Sept. 14 2006 10:46 AM

Event 2: A New Yorker "Talk of the Town" Piece






The Ugly Side of Seventh Avenue

By Malcolm Gladwell


       There are so many fund-raisers in the Hamptons these days--what with all the needy museums and libraries and starving artists and small homeless domestic animals in the Manhattan area--that it was something of a relief last weekend when Donna Karan threw the very first anti-fund-raiser fund-raiser. It was for prostate cancer, which Karan has been obsessed with since her chief designer was diagnosed with the disease last summer, but that was the only predictable thing about the affair. First of all, all the guests were told, there was to be no black. None at all. "It's a matter of symbolism," Karan explained in her trademark Brooklynese. "This evening is about discipline and sacrifice. I want everyone to have tostrugglewith their wardrobe." She herself was in taupe velour--thigh-high and low-cleavage--looking like she belonged backstage at a Def Leppard concert. Barbra Streisand, for her part, came in a pewter fitted-bodice Karan gown from the mid-'70s. Bianca Jagger was in a vermilion sweater set and a battered pair of what looked like ex-beau Robert Torricelli's Dockers. "Do I look ugly?" Jagger said. "Of course I do." But that was the point. Karan had always thought there was something a little odd about fighting homelessness in velvet at the Waldorf--not merely because of the incongruities of class and station at the Waldorf but also because (as one would expect of a designer for whom fabric is destiny) of the velvet. "It hit me at Brooke Astor's black and white squeegee-man ball last year," Karan said. "I've never seen the homeless in velvet."

       At Karan's inaugural Prostrate Cancer Coalition dinner, then, there wasn't just to be no black. There was to be no velvet either. Finger food was banished. There was no rare sashimi tuna with a Mediterranean puree. It was celery sticks and leftovers from the Wendy's on 34th Street. Opening remarks were from New Age guru Deepak Chopra. But after a quick clearing of throat, he said nothing at all--a moment of startling, controversial silence broken only by the sound of actor Mark Wahlberg's grumbling stomach. At each place setting, Karan put a bottle of her new fragrance Chaos. But inside the bottle was not Chaos, but 5 milliliters of Zyvorizem, Pfizer's highly touted new prostrate cancer chemotherapeutic. "We sell beauty and glamour. We don't sell disease. But today we make an exception," Karan told the hushed audience. "Today we sell the disease to end the disease." It was as if, for an evening, all of Seventh Avenue had been turned upside down, so that what was chic a day ago was suddenly outré, and all that was outré was suddenly--and impossibly--chic. "Last year, when I gave up rayon for good and did my entire line in industrial plastics, I thought I was being brave," a unusually pensive Issac Mizrahi said, looking around in wonderment. (He looked frumpy in an orange FILA jumpsuit.) "Industrial plastics! What was I thinking?"
 Later, much later, after Michael Jackson and David Geffen and Ben Bradlee and Patrick Ewing and Michael Milken and every other member of the bi-coastal A-list had gone home, Karan allowed herself a few moments of reflection. She had thrown a Hofstra sweatshirt over her miniskirt and kicked off her clogs. Her brown hair was tied back in a red AIDS ribbon. She seemed suddenly larger than her 105 pounds--a size 4, perhaps, or even a size 6. In one hand was a white wine spritzer over ice ("My only vice," she allowed) and in the other a discreet handful of what looked like birdseed. "It's not hard to find a poster child for AIDS or breast cancer or leukemia," she said, her voice surprisingly soft. "But prostate cancer? Most of those who have it are middle-aged white guys. Face, it they're not very photogenic." She shrugged her shoulders. "Did you see Norman Schwarzkopf tonight? He's a survivor. But its not like he's--well ..." She paused, searching for a nice word. "If you put him in Armani, he'd look like he was trick-or-treating. Honestly. That's why we had to go ugly, so the real victims of this disease would fit in."
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker.