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Andrew W.K. Reflects on 10 years of I Get Wet

Sitting in Webster Hall’s tiny greenroom, Andrew W.K. is two hours away from celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his debut, the party-metal landmark I Get Wet, with his adopted hometown. For a city that parties damn hard, the expectations are at a fever pitch for a show that will leave revelers’ brains dripping from their nostrils. AWK is in that calm-before-the-storm place. He’s sporting dirty white jeans and a stretched-out white(ish) T-shirt—the outfit that has become his second skin. On his head, there’s a black baseball cap with “Party Hard” stitched into it. Wayfarer-like sunglasses with iridescent lenses hide his eyes for the duration of our interview. On stage, he’s a maniac Mozart, but when not rabidly conducting his smitten minions, the dude is really shy and polite. “Is it too loud in here?” he asks while a cluster of photographers snap away. “Is this private enough?” Hands in his lap and with perfect posture, he sits beside me.

“I couldn’t be more grateful and more amazed by the incredible offerings, dedication, energy, and support that everybody else who isn’t me has given this [project],” AWK says. “That’s the one thing that you realize more and more and more: It’s not only that you never did it on your own, but what truly gives meaning and value to any long-term effort is the other folks.”

The endurance of AWK’s party is one of the most remarkable aspects of this whole phenomenon. I Get Wet has never left my regular rotation; I can’t even say that I’ve revisited the album because I never put it away in 10 years. The reason has something to do with the physical response the music imparts: being positively fucking psyched simply to be inside my own skin. My kitchen calisthenics inspired by “Ready to Die,” “She Is Beautiful,” and “Fun Night” would melt the spandex off Richard Simmons. Unlike most albums of the past decade that I loved, I Get Wet is more effective at making me lose my shit now than it was when I first heard it.

For AWK, what really blows his mind to smithereens is the way both fate and serendipity engineered his path to partying. “There were so many ways that the road could have split off at any one time,” he says. “That it went this route is miraculous.” Born in California in 1979, Andrew Wilkes-Krier was raised in Michigan and moved to New York City in 1998 to make music. “As soon as I ever heard about a place called New York City . . . there’s those moments in life where it’s not a dream or a hope or a desire, it’s your destiny speaking to you from the future, saying: ‘The reason you’re so excited isn’t because you want to go do it. It’s because you’re going to do it, and I’m getting you excited.'”

He signed to Island Def Jam and recorded I Get Wet, which finished at number 28 in the Voice‘s 2002 Pazz & Jop poll. AWK’s giddy mix of thrash metal’s riffs, hardcore’s drumming, and Mannheim Steamroller’s symphonic jubilation relays a joy that is palpable and irrepressible. There’s so much bleeding-heart sincerity in every note, it renders the album’s mindlessness moot.

“There was no thought to a lot of that music,” AWK says. “It was just a feeling and a drive to get to a feeling. If it made me have the energy to get through the rest of the workday, then that was good enough.”

Back then, his workdays were spent building the interior displays at Bergdorf Goodman, and it was there that the album title first entered AWK’s lexicon. “I was just marching through the hall and just started thinking, ‘I get wet, get wet,'” he says. “It was one of those ideas where there really wasn’t any idea to it at all. At the time, I probably would have been more embarrassed about that. . . . But I’m more fascinated now.”

More than any other factor, the spirit of New York City has been the divining rod. When AWK attempts to ruminate on this, it momentarily leaves him speechless. “Everything that happened since I got here . . .” he says, “it’s completely devastating in the best way. I’m just completely devastated.”

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A Stroll Through Fashion Week Shindigs

Many years ago, before the cutest among you were born, I coveted a dress at Bergdorf Goodman by Isabel Toledo. As I recall, it cost $88, but at the time, like Rose in Gypsy, I didn’t have 88 cents. So I did what any other American would do: I opened a Bergdorf’s credit card. Since the price of the dress far exceeded my weekly income, I soon defaulted, a situation brought painfully home to me when I had my hair cut at BG (hey, why not?) and, attempting to pay, was summoned to the store’s credit department, where they scissored the card right before my eyes.

This ancient history comes to mind as I slither into my gold chair, credit long restored, at the Rainbow Room luncheon sponsored by FIT’s Couture Council honoring Toledo, the first of what seems like hundreds of Fashion Week parties. I have a wonderful time at this event—Joey Arias, a friend of Toledo’s from Fiorucci days, channels Billie Holiday in half-drag! Reuben Toledo designs place mats you can take home!—even though I am as hot as a boiled lobster because, like a fifth grader on the first day of school, I insist on wearing my new Roland Mouret coat, bought at 75 percent off expressly for this occasion.

After staring at Manhattan laid out in all its pristine splendor 65 stores below, I turn to greet Dr. Lisa Aerin, a dermatologist and couture client who is just the kind of Richie Rich I always hated until I actually met such a person. I adore Dr. Lisa, especially when she tells me that her Berry gets daily e-mail alerts telling her how the dollar is doing against the euro. (Even couture clients, it turns out, are watching their wallets.) And good news: Our economy is not the only one that’s sinking! Europe is tanking too, and the exchange rate, though still dismal, is actually improving.

Buoyed by the impending demise of the Old World, I make my way to Hermès for the opening of a Josef Albers exhibit, and soon find myself in deep conversation with a gaggle of fashion types, all of whom are fishing around to see if I’ve been invited to any of the more fabulous parties of the week. Calvin Klein on the High Line? Tyra at the Harper’s Bazaar soiree? Do I think Kate Moss will be at the Interview party at the Standard Hotel? I shrug. I’m not sure Kate’s in town, I manage weakly, though in fact unless Moss was mainlining in my bathroom, how would I know?

Still sweltering and refusing to relinquish that coat, I subway down to Christie Street, to the Paper magazine dinner at the Box. (It’s not like I’m invited to nothing. Just not all that much.) I love the Box, which looks like a down-at-the-heels turn-of-the-century bordello even though it was built from scratch only a year or so ago. At my table, a tiny girl in a spongy Balenciaga molded dress says she forgot to put on underpants and had to make an emergency stop at Baby Gap. I want to hear more, but there’s a floor show by the Citizens Band, a group of louche lefties who present a Weimar-ish cabaret, beginning with a sarcastic paean to gasoline in ersatz-Brecht tones. Digging into my peach cobbler, I notice that the table is sprinkled with pennies. I assume this is meant as a saucy critique of capitalism. But no, it turns out that the party is sponsored by Cole Haan, which is relaunching the penny loafer.

After the show, Citizens Band member Sarah Sophie Flicker, resplendent in a spangled, flesh-colored leotard and a glittery kitty-cat hat, exhorts me to join her in Florida to knock on doors and register voters. But Sarah, I moan, what would we wear? They’ll slam the door right in our faces! “Vogue T-shirts and jeans and little scarves!” she says. Then someone from the podium announces that the after-party is at Socialista (after-party? Wasn’t this a party?), the irony of which I am too exhausted to unpeel—and besides, I have to rush home to hear a certain dog in lipstick give a speech.

The next day, I skip the Andre Serrano dinner in honor of his photos of excrement because, frankly, having written the cover story for the Voice about this show, I am literally sick of the subject. (Besides, what would be on the menu: shit on a shingle? Shiitake mushrooms?) Instead, I go up to Barneys to celebrate its launch of a menswear collection named for a fictional character called Benjamin Bixby, an event hosted by Charlize Theron and Andre 3000. Charlize is nowhere in sight, and because I am a moron, I mix up Andre 3000 from Outkast with Andre J, the guy with a beard who wears dresses, was on the cover of French Vogue, and used to work at Pat Fields.

Barney’s Bixby character apparently lived in the glowing days of the Great Depression, since, in a feat of prescience—on the very day of this fete, the Dow is down over 300 points—the lines includes boat-neck pullovers emblazoned with 1935 ($350, made in China) and foppish hounds-tooth knicker suits (that’ll be a big seller).

Onward! It’s time to hoof it to “Art Fashion” at Christie’s, where an archive of old clothes collected by the duo behind the Resurrection vintage stores is on display. The sound of champagne glasses smashing in such close proximity to irreplaceable Courrèges coats and Poco Rabbanne metal dresses makes me quail with nerves, but the Christie’s people seem unperturbed. I only wish the crowd, mostly clad in boring little black dresses and towering heels, had spruced up more in the spirit of these wacky ensembles. And where is Agyness Deyn—misspelled as “Agnyess Dean” on the elaborate invite? Actually, maybe she’s here, since I am notoriously unable to distinguish one pixieish blond from the next. (I suffer from prosopagnosia, a/k/a face blindness—not a joke—but more on this subject some other time.)

Appetizers not quelling my appetite, I buy a bag of pretzels and hop on the train for the short ride down to FIT for the opening of “Gothic: Dark Glamour.” Despite the cult of darkness suffusing the atmosphere, the guests, unlike those dolts at Christie’s, have dressed for the event in lugubrious taffeta dresses, tight-laced corsets, and top hats, and are having a ball. And what do you know—here, amid the Victorian mourning suits and ghoulish Galliano gowns and chain-mail purses decorated with bats, is the real Andre J, in a glistening black and gold frock to match his glistening beard. “Life is good to me!” he says, injecting a bit of much-needed optimism in the cynicism and torpor that inevitably attends Fashion Week. “I’m still excited!”

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Through a Glass Darkly

Push the designated spot on the first of Macy’s holiday windows and stars descend or a wild beast roars, but neither flourish affords the faintest clue as to the identities of Sparkle and Twinkle, who, according to the verbose wall text, are the stars of the story. Is Sparkle the elephant with the tartan bow tie? Or the smug-looking penguin who probably has a SAG card tucked under his wing, what with all the movie work he and his ilk has been getting lately? It isn’t until the third window that it becomes clear: S and T are actually a pair of humanoids who, with their aviator glasses and red-star-decorated shoulder bags (Macy’s, not Mao), look like they’re stopping off at an anti-war demonstration on their way to the North Pole.

While Sparkle and Twinkle’s adventures are lavishly illustrated, the larger point of their exploits remains maddeningly vague, a situation shared by a lot of the characters inhabiting department store windows this December. But who needs a literal message when you have fizz and music and dazzle and a bevy of moving parts? After all, just as the goal of every play and film is to get the butts in the seats, the whole point of Christmas windows is to get those same hindquarters into the stores. To this end (so to speak), the various themes that businesses promulgate in their displays are calculated to do one thing and one thing only: lure in, entice, and ultimately seduce the customer. In general, the homelier stores aim for the heart; the more expensive venues try to get at your wallet through your brain. This year, the prevailing narratives break down roughly as follows: the gag- inducingly maudlin (Macy’s, Lord & Taylor); the archly sophisticated (Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys); and the dim-witted with a not-so-hidden political agenda (Macy’s again, Saks Fifth Avenue).


Bearing witness at Bergdorf’s
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

The last of these is handily illustrated by the adventures of Sparkle and Twinkle, who finally arrive at their destination after enduring a number of tableaux dominated by trees whose names would indicate that they agree with the nearly 80 percent of the population that currently opposes the war in Iraq: the Tree of Harmony, the Tree of Friendship, the Tree of Peace, etc. After numerous travails, S and T find the fat man in the unflattering red suit accompanied by a terrifying polar bear and surrounded by the type of politically correct toys that would be about as welcome in your house as a lump of coal: alphabet blocks, jack-in-the-boxes, and a wooden Noah’s ark, which, though fairly obscure now, was in fact the only toy children from pious homes were allowed to play with on Sundays throughout most of the 19th century.

Around the corner, Macy’s has installed, as it does every year, its Miracle on 34th Street windows, a series of sentimental, if by now somewhat moth-eaten scenes lifted from the 1947 movie that, sartorially at least, bring a lump to the stylish throat. Here the Salvation Army bell ringer wears a nifty scarlet suit and fedora, unlike the real Sally Ann volunteer outside Macy’s, who is clad in a sweatshirt and hideous down parka; the replica of little Natalie Wood, who doesn’t believe in Santa until he maneuvers to get her the big house she’s been eyeing (that’d make me believe in him too), sports a plaid coat, a blue velvet bonnet, knee socks, and pumps, while the contemporary children taking all this in are accoutred like Bratz dolls.

The rosy-colored past is likewise enjoying a revival at Lord & Taylor, where the warm bath of nostalgia encompasses 150 or so years of mushy musings. The first window, dated December 1843, features twirling ballroom dancers and the legend, “My first kiss with William at the Bensons.’ ” (If she’s calling him by his first name and kissing him, I hope they’re at least engaged; otherwise she’s pretty slutty for 1843.) The ensuing dioramas manage to avoid any hint of the wars that have blighted holidays over the last century and a half, though, judging by the frost on the trees, the 1861 carolers must be Yankees. World War I doughboys are AWOL, but there’s a flapper mom with a daughter who looks like Fanny Brice decorating a circa-1925 art deco parlor. Nor is there a tableau featuring a gold-star mother listening to FDR on the radio—instead, the action skips to 1954, where there’s a granny in a rocker and two kids stuck with the same kinds of toys Santa had for Sparkle and Twinkle. As it turns out, 1954 is the last installation, which is a shame, since it would be fun to see frolickers in disco playrooms or Tribeca lofts. But then again, maybe it’s just as well—in this celebration of the patriarchy, with its syrupy tribute to the traditional family and the heterosexual ideal, the 1950s really were the end of the line.

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While Macy’s and Lord & Taylor choose to wallow in Christmases past, the people at Bergdorf Goodman have a radically different agenda. Here the glamorous vitrines are distinctly frosty, and not like the snowman. In one, entitled “Entertainment,” a fur-clad mannequin, who does not appear to have come by her ermine wrap honestly, is opening a mirrored door to a polar bear in a bow tie for what may be a spot of Christmas Eve interspecies hanky-panky. Another window presents an angel in a feathered Alexander McQueen gown more suitable to a revival of Angels in America than the traditional Nativity play. But the most arresting display centers on a pair of ethereal twins dressed in black and white and sitting together on a bench in a surreal old-fashioned photo studio, with a slightly crazed look in their eyes. They look for all the world like the notorious Papin sisters, who in 1933 famously murdered their employers and were subsequently memorialized by Jean Genet in The Maids.

But if Bergdorf’s stock-in-trade is a subtle, achingly elegant irony, Barneys fairly clobbers you over the head with the contradictions of the season. Could the store’s current obsession with Andy Warhol (“Happy Andy Warhol-idays!” is repeated ad nauseam throughout the shop) be due to the Ric Burns PBS documentary that aired earlier this year or the upcoming Edie Sedgwick biopic? Whatever the reason, Barneys’ Simon Doonan, the doyen of window dressers and the fellow who single-handedly introduced irreverence to the world of holiday vitrines, has chosen to reproduce, amid a multitude of soup cans and cookie jars, a 1956 rejection letter from Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, unctuously turning down one of Andy’s shoe drawings. Here, at last, is something to encourage and inspire those legions of New Yorkers desperate for their rock band, their Off-Off-Broadway show, their downtown fashion line, their experimental novel to finally make a hit in 2007! Other windows offer depictions of the usual suspects—Liza, Basquiat, et al.—and there’s even a dialogue between Warhol and Bridget Berlin concerning gift giving: Bridget asks Andy to buy her a vacuum cleaner; Andy answers that she should just get it herself and bring him the receipt. (So that’s Barneys’ idea of Christmas spirit . . . )


Barneys’s Warhol-idays
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

But even Andy, who once said, “I am a deeply superficial person,” would have a hard time tolerating the story line at Saks Fifth Avenue, a tale that manages to be syrupy, secular, and stunningly silly, even by the standards of the season. The text-heavy windows are a little hard to read, especially with the crowd of fellow lookie loos pushing and shoving in all directions—not that this seems to be doing Saks all that much good. Though the main floor is packed and there are long lines at the toilets, the upper floors, where they sell the $900 Comme des Garçons skirts, remain a relative ghost town.

The tale concerns an ice crystal named Allie, who, for reasons that are clear only to the people who run Saks, longs to become part of a snowflake. She hooks up with another discontented crystal, a faintly disreputable-looking guy with a top hat named Tay-Tay, and together they gaze with envy at a passel of bitchy snowflakes who are wearing skimpy chorus-girl outfits, performing Busby Berkeley–esque dance maneuvers, and won’t give them the time of day. Allie and Tay-Tay subsequently find common cause with other disenfranchised ice crystals who have been rejected by snobby snowflakes: pint-size Chip; Winnie, who has braces and spectacles and appears to be a crystal of color; and the chubby Timmy.

In the tradition of the maligned Rudolph, whose ribbing by the other reindeer was at least as nasty as the literal cold shoulder extended to this band of outsiders, there’s a jolly ending just around the corner: Allie, Tay-Tay, Chip, Winnie, and Timmy embrace their misfit status, form a coalition, and become their own snowflake.

As they rotate gleefully over a stylized skyline of swaying icons that includes the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings, the final script declares, “We are all unique masterpieces.” And maybe it’s true, maybe we are, even those of us who will never lose our ice crystal status or date a polar bear or have our work hung in the Museum of Modern Art. As Andy himself once put it, “If everyone’s not a beauty, then nobody is.”

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Holiday Bargain Shopping With La Dolce Musto

The Friday shopping crowds are thick on the pavement outside Jack’s 99 Cents Store on 31st Street, but inside, Michael Musto is already elbow deep in the $1 video bin, digging for buried treasure. “This is good!” he says, holding high a copy of Santa Claus Defeats the Aliens, with Pia Zadora. “It’s a good extra gift for someone, not the whole gift! Well, maybe the whole gift . . .”

Every year we spend the day after Thanksgiving with M., and it’s always a revelation: Among his many other attributes, the famed gossip columnist manages to turn up gold where other see only dross.

We linger briefly on Jack’s main floor, drinking in all it has to offer—the basket-wielding plaster squirrels, the Santa bowl covers—”For the toilet bowl?” M. wonders—and then escalate upstairs to Jack’s World, where the prices exceed 99 cents—but usually not by all that much.

On the second floor there are Hanukkah candy-making kits and silverware sets and herb caddies: “Nobody wants a spice rack anymore,” M. observes wistfully. When we stop to admire a Fairykins Cinderella—sort of a diorama with a pumpkin coach, etc.—M. pounces, “Is that what you want for Christmas? Because I’d love to just buy it now.”

He takes out a scrunched piece of paper, which lists the various aunties and friends he’s buying for, and looks down into his basket where one lonely Pia Zadora video currently resides. “I’m not doing too well . . .” he says sadly.

But he brightens in a minute when he spies a green velvet item labeled “Christmas Stalking”. A Pooh nightlight is considered briefly and then rejected: “Everybody’ll think it came out of a gift bag.” A flower-painted glass soft-soap dispenser is rejected as too fragile. “You drop it—it breaks—otherwise it is just flawless.”

M. pays for the video and we head out onto the street. “Weber’s surpasses this place anyway! Weber’s is, well it’s like somewhere between the first and second floors of Jack’s! It’s like the missing second act of Edward Albee’s Seascape!” Two seconds after we enter Weber’s, a place so chaotic it makes Jack’s seem like Bergdorf’s, M. grabs a Santa with long dangly legs incongruously made of printed toile de joue fabric. “Now we’re in business!” But a second later he’s viewing its $3.99 price tag skeptically. “Maybe it’s not all that cute.”

A plastic flower lamp is deemed too heavy to carry home—otherwise it’s flawless—but M. wants to see it lit up before he makes up his mind. “I can’t just throw $4.99 to the wind.” A duck napkin holder is perhaps too bulky; the box purse decorated with the glitter zebra brings up bad memories of previous gift purses that were not as well received as M. had hoped.

Ever eagle eyed, M. spots three tiny purses decorated with the Lion, the Tin Woodsman, and the Scarecrow (no Dorothy in sight) on a shelf marked $4.99. “No way! These have to be 99 cents apiece! This has gotta be a mistake!” He rushes to the register and asks, “How much for these purses?” The bored cashier does indeed ring them up for 99 cents each. Triumph.

Though we are having a passel of fun, M. hasn’t even scratched the surface of his list. So we repair a few blocks west to Bag Man on 34th, which makes Weber’s seem like Bendel’s. “Oh God, they have really good stuff, especially when you haven’t been here for a while,” M. remarks, scooping up a Santa cake plate for his Aunt M. He pauses at a display of Mrs. Santa Claus creamers (her head and torso come off to pour the cream, her nether regions hold the sugar) marked $1.25. He remembers with a catch in his voice that last year this item was only $1. Oh well. After a few minutes deliberation, he decides Aunt A. is worth it, A rendering of the Last Supper held in a pair of crystal praying hands that light up seems perfect for Mom, though it’s a splurge at $10.99; two packages of Santa chair covers—$3.99 each—are judged too adorable to miss.

M.’s trademark oversize glasses are now just barely visible over his stack of parcels. As he trudges to the register, he lets out a contented sigh. “Every time I think I’ve reached my kitsch threshold they come out with things like this and I just have to break down!” he beams happily.

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Heads Are Back!

Two years ago, newspapers made a fuss over “Sex,” a new mannequin
with a vaguely enlarged butt who is “curvy,” “full-bodied,” and
“voluptuous.” The articles and accompanying pictures, which focused
closely on her inner thighs, would make you think she’s a true fatty,
“full of attitude.” In reality, she’s size four. She has perky
breasts and lanky, child-like arms.

In the past few years, the mannequin has become increasingly
realistic—in the late ’90s she often had a stub, knob, or spike,
instead of a face—but there are limits to her newfound personality.
“She’s so sedate and sweet sometimes it’s—I don’t know—painful,” says
Anthony Lombardi, the visual director at Saks, who says he
misses the days when mannequins sipped gin, used knives, and wore gas
masks.

As shoppers’ budgets for accessories expand, there’s more
incentive for stores to use full-size mannequins with all the
appropriate limbs, digits, and lobes. Some companies now make their
mannequins with enhanced ear wells for iPods and create models of
purse-size dogs. With all her body parts intact, the average
fiberglass woman is a caricature of conventional beauty. The H&M on Fifth
Avenue has more than 100 mannequins who show off their flexibility
and long ponytails by standing on top of 15-foot racks of clothes;
they wear rings, fishnets, and crowns.

Appealing to a baby boomer’s sense of what’s cute and familiar,
last year Goldsmith, one of the largest mannequin manufacturers in
the country, created a new face for their child model, loosely based
on the young heroine in Dare Wright’s 1957 cult classic, The
Lonely Doll
. Her nose is a tiny nub, lovely and inoffensive. “The
psychological parallels between mannequins and dolls are very clear,”
says Ronald Knoth, an associate at Goldsmith. “It’s nice to revisit
something from the ’50s because in many ways the tenor of the times
today is similar: the yearning for safety and comfort—although that
little girl is also very sexy.”

Some people are so seduced by the image that they come into stores
and, for their own purposes, try to purchase the actual mannequin.
Whatever the models are wearing usually sells, including her hairdo.
“A couple weeks ago, a woman spent more than one thousand dollars on
the mannequin’s complete outfit,” says Wendy Iza, the manager at Item, a
small store on the Upper East Side. “She didn’t like the jeans when
she tried them on herself, but she bought them anyway.”

The logic seems strangely simple: the more beautiful the mannequin
is, the better her clothes sell. At Bergdorf Goodman the models are glossy and
demure; they stand in clumps—one curls up on a loveseat—watching the
real people go by. Their legs are long and sleek and naturally segue
into built-in high heels. “There’s a return to a more, if I may use
the word, “glamorous” look,” says Joe Cotugno, the director of visual
presentation at Bloomingdale’s.”People want some drama and
excitement.”

But as mannequins become more life-like, shoppers get increasingly
emotional, even hysterical, about the implications of the displays.
Lombardi says he no longer feels comfortable hanging mannequins from
the ceilings, “ever since the prisoner episode in Fallujah,” or
putting them in cages (people complained when he tried this in a
recent animal print exhibition). “Shoppers shouldn’t take the
mannequins so seriously,” he says. “She doesn’t speak back. That’s
why we use her. You can knock her feet off and put shoes on, and she
won’t say a word.”

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Collection Agency: The Triple Pier Antique Show

“Wow, I remember a time when you’d never just walk past something like this,” said our friend J., stopping in front of a jaw-dropping beaded flapper dress at the Triple Pier Show last weekend. And of course he was right—back in the day, we used to wear Clara Bow-worthy confections everywhere—to Gristedes, to the local multiplex, even to just sit in front of a computer terminal for eight hours. (We once went to England for a week and brought with us six 1920s evening dresses and a velvet opera coat.)

Way back when, we’d meet J. at the Munson Diner at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. on Pier Show weekends (J’s one of those people who has to be first in the door at an antique show.) Now the Munson is gone, hauled away to a new home upstate last spring, and we mosey (OK, taxi) over to the piers at 11:30 or so, dressed in newer, if hardly normal, clothes.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t still long for the pier shows to roll around—they’re in November, January, and March—with the same fervor that a six year old waits for Christmas. (Actually, two Christmases—the November pier show, so enticing last weekend, is back this weekend as well.) As a matter of fact, we suspect we are seeing, in the 600 or so glittering booths spread across the three piers, many of the exact same things that first saw light under a Christmas tree decades ago: stuffed bears unwrapped by eager chubby hands in 1910, monogrammed cigarette cases intended for louche Nora Charles types, diamond-studded powder compacts bought just before the ’29 crash.

And though eBay has its charms (why else would we be up at six in the morning to bid on a Victorian pincushion?) there’s nothing like seeing these survivors in person, and whiling away the hours trading war stories—the memorial ring that got away! The broken doll’s head satisfactorily repaired at long last!—with the hundreds of dealers in attendance to make you feel just a little less like a nut.

This longing to hang out with dealers and other collectors, to wander from counter to counter in a delightful glassy-eyed stupor, is more acute than ever these days, what with the demise of the 26th Street flea market, an event so painful we can’t even look at the lot—now a construction site—when we pass it on the Sixth Avenue bus. As if the end of a decades-old Manhattan institution isn’t painful enough, J. called us two weekends ago to report that the beloved Garage, the bi-level parking area that serves as a weekend flea market, was suddenly closed as well, and though a sign promised this was temporary and due to structural repairs, it leaves us jittery.

Without the outdoor lots and the Garage, what’s an antiquer to do on an ordinary Pier-less Sunday? Wonder around Bloomingdale’s looking at expensive, depressing, squeaky-clean new merchandise? What if we suddenly crave a pressed tin labor union match safe or a Dean’s Rag Book Mickey Mouse puppet? (OK, it’s true, we already have these, but what if we crave another of each?)

They don’t sell this stuff at Bergdorf’s.

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Elements of Style: Pantsuits at an Exhibition

November 14, 2000

OK, you be the judge: Either (A) the people at the Guggenheim who decide what shows to mount went into a huddle and emerged shouting, “Let’s do that guy who took the padding out of suit jackets!” or (B) the fact that Giorgio Armani has promised to donate a rumored $15 million to the Guggenheim had a little something to do with his name springing to committee members’ lips. If you believe the answer is A, then the curators at the Guggenheim are a bunch of boobs with only the dimmest idea about who, or what, is worthy of a museum retrospective. If you picked B, then something far more sinister than ignorance is afoot.

No matter what you decide, the evidence that Mr. Armani scarcely deserves the laurels laid at his impeccably shod feet is fully revealed on those Frank Lloyd Wright ramps: a collection of dull, ordinary day clothes, mostly from the late ’90s, that seem to have gotten lost on their way from Bloomingdale’s to Loehmann’s, and a gaggle of evening dresses that, while pretty, are in fact no prettier than plenty of the stuff in upscale department stores, where some of these same garments no doubt recently hung. (Or in the case of the fall 2000 items on exhibit, currently hang.)

Which is not to say that Armani hasn’t made any contributions to the history of fashion. He has—just not enough, after 25 years in business and a raft of licensees that include everything from eyeglasses to underwear, to justify a retrospective. So for the record: Yes, Mr. Armani eliminated shoulder pads and linings from men’s suits. And yes, he offered those same deconstructed suits to women, thereby giving female executives something to wear to work besides stiff “dressed-for-success” suits and bow ties. And yes, he also came up with something known as the “power suit,” which was the polar opposite of the deconstructed suit and featured broad shoulders and a slim-fitting waist. All of these were offered in neutral, inoffensive shades of beige and gray, as were many of Armani’s evening gowns, conceived to make a subdued splash on the red carpet outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The first outfit that greets you as you ascend the ramps—a trek that becomes increasingly benumbing as you trundle on—is a black-and-white beaded pantsuit: modest and tasteful despite the slight vulgarity allover beading invariably imparts, and no doubt intended for a youthful mother of the bride who shuns pastels, a prosperous uptown type who is, like as not, a contributor to institutions like the Guggenheim.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People need clothes, and Armani’s things, with their famous droopy silhouette and bland palette, at least have the advantage of not embarrassing the wearer—a problem, alas, with plenty of other designer clothing. And the elaborate evening gowns, especially the ones with fancy themes like lily pads and spiderwebs, are undeniably arresting, at least as nice as the party clothes currently enshrined at Bergdorf’s 30 blocks south.

Of course, unlike the Guggenheim, Bergdorf’s doesn’t have a whole separate room papered with blurry photos of movie stars and a roving spotlight illuminating first one gray celeb, then another, all wearing Armani outfits. Underneath this panoply are the dresses themselves, with little note cards describing who sported what when. (If you don’t care what Rita Wilson donned for an awards benefit, you are obviously not the intended audience for this display, but plenty of other people are: The putative sponsor of the show—at least the one the museum is willing to credit—is the phenomenally popular InStyle magazine.) Actually, the big draw in this room is the gigantic video screen showing clips of films with Armani-clad actors including Richard Gere, though one suspects the crowd gathered is hanging around in hopes of gaining a glimpse of Gere’s bare heinie rather than his American Gigolo outfits.

The museum-goers viewing these displays don’t seem to know quite what to make of this stuff. They gaze hard, then turn to each other and say things like “Don’t you have pants like that?” Too bad they didn’t read the catalog ($49.95 in paperback; $175 for the special gift-box edition); then they could look at a woman’s suit from 1994 and spout sentiments like “Armani’s affinity for a Bauhaus reductivism does not manifest itself as a blind functionalism. Rather, collarpieces, the skirt of a jacket, or the finish on a lapel can become an ornamental flourish derived from a vestigial structural component.” Or perhaps they’d prefer to quote semiotician Marshall Blonsky, who, in one of the catalog’s many bloated essays, describes a necktie thus: “I have on my desk as I write a tie that I wore last night. It is a five-year-old, heavy, olive silk whose ‘striping’ is not colored at all but is rather ribbing, threads that have been made to surge from the surface, sometimes the thread becoming not a thread at all, but a fold. It is as if you were looking at a dried-up river, the ridges of its bed now visible. An ancient Green Sea. It makes you look in.” Gee, and you thought that, even if you got it for free, sometimes a tie was just a tie.

But let’s not pick on Blonsky (though his essay does manage to disinter the battered corpse of Karl Marx and force even him to join the chorus of Yes, Giorgios). Plenty of other folks fall over each other in the catalog, including Vogue’s Hamish Bowles, who, in an essay called “Armani and Hollywood,” has a novel way of describing Armani’s practice of shipping crates of free clothes to celebrities before Oscar night, hoping to get publicity in exchange for clothes: “Armani has developed symbiotic relationships with today’s stars.”

The exhibit does break new ground in one respect—print ads, billboards, and other selling tools Armani has employed over the years are deemed worthy of inclusion in the show. (If you can’t bear to leave without a souvenir, note cards decorated with Armani ads are available in the three gift shops that punctuate the exhibit.) The catalog, too, finds room to extol the virtues of Armani advertisements. Susan Cross, in an essay about a magazine spread depicting three barely dressed teenage girls, says, “an advertisement for the spring/summer 2000 women’s collection features a triad of Lolita-like beauties in barely-there bikinis, sheer hot pants, and cropped tanks. . . . This representation of woman (or girl) as object of desire is one of a number of guises traditionally offered to women that we can now choose to appropriate and re-create.” How fresh and new: see-through hot pants for a 12-year-old to appropriate and re-create.

If someone only slightly younger than these half-clad nymphs accompanies you to the Guggenheim, the museum supplies a “Family Activity Guide” full of pictures of white people in Armani ensembles. “Imagine that you are wearing one of these suits,” the Activity Guide instructs. “Circle the word or words below that might describe your feelings if you were wearing this suit.” Suggestions include “formal,” “important,” “comfortable,” “proud,” and “elegant.” For some reason, the museum forgot “spoiled,” “craven,” “unprincipled,” “$15 million.”

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Earmuffs in August: Department Stores on the Brink

“Oh daddy! Lord & Taylor!” moans a sub-deb in John O’Hara’s novel 1958 From the Terrace, treating the store’s name as a mild expletive. Back then, L&T was the kind of place where upper class girls and their moms would shop, walking over from Grand Central or the majestic Pennsylvania Station (before it was felled by the wrecking ball in 1963) to buy camel hair polo coats and black watch plaid back-to-school kilts.

No one is coming in from Manhasset or Larchmont to shop at Lord & Taylor any more. Now the granddaughters of O’Hara’s girls drive to the mall and buy Juicy Couture or order stuff over the internet. Which is just one reason why the store—located in a retail no-man’s land at 38th Street and Fifth Avenue, between the plebian department stores on 34th Street and the upper-crusty emporiums clustered in the 50s, is in such a precarious position.

Before a spiritual wrecking ball destroys the last of the old-style department stores, we thought we’d take a look inside L&T, a place we tend to visit only once a year, to see the Christmas windows, which, with their miniature renderings of an Edith Wharton-ish New York, are, unlike the supercilious tableaux at, say, Barneys, blissfully irony free.

The main floor still has its glorious circa-World War One plaster ceiling, though the structural columns are swathed in mirrors, giving the space a ‘70s deco-disco feel. The upper floors are quiet, but, surprisingly, not as tomblike as, say, Bergdorf Goodman on a hot afternoon (the BG shopper is likely away for the month.) On the second floor, we love a fuzzy mohair sweater, heavily embellished with ribbons by Cynthia Steff, even if its price, $195, seems rather stiff. (Could this be because even we, stuck-up as we are, have lately succumbed to the charms of H&M and Forever 21? Once you get used to seeing stuff like this for $29, it’s hard to go back.)

With reports indicating that the super-luxury customer is still spending at places like Bergdorf’s as if her credit card is on fire (guess those Bush tax cuts have stimulated her personal buying frenzy, if not the economy as a whole) and the Target-Mexx-Gap shopper finding cheap stuff that is a lot cuter than it was even two or three years ago, what can stores like Lord & Taylor do to defend themselves?

Well, let’s see what the other kids are contemplating. Over at Saks Fifth Avenue, the management has said it is determined to go even more upscale (what? You already can’t afford Saks?) while Henri Bendel, which never recovered its reputation once it relocated from 57th Street to its current location on Fifth, is moving in another direction—trying to prove how cool and groovy it is. (Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Can this be the same place of which Cole Porter once wrote “You’re a Shakespeare sonnet, a Bendel bonnet, you’re Mickey Mouse”?)

For a while Agent Provocateur, the saucy underwear company headed up by Vivienne Westwood’s son, had a boutique at Bendel’s, along with departments showcasing club-kid merchandise from Pat Field and Tiffany Dubin’s Lair (vintage cast-offs she found at places like the 26th Street flea market). Last Tuesday night, it was Heatherette’s turn.

To launch their debut at Bendels, Heatherette’s goofily glamorous founders, Richie Rich and Traver Raines, hosted a fete. Every freak, every funny dresser, every pretty-pretty substance abuser in the city of Manhattan crawled out of his or her own lair and made it up to 56th and Fifth for the occasion. Legendary doorperson-artist Kenny Kenny stood at the gates, but he didn’t consult a clipboard—your appearance got you in, just like the old days.

Kenny was dressed in a sumptuous glittery gown, and on his shaved head he sported the perfect decoration, though we doubt he bought it at Bendel’s, Lord & Taylor, or any other uptown store: a pair of furry, bright scarlet ear muffs, just right for a party on a sweltering August night.

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The Cheap Detective Takes on Forever 21 and Strawberry

Once upon a time, expensive clothes had a right to look down on their parvenu cousins. Back in the day, designer fashions featured, along with superior fabrics and sewing, a certain je ne sais quoi, a particular panache that at least partly justified their ridiculous price tags.

That was then. Now, one look at the charmingly tiered polka-dotted cotton skirt at Forever 21 on Union Square, dispels any doubts: Though this item is clearly a Marni knockoff, at $29.80 it is around $700 cheaper than the Marni original. The cotton is delightfully worn—just like at Marni! And the print is jaunty and just a little jolie laide—ditto!

Actually, we’ve been fascinated by Forever 21 ever since it opened last winter. First there’s that name, with its odd echo of Century 21. (But really, as we have pointed out previously in this space, could there be anything worse than being 21 forever? It certainly wasn’t such a thrill-packed, happy time for us, and we suspect we are hardly alone in this matter.) On a recent steamy afternoon, we decided to test our cheap-is-just-as-good thesis with a visit to Forever 21 and its even rattier next-door neighbor, the much maligned but in fact surprisingly worthwhile Strawberry. In particular, we wanted to see if either—or both—of these shops were selling that black and white ersatz-Mexican faux vintage skirt we’ve been seeing on every third person on the street this summer. (Actually we love this skirt, though we haven’t bought one, probably because we purchased the authentic version at a vintage clothing show a couple of years ago for $100 and have worn it exactly once. The reason we bought it was that another shopper was standing over us and insisting she really, really wanted it too. This led to an arousal of our killer instinct, an insane conviction that we had to win, and an aura of guilt and shame subsequently surrounding the beleagured item.)

A faux-Mexican skirt, perfectly OK if a bit skimpy, is indeed for sale at Forever 21 and it is only $24.80. (All the prices here end in 80 for some mysterious reason). Actually, it might even be cheaper than $24.80, since a sign at the door says “Buy 1 get 2 free, 2nd and 3rd item equal or lesser value.”

We’re not exactly sure how this works—it’s a little too much math for us—but we think it means we can get the metal mesh stars and stripes halter top—it’s made of the same stuff as those Whiting & Davis purses from the 1920s —for free (it would have been great to wear on the 4th) along with a lavender lace-trimmed tank complete with padded bra that we assume is meant for customers whose 21st birthday is still light years away.

Next door at Strawberry, where the air conditioning is broken (we suffer in this job!), the fake-Mexican skirt is actually far superior—it’s delightfully voluminous, sports a smattering of sequins, and is a mere $24.99. If that’s not enough, a Pucci-esque purse can be had for $9.99, and one of those metallic-knit wrap-and-tie ballet sweaters so popular this season is an inviting $19.99. Though it’s virtually identical to the metallic-knit ballet sweater we saw at Forever 21, it somehow feels slightly cheesier, which raises the question: Is it only the broken a/c and slothful atmosphere at Strawberry that makes this item seem declasse? When you’re shopping, how many times are you seduced more by the store’s atmosphere than by the intrinsic value of the item itself? If this sweater were at Bergdorf’s on a velvet hanger and with a $199.99 price tag, would it suddenly smell that much sweeter?

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Almost Good Enough To Eat

Scrub-a-dub-dubbing in the tub with plant extract always sounds healthier than slapping on propylene glycol and whatever the hell else they hide in your Lever 2000. Anglo-Persian clothing designer Eskandar clearly believes as much. His line of bath and body products has one of the highest levels of natural ingredients currently available on the market at 97 percent plant- and mineral-derived. (According to the company, the remaining three percent is preservatives that keep the product fresh, lest it actually rot in the packaging.) Any more real and you’d be snorting kumquats.

Previously sold only at Bergdorf Goodman, Eskandar’s Real Vanilla Moisturizing Body Milk, Black Tea and Lemon-Oil Body Wash, Ginger Blossom Scented Candles, and other appetizing sellers are now available at his new shop in the West Village.