Is Street Fashion the Only True Fashion?

Donna Karan Dress
Donna Karan designed it.

The only time I ever saw a runway show was by mistake. I was in a Seventh Avenue garment-district building elevator on my way to I don’t remember where when I apparently pushed a button for the wrong floor. When I got off, I was at a Fashion Week event-an Isabel Toledo collection, I think it was. I stood in the door, watched for several minutes, liked what I saw (but without smiting my brow in awed delight) and then decided I’d better get to where I was supposed to be.

I mention this, because the current late summer Fashion Week (showing spring 2014 notions) is just ending, and I need to explain that this column hitting cyberspace for the first time will have nothing to do with what’s transpiring on local Lincoln Center–and elsewhere in Manhattan and Brooklyn–runways.

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I’m not up on fashion terms. I have only a vague idea of what ruching is. The word “rick rack” makes me laugh. The whole idea of hemline changes causing global distress makes me laugh louder. (In the new century hemlines shifts no longer seem to be the headline grabbers they once were.) I only figured out what cutting on the bias means when I went to a Madeleine Vionnet exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris three years ago and watched an explanatory video.

My own dress code is dictated by preppy-rising-to-Ivy-League. I wore my first Madras jacket every summer for decades until it fell apart. I own not one but two pairs of saddle oxfords as well as one pair of rather clean white bucks. For years I wore button-down shirts but avoid them now for the “button-down” psychological implications.

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Most of the clothes in my closets have been designed by: Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, Hackett (the English chain threatening for some time now to open a Manhattan outlet), Michael Kors, Banana Republic (though I lament the loss of the original safari slant), J. Crew, The Gap. Footwear: Dexter loafers, Cole Haan, Kenneth Cole, K-Swiss, Tretorn. I record this info not to say it’s the only way to dress but that it’s my inured way of dressing and therefore a potent indication of where I’m coming from.

Incidentally, I once saw Bill Blass quoted as saying he never bought discount. I’m obligated to report I’ve purchased most of my wardrobe at sales. I live around the corner from a Goodwill Industries outlet where I get my ties and have for years-at least 150 of them for $.99 or $1.99. Why pay more-at today’s outrageous prices-when Goodwill is regularly stocked with designer ties obviously given to well-heeled men as presents but clearly never worn and so in time de-accessed by significant others? My extremely stylish mother, a superb bargain hunter, passed the knack on to me.

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Now I’ve said all that, you may be wondering why I feel qualified to write about fashion? I’m not, but I’m going to anyway on the theory that because we all observe fashion every day, we’re all qualified to register opinions. If we’re at all disposed to look around us and see what other people are wearing, we have the right to like or not like what we see.

I’m talking about street fashions, which the most sophisticated fashion writers concede may affect what designers turn out. To substantiate the claim, I mention jeans. When designers finally registered the effect Levis and Lee had on casual wear, they couldn’t move in on the trend fast enough. And stay there–cf. Ralph Lauren’s Denim and Supply. On the other hand, as Meryl Streep portraying Miranda Priestly declaims in The Devil Wears Prada, the most outlandish designer visions can show up on the street eventually, even if severely diluted.

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Okay, street fashion: I’ll begin by reporting I’m somewhat recently back from London, where it was men’s collections week, and Paris, which-correct me if I’m wrong-is still considered the preeminent fashion center. Now I’m in Manhattan, thought of as crucial to couture, too, as the latest Fashion Week attests. But would you guess any of this from the way the man or woman on the streets, avenues and/or boulevards is dressed?

You wouldn’t. Not only that. The citizens and tourists looked the same in all three metropolises, the same T-shirts and shorts, flip-flops, running shoes. You name the casual, economical style. Just about wherever you look, you see the identical reflection of stressful economic times, the identical suggestion that any sign of dressing up is ostentatious at a time when we’re all in this together.

The argument could be made that as the culture is indisputably being systematically dumbed down, clothes are merely following suit, pun intended. Another way of putting it is to suggest that where once, not that long ago, a clothing esthetic appeared prevalent, little sense of esthetics is present now-or, worse, very little concern that it’s disappeared. (I hear Milan is different, but I’ve never been to Milan.)

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Okay, I’ll take back some of what I’ve said where T-shirts are concerned. I read them, and even though some T-shirt wearers walk around with “Don’t bother me” expressions, the slogans on their chests belie their faces. Among recent favorites spotted are “Deny Everything,” “This Shirt Built a School in Africa,” “Cover Me With Chocolate and Throw Me to the Lesbians,” “I Would Cuddle You Harder” and “S m l B ck tt.” As a Samuel Beckett fan, I’m especially partial to the last one.

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Anyway, let me close by saying that walking the streets also includes looking in store windows. Therefore, I’m not cheating if I say I was passing Donna Karan’s Madison Avenue shop a few weeks back and noticed a dress that struck me as more than a dress: a work of art. I doubt I’m describing it accurately, but it was a soft shade of grey, the fabric (cupro) gathered in curving lines front and back above the waist and opening into fluid folds at the skirt. Were Cyd Charisse alive, she would have wanted to dance in it.

Never tempted to cross-dress, I nonetheless did something I’ve never done before and am unlikely to do again. I entered the store to find out more about the item: It’s part of Donna Karan’s pre-fall collection and is going for $2295. (It’s labeled a “Sleeveless Spiral Bateau Dress” on the Donna Karan website and retails there for $2495.) I usually go into sticker shock over the cost of men’s and women’s clothes and have my way of getting around it (see Soifer Haskin thinking above), but the cost(s) of this superlative number sounded like a steal to me.

Needless to say, I wasn’t about to buy it, and I suspect I’m unlikely to encounter a woman wearing it. My best guess is, it’ll show up soon at a late pre-fall party to which I won’t be invited. But at least as a break from shapeless jerseys, baggy shorts and sandals, I got to see it.