What Else I Learned from the Women

Go to enough fashion shows, and I’m talking several a day for three or four weeks, and you start to notice the girls. Yeah, you start looking at the clothes, you’re fascinated with the ruching and the knife pleats, the jabots, the inverted leg-of-mutton sleeves, you know, the details and intricacies. But after a while you can’t help but notice that there are humans wearing the stuff. It’s like what Tom Waits said to me once: “After you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia enough times you just look at the camels.”

Now, this is not the same as it ever was. Time was that if yours truly was attending a fashion show it was, pardon me for sharing, to check the chicks. Sadly, I am now interested in the fashion. Why? I’m not sure. I am telling myself that the girls are not what they used to be, but maybe it’s me that’s not what I used to be. Anyway, there I was sitting in the front row at Calvin Klein, in the middle of the show, when a young friend and colleague asked me, “Which one of these girls is your type?”

Now, for my young friend and colleague I think this was interesting, because to him none of these girls was his type. Girls are not his type. And I think he was surprised when I responded, “None of them.” I mean, straight guys are supposed to dig models, right? Well, for me that was once the case, but somehow I got over it. I did admit that they were mostly way too young to appeal to me. I am not interested in girls, I suppose, mainly because I like women. And today the runway is populated by girls and definitely not by women. When I said “none of them,” I wasn’t exaggerating. “They’re all too young,” I said.

But I know this is not simply a matter of the length of my teeth. There has been a sea change in the nature of females demonstrating potential wardrobe to the public. Back during the days of the true supermodel any red-blooded American hetero of a certain taste level would have coveted a certain percentage of a good runway show. No, I think it is attributable to certain other factors.

Today’s girls tend to the generic. Personality is no longer a desirable characteristic for the designers or those who stage their shows. Once it was desirable for girls like Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, etc. to walk down the runway with personality, imbuing the clothes with a certain je ne sais quoi seal of approval. Today the girls tend to look interchangeable, and it just may be that the designers want to be the stars of their own shows.

Today’s girls tend to be young. Like, really young. They might look like women in six-inch heels with a ton of makeup, but it’s all illusion. The day I was flying from Milan to Paris there were quite a few models on the plane. I felt protective toward them. I mean I sort of felt guilty about feeling that way, but gee whiz, they were talking about school. What if they were my kids? No way I could muster up any lust for this lot, even on a mammalian level.

Which brings up our next point. Mammals. I mean, in a way attraction is supposed to be about survival of the species, no? But in many ways the girls we see on the runway show few characteristics which point to their evolutionary credentials. Such as the mammal thing. A-cups would often be wishful thinking. And I’m not going to get into body-mass index or any of that stuff. I have been approached to sign petitions about the health of the girls and all that, but no petitions are going to change things. We need to create a fashion world that actually promotes survival of the species. And in the service of that noble idea I am proposing that we males, who have at the behest of feminism refrained from such spontaneous public commentary as “va-va-voom!” and “hotcha-cha,” reintroduce the praise of healthy, promising development into our vocabulary.

Or something.

But what’s interesting is that after a few weeks of intense exposure to the runway one begins to develop certain ideas about the camels, I mean models. Let’s review some of today’s leading runway girls and share our thoughts on what they may or may not represent.

What skills need a model possess? Well, she has to be able to walk. You might underrate this skill, but professionals don’t, especially after you’ve seen a half dozen girls fall over a few weeks. The very best walker in fashion is the Russian model Vlada Roslyakova. Unfortunately this photo shows her from the front.


You actually have to see her from the side. Her shoulders are so far back behind her feet you can’t believe she doesn’t fall over backwards. And she doesn’t fall at all, no matter how high the shoes or slick the runway. And her demeanor, well, she could have done that evil queen of Narnia as well as Tilda Swinton.

Beauty isn’t what it used to be in the modeling business, but there are a few beauties allowed out there on the runway. Magdalena Frackowiak is one model who could have made it in previous eras, with her great bones, elegance, and a sort of Eurasian exoticism that screams for a movie casting shot, especially if they decide to remake Taras Bulba or The General Died at Dawn.

Magdalena in Stella McCartney:


While the fashion shows are more lily-white than ever in my memory, certain designers are more representative in terms of casting. Jean-Paul Gaultier has always had an eye for models of all races and he’s no different today. His girls are multi-racial, non-anorexic, and occasionally bootylicious.

Here’s Yasmine Warsame in Gaultier:


And Liu Wen:


It wasn’t all that easy to keep your eyes on the models at the very pretty Giambattista Valli collection, mainly because of the incredibly stunning Natalie Portman sitting in the front row, prettier than a picture, and extraordinarily elegant like Audrey Hepburn come alive. But it was great to see pulchritude permitted with girly dresses and humanistic hair and makeup.

Here’s Alana Kuznetsova in Giambattista Valli:


So don’t count pretty and beautiful out, even though they may seem to be a minority viewpoint. The great classicists know what it’s all about. Giorgio Armani, for example, knows what guys like, including transparency and, um, you know:


Now sometimes the girls grow on you, even if at first they don’t seem to differ much from one to the other. For example Karlie Kloss, a top model who seemed to be in just about every show, and is seen here in the very pretty Gianfranco Ferre collection; she’s someone who makes an impression over time. You don’t know what it is, and then you begin to get an idea. It’s something about her look, but also how it goes with the way she carries herself.


I wound up thinking it’s about the way she carries her head, with her chin down and her eyes looking up. It something about the head. About the head. In other words: It’s a total fucking mystery.

But I have to say that generally I have tohood and happy marriage, but gee guys, I don’t want to do ‘em anymore, I just want to feed ‘em.


This chick Magdalena is a real beauty. Look at the bones of her face. But then look at her legs. Wouldn’t you be afraid of leaving bruises? I just want to buy these girls cheeseburgers.

What should a model look like? Like a direction evolution might favor. How did that song “I Am Woman” go?

Strong…invincible… Here’s my friend Rachel. She’s not a size zero. She was a supermodel in the nineties. She’s an architect now. She got a life.


What I Learned from Women

And so, after dealing with crises in the global markets and the syntax of our candidates, let me dip once again into the shallows of our culture—you never know what intimations of profundity you'll find there.

For business reasons, and business reasons are what take nearly everyone but the standees there, I spent a month at fashion week. No, not in the way that W.C. Fields said, “I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday.” No, my editorial purview required my attendance at Fashion Week in New York, Milan, and Paris.

Sleepy at Giorgio Armani:


In New York, Fashion Week runs about a week. In Milan it’s crammed into four days. And in Paris it takes its good old time over eight. I am an old hand at the shows, going back farther than I care to admit sober, but this was my first time ever going all the way and joining that sophisticated, jaded, acidic, irritable, patient, often intriguing, sometimes mono-dimensional crew of seasonal sojourners on the style trek.

At Nina Ricci. What time is it?


Sometimes you wear bright colors just to try to wake up:


When you tell people you’re going to Milan and Paris it’s surprising how many of them act as if you’ve just a won a free vacation. You’re greeted with envy. Wrong. In fact, this circuit is remarkably tedious and wearying, involving hours of waiting and queuing, punctuated with periodic racing, interrupted by intervals of diversion.

Um… Alexander McQueen:


It is true that eating in Italy is usually a pleasure, and though Milan is not the most beautiful of Italy’s cities, it is beautiful—with hidden treasures of architecture and gemlike interiors camouflaged behind bland walls. And of course Paris is Paris. But these local consolations carry a price. And the price is living a somewhat more glamorous version of the film Groundhog Day. You do the same things, see the same people, say and hear the same words, squirm through identical annoyances, watch the same models parade in clothes that are, well, predictably original.

Here I am at Gareth Pugh’s show in Paris, obviously rebelling:


On the other hand, the women’s shows are interesting. For my money far more interesting than the men’s shows which I have done previously. They are, rather naturally, far more spectacular. It’s often much more about the show than the fashion, and many looks walk the runway which will never make it to the store racks. They are also crazier and more daring in the sense of sexy. But a lot of that has to do with the fact that men’s clothes, almost by definition and unless we have a revolution, don’t change all that much. Even Thom Browne is limited by the institution of the suit. And when we see men in suits on the runway, is it me or is it true that the suits don’t really look that good? It’s as if, and this may be possible, the first time the model put the suit on was in the rehearsal. There were exceptions, like the flash suits from Dsquared’s fabulous, Charlie’s Angels-inspired show and Lagerfeld’s rakish-rich gigolo gear for Chanel, but generally there isn’t any real tailoring involved in the clothes that walk down the same runway with the ladies. In fact, the suits almost always look like they came from a big box store. (Hey, do you know that Was Not Was song “In K Mart Wardrobe”?) Designer world involves a lot of men’s clothes that seem to be mass-produced, glued together, three sizes fit all, with no care for fit. Throw some ribbon on here or an epaulet there so they’ll know the brand by sight, and quality doesn’t matter that much because it will be out of style next year, anyway.

At Dsquared. Wow, the Jets scored 56 points!


Boys keep swinging at Chanel:


As the crowd filed out of the show of one very famous Parisian house, known for its women’s couture and ready-to-wear, a seasoned pro observed to no one in particular, “Why do they even have men?”—referring to the minority of males interspersed with the females doing the important work on the runway. To which someone quipped (was it me?), “Well, somebody has to open the hotel door!”


Indeed, a significant portion of the men’s looks one sees mixed into the women’s shows does look like what you see on the backs of boutique professionals—from boutique hotels to boutique boutiques. So I had a funny idea for Clerks 3. Kevin Smith, are you listening? Let’s go to Paris!

High heels—do they empower women or hobble them? Or both? I remember my friend Rachel, a big model in every sense, over six-foot shoeless, towering over me in her heels. She had no idea how powerful she appeared. On the other hand, spikes and platforms make women tip, teeter, and skid through the world, sending the message that a woman is chauffered around, that she doesn’t have to walk like the workers, even if she could. Is that a symbol of elite status, like long fingernails, or is it a symbol of life as captive of a class, like Chinese footbinding? I wondered from the front row as shoes seemed to reach an altitude that suggested we were perhaps hitting some kind of limit. Yes, they were stunningly high—spikes seem to have added the platform and the platforms echoed contemporary architecture, rethinking the technology of how to put the average woman’s head at WNBA height. Sometimes this balancing act worked, most of the time in fact, but then sometimes it didn’t, and girls hit the runway. Many more times they slipped and tipped and almost went down. Remember, these girls in Milan and Paris are at the top of their profession, and the age of athletes in their prime.


If they can’t walk in these shoes, how will mother? At one show in Milan three girls fell, and one tried to come out for the finale but wound up giving up and practically crawling backstage. It was a tense moment. It felt like when a horse goes down at the track. Will it get up or will they have to come out and shoot the poor thing? God, I hope this doesn’t happen for guys. I made it through the Kiss era, but I’m not as agile as I used to be.

Why is this man laughing at Miu Miu in Paris? Could be the champagne they served before the show, but probably because it was the last show of the season.


A House of Credit Cards

Style is supposed to entail mastery of the superficial, so please indulge your style correspondent in a little treatise that glides across the surface of the economic woes dominating the headlines.

I know there are very complicated explanations for what's going on in the financial world, new ones every day, and theorists are cranking out marvelously impressive, elaborate theories about where things went wrong, but let me offer a very simple consideration.

Credo means “I believe.” It’s the beginning of one of the nicest prayers in the Roman Catholic high mass. “Credo in unum deum…” I can still hear a priest with a good voice singing it, that plaintive, mellifluous chant echoing through a cavernous apse, inspiring belief in something higher. If not God, well, at least melody and good acoustics.


Credit, I believe (I know, in fact), derives from that very same word, and the selfsame idea. Credit comes from creditum, meaning something entrusted. And credit has always been based on belief and trust—lending based on faith that the borrower will pay it back. “I’m good for it.”

Today credit is more prevalent than ever. More people owe more money than ever in history, and that requires greater and greater faith. When credit breaks all records we might even say it has required vast leaps of faith. In ancient times credit was almost always local, or at least extended between parties that knew each other. Even a few decades ago mortgages were more often than not extended by bankers who knew their clients.

Under George W. Bush the national debt, which we might optimistically think of as how much the world believes in us, rose to $10 trillion on September 30th, 2008. This figure made the national debt clock at Times Square, which has been there since 1989, suddenly obsolete. Its designer apparently didn’t believe that we’d ever need fourteen digits to record what we owe. We owe so much that our debt has become positively existential, requiring Kierkegaardian leaps of faith to justify.

Of course, when it comes to belief in the impossible, it is clear that our time takes the cake. We have extended belief to deadbeats and hustlers. We have sworn our beliefs in documents that pledge to buy things that don’t exist with money that is purely imaginary. We have bought the biggest bills of goods in human history and we signed up to pay for them on the installment plan. Nobody was ever extended as much credit as this generation. We are alchemists. We have transformed plastic into gold, into platinum…. and we have sent our bills into the future. Can man travel into the future? Maybe not, but he can, apparently, indebt his potential progeny.


And yet, on the face of it, we seem to have arrived at a point where all that faith suddenly is evaporating like water in a forgotten saucepan left over a flame. Suddenly belief seems to have been snuffed out. We have no faith in the market, no faith in the war, no faith in our industries and institutions. Obviously we have no faith in the present administration. We have little faith in the banks and they have even less in us. We now believe in the markets a little more than we believe in St. Christopher or the Easter Bunny. And even the most sacred repositories of belief, the churches, are increasingly deserted, while the taboo against atheism has practically disappeared, with HBO star Bill Maher referring to God as an “imaginary friend” and the popularity of books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

But our currency, since we departed from the gold standard, is based entirely on faith in the United States government. When you think about it, since we abandoned bullion and specie as the basis of our currency, money began to fall into the realm of fiction. Or perhaps sacred text is a more acceptable comparison. But the modern dollar, compared to the old gold and silver certificate, definitely requires a willing suspension of disbelief. To value it is to indulge in the most basic act of patriotism. The dollar is the real pledge of allegiance.


In fact all financial instruments are what you might call “faith-based.” Economists will tell you that the current financial crisis has been caused by deregulation and the consequent market in exotic financial instruments that fall outside government scrutiny. Some have placed the blame on short sellers and tried to make that standard practice illegal. But this is not a new situation. It is only a general loss of faith in institutions that has brought about this contagious collapse. And I suggest that it is almost entirely a lack of faith in government, caused by nothing more exotic than a pervasive atmosphere of amorality in government, that has caused the big bubble to burst.

Sure, they lent money to people unlikely to pay it back. But if you can believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, you can believe anything. And those who make their money in the markets were the victims of a contagious belief that things would just keep going at that hogwild pace. The sky was no limit.

When Americans think of morals they think of the morals squad. They think of sexual mores primarily—promiscuity, infidelity, perversions. But morality, for millennia, has entailed far more than regulating the nasty. In many societies, including those regarded as high civilizations, sexual morality comes low on the list of rights and wrongs. Dante put the lustful in only the second of his nine hells, where they were buffeted about by winds. The greedy were much lower, down in the fourth hell where they were crushed by material things. Usurers, among whom most of today’s bankers and financiers would find themselves, were consigned to the deepest part of the seventh hell. The eighth circle of hell, Malebolge (or “evil pockets”), was filled with politicians, businessmen, and those who would today be financiers and marketing executives. It was the place of eternal torment for those guilty of fraud: flattery, selling offices, influence peddling, ambulance chasing, deceptive advice, and perjury. Beyond that there was only ninth circle, the traitors and betrayers.


Once, anyone with a grasp of culture understood that morality was a code of conduct that governed every aspect of life, and that the ultimate perpetrators of evil were the great deceivers—the sort who would misrepresent financial deals on a broad scale, perjure themselves, or foment a war on false pretenses. Today the most fundamental concepts of our financial system are largely unquestioned by the general public, and even by the vast portion of the participants in it; and even for those who do question the workings of the system, it is generally assumed that while there may be questions of efficacy regarding the mechanics of money, credit, and finance, there are no moral issues involved.

We have come a long way since charging interest was condemned by Christians and Muslims alike, regarded as usury, or paying for a thing twice, or even later views when usury was considered an excessive interest, out of sync with the expectations of natural growth.

But in our mass media world the knowledge of the individual citizen is tiny compared to what it was a century or two ago. In the eighteenth century a well-educated man could possess a large portion of the knowledge available in his time, but in the age of mass media the ideal of the well-rounded man has practically vanished. We live in a hive society of specialists: professional specialists, financial specialists. And so the general philosophical worldview that a civilized individual once possessed has been replaced by a kind of institutionalized philosophical framework. We don’t have to think about morals and laws. That’s all set up! We have servants to do that for us. And so we devote our waking hours to conspiring to acquire the trappings of conspicuous consumption and climb various ladders, from corporate to social. Meanwhile we have abandoned the detailed moral and philosophical codes that were once standard equipment, and shrunk them down to a few stupid hot-button issues revolving around sex. Morality has far more to do with how we raise money, write contracts, or look after res publica, public affairs. And reason is something that most Americans don’t even think about. This is the feel-good era. We employ reason, of course, when it’s time to shop for a car or play Texas hold ‘em, but even our daily occupations require less reason and more-than-rote rhetoric. Today if business is bad, if Detroit is going to hell, if gays are trying to live normal lives, why think about it, maybe Jesus is coming. Reason is considered too tough for some jobs.


We are in post-literate times. Hardly anyone questions our financial system or understands it in a historical context. Today, how many people know what Thomas Aquinas thought about interest payments (or Jesus or Mohammed)? And although the spirit of America’s founding fathers is invoked again and again in a political context, and although their intentions are continually considered and second-guessed by the Supreme Court, there is almost no understanding of what Thomas Jefferson thought about money, or John Adams, or Alexander Hamilton. Their principles were radically different from those that are observed today. In fact, contemporary economics would cause the founders to recoil in horror and disbelief before counseling another revolution. But this is sheltered by the utter disinterest in economics that prevails in our society. Most people have absolutely no idea how the Fed works, or the stock market, or hedge funds, or the institutions that hold their mortgages. Most people consider these subjects obscure and dry and boring, and yet these forces have enormous sway over their fate. Apparently God is easier to get one’s head around.

The poet and philosopher Ezra Pound, who devoted much of his career to the study of economics, wrote: “The criminal classes have no intellectual interests. In proportion as people are without intellectual interests they approach the criminal classes and the criminal psychology. People with no sense of responsibility fall under despotism, and they deserve all the possible castigations and afflictions that the worst forms of despotism provide.”


I believe that we have seen the rise of an entire class where white-collar crime is not only endemic, it is compulsory. Most of those who have done wrong are guilty of little more than going with the flow without reasoning. No one is going to feel guilty or even question what’s going on if absolutely everyone’s doing it. And over the last few decades even the rare philosophically inclined businessman put his faith in the profane religion of the purity of the market. That’s how everything got deregulated. There was a powerful credo behind it—the free market corrects everything—a sort of equation of economics with physics and Newton’s laws.


What they all forgot, of course, were the basic arguments of economics, including the obvious distinctions between apples and oranges, property and capital, present and future. These were not free markets but fictional markets based on erroneous assumptions. What they never considered was the horror with which the founding fathers, the scholastic philosophers, and even their own grandfathers would have beheld the preposterously abstract financial instruments that were trading in the theoretically all-knowing market—to the extent that trade became rampant in quantities that were deliverable only in a dream world. And the notion of consistently living on the margin and depending on leverage in the natural world is as fantastic as anything Hollywood has ever produced.

Meanwhile the public lost interest in what was actually happening to it. Detail is boring. Economics is boring. They allowed their representatives to gamble their wealth, both real and imagined. It’s hard to understand, especially if you don’t try. So cynicism prevails and the public loses itself in vanity and trivia. But it’s starting to look like you can’t believe in nothing and still have credit. I’m afraid that if we’re going to rescue a system based on credit, we’re going to have to find principles we can realistically believe in, and that means that from now on the people are going to have to pay attention. A good place to start would be the constitution and the fact that it says that “Congress shall have power: To coin money, regulate the value thereof…”


As it becomes increasingly clear that we have taken refuge in a fortress of cards, we are almost desperate for a wild card or a joker, an augury of recovery or a harbinger of hope. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst, though, because somehow I think we aren’t even close to that moment of recognition where we will realize where we’ve been taken. We need a mass realization of the principles of work. This is voodoo economics. The economics of the last half-century have been one long magic show, because the markets are moved by belief and manipulating belief is something that has been mastered by our masters. But even belief has its limitations and as it turns out, the stock market is Tinkerbell. The only way we can save her is by all saying together, I do believe in fairies, I do believe in stocks, I do believe in futures.


There will always be markets, but if they are ever going to work we have to make them transparent and credible. Buyers and sellers need to understand what is actually being transacted, and that means that the language of investment needs to be purged and reconstructed. Now is a time for logic, not rhetoric. The lazy masses who fund the markets have to wake up and study where we are and where we’ve been. Sometimes it’s easier to believe in gods and monsters than it is to believe in what we are actually seeing around us. It’s certainly more fun. And it’s easier to believe in myth and the simple explanations it offers than it is to analyze the complexities of the mundane. But look where that has gotten us. A good start would be to elect a government comprised of persons who speak the truth in plain language, who don’t try to blind us with science or gospels, and who will apply reason to our situation.

You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to get us out of this. But we do need a President and a Congress who can move forward with reason and with a scientific approach. The truth is something I can still believe in.