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THE STYLE FILES / Special Fashion Issue : The Pleasures : The Good, The Bad, The Beautiful : Why we love fashion shows


I love fashion shows. There is no better way to spend an hour. Which is one of their charms--they don't last very long.

But not all shows are created equal. There are big-ticket spectaculars, local charity affairs, dog parades (not to be confused with dog shows) and nightclub shows. The best--those staged by high-rolling designers--are sumptuous and free. The worst are midnight horror fests at local nightclubs. Most fashion shows fall in between.

What they all have in common, though, is the minimal effort required on the part of the audience. Watching a fashion show is the sport of slugs. In fact, it helps to be mildly comatose (which is probably why the nightclub shows still exist). All you have to do is dress appropriately and clap politely.

The lights go down. The music comes up. And volleys of the world's most beautiful people come striding down the ramp. They want you to look at them, blatantly scrutinize everything they have on, the way they wear their hair and the color of their lipstick. It's like being in the high school cafeteria and checking everybody out, except you don't have be surreptitious about it.

Deciding who looks the best or has the most fabulous hair is encouraged. And unlike the Miss America pageant, the models are not expected to twirl a baton or answer questions about world affairs.

The quality of the clothes has little to do with whether the show is good. I've seen exquisite gowns through half-closed eyes and pieces of dreck that looked stunning. The models make the difference.

There is a reason Naomi, Cindy, Linda and Christy are called super models. It's not just because they have mile-and-half-long legs or charming beauty marks. They are super models because they can make a canvas pup tent look like the perfect answer to your wardrobe needs.

Claudia Schiffer can't even walk, for heaven's sake. She has the gait of a hobbled horse and yet she looks wonderful and the clothes she wears look wonderful and you actually believe that you, too, would look wonderful if only you had that marabou-trimmed burlap bag.

Then there are times when designers make clothes that are so beautiful, so clever or so innovative that you don't notice the models and just marvel at the garments. Fashion editors have been known to cry, so moved were they by a fashion show.

Personally, I have never been reduced to tears, but I have been inspired, awed and uplifted--and there wasn't a collection plate in sight.

After years of sitting in the audience, I've picked up a few fashion show pointers:

* On arrival, check out the chair before you sit down. You don't want to squash a perfectly good goody bag. The appropriately named bags are usually given at designer or a department store shows and contents can vary from a couple of ounces of the headliner's fragrance to Major Accessories.

Fendi, the Italian leather and fur company, was famous for giving great goodies. Then, in the late '80s, Fendi did some belt-tightening and decided not to give handbags at its seasonal show. Fendi guests, editors and store buyers disguised their horror at seeing the empty chairs. But when no one was looking, they stuck their heads between their knees and pulled up the skirts of the folding chairs, hunting for the elusive graft. A few anxious souls, hoping to find the gift horse's larynx, even tore the slipcovers off the chairs, sure that the Fendi's were playing hide 'n' seek with the treats.

* Watch the crowd. The politics of seating at a fashion show can be quite Machiavellian. Usually the press gets the best seats, unless it's a charity affair and then the chairmen get front row center. At store shows, the preferred seats go to the big spenders.

At the designer shows in New York, Paris and Milan, the magazine editors get the front row--though they're hardly the best seats for viewing the clothes. Between the editor and the end of the catwalk are about 200 photographers who are inclined to stand the entire time, toss empty film boxes over their shoulders and dump camera bags on the feet of the holiest of scribes. But the bob-locked elite would never retreat to safety of Row B. At fashion shows you are either front row or forgotten.

Tiny dramas play out in the few seconds before a show begins. Best moment in recent history: the first public meeting between Grace Mirabella (former editor of Vogue and now Mirabella magazine) and Anna Wintour (her successor at Vogue). The 15-second encounter was dissected for days. Mirabella always came out the winner. She made the overtures, she carried the brief chat period and she exited at the perfect moment.

Then there was the time some lesser being sat in the seat of CNN's fashion caster, Elsa Klensch. Madam had a very vocal hissy fit, but it was impossible to identify the culprit without asking everyone to stand. The show did not go on until Elsa was given a special chair in the middle of an aisle.

* Fashion shows always start late. Perhaps models aren't ready or one of the front-row seats hasn't been claimed. The garment business is full of people so full of themselves they must make an entrance. Their antics hold up the show as they cat-and-mouse each other to see who will be the last to enter.

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