Sunday night, while fashion's powerbrokers were on their way to Diane von Furstenberg's post-show dinner at her Meatpacking District headquarters, a 22-year-old designer named Telfar, who has been in business for three years, showed his collection at St. Mark's Church in the East Village. It was a full house. Not a powerbroker in sight.
No free Evian (the "official water" of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, a term that refers to the show held in the Bryant Park tents) was distributed. There were no cushy banquettes like those temporarily installed at great cost in the Chelsea galleries used by Halston. Telfar's clothes—unisex uniforms with exaggerated proportions, referencing the late-'80s avant-garde—were made with care. The production—models with asymmetrical, neon-colored hairpieces marching through pools of light—was impeccable. This isn't exactly the seedy underbelly of New York Fashion Week, but when compared with the megabrands showing in Bryant Park, it can feel that way.
Is there an independent fashion vision to be found in New York? It's an important question. Fashion people are always looking for new talent "discovered" far from the central action, the hand-to-mouth designer who does what he can with what little he has. These hopefuls find different fates: An early John Galliano breakthrough show happened in a borrowed hotel particulier in Paris. Today, he is perhaps the biggest name in that city. Miguel Adrover thrilled New York with one of his very first shows, which included a coat made from Quentin Crisp's mattress. Adrover found it in the street, and now finds himself out of business.
Telfar is not well-known by the fashion establishment, but he does have some fashion cred, and fans at the show praised him for offering "a ray of hope in a monotonous city" and for playing with shape. The appeal of a show like this? "It's not about selling clothes," one fan said. "It's a different experience."
But anti-commercial doesn't necessarily mean good. Telfar offered a collection for 9-to-5 New Yorkers plowing through the daily grind. A few items were intriguing. Although the fashion outsider would roll his eyes at the thought of wearing a jersey jumpsuit on Wall Street, especially one that could also be worn by a woman, some of the pieces had a youthful elegance. For people who ask, "Who would wear that?" Telfar has an easy answer: He sells his collection to downtown groovesters at boutiques like Pixie Market and Oak. But some of his looks raised another, more difficult question: "Why would I buy that if I already own it?" The less extreme pieces shown looked like basics from American Apparel.
As the models began to trot, questions kept rising: Why do people respond to one basic black turtleneck and not another? How does a new name get known? How much time should a young designer be given to find his own vocabulary or to make something new from what has gone before him?
And, most importantly, when does "referencing" another designer's work go too far? Here was a veritable inventory of avant-garde clichés: The ugly-can-be-beautiful mood could be traced to Andre Walker, a brilliant American designer who used to show in Paris and has since consulted on Marc Jacobs' collections. The mannish, exaggerated silhouette was Yohji Yamamoto's. The neon hair was Rei Kawakubo's. Ragamuffin sweaters recalled Martin Margiella. The designer's layered references finally made sense—and gelled into something genuinely new—in a standout draped, gray-velour sweatshirt. It was Vionnet via Gaultier via Telfar.
Referencing, of course, is nothing new in fashion. What designer hasn't had a go at Chanel's cardigan jacket and little black dress? But if Telfar was going for a postmodern layering of easily identifiable imagery, he seemed to have no new ideas or new points to make. The retrospective might have been stronger had it been offered up in shocking color or eco-friendly fabrics. But Telfar was showing the same old wooly black.
Is this really New York's vanguard? Yes. And it will do in a pinch. No one in the audience seemed to care that the designs had all been seen before, and surely a 22-year-old designer deserves time to grow. "He's starting with what he knows," said Oak co-owner Louis Terline. "This is what fashion looked like when he was a kid." The truth is, New York is lucky to have Telfar, if only for the emotions he stirs. People want a renegade, even one who is less than fully charged.
Question of the Day(send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org):
What would happen if a normal, everyday, noncelebrity type of woman (who happened to have exquisite taste, btw) got a ticket to one of the bigger designer shows, and just walked up and sat down in the front row? What if I refused to give up my seat to Demi, or, God forbid, Tara Reid? What would they do? Kick me out?
The simple answer is: yes. If you sat down in a reserved seat at the symphony or on an airplane, wouldn't you expect to be kicked out of it? Your exquisite taste is irrelevant to a designer hosting a fashion show. A front-row celebrity—with or without taste—is, on the other hand, entirely relevant. She may be a friend or client of the designer, or both. She may be the designer's muse. But whoever she is, the one thing she is likely to provide is free press. What will your exquisite taste provide?
While it's true that people (myself included) do occasionally upgrade themselves to an empty front-row seat, they do so knowing they are courting the embarrassment of being asked to move. Noncelebrity front-row guests (press who are writing reviews and need to see the clothes in detail, and retail executives who are there to spend money) are there to conduct business, so they've earned their front-row seats. Consider that Marc Jacobs' show has only 130 front-row seats, and Michael Kors' only 200. Then calculate that each major magazine and retail team has about five front-row players. That's a lot of seats. If the person "your" seat was intended for didn't boot you, chances are the designer's PR team would.