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Fran Lebowitz, an astute observer of the cultural scene, has a bone to pick with the fashion industry. She believes fashion shows aren’t as interesting as they were in the Seventies and Eighties, the models aren’t nearly as fun, and the celebrity frenzy has left something to be desired. In fact, she feels designers should pay reality stars not to wear their clothes. Although she had high expectations for the New York shows at Lincoln Center, she was underwhelmed.
“It was the same tents [from Bryant Park],” she said during an interview in Graydon Carter’s sprawling offices at Vanity Fair, where she is a contributing editor. “I don’t like anything in tents. It’s kind of like camping.”
This story first appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Known more for her wit than her productivity, the writer has two half-finished books still awaiting her attention. An HBO documentary about her life called Public Speaking airs on Nov. 22. She and Carter produced it, and Martin Scorsese directed. While her wardrobe centers on Levi’s 501s and Brooks Brothers shirts, Lebowitz says she loves clothes, and she shared some thoughts about fashion, the shows and where the culture is headed.
WWD: How do you determine which fashion shows you go to?
Fran Lebowitz: I have to have known you for a minimum of 30 years. I end up going to one or two others because someone says ‘There’s this kid. He’s really great,’ or it’s someone’s child. Generally I don’t go. I don’t enjoy it as much, not even close.
WWD: What do you think of the way fashion shows have changed and the front row chaos?
F.L.: It was tiny, the fashion world. It’s my opinion that a small environment is by definition, more interesting because it is not so inclusive. What’s wrong with the fashion world is what’s wrong with all aspects of culture. They become way too democratic. The culture is way too democratic; the society is not democratic enough. What would be better is if people participated in their democracy, and that was more inclusive, and participated in their economy, and that was more inclusive, and the culture would be left to the people who, I don’t know, are talented. This is a word that often becomes meaningless. You can’t give it to someone. Talent is something you’re born with. That is, in the present understanding of America, it’s un-American. You can’t gain it by either working very hard, an old-fashioned American idea, or wishing for it, which is the more common way. The word “dream” has replaced every other word practically. You hear people say to kids, “just go for your dream.” But that’s a lie and it’s stupid. What is a dream? A dream is a fantasy. To encourage a world based on fantasy is idiotic. Here’s a word that should be only used for people who fall asleep. I myself don’t dream because I never sleep.
WWD: Why don’t you sleep?
F.L.: I haven’t slept since I was 17. I’m up all night whether I’m home or not. I used to be out all night. But I don’t do that anymore. I’m way past the out-all- night age. People can call me at three in the morning without any fear that they would wake me up.
WWD: How do you function?
F.L.: Let’s face it, I am not a highly-functioning person.
WWD: How did you get interested in fashion?
F.L.: I love clothes. This is something you never hear about in the fashion world. No one talks about the clothes. How many people fit into those big tents? Hundreds? There aren’t that many people who know about clothes or care about clothes. The really big tent has the number of people you expect to see at a sporting event which I do not attend.
WWD: How many shows did you used to go to?
F.L.: I’d go to Calvin, and people I was friends with. When I was older, I would go to Paris. If you were around in the Seventies, there was Saint Laurent. When there’s someone like that, [it’s] very unusual in any field. I happened to be here when George Balanchine and Jerry Robbins were with the New York City Ballet, also Saint Laurent was designing clothes, and there was such a thing as the new Truffaut movie… There’s no one like Saint Laurent. There was no one then. This isn’t a thing of era. This was a thing of unusual talent. I’m not saying there are no good designers like that now. There are. I think Marc Jacobs is a good designer. But there’s no one like [Saint Laurent]. I would be surprised if anyone would say that there was. If they do, they are wrong. Even the models were different….
Anyone will tell you there’s never been a runway model like Pat Cleveland. These girls were fun. They had fun in the shows. You don’t see that anymore. Because it’s a giant business, and because the girls are different. These are basically boring girls who happen to be pretty. The supermodels in the Nineties were not great runway models. Back in the Seventies, you had Donna Jordan, Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison. Everybody knew everybody. It was very judgmental. People applauded the clothes. To applaud clothes, you have to know about clothes. People today don’t applaud clothes. In Paris, during the Collections the whole city seemed to be consumed by it. That is not true anymore. The whole city would talk about clothes. It was very snotty. It was a level of connoisseurship.
WWD: Did you actually buy the clothes you saw on the runway?
F.L.: I couldn’t afford it. I knew Geoffrey Beene. There was no one like Geoffrey. He was not highly popular. I adored him. I happen to own several jackets that Geoffrey made for himself in the Sixties but gave them to me in the Nineties. He called me one day and said, “I gained some weight, and I can’t wear these anymore, and thought you might like them.” His arms were shorter than mine, but I wear them anyway… The jackets were made of woven angora. I didn’t know there was such a thing. In the Sixties, he had some fabric mill make this fabric for him. I wear them even though they don’t fit. He would never fit me. They are great even not fitting. I have my suits and jackets made, but I never have shirts made so they don’t fit.
WWD: What’s a perfect shopping experience for you?
F.L.: I don’t shop. I only shop for blue jeans. I wear Levi’s 501s. I used to buy my shirts at Brooks Brothers but about 20 years ago, someone ruined the Brooks Brothers shirt department. An old salesman told me a woman single-handedly ruined the Brooks’ shirt department… Now they make them again, kind of. I will wear my Brooks Brothers shirts until they fall apart. Sometimes the laundry won’t do them and they come back. “No we won’t do them. They’re just going to fall apart and you’ll blame us.” Sometimes I have to write a note that I won’t blame them.
WWD: Do you still smoke? And how do you feel about restaurants banning smoking?
F.L.: It is absurd. It’s not just because I would prefer to smoke, how can you possibly imagine that it would make you sick? If you believe that sitting near someone who is smoking in a restaurant will make you die, then how can you breathe? The streets are full of cars. A very eminent scientist, who’s very anti-smoking and a friend of mine, he died, but he was always yelling at me about smoking and told me that the second-hand smoke thing is not true. Everyone knows the EPA data on second-hand smoke was fudged….It’s illogical. Everyone would be dead. I’m no spring chicken. My mother, who is alive, or at least she was this morning, smoked when she was pregnant with me and my sister. When I tell this to people they say “that’s why you’re so short.” But my sister is 5’11 ½. We lived our whole childhoods in smoke-filled places, and we’re alive. When I was a child, I never heard of asthma… Today, every child has asthma. Here’s what asthma is caused by? A lack of second-half smoke. That is my theory.
WWD: Do you have any unwritten books that are awaiting being published?
F.L.: I have two unwritten books. I owe two books to Knopf and I have for many, many years. I have two unfulfilled book contracts. Each book is half finished. One is a novel and one is a long essay. I did propose recently to Knopf, “Look I have these two books that are half finished. Put them together and [clap] we have a whole book. One side is the novel, and you read half way through and you turn it around and you read the other half. People wouldn’t even notice. They’d be grateful to me.”
WWD: You used to write columns for Mademoiselle and Interview that became part of your books of essays. (Metropolitan Life and Social Studies) What was that like?
F.L.: [The Mademoiselle column] paid $300 a month. It was three times my rent. I felt like I was rolling in wealth. The first time I went to bring my column, they thought I was such a bad influence on the girls at Mademoiselle. They told me “don’t come up; we’ll send a messenger.” I wasn’t expelled. I was barred. They thought I wasn’t a Mademoiselle-type girl. They didn’t want me roaming around the offices. As soon as I could give up monthly deadlines, I did. I really haven’t written a lot since then.
WWD: Why did you stop writing?
F.L.: I don’t know. If I knew, I would be writing. I think I am so resistant to authority that I’m even resistant to my own authority. I will not be edited, and it kept me out of the magazines when I was young until my first book came out… Here’s why. If you are a better writer than I am, write it. I used to go to the printer at Interview to make sure they didn’t make mistakes [in my column]. I was insane. There would be a typo and it would ruin my life for the month. I would be in agony. I felt like going to every newsstand and taking every magazine and fixing it. Finally, I was barred from the printers at Interview.
WWD: Do you have interest in writing right now?
F.L.: Yes, I have an interest. I’d like to finish these books. It’s not like I decided I didn’t want to write. It’s some sort of affliction, obviously.
WWD: What made you decide to do a documentary?
F.L.: It was Graydon’s idea. He said he wanted to do a documentary about me, and I said “no.” When I was young in my 20s, the BBC did a documentary about me and by the time they left, no one I knew or was related to was speaking to anybody else. It was a horrible experience. I never saw it. I don’t know if they ever aired it… I seem to be the only person alive who doesn’t want people following them around with cameras. I am the only person alive who believes in boundaries. This is public, this is private. This I’m telling you, this I’m not telling you. Not because there’s some great mystery or scandal. To me, that’s what separates human life from animal life, frankly. I believe in civilization. To me it seems uncivilized.
WWD: What was the movie-making process like?
F.L.: I had no idea what movie Marty [Scorsese] was making. I was the exact opposite with this movie than I am with my writing. In other words, is this a collaboration? No, this is not. This is Marty’s movie. Because it’s Marty, because I have due admiration, I didn’t really know what he was doing. I saw this movie seven times and I’ve seen seven different movies. That’s how different it was when it was edited. I love the form of documentaries. I’ve never seen one like this. It’s really unusual. It’s not about my life. No one is following me around. You don’t see me doing any personal. The archival footage is about what I think.
I had a meeting with Marty. I’ve known him for many years. He says, “OK, here’s the deal. We never leave Manhattan. Is that OK?” That was the deal. No contract, nothing. Now of course there are millions of contracts. The handshake is “we don’t leave Manhattan.” A lot of it was shot two years ago. Some of it was shot as recently as this May. The stuff we shot in May was additional footage to what was shot two years ago. The bad part was getting a phone call that “we’re sending over some stills to see what you were wearing [two years ago].” I was wearing an overcoat, a scarf and gloves. And this day, there was a major heat wave, and we had to wear these clothes. All the people on the street were wearing T-shirts. All the crew bought coats so they’d be walking by, so it wouldn’t look like I was a maniac in the street wearing three thousand layers of clothes and everyone else is wearing a T-shirt.
WWD: There is a lot of talk about fashion shows moving to the Internet, and people wouldn’t have to go to shows. Do you think that’s a good thing, or a bad thing, since you don’t own a computer?
F.L.: I am absolutely for that. It seems so old-fashioned to have these shows. If you’re going to have an actual fashion show, it should be small. It should be knowing. It should be the opposite of these giant hockey games they have now. If you want every single person on the planet to relate to it, then of course it belongs on the Internet. It’s ridiculous. It’s a waste of money and it’s a waste of time.
I don’t care what these people say, you can’t convince me the clothes business is good. All these very expensive clothing companies way over-expanded. Let’s be honest here. Bags cost $5,000. There are absolutely girls who can buy $5,000 bags. They’re a tiny group of people, even if you add them all up. If that brand has stores in every mall in the world, who’s buying them? They’re going on credit cards that people cannot pay. The fashion shows should be on the Internet. Absolutely. It is unbelievably old-fashioned to the point of quaint to have these stupid tents. I was really surprised. I thought the reason they were moving to Lincoln Center was to use Lincoln Center. And then I get there, and there were the same tents. In fact, these were actually the same tents. The tents moved. Why? I thought they would use the theaters, and thought, “that’s a good idea.” The environment inside a tent is horrible. People have parties in tents. It’s kind of like camping. It’s horrible.
WWD: What do you think of all the reality TV stars at the shows?
F.L.: There is this general interest in these fashion shows that is a general interest in celebrities. It’s not a general interest in clothes. If I was a designer, I would pay these people not to wear my clothes. I would send them checks. I would get a list of all the people on reality television and send them a check if they would promise not to wear these clothes. Every month you don’t wear the clothes, here’s a check.
WWD: What do you think of reality stars, such as Kim Kardashian, getting their own lines?
F.L.: This is not fashion. This has nothing to do with clothes and certainly has nothing to do with style. To me, to let the very lowest level of the culture run the fashion business is idiotic. What could be less fashionable? The fashion business itself should worry about becoming more fashionable. In the end, you devalue the thing….To me, to have an entire trash culture is not a question of going forward or backward, it’s a question of going downward. I hope it goes up and forward. It’s at such a low level now. Madonna has a line now. I rest my case.
WWD: Whom do you admire in fashion today?
F.L.: Sometimes I’ll see clothes I like. I love Azzedine Alaïa. Could I possibly wear that? Not in a million years. If I ask someone who made that dress, they’ll say “Azzedine Alaïa.” There are plenty of people who are talented. I didn’t follow fashion. I was in it. When I led a certain type of life, I’d go back and forth a lot between Paris and New York, it was my environment. Now it’s all over the world, and it’s endless. My friends who are actually in the fashion business are always at fashion shows. It’s non-stop. That would seem to be bad for business. If you’re not selling the stuff, stop making it. Make it scarcer.
WWD: Do you think Calvin got out at the right time?
F.L.: You should ask Calvin. I don’t know. I think that Calvin never had that kind of thing at a show. Of all the designers, when Calvin was working, he made very little effort to court celebrities, even real ones. I don’t remember Calvin’s front row being packed with movie stars. Real movie stars used to come [to shows in Europe]. I remember going to Saint Laurent shows in Paris and Catherine Deneuve would be there. Catherine Deneuve is a movie star, but she wore those clothes and she looked great.
American movie stars used to be noted for their horrible clothes. They don’t know how to dress. They’re actors. That’s why in the Eighties, they all gravitated to Armani. He told them what to wear. And now, that’s why they have stylists. Calvin wouldn’t send a million dresses so people would wear them to the Academy Awards. The reason they used to care if someone wore a dress is that all the garment manufacturers would knock it off. There used to be a garment business here. We used to be in the middle of the biggest industry in the U.S. They made clothes here. They had factories here. Is that a better urban business than bringing these hillbillies to lie around in the middle of Times Square in lawn chairs?
WWD: You don’t like the lawn chairs in the middle of Times Square?
F.L.: He [Mayor Bloomberg] has managed to make Times Square squalid without sex. It used to be squalid with sex. Now it’s squalid, no sex. It went from fast sex to fast food. Better fast sex, and it smelled better. It’s revolting. It’s disgusting. I come out of the subway, I can’t figure out where I am. They keep painting the ground a different color. Times Square needs to be cleaned up and put back.
WWD: Have you ever been to China?
F.L.: I would go to China if someone would give me a ride. I’ve been to Japan.
WWD: You don’t have a cell phone, or a Blackberry or a computer. Don’t you want to be part of this high-tech movement?
F.L.: I guess not. People think I’m opposed to modern machines. I never had a typewriter. I’m not interested in machines. Never cared about them. I don’t know how to work them, and I don’t care about them. I feel it’s very unfair that I live in an era where all the innovation is in machines. The culture is really old and retrospective, and machines are really new and exciting, but they’re only exciting if you’re interested in machines, which I’m not.
Do I feel left out? No, I don’t. People still are able to find me. When I’m in the street, I’m experiencing the street, and I’m the only one. I have it all to myself. I notice things, and other people do not notice them, so I feel like I won. They’re on the phone, they’re on the Blackberry. The point of living in the city, one of the things I love about urban life, is the street. I walk everywhere…All these people on the street on the Blackberrys are not that important. Because if they were, they wouldn’t be in the street. They’d be in a helicopter. I have a dual personality. Half of me is very gregarious. I’m a lounge lizard; I love parties and love to go out. The other half likes to be solitary. I like to be by myself a lot. I’m not that essential. I am ready to be the president of the U.S. I can solve every problem. I have all the solutions. If people would let me be the president, I would be the president. But since they don’t let me be the president, they don’t have to find me.
WWD: What do you think of Michelle Obama’s style?
F.L.: I think she’s great looking, especially compared to last several First Ladies. I know everyone loves her clothes. I don’t. The truth is, she’s Midwestern. To me that’s what characterizes her clothes. Chicago is a great city, but it’s a Midwestern city. She wears the clothes of a Midwestern woman. I think she should wear what she wants to wear. She has a lot of physical confidence. Girls can learn from that kind of thing. She’s an attractive woman, but not the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She has a flair in the way she carries herself more than how she dresses.
WWD: Who do you think are today’s role models?
F.L.: I think there are lot of people who are role models who shouldn’t be. All that people admire now is money or fame.
WWD: Do you think Lindsay Lohan will ever get out of this mess she’s in?
F.L.: No, you know she won’t. The reason? We’ve seen this a billion times. People don’t turn into different people. You can not wish things into existence. People go to jail and they come out worse. They don’t come out better.
WWD: Describe to me a perfect day.
F.L.: To me, a perfect day is a night.