When the Judges Are the Winners
c.2014 New York Times News Service
A scene in Episode 1 of the Ovation series “The Fashion Fund” — the documentary that had its season premiere Wednesday and offers a behind-the-scenes look at the selection of the winner of the 2014 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, aka the big kahuna prize for an emerging American designer — is as revealing of current fashion world reality as anything I’ve seen.
In it, the 10 judges — editors (Anna Wintour and Mark Holgate of American Vogue); executives (Steven Kolb of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Andrew Rosen of Theory); retailers (Ken Downing of Neiman Marcus and Jeffrey Kalinsky of Nordstrom); and designers (Jenna Lyons of J. Crew, Reed Krakoff, Diane von Furstenberg, and David Neville and Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone, who apparently count as one) — are sitting around a big table discussing the various applications for the prize. They watch supporting videos and narrow the choice to the 10 names that will make the shortlist.
The shoe designer Paul Andrew (the ultimate winner, as announced Monday) comes up. They discuss his work approvingly. Then Kolb says, “He’s very handsome, too.”
“I knew that would come up at some point,” another judge says.
“It does help,” Kolb responds.
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They get to Thaddeus O’Neil, a menswear designer who does bright surf-inspired pieces as well as what look like iridescent onesies (and who does not make the final 10 cut). “Sexy,” von Furstenberg says.
“Good hair,” Wainwright says.
“Really good hair,” Wintour says.
And then there’s Brett Heyman, the designer of the handbag line Edie Parker, who eventually becomes a finalist: “She’s cute, she has a thing, she is very pretty,” von Furstenberg says. “I like her.”
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Welcome to fashion 2.0. In a world of Instagram and YouTube, where everybody wants a reality TV show or documentary (and is, seemingly, getting it), how you come across on screen is increasingly part of the job description.
“Fashion is entertainment” is a phrase thrown around a lot, particularly in terms of the debate on whither the ready-to-wear collections. But the runway is just the beginning.
Sure, the work matters most (speaking of the jeweler Eva Zuckerman of Eva Fehren, for example, one of the two ultimate runners-up, Holgate points out, “The jewelry is good, too”), but it is no longer enough on its own. You need character, too. Or perhaps “a character” may be a better way to put it.
It began with Michael Kors on “Project Runway,” with his jeans and sneakers and pithy asides (“To me, she just looks like Rigatoni Mad Max. It’s kind of like when you stare at a cloud and you start seeing things”), continued with Wintour and Grace Coddington in R.J. Cutler’s “The September Issue,” and is now an accepted element of the business.
“It’s part of what we all need to do today,” Wintour says on screen.
There is no better example than the other fashion premiere of the week, “House of DVF,” a reality show on the E! network. Due to run for another seven weeks (“Fashion Fund” has five more to go), the show follows the travails of 10 young women who are brought to New York to compete for the opportunity to “metamorphose” into a DVF brand ambassador.
Put another way: to learn to act the part.
Over the course of the season, they are schooled by von Furstenberg herself, as well as the DVF-ers Stefani Greenfield, the creative brand director of the DVF studio (and reality TV veteran, having also appeared on Bravo’s “Launch My Line”), and Jessica Joffe, former It girl and current DVF style editor. And they are tested in their ability to be DVF-like by working at events held by the brand, making mood boards and styling sample look-book shoots.
“It’s very important for the company to connect with the young generation,” von Furstenberg says on the show by way of explaining her decision to train a “regular person” in her image who can take her message around the world. (This is harder than you may think, judging by the issues the women have in dressing themselves properly.)
Truth is, though, it is the show itself, not the young women, that acts as a form of outreach extraordinaire.
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To watch von Furstenberg doubting herself — “I was getting dressed, and I was thinking, ‘Am I crazy?’” she says in Episode 1 — and mothering the women (imparting life lessons, pinching their cheeks, hugging them goodbye) while also engaging in tough love (“Simplify, simplify!” she tells one after critiquing her lipstick) is to see her not just as an enormously rich globe-trotting fashion success story (which, let’s face it, she is) but also as someone balancing mogul-dom and matriarch-dom. It is to think, in some part of the viewing brain: Oh, I can relate to that.
Likewise, though “The Fashion Fund” may have been conceived to demystify the awards process, and publicize the struggles of young designers, what it actually does is demystify the judges themselves. Anna Wintour can laugh at herself! Marcus Wainwright bites his nails! They are people too!
From there, of course, it is but a short leap on a viewer’s part to wanting to buy a product, read a magazine or shop in a store blessed with the imprimatur of a favorite judge. Or just keep watching.
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Indeed, though each program is nominally about a winner who will theoretically be catapulted to fame and fortune by the prize — “The Fashion Fund” actually comes with the pseudo-thrilling tagline “10 designers, four months, one winner!” (pseudo, because Andrew’s win was announced before the show was broadcast) — it is in fact the judges themselves who come out on top.
They are the ones who are by far the most compelling characters on screen (especially the ones who log the most screen time, like von Furstenberg and Wintour). They make hard choices. They empathize but without getting mired in emotion. They are stars, in the Cary Grant/Bette Davis sense of the word: magnetic forces always playing themselves, no matter what. The contestants are just supporting actors in their drama.
It is a very meta situation, really: Watch boldface fashion names discuss the importance of performance and presentation, while themselves being involved in a performance and presentation, hence demonstrating exactly what they are discussing.
Whether it is good for fashion or not is another question, and given Kors’ much-coveted-by-his-peers leap to IPO fame and fortune, it may ultimately be beside the point. If the world is, indeed, a stage, why should the fashion world be any different? It can be only a matter of time before Marc Jacobs comes to a YouTube channel near you, or Alexander Wang gets his own Netflix deal.
Let the acting classes begin.