Look at Me, Look at Me. Please Look at Me.

Look at Me, Look at Me. Please Look at Me.


Published : September 17, 2006_The New York Times

Spend a week looking into the glass of fashion and you soon realize that the individual actually is the universal. Almost nobody — not the rich, not the celebrated, not the occupationally beautiful — has any true sense of how they’re perceived.

Models do not think they are too skinny. Actors do not find themselves handsome. Stars claim not to know what all the fuss is about. Our crazy cultural obsession with the perfected surface has become so absolute that everybody ends up having to work off some obscure psychic debt.

“I should have had a face a lot different than mine,” the actor and director and real estate mini-mogul Vincent Gallo explained backstage at the Bryant Park tents before the Anna Sui show on Wednesday.

Mr. Gallo looked wonderful, it should be said, his slightly crooked face set off by a chocolate felt fedora, his jacket shoulders structured to give him a Dick Tracy silhouette, his trouser legs flared in perfect Tony Manero fashion.

It would surprise some people to learn that Mr. Gallo had blond curls and a button nose as a boy. Then, one day — as suddenly as an event in a fable or a dream — he experienced his first “sex thoughts” and his nose grew large and his hair turned dark. And now he is a director famous for having persuaded Chloé Sevigny to be filmed performing on him an act whose name one is discouraged from printing here.

“People think I look scary and mean, and maybe I am scary and mean,” Mr. Gallo said. “But I always wished I had classic nerdy WASP looks.” He always wished, Mr. Gallo added, improbably, that he looked like George Will.

And Mischa Barton always wanted to be Meryl Streep, or at least as much like Meryl Streep as Lindsay Lohan got to be in “Prairie Home Companion,” or anyway like someone with a little more industry heft than the slightly-too-pretty girl who portrays Marissa Cooper on the hit show “The O.C.,” or did until her character was killed off in the usual mysterious automobile “accident” last May.

And that, one presumes, is why she seemed to be everywhere, always, throughout Fashion Week, as ubiquitous and ethereally beautiful as the Holy Ghost, although easier to capture on film.

And this may be the time to say to all those people who cruelly deride young actresses as relentlessly driven strobe-addicted publicity hounds that being one is hard work. Fashion shows are little more than job boards for actors. It is not, after all, as if starlets can post on Monster.com.

In just a day last week, Ms. Barton attended more fashion shows and fashion-related parties than most people with a real occupational reason to do so. Somehow she managed to change clothes and adjust her makeup and hairstyle for each one.

This behavior is far from rare during the fashion cycles. Isabella Blow, the outlandish fashion editor of Tatler, has sometimes switched costumes seven times in a day, a feat when you consider her taste for complicated millinery: hats in the shape of lips or flying saucers or festooned with dead birds. And a prominent Italian fashion editor is known, during the European collections, to hire a van that she fills with clothes racks, in order never to be photographed in the same outfit twice.

“I don’t get it,” one editor stage-whispered as Ms. Barton arrived at the Anna Sui show, and was instantly besieged by the exact same collection of paparazzi who had photographed her at the Matthew Williamson show an hour before. Ms. Barton’s freshness was astonishing, and in a way historical, her expression the exact same persuasive mixture of steely comprehension and practiced innocence that one finds in Colette (that is Colette the French writer, not Colette the Paris boutique).

“What’s she pushing?” the editor asked. But, honestly, what kind of question is that? What is anyone pushing anymore? When did Carmen Electra (nee Tara Patrick) start occupying the front-row seats once reserved for people who had highly developed ideas about kick pleats and the cut of a sleeve?

“At one time I wasn’t into it,” Ms. Electra explained before the Diane Von Furstenberg show on Sunday. “I was about sexiness.” By now any self-respecting Pussycat Doll knows what happens to those who fail to keep up with fashion. They turn up as pictorial one-liners in the Star.

“You have to be into fashion,” said Ms. Electra, echoing a particularly Warholian remark Hilary Swank made after she had spent a day hawking Guerlain’s new Insolence perfume (she sold $50,000 worth; shopgirls take note) at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“I think your image is part of your career because the career itself is commerce,” Ms. Swank told Women’s Wear Daily. Being good in business, as Warhol noted in “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),” newly republished by Harcourt, is “the most fascinating kind of art.”

And that is why, Ms. Electra, the singer/dancer/sexpot personality, said, “everybody has to have a stylist deciding everything and a manager who wants you to have a stylist doing that.” Of course, she added just as the lights went down, sooner or later everybody looks into the refrigerator and realizes there’s no milk.

“At some point, you’re going to dress yourself to go to the grocery store,” she explained, meaning without the aid of a paid professional. “And that’s when you get caught.”

Perhaps you want to be caught. Perhaps the celebrity loop has no beginning any more and no end. Perhaps the disheveled hair, the Ugg boots and the Juicy Couture sweats worn just low enough to reveal plumber’s cleavage are just another point on an arc of manipulated image. Perhaps that is what the photographer Steven Meisel — one of the shrewdest commentators of our age — was suggesting when he photographed an entire fashion pictorial for Italian Vogue aping the gotcha shots of celebrities doing their shopping or going to the gym. Nonchalance is dead. It went the way of privacy.

And this is why Dita Von Teese (nee Heather Sweet), the Michigan machinist’s daughter turned neo-burlesque star, now warrants the kind of security forces one might under other circumstances associate with Condoleezza Rice. “Clear a path, clear the way,” security goons wearing black sack suits and earpieces shouted to the Day of the Locusts mob attempting to cram itself into the Armory for Marc Jacobs’s show on Monday night. Flimsy Ms. Von Teese’s professional portfolio may be. But as an image manipulator she could give the Secretary of State a tutorial.

Who else could get so much mileage out of a pair of pasties? Well, actually one woman has. And there she was in the front row of the Bill Blass show on Tuesday, the performer best known for wardrobe malfunction and Nipplegate, seated alongside an array of Upper East Side spaniels, women of the sort for whom a hair out of place is a tragedy.

“Why am I here? Why not?” said Janet Jackson in a breathy whisper that sounds somehow less cutely affected now that she is 40. The answer is fairly straightforward. Ms. Jackson has a new album to promote. Its title is “20 Y.O.,” for 20 years old. Who says psychological malady does not run deep in families?

“I’ve known Michael for a long time,” Ms. Jackson went on to explain, referring to the Bill Blass designer Michael Vollbracht. “His clothes are classy, sexy and make you feel beautiful.”

What a funny notion that is. If Ms. Jackson were really in on the secrets of fashion, and not just dropping by in her shades and tourist’s hat, she would surely appreciate some of the more perverse paradoxes of the trade. Beauty, sexiness and class, if not exactly beside the point, are concepts that the industry has distorted almost to the breaking point. I cannot be alone in thinking it significant that models — whose job description might read: paragon — have somehow stopped being beautiful.

This is not to suggest that there are no longer gorgeous women on the runway. There was this week, most conspicuously, the luscious Hilary Rhoda, with her long legs and patrician profile a throwback to the classic lovelies of an earlier age.

There was also Cecilia Mendez, an obscure 18-year-old from Argentina imported by the agent Paul Rowland and transformed with a pair of shears into the season’s most desirable runway gamine. There was Doutzen Kroes, with her faraway look and shortened, pillowed upper lip. There was Freja Beha, a punky Danish teenager with mile-long legs, intelligent eyes and a profile that, far from being classical, suggests a creation from Geppetto’s bench.

But there was also an alarming number of women as expressionless as cyborgs, their prevalence, as some in the industry complained, a matter of editorial whim and not accident. “They’re these faceless, sexless things,” said James Scully, one of the industry’s most sought-after casting directors. “The editors say ‘I don’t care about personality, I want blanks.’ ”

“They want them so skinny now that I call them the Anne Frank girls,” he added. It is those same young sad sacks, with their concave chests and knob knees, that inspired Madrid’s city government to ban super-thin models from working during that city’s Fashion Week.

“It’s a problem for some of us in the business,” Mr. Scully said. But the problem does not necessarily end there. Fashion, after all, is in the business of pushing images. “I can’t imagine any woman looking at these girls and saying, “I want to look like that,’ ”said the casting director.

I can.