OPRAH'S FASHION VICTIM

Byline: Bridget Foley

NEW YORK--"How would you like to do Oprah?" came my editor's inquiry.
"I'd love to interview her." "I mean the show."
Live on tape--why not? Hadn't I spent part of my third birthday on the Freddie Freihofer show at WRGB in Schenectady? Stole the show, according to family sources.
Ellin Saltzman and Evyan Metzner of Mademoiselle were to be cohorts in this Chicago spree. We'd make a sympatico group, and Oprah's supposedly into clothes--it should be a hoot. The show airs today on WABC at 4 pm. My telephone contact at Winfrey's Harpo Studios was an associate producer whose voice just oozed youthful, exuberant efficiency. Women are confused by fashion, she explained, and each guest would have an instructional mandate. Ellin, forever on the best-dressed list, would discuss the classic wardrobe. An "image consultant" was going to take real women shopping, to show that "not all trends work for everyone." There would be a section on clothes for larger women, an amusing spot on tossing out old shoes, and the results of an audience poll about fashion gripes--things like ill-fitting jeans and ugly shoes.
My predetermined platform was that women should not be afraid of fashion. To illustrate my point, the producer asked that I round up some wild clothes--the wilder the better. "Tell these women that this is what they have to wear if they want to be fashionable."
Hold the neon vinyl. Directional fashion isn't for everyone, I said, and I wouldn't want the audience to think I'm suggesting that they dress verbatim from the runway. "No, no, no--just say what you think, and stick to your guns. And could you fax us a few words?"
While I chose hot pink, glitter and fake fur to make my points, I opted for something more discreet for myself. With mitered Marc Jacobs pinstripes and patent mary janes in tow, I headed for the airport, where I met Ellin. In Chicago, we went straight to Harpo for evening prep work before the morning taping. We were shown to a hallway, no frills, no water pitcher--definitely no Oprah. Just a typical fashion mess: assorted racks, boxes and bags all over the floor. Evyan, who had made the trip with Sarah Duffy-Edwards, Mademoiselle's p.r. person, was already at work putting her outfits together. I watched a run-through of Ellin's classic wardrobe segment. That's when we met an oh-so-spunky blonde producer with a touch of the Southern belle in her voice. She assured us of her love for fashion, explaining that she liked to counter her "perky anchor look" with trendy clothes. In fact, she was just dying to wear those new over-the-knee socks, but her thighs are just too thin to keep them up.
Ellin presented her classics. "What's with the white shirt, Ellin?" barked the director, an expatriate New Yorker. White doesn't do well on camera.
Meanwhile, I tried for more information. What happens first? What next? "We just let Oprah set the tone," the producer said.
I persisted. Evyan and I were to be first out, with the other panelists. Huh? A previously unmentioned trio of civilian women would be on hand to discuss their fashion concerns. There would also be a real-life fashion show styled by the man who introduced himself to us as "the world's leading image consultant," and so on through Ellin's classic wardrobe.
We had requested an early pickup the following morning, insisting that we had to dress the models. Once again, there was no overwhelming sense of organization, and no Oprah sighting. What about the models? In a minute. Finally, we bumped into post-workout Oprah, in her jogging suit. No formal introductions, no thanks for coming, although she did answer when Ellin asked if she'd put in her 2.5 hours of morning exercise. "Just an hour-and- a-half this time," she said--and was off.
At last we got to dress the models. I should have realized it would be a long morning when one of them all but refused to wear Marc Jacobs and another sweetly insisted she looked like a hooker in Mizrahi.
We heard in passing that proceedings would be delayed because one of the women was tied up in traffic. Mr. Image was running around holding a Moschino message vest intended for on-air use, and he kept asking us how to pronounce the designer's name.
Finally, Evyan and I were shown to our seats on the soundstage, facing scores of Oprah fans. The civilian panelists joined us, and we chatted until the cameras rolled. At least one of them had been this route before; last year, she and her family had given up television for a month, all in the name of Oprah.
The star entered, perfectly coifed, Mizrahied and Blahniked, to the roar of the crowd. Her crowd. The cameras rolled for her intro. Loosely paraphrased: "Are you fed up with the ridiculous clothes you see in fashion magazines? Today, women sound off on their gripes on fashion, and we have some editors from New York who tell you what they think you should be wearing this fall."
I'm sick. I sensed that Evyan, to my right, was not much healthier. But the camera went to me first, and I spewed something foolish. Evyan did much better. In introducing the other panelists, Oprah gave their ages--32, 30, 25. They, and their pals in the audience, couldn't wait to assault us about what's wrong with fashion, with designers, with us.
Too short, too tight, too pricey we can live with. But silly? Out of touch?
During the first break, Sarah popped up onstage. "We've been had," she said. "Just smile and do the best you can. Talk choice, talk options."
Try talking choice when Oprah shows a video of Naomi Campbell falling off mile-high Vivienne Westwood platforms. Or when a parade of attractive, real women has been decked out by Mr. Image to look ludicrous. I attempted to defend DKNY neoprene: The accessories kill it. But the crowd didn't buy that--or anything else. The Marc Jacobs outfit, a shearling jacket and fake leopard skirt, came out and was booed off the stage, even if it was New Length. Well then, what middle American mom wouldn't cotton to Anna Sui's wide, fuchsia horizontal stripes, capped off with a fake fur hat the size of a small UFO?
Evyan's basics--Vivienne Tam and the like--fared much better, except for age-based complaints: Great for my daughter but not for me, wailed the 30s and the 32s.
Ellin finally hit the stage. Jumped right in to defend fashion, even before she was introduced. During a break, someone official dropped by to tell her that the show was behind schedule, and they'd probably just skip the classic wardrobe. Sure, why show something these women might relate to, when they're having such a good time toying with the fashion fools?
Audience comments were peppered with sizing complaints. What's a large woman to do? Enter Mr. Image, with another lineup of real women, this time all larger sizes, dressed in clothes he thought were the cat's meow. A designer of large sizes got up to take a bow. The audience loved it.
"This has become a show about large sizes," Ellin whispered into my left ear. "This is a show about fat people," Evyan echoed on the other side.
At a break, Sarah crept up behind us again. "Evyan, you look like you're having your appendix out. You've got to smile."
When the show ended, Oprah quickly shook our hands and went to grace her exiting flock with her presence. We were each handed a boxed mug and shown to a car. Ellin, Evyan and Sarah headed straight for O'Hare, while I took off for Ultimo.
Every salesperson there hailed my mitered pinstripes. "Do you work for Marc?" one asked. I introduced myself as a WWD staffer. "Well," she said, "we knew you were one of us."

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