THE BODY POLITIC
NEW YORK — Art and fashion have been linked since Helen of Troy first had the local toga guy drape hers just so. But in 1965, when Yoko Ono invited audience members to cut off pieces of her clothing in “Cut Piece,” performance art and all its politics collided with the traditional fashion show — and something clicked. In less deft hands, that combination can be absolutely torturous. After all, not every young designer has the capacity to wow the jaded professionals and entertain their rowdy friends at the same time. Looking back, one of the best of such meetings of the motives came about in 1996, when designers at the now-defunct label Bernadette Corp. invited the Bishop Loughlin Lions Cheerleading Squad to perform a half-time routine complete with grizzly-bear mascot on their runway.
This season, though the smallish loft on the Lower East Side where Michael Sears and Hushi Mortezaie showed their Michael and Hushi collection couldn’t accommodate such antics, they brought back the exuberance of those days of old. The designers’ friends sat cross-legged in the near dark on top of Oriental carpets while Iranian princesses in full post-millennial regalia stormed the runway. They wore fantastically flounced lace gowns splashed with anti-imperialist slogans in scrolling Persian script or washed denim harem pants and pieces that re-worked the classic Palestinian scarf to great advantage. One scarf dress, cut on the bias and delicately tiered, looked worthy of some fancy atelier — both in attitude and precision — and the two did the whole show on a $5,000 budget. Neither attended fashion school, but Sears says he learned to sew while working in a factory making dashboard covers for cars. “It was a $5-an-hour job,” he says. “But if you can make a dashboard cover, you can make anything. It’s all the same.”
Of course, during the past four years they’ve also had practice in creating cool fashion for their popular East Seventh Street boutique, a source of “inspiration” for designer and stylist alike.
While the Palestinian scarf is a symbol of Middle Eastern solidarity, the designers explain that their message is simple. “The scarves are political,” says Moretzaie, who is himself Iranian. “But we use them as beautiful pieces of fabric. We respect the tradition, but we turned it into something that isn’t oppressive. Our collection was about empowerment and using traditional elements to create glamour.”
“I’m from the Midwest,” Sears adds, “so for me the scarves look like a cross between houndstooth and gingham.”
While Matt Damhave and Tara Subkoff, the duo behind Imitation of Christ, went to great pains to convey their own political message this season, the results were considerably more oblique. Their concept was threefold. First, the political. The show’s invitation announced the designers’ intention to collect a “suggested donation” of $150 from anyone attending the show to be made payable to Free the Children, an organization that fights child labor, or Sweatshop Watch. But when Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys New York, one of the stores that carries the label, asked for background literature on both, his ticket was held hostage. “I started to tell the woman working there that I give money to CARE every Christmas and about Aid to Artisans, an organization that helps set up factories in developing countries,” he says. “But she said, ‘I’m not going to give you your seat unless you give me $20.”‘ Doonan coughed up the dough.
Once the guests were properly browbeaten and shown to their seats in an Upper East Side movie theater, they watched as live images were transmitted directly from the red carpet at the front door to the big screen. Haggard editors and retailers made their arrivals, then models in sparkling pageant dresses, including Chloe Sevigny, vamped for the camera and entered to take their seats. That was the fashion part.
During the third episode, Subkoff and Damhave showed a film they made with Jonathan Craven, son of Wes, an allegorical propaganda piece starring Reese Witherspoon and Lisa Marie Burton as a wealthy but woesome party hostess who downs a bottle of pills and does herself in during a debauched party. The lighting and camera work are terrific, but the thing isn’t interesting enough to be art, and it isn’t potent enough to be political. Meanwhile, on a tiny ancillary screen, a documentary about garment workers played. “They should have reversed the two,” quips Doonan. It reminds one of another moral lesson — people in glass houses shouldn’t cast stones. Especially if they’re selling reworked thrift store finds, beautiful though they may be, and selling them for exorbitant prices.
Few shows, however, are less pretentious than Magda Berliner’s was. The Los Angeles designer, who showed in New York for the first time this season, invited a small coterie of friends, supporters and professionals to Stanley, an impossibly narrow shop on Ludlow Street where nine models walked once up and once back in her quirky, romantic creations, including a teal lace dress with side buckles and a leg ‘o’ mutton-sleeved leather bolero. When one model and the designer herself came out wearing false mustaches, however, it seemed that once again politics were at play. Did Berliner have some message to impart? Something about gender and society perhaps that she wanted to append to her stylistic agenda perhaps? Thankfully not. “There was some cheek to it,” Berliner admits. “But wearing the mustaches was just for fun. I don’t do political statements. I leave that to others.”