Of Culture and the Catwalk

Lincoln Center has been invaded, by black-clad hordes toting authentic designer bags and tottering along in strappy bondage shoes with perilously high heels. It’s Fashion Week in New York and for the first time, the runway tents have been set up at the performing arts center.  On a recent day the walkways and plaza areas were thick with fabulousness and 65th  Street, which runs alongside The Juilliard School, was clogged with the black sedans that usher fashion royalty around town.

Now Lincoln Center is accustomed to big-tickets events, exclusive dinners in big, white tents, and private limo drop-offs, but the throngs drawn to the Spring 2011 shows were an entirely different breed from the pearls-and-evening-wear patrons who flock to opening-night galas. Most everyone was thin, everyone looked either harried and carried a clipboard, or seemed bored and kept an eye on the iPhone.  Although there were the random peacocks, with flaming hair colors and eccentric ensembles. You rarely see the kind of dandy I spied strolling along the concourse in front of Avery Fisher hall, wearing a bowler hat, bow tie, houndstooth-check suit and jaunty spectator shoes. The diva, drama and gossip quotients were ratcheting skyward, and this in a place that knows from divas (opera or ballet, anyone?).

It was kind of surprising to see how completely Lincoln Center had been taken over by the newcomers.  A towering monolith of faux-marble loomed next to the Metropolitan Opera, serving as an entrance to the runway tents.  It was a slightly scary looking but elegant design, light years ahead of the basic-white-tent entrance to Fashion Week’s former home at Bryant Park.  The “marble” slab, emblazoned with the logo of sponsor Mercedes Benz , was fascinatingly close in color and pattern to the real marble exteriors of surounding structures.  I had to get up close to see how it was done (seems to have been a screen print on fabric, stretched over a frame).  Nearby, a crew was busily constructing another faux structure in front of the Met, a sort of garden-arbor backdrop for the Tommy Hilfiger show arrivals; workers hastily stapled fake greenery to a steel frame, bunching up the red carpet in the process. Over at Avery Fisher Hall, the backstage door was flung open and models scurried in and out, readying for a show. Photographers with multiple cameras slung around their necks were at my elbow with every turn.

But perhaps the most striking and unexpected aspect of Fashion Week’s stay at Lincoln Center was just how much more open it felt than the shows ever did at Bryant Park. That might seem  strange, given Lincoln Center’s reputation as an often off-putting temple to high culture, but the runway tents that used to be packed into the park behind the main New York Public Library rarely yielded a glimpse of what was going on inside — unless one was lucky enough to have a magic golden ticket. Passersby might catch a glimpse of clothes racks being unloaded from trailers along a side street, or have to step over cables and electrical gear taped to the sidewalks, but that was about it. The only time I caught wind of any actual fashion at the Bryant Park Fashion Week was the year when models were stranded in the middle of traffic on 42nd Street for a photo shoot.

But a totally random stroll through Lincoln Center on a Sunday afternoon allowed me to actually witness one of the shows. Instead of the usual catwalk, designer Catherine Malandrino had stationed models on pedestals, like statues, around the pool in front of the Lincoln Center Theater.  Vigilant entry guards checked the guest list and monitored the roped-off area right in front of the models for invitees only, but the hoi-polloi could take in the whole thing just as easily from the other side of the velvet barrier.  It made for some clash of culture sights, as fashionistas and wannabes bumped shoulders with tourists in shorts and Juilliard students in dancewear; locals camped out on benches with their laptops and camera phones.

New York Times fashion writer Cathy Horyn commented toward the end of Fashion Week that the venue just wasn’t as friendly to the runway shows as Bryant Park, citing the location’s distance from the garment district, the larger tents that seemed cavernous for presentations, the emphasis on front-row celebrities over clothing designs. I can understand her comments, but they reflect a definite insider point of view, no different from the tunnel vision that the very organizations inhabiting Lincoln Center are often accused of, as they try so hard to understand why more people don’t embrace their art forms.

One answer is that it all seems to foreign, so out-of-reach to the general public. In that way, fashion and the arts are close cousins. So it’s kind of ironic that one of the most influential fashion writers in the country didn’t feel at home at Lincoln Center. To me, that chance to see the Malandrino show, the fact that I could catch a glimpse of backstage chaos, or walk right up to the tent entrance, reflected a new transparency for Fashion Week, just as the recent renovations of Lincoln Center itself reflect a new transparency for the arts campus. Lincoln Center has been opened up, cloaks of marble on some of the buildings have been shed for glass walls, electronic signs signal what’s happening inside each day, and there’s a grass lawn to sit and people watch. Maybe I couldn’t get into the actual runway shows, but walking through Lincoln Center made me feel a part of the action.