AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY
Byline: Eric Wilson
Three months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, America is still coming to grips with the realities of a tenuous existence, living in a country that is at war with enemies both tangible and abstract.
The impacts of Sept. 11 have been deep on the economy, the psyche of consumers and the national morale. Virtually every industry suffered enormous loss at the hands of terrorism, but the attacks hit fashion designers at a particularly vulnerable moment, just at the beginning of the spring runway shows.
The models had already made their way onto the runway at maternity designer Liz Lange’s early-morning fashion show in Bryant Park when two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. It would have been one of the industry’s busiest and most exciting weeks, but instead, after dancing the night away at Marc Jacobs’s celebrity-packed party Monday night, New York faced a devastating moment.
More than 80 shows planned through the duration of fashion week were canceled, the tents were shut down and even one venue — the New York State Armory, where Donna Karan had planned to show — was converted by emergency workers into a center for victim services. The normal hustle and trade of Seventh Avenue came to a standstill, as executives figured out what to do with employees who had nowhere to go, and no way to get there. Oscar de la Renta, who was supposed to show in Bryant Park that day, instead stayed to comfort his workers stranded in his showroom.
“We are really in total shock,” de la Renta said, summing up the state of a city.
For the remainder of the week, there wasn’t much business to be done. Even as companies tried to get back to normal business, there were bomb scares and travel disruptions throughout the city, at department stores and tall buildings alike. The few people who did report to work found themselves distracted by the week’s events, but felt the effort was a better alternative to watching endless recountings of the horrible news on television.
There was also an immediate crisis to deal with for American designers, which was how to make up for the canceled shows. Most companies said they rely on images and press from the runways to help drive sales throughout the coming season, while others felt it was important to reschedule the shows simply as a means of closure to six months of work. While New York designers considered putting on collections in October, following the already scheduled presentations in London, Milan and Paris, the consensus was that since they were already completed, and given the spirit of reconstruction championed by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, that it would be best to show the following week.
About 20 companies did so in all, led by de la Renta that Monday. “Today, I am so proud to be an American,” he said, greeting guests as they walked into his showroom, rather than the giant tent he had planned to use on Sept . 11. “I am so full of joy because I am seeing the spirit of what it means to be an American.”
One of the most interesting side effects of the restructured fashion week was that editors and stores were favorably impressed with the scaled-down presentations, recalling the days prior to extravagant shows, when it was more about the clothes on the models than celebrities in the audience. “This is the way we all used to see the clothes,” said Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue. “This makes more sense than a runway show, especially with clothes that tend to be more simple, but also with more detail that you need to see close up.”
Calvin Klein invited editors to his showroom for personal tours of the spring collection, some of which was shown on mannequins lined up before the American flag. “It has been good to get back to work,” the designer said. “The last couple of nights, we were here until two in the morning, which was better than staying at home watching TV.”
Anna Sui, Michael Kors and several other designers hosted scaled-down presentations in their showrooms, while Style.com organized a group event for young designers at Carolina Herrera’s showroom. Ralph Lauren, wearing an American flag sweater, praised the city’s heroes with his collection, saying, “There has been one common thread that every hero has gone through: He comes from nowhere, and somehow, he makes it big, but then he gets knocked down. The one common thread is that he is able to get up again. I think we’re heroes. We’re going to stand up and be strong.”
As the weeks wore on, more and more people found the strength to move forward, looking for signs and symbols in the smallest of things. Even fashion had its moment.
Donna Karan, who, for the first time, sat in the audience for her show that week, greeted her audience by saying, “It’s so hard to go out, sit in a room with all these people and look at clothes. We’re looking for signs and symbols right now. It dawned on me that the spring collections are exactly that. A sign of tomorrow.”