Death by Olsen: Dispatch from Fashion Week

When Nerissa Pacio Itchon and I became friends in college, we were something of an odd couple, style-wise. I was curvy, Jewish-looking and curly-haired, and my fashion choices might have been described as skater-raver-grunge, though I neither skated nor raved. Nerissa was skinny, Filipina and, miraculously, seemed to get her hair cut in a different style every week without ever losing any length. At first I mistook her for a sorority girl (the enemy!), although her look had hip-hop accents—and she actually did listen to hip-hop and R&B.

But the UCLA Daily Bruin brought us together, and Melrose Avenue solidified our bond. On the scroungy east end of the shopping district, there was something for everybody. She bought things you could wear in The Club, and I bought orange plastic platform shoes that I later loaned to our friend Michael when he was collecting items for Halloween drag.

The cross street is Gardner, but this is actually Melrose.

Sometimes Nerissa and I bought the same thing, and inevitably it looked completely different on each of us. A $30 black raincoat made from some sort of slick, synthetic material looked preppy and SoHo-ish on Nerissa. The same coat in an odd shimmery copper looked chunky and East Village-ish on me. Not that either of us had been to New York.

But Nerissa is in New York as I type, living out every fashion journalist’s dream by covering Fashion Week and looking predictably stunning as she does it. So I decided to ask her Everything I Always Wanted To Know About Fashion Week But Wasn’t Well Connected Enough To Ask.

Nerissa (right) backstage at Herve Leger. A great manicure is a must for a fashion reporter. (Photo by Joshua M. Elan)

CK: Obvious question first: What does one wear to the shows at Fashion Week? Especially if one happens to be earning a journalist’s salary instead of, say, Sarah Jessica Parker’s?

NPI: Ah yes, if only we could all cover SJP’s closet, even if only for Fashion Week! My strategy has been to bring well-tailored basics that don’t cost a fortune, a few key investment pieces (that cost a little less than a small fortune), and a ton of inexpensive accessories for mixing and matching. You can never go wrong if most of your pieces are in neutrals or basic black, which can pass off as looking more high-end if the fabric is high-quality and the fit is right.

SJP: Skips basic black, goes for acorn beret.

Fashion Week is sort of an amorphous, mythical creature in my mind. I picture beautiful, beautiful clothes; prime people-watching opportunities; and lots of bitches with clipboards. What were your expectations, and what is the reality?

You’re right about, well, all of those assumptions! On the first day while I was still getting oriented, and was getting shuffled from one high-security backstage entrance to another, I almost decided to carry a clipboard and talk really loudly into a headset just to get speedier access. The people-watching is truly amazing. There’s always a gang of photographers waiting in the Lincoln Center plaza for guests making their way into and out of the shows. I think a lot of the photographers are fashion bloggers, who are also well-dressed themselves, and in between shows they take pictures of each other. It’s all very meta.

Most truly inspiring moment?

I was giddy when I saw Bill Cunningham making his front-row rounds at the Marc by Marc Jacobs show. At one point, a group of us started taking his photo, so he returned the favor by taking a photo of us taking his photo. He grinned and then ran off. I get the sense that he’s one of those journalists who truly appreciates the art of fashion. He’s in it for the creativity and the people—and not the status.

Bill on a bike: high fashion, zero emissions.

Most intimidating moment?

Yesterday at the J. Mendel show, I was bum rushed from behind by a mob of aggressive photographers trying to get a shot of the Olsen twins in front of me as they were making their way to an exit with bodyguards. I was already playing out headlines in my head if I were to die in a freak Olsen-induced stampede at fashion week. Even though I’m a member of the media, I make no excuses for the ones that ruin for us all by behaving badly.

Wednesday Addams is their long-lost triplet.

We always think of getting paid to do what you love as the ultimate career coup. But the little-discussed flip side is that it can make the thing you love feel like a job. What’s the workiest part of covering Fashion Week?

The hardest part is keeping up your energy and your momentum. You’re running around town in gnarly traffic, interviewing a flurry of people in chaotic situations, waiting in long lines to get into shows, and then trying to make sense of it all at the end of the day after hours when you’re spent but have to actually sit down to write. Oh, and it’s never easy trying to do all of this in sweaty, 80-degree weather while still trying to look good!

Sightseeing with BlackBerry. (Photo by Edric Itchon.)

I know you’re never supposed to look at art and think, How would this look in my living room? but I always do. When you see a six-foot-tall model stomping down a runway in, like, a bodysuit made of emu feathers, do you think about how you might wear it or interpret it? What sorts of real-world translations have been going through your head this week?

That’s part of the challenge as a fashion and beauty journalist—trying to figure out how the trends actually translate into the reality for the average consumer. If I tried to pull off the giant, frizzed out hairdos I spotted backstage at Chris Benz, I fear I’d look like cotton candy had been spun atop my head! I’d interpret this trend as volume being back for spring hair. Fashion-wise, I’ve been seeing a lot of neon colors and skirt silhouettes with thigh-high slits, neither of which are easily wearable trends. As an average consumer, I’d add a splash of neon in the form of an accessory, like a statement bag. As for the thigh-high slits: some things are better left for the runway.

Cotton candy meets Peg Bundy meets awesome.

You’re in New York with [your husband, attorney and sometime photographer] Edric, right? As a fashion outsider, what’s his take on all this?

Edric has quickly had to go from an outside to an insider. He’s been shooting with me for my freelance stories, so he’s had the onerous task of fighting his way into the photographers’ pit. Here’s what he had to say in his own words:

“It’s been pretty fascinating—like a mini-theater production with all the backstage, run-through, performance, and audience energy taking place from setup to breakdown in the span of only a few hours. The creativity ranges from inspiring to cool to odd. The photographer’s pit seems to have its own code. And what’s most inspiring/comforting are meeting the accomplished people that stay grounded like you!” [←It’s true—I predict Nerissa Pacio Itchon is the new Bill Cunningham.]

Edric's shot of the Tracy Reese show. You know the Olsens have already ordered that parasol.

Fashion, like most subcultures, has its own lexicon. For example, if I referred to a “look” as an “outfit,” I’m pretty sure one of the clipboard bitches would immediately give me the boot. What are some crazy words and phrases you’ve found yourself using since you started covering fashion and beauty?

Sometimes I catch myself getting sucked into fashion speak and I kindly ask that my friends slap me. I am guilty of abusing the words concept, iconic, and statement (see answer to question 6). And I lapse into The Hills mode of unnecessarily abbreviating words like “totally” to “totes” and “margaritas” to “margs” if I’m not very careful.

Do I covet these totes? Totes!

Any after-party stories? Are there parties, or am I just thinking of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, which is the only point of reference I have for a seething mass of people obsessed with the same thing? (Just imagine that, instead of couture, everyone was wearing Buddy Holly glasses and moth-eaten sweaters. And instead of studios with names like “Milk,” you were at the Denver Hyatt.)

There are definitely after parties—or so I’m told! I just haven’t been going to any. Running around backstage with all the models, hair and makeup artists, and then darting off to watch the shows throughout the day is a party in and of itself!

Have you spotted Anna Wintour? Was she crushing a puppy with her stiletto?

I have yet to spot Anna, although yesterday I was across the runway from Hamish Bowles, who was looking as dapper as ever, and Suzy Menkes, at J. Mendel. The other day, I barely caught a glimpse of Beyonce, with her hair flying wildly as she left a backstage exit and boarded a Mercedes-Benz bus being chased by the paparazzi. I’m not a huge celebrity-watcher, but that was pretty exciting.

Please, please tell me House of Dereon is doing maternity clothes now.

About Cheryl Klein

According to the ads that show up on my Facebook page, I love little vintage dresses and shoes with funky heels (and I should also consider a social work degree and self-publishing). Facebook knows too much, you guys. Other things I like: clearance racks, fingerless gloves, the phrase "a smoky eye," and clothing that reminds me of my early fashion icons--Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster and Laura Ingalls.

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