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02.14.11

New York Fashion Week's Mean Girls

Guffaws and chuckles at Victoria Beckham's show underscore the fashion industry's perpetual dissing of female designers. And the sneers often come from women, writes Robin Givhan.

It’s hard being a woman in the fashion industry. They often fall victim to the mean-girl syndrome.

Victoria Beckham, the former Spice Girl-turned designer, was showing off her fall ready-to-wear collection to a small group of editors on a chilly Sunday afternoon in New York when some in the room quietly took her earnestness and used it against her. In the past, Beckham has always mounted intimate presentations during which she would informally describe each new garment, offering up a few details about the fabric, the construction, and how the silhouette fit into her particular tastes. This time, the show, in an empty Upper East Side townhouse with elegant architectural bones and a cozy fireplace crackling in the corner, was in front of a larger audience and included a more formal runway. No matter. Beckham, who was there to greet her guests as they arrived, kept with tradition and described each and every frock.

She provided tidbits about the fabric, including an iridescent multi-hued jacquard made of three colors of threads that criss-crossed to create a rainbow of shades. Beckham took great pride in what was the 100th dress that she’d designed, a mustard-hued faux wrap style with a wide gray zipper slithering up the back. And she lamented a sleeveless red dress with a deep V-neck and side pockets: “Every season, there’s one dress that looks really simple but is a nightmare,” Beckham said. “This is that dress.”

The front rooms of the townhouse were filled with the editors in chief of most of the major fashion glossies and Beckham seemed a bit nervous, never making eye contact with anyone in the audience. This woman who has performed on stage in front of millions seemed acutely aware that she was being judged by an extremely tough crowd and afterward she said, “I’m just so glad it’s over” and joked that she was practically having hot flashes of nervousness. She needn’t have worried. The collection was lovely. It wasn’t filled with razzle-dazzle, but rather the kind of clothes that women—at least those with money and the right sort of figure—would be happy to wear. And Beckham, a wife and mother who is pregnant with her fourth child, noted that the collection was a reflection of her own maturity.

But if one might have thought the audience would have been encouraging and well, equally mature… you would be so terribly wrong. There were muffled giggles, knowing glances, and plenty of eye-rolling over the non-stop narration. Certainly, Beckham’s chatter was a throwback to a 1950s fashion industry. But that was her point—to make the presentation more personal and without the hype of the modern business. It also called to mind the manner in which Tom Ford presented his women’s collection for spring. His rolling monologue drew gushing praise from the industry. Of course, Ford’s presentation dripped in irony. And Ford is the reigning prince of charm.

Beckham’s great crime, it seems, was her earnestness. She was not being ironic. She was not being self-consciously hip. And the cool girls turned on her. It wasn’t pretty.

Beckham’s great crime, it seems, was her earnestness. She was not being ironic. She was not being self-consciously hip. And the cool girls turned on her. It wasn’t pretty.

While the fashion business is overwhelmingly for and about women, it always seems that women have the hardest time capturing the imagination of the industry’s king—or queen—makers. Today, women such as Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg have a large footprint on the American fashion business. Karan has evolved into the kind of designer who attempts to capture the soulfulness and power of femininity—and for fall she did it with a collection that was all lean pencil skirts, cinched waist jackets and luxurious coats done up in a sensual iridescence inspired by pearls. And von Furstenberg’s fall collection of artful print dresses layered over slender trousers, her raucously sparkling tunics and jackets, and her sense of easy glamour reaffirmed her status as the quintessential New York designer. She represents the supremely confident and sexy dame that most every young woman in the fashion industry imagines herself to be.

But while there seem to be countless young men in the fashion pipeline who have been anointed as the next great designer, the women who are their contemporaries seem to be quietly plugging along, without much fanfare and certainly without the labels of “darling,” “wunderkind” or anything else that suggests they have some kind of genius struggling to escape.

The list of male designers who have at one time been—or still are—fashion darlings is long, ranging from Derek Lam and Phillip Lim, to Zac Posen, Jason Wu, Thakoon Panichgul and now, Prabal Gurung. They are talented designers, but it also seems that they have an advantage simply from being male. They can charm and woo the female editors and models. It is as though what they have to say about feminine style and female allure is more legitimate, more believable, more acceptable or simply more exciting because it is coming from a man.

No one seemed to care very much that designer Scott Sternberg’s first runway show for Band of Outsiders mostly took place in the dark as the lights flashed and danced and did everything except actually illuminate the clothes. His collection reflected his eccentric take on classic American sportswear. But in many ways he seemed to be given a gentle pass for a show that was so lacking in production values that it did a disservice to his design work. There was no obvious chuckling or quiet gaffawing at the lighting mishap.

And there was, as always, breathless anticipation for Alexander Wang’s show that also seems a bit much considering his modest design acumen. Wang is an expert at creating languid T-shirts, low-slung trousers, smartly functional accessories and the kind of outerwear that really reflects the swagger of the urban dweller. And his fall collection was, indeed, one of his best, with his quilted ponchos and slightly beaten-up knits. Indeed, the growth of his business is proof of his skill at discerning what it is that consumers want to wear. But rarely has the fashion industry been so enamored of a designer whose greatest skill is his understanding of the commercial market—not his artistry.

The rush of guests to get into Wang’s Saturday evening show at New York’s Pier 94 came to mind when designer Daryl Kerrigan presented her collection a few hours later and a dozen blocks farther south at Pier 59. Kerrigan, one could argue, was one of the first downtown designers to step into the mainstream spotlight. In many ways, she is the precursor to Wang. Her Daryl K business has been through countless ups and downs. The Harvard Business School is not going to be doing an affirmative case study of her company any time soon.

Still, when she presented her new collection, one wondered why she couldn’t stir the same kind of enthusiasm as Wang. Her collection was filled with refined forest-print capes, leather leggings under breezy oversize white shirts, and cropped trousers worn with sharply tailored jackets.

When Kerrigan appeared on the runway to take her bows, she lingered for a few moments with her hands clasped in front of her heart and she mouthed her thanks to the audience. It was a brief little scene but it seemed so terribly honest and sweet. Indeed, her gesture could even be described as earnest. And unfortunately, that wins a woman no friends in the fashion game.

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Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post, where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry and wrote a weekly style column. She has contributed to several books including Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers , and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers . She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady . In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, DC.