The Unsung Heros of NYC’s Fashion Week

New York Press
February 11, 2009

The runway shows are all gloss and sheen on TV. Draped in the latest androgynous silhouettes, preternaturally skinny Europeans strut down the catwalk to a techno-pop thrum. Cut to Anna Wintour eyeing the scene gravely from behind bug-eyed shades. The designer saunters out in a black T-shirt to oohs and aahs. The host emits a few vague words about the female form. A 10-minute formula of silk charmeuse and worked-over suede and—voila!—out in the suburbs, another batch of teenyboppers wants into Manolo land.

Allie—a 27-year-old Ivy grad who grew up in Westchester—used to fantasize in front of the TV, too. For the past five years, she’s climbed up the ranks of high-end European labels. Six months ago she landed a coveted job as a designer with an American luxury brand. When asked what Fashion Week—which starts on Friday, Feb. 13 in Bryant Park—entails, the tall, pale brunette tugs on a chunky wool sample scarf and fires off softly: “Castings, not sleeping, fittings and last-minute corrections—all hand-sewing, though.” After trailing off, she emphasizes, “not on the machines.”

It’s easy to see what lurks behind Allie’s little flare-up of pride: Last month she was laid off, and just today, she answered a Craigslist help-wanted ad for Stanley Adams Couture. After the suave start-up designer’s iPhone presentation, she realized he needed a seamstress. She admired his moxie—but not enough to take the job. “I told him I wouldn’t feel comfortable being the one to actually construct [his] garments,” she explains with a tinge of guilt.

This year’s Fashion Week remains a well-oiled machine; too much money’s at stake for it not to look good on the cable networks. Behind the scenes, however, it’s a shaky edifice built on youthful fantasies of making it. Several labels— including bigwigs Betsey Johnson, Donna Karan and Vera Wang—have cancelled their tent shows this year in favor of smaller “presentations.” After-parties are going to be hit even harder.

From an aesthetic level, it’s easy to long for the whole structure of excess that Fashion Week embodies to be wiped from the cityscape. But a lot of working people make a living during Fashion Week, and for them, the downturn means losing a paycheck. There’s a ripple effect that starts with full-time employees of labels—like Allie— and moves outward.

Fashion students’ first gigs are dressing the models. Hairdressers and make-up artists snag a lot of high-paying work during the spectacle. Then there are the models themselves. Don’t forget, they’re people, too.

Junior Socials, the Reluctant Boosters

The Bryant Park tent shows grew in stature during the super-model-loving early-1990s as an urban redevelopment scheme but were always a poor relation of Paris. The event doesn’t smack of the swinging art-school ethos of London, or possess the elegant tradition of Italy. After all, it comes out of the Garment Center: ready-to-wear, not haute couture; commerce over art. By its very nature, it’s aimed at the upper-middle class. And that means, whenever possible, big logos (it’s been re-branded the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week) and lots of accessories. To a certain extent, a NYFW enthusiast is probably a naif who hasn’t figured out the NYC class system. Everyone else is being paid for their time—even if just in swag and tabloid ink.

Marina Albright—a 26-year-old bicoastal socialite who runs a gallery and event space in Cooper Square with her stylist mom—is cagey about her dislike for Bryant Park. She openly admits to liking the clothing she sees in Europe more. “Based on the collections in New York, it’s very hard to tell what the trends are going to be,” she explains. It’s a typical equivocation: A lot of fashionistas don’t want to ruffle any feathers in the biz, so they play the role of reluctant boosters.

Rachelle Hruska—the gadabout behind the blog—has been covering the downturn reluctantly. Her website is all about glamorous socialites ordering bottles, after all. “There might be parties, but they won’t be in as nice venues,” she admits. Hruska claims that the health of the fashion houses all comes down to the thickness of the swag bags. “The swag [at these parties] used to be up to $500, but they got weaker and weaker this fall.” One of her writers chimes in with news confirmation that Marc Jacobs—after cutting 1,300 invites from his can’t miss extravaganza—has cited the less-is-more line and nixed the whole thing in an obvious cave-in to public pressure. That’s one party the socialites who won’t have to bite their nails about whether they’ve made the cut.

Ariel Moses, a hyperactive Columbia grad from the Upper East Side—and publicist for Uptown fixture Couri Hay— thinks he caved to public pressure. “Marc Jacobs could have his party, but it’s like the French revolution,” she half-jokes. “You have to spend less because you don’t want to get beheaded.”With an inimitable logic all her own, she adds, “In a recession everyone turns British.”
Warren Schmalberg: He knows the power of (fake) flowers

It may all be fun and games for the fashion flys, but for some this is serious business. Custom Fabric Flowers is an old fashioned factory located on the seventh floor of a West 36th Street office building. Warren Schmalberg, the 54-year-old second-generation owner
probably isn’t exaggerating when he says his business shouldn’t even exist. The big paunchy man with thin, graying hair and a pinkish pallor from spending his lifetime under fluorescent lights gives me the two-dollar tour. He points out 10,000 fabric
flowers, rows of sewing stations where Latino women sew and fold the
fabric. In the back, Big Alex, a 20-year veteran of the shop, is on the massive iron “click machine,” and “Magic Mustafa,” a Muslim with a skullcap, is drying out sheets of silky material on stone-age equipment.

The Long Island native gives me a short history in globalization: “By dollars-and-cents, we shouldn’t be here; by my accountant, we shouldn’t be here. But I love what we do, but I love what I do…”With a well-rehearsed pause he readies for the kicker: “You know everything’s made in China these days; there’s no garment center anymore.” Even with
less events, the added business from Fashion Week means 10 part-time workers in the shop instead of three. But it’s apparent times could be better.

Miriam Baez has been at the business for 30 years; she worked for his father, Schmalberg says. Looking up from a black silk flower, Baez—who is 60—smiles and says, “Thirty years this month.” Then her boss lays it on a little thick, launching into a spiel about his
pro-union philosophy and how much overtime the “girls” get. Baez rolls her eyes slightly. Picking up the slight annoyance, Schmalberg asks me rhetorically, “Do you believe she’s 60? She was the only pretty woman here when I got out of college.” Baez is smiling like a schoolgirl now.

Argeras, hairdresser on fire

Away from her battle station at Midtown Bumble and bumble—her knee-high calfskin boots curled up beneath her—Joey Argeras reminds me of Katie Holmes’ Dawson’s Creek character of the same name. But the 5-foot-3 stylist—a Queens resident by way of
what she calls “a one stoplight town” in Ohio—is a stone-cold veteran of Fashion Week. She’s been styling Amazonian models’ hair for three years now. Evincing real pride about her work, she tells me how she made it. “Oh, it was just overwhelming. At first, I was afraid I’d burn a model, but I wanted to do it so bad,” she recalls. “I don’t think I even got paid.” Flipping back her long natural, dark-brown locks, she smiles and continues with the memories.

“We were definitely the help—I don’t know, I just thought that hairdressers
would be more glorified in a way.” She lives with her boyfriend in Queens, and he doesn’t mind her putting in the long hours. Back home is a different story though. “In Ohio, I don’t think they even know what Fashion Week is,” she says with her good-natured laugh. “[To them,] stylists are like beauty school dropouts.”

Argeras is unwilling to sound too wary about the Bryant Park machinations except
to admit, “this one is going to seem weird with all the shows being smaller.” The idea of it being “weird” rings like a talking point whether it is or not, and I’ve heard it several different times. But she does admit to being over NYFW as a dream. She has a bigger match
coming up soon: Paris.Tentatively, Argeras lays out her case for why France is a more happening show. “I don’t think it’s as commercial, and it’s more high fashion.The hair is more interesting.” Growing as confident as André Leon Talley, Argeras says definitively, “In New York, they’re trying to sell the clothes.”

Stanley Adams, the optimistic designer

Even with a luxury market at its lowest level since the 1970s—and the city wracked with its Gilded Age hangover—there are still folks who want the dream. They come from the provinces and work themselves into a frenzy to get their clothing seen by a fashion editor or two. Designer Stanley Adams—a 29-year-old black man from Tennessee—is actually willing to pay for that privilege.To him, Fall Fashion Week is exactly what it looks
like on E!—or at least that’s how he spins it. “My ideals are more optimistic, I’m not worried about selling products. I just want to make my name.” With a combination of Southern charm and expressive urban cool, Adams elucidates why he can hack it in this cynical town. “I’m not into playing the starving-artist role,” he explains. “I have my day
job, so it’s more about showing what I got.” During the day, Adams designs young men’s wear for an Abercrombie-type brand; the type of stuff that middle-class dudes wear to the mall. He won’t mention the label because, according to him: “They don’t even know what I do.”

After his 9-to-5, he runs up to his studio in Harlem and makes feminine silhouettes. “I have to feel what I do; it’s more art than making hot, pretty clothes,” he says in his smooth baritone.

Adams is straightforward about bankrolling the show himself. It will take place in a West 30s showroom and will cost him $5,000 plus the clothing he makes. His fervent belief in his own star and DIY methods might open him up to charges of being hopelessly optimistic. If he can be accused of anything, however, it’s a willful naiveté. His tagline, “Creating the Fantasy,” seems to tacitly acknowledge that the fantasy is just as
much for him as the women he creates clothing for. Adams is a successful designer and Rhode Island School of Design grad—not a starry-eyed hick. He says he doesn’t really chat with his successful RISD classmates or stay connected with them. “I think Robert Geller and Nicole Ramsey are out there doing their own thing,” he says. Despite
his burning desire to be a part of the game his opinion on the aesthetics governing some of his peers is low. “It’s easy to make a product saleable; I want to make people to know who I am.” He’s the strongest supporter of Fashion Week I’ve met so far—none of those
little digs at its lack of class for him; he’s all in. “If you’re from America, you need to make your name in New York and then branch out to Europe,” he explains. “At least that’s my plan.”