixteen size,” she admitted. Like I said, candid. Roi struck me as the most free-spirited and down to earth, though her black smock alarmed me, as did her chosen outfit, which was “inspired by Harold and Maude” and “mixing different feelings together.” So far, so good. But it was a “monastic or dentistry” tunic with a shearling vest over “feminine leggings.” Yick!

The highlight was when Subkoff coolly observed that Sarafpour’s frock was the “most retro, vintage-inspired piece we saw today.” Meow! Sarafpour coolly replied: “Inspired is the key word in that statement.” Snap! The frock was Audrey Hepburn-esque: Strapless, with a faux-passementerie pattern specially fabricated for Sarafpour in the Far East. Alas. When Sarafpour wasn’t havin’ it, Subkoff smoothly retracted her claws: “It was very pretty,” she added, kind of convincingly. Lovely.