FRENZY ON THE FASHION RUNWAY

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Spring is here and in Milan and Paris (they begin today in New York) they've been showing the new ready-to-wear fashion collections to the buyers and the press.

For many years my professional life revolved around such moments: the French and Italian couture showings of higher-priced, mostly handmade clothing; and the annual spring and fall shows of off-the-rack fashion, less pricey but hardly cheap.

This year, they claimed, there was less emphasis on $50,000 a day cover girls prancing down the runway and more focus on the actual clothes. I'll believe that when I see them banning the paparazzi. Fashion loves clothes but drools over publicity.

For four years I covered the Paris collections as the Women's Wear Daily correspondent and for years after as publisher either of WWD or Harper's Bazaar. And I can tell you there is no more anarchic frenzy anywhere this side of a banana republic coup.

Conjure up all these brilliantly talented and slightly mad fashion designers with pins in their mouths basting up the final hem on the final skirt while rock music crashes and klieg lights dazzle and editors surreptitiously change place cards on the little gold chairs to improve their view and the paparazzi get into fistfights and when the collection starts an hour late, journalists hurl rolled-up programs at the runway and stamp their feet.

Bosnia is more orderly.

Inside the cabine of the mannequins, the most beautiful women in the world, half-naked, puffing away on cigarettes, cursing in four languages, elbowing for room at the mirror, ignore, as they would a piece of furniture, a mere wide-eyed reporter. Karl Lagerfeld may cattily refer to their "tiny little brains" and treat the models like gorgeous livestock. But the rock stars and the movie actors having flings with the cover girls (and may also consider them livestock) monopolize the front-row seats to the consternation of the editors. Anna Wintour or Mickey Rourke? June Weir or Richard Gere? No wonder designers have fainting spells and weep at the conclusion of every show.

I always enjoy Pierre Cardin, who routinely shows 300 dresses (an average collection might show 90) and then comes out, head cocked on his shoulder, to lecture the press on his own genius, until Italian editors cry, "Basta!"

My best pals in the couture are Emanuel Ungaro and Courreges and Valentino and Pipart and Yves Saint Laurent, so their collections are always fun, especially Yves, who showed to the other press Monday morning but would sneak us in Sunday night for a preview so we could cable and wirephoto New York and scoop the competition.

But my all-time favorite collection was Chanel's. Coco hated Cardin so she always scheduled her show to conflict with his, forcing editors to make agonized decisions. Then I would sit with Coco at the top of the stairs to watch the show while she chain-smoked my Gitanes and made bitchy remarks. "Look at that one," she would snarl of a famous editor, "fast asleep. Too much scotch at lunch. I'll show her the door next time. And that one, with the thick ankles. Ah, mon petit Indien, see this next dress. Rather nice, don't you think? Do light me another cigarette."

Because her view of America came largely through movies and I had dark hair then and a ruddy complexion, Coco believed I was a native American, and afternoons when we drank whisky and smoked cigarettes in her apartment over the salon I'd try to explain that I wasn't really a Sioux. She wouldn't listen but only pour the scotch and tell me more about fashion. And about life.

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