I work in fashion. I respond to emails about drop-crotch pants and washed charmeuse (“I understand your concerns, but the charmeuse is supposed to look old and used”). My job recently sent me to Paris where, with a straight face, I said things like, “His inspiration for this collection is amateur female basketball players from Somalia. Yeah, Muslim women. Yep, exactly like that Tom Hanks movie about the pirates. Anyway, the collection’s all about this juxtaposition of urban and rural, the developed and the raw, how the rigidity of Western life clashes with the desert and wildness of Muslim Africa.”
This is all, of course, nothing more than nonsense predicated on capitalist fantasies of female bodies and Africana, on a belief in fashion as truth. It’s Zoolander, it’s Derelicte, and it’s ridiculous. But it’s so easy to submit to these fantasies when you’re in the mood, when, let’s say, you’re in a cozy Paris café sharing an aperitif and cigarette with a hulking French fashion consultant named Christophe.
By no conventional means is Christophe attractive—he might as well be the love child of Penny Marshall and Gerard Depardieu—but as my coworker said, “If Christophe threw me on the ground, I wouldn’t be upset.” He has a confidence and mass that overwhelm you, and you get the sense that he knows, at all times and in all situations, exactly what he’s doing. So when Christophe explains to me the brilliance of the Somalian WNBA collection, I’m into it totally and completely. Christophe’s got me on that fashion Kool-Aid high, and so does my glass of kir.
Being in Paris during Fashion Week doesn’t hurt either. Unlike New York’s fashion try-hards, Parisian style doesn’t hit you over the head. It’s so subtle and practical that it seduces you with its attainability. The city seems to promise, You, too, can be chic. And I eat it up. Being in Paris during Fashion Week is like bathing in a nutrient-rich solution of coolness. You absorb the importance of clothes so quickly that you don’t even have time to question your taste level. You grow capable of saying and believing things like, These pleather jeans from Acne are the best $260 I’ve ever spent.
And so, after my cocktail with Christophe, I walk through the Marais back to my hotel. I’ve got Erykah Badu in my ears and pleather on my legs, and I’m feeling cool as fucking hell. Then my phone buzzes. Facebook notification: “Wendy Sung has posted a link on your timeline.” Wendy is the hungriest of my friends, so I guess she’s posted food porn. But no, the link is for a video called “House of Versace—Extended Trailer.” And just like that, my Paris Fashion Week fantasy disappears.
House of Versace is a Lifetime movie about fashion designer Donatella Versace, a woman who, like the fashion industry generally, is an easy target. They’re vapid, unnecessary, cartoonish, and garishly overpriced. It’s rare that a photograph of someone can convey all these qualities at once, but do a Google image search of Donatella Versace, and you’ll see. It’s as if she exists simply to become the subject of a basic cable movie. The extended trailer for House of Versace is high camp, and probably the best ninety seconds on YouTube. While I watched it, I squealed and gasped with joyful embarrassment, acknowledging that camp as a genre requires introspection, a ridiculing of not just Donatella and her tragic taste, but also that of the viewer, me. (Kitsch, on the other hand, is camp’s nasty cousin, the one who teases you but never itself. Zoolander is kitsch.)
So there I am, standing on Rue de Blancs-Manteaux, feeling silly in my overpriced jeans, but even sillier for letting Christophe and Paris and the Somalian women’s basketball league win me over. It’s just clothes, I think. (This is something my coworkers and I say when work sucks.) Occasionally (very), it’s not just clothes: this rarefied world of Paris Fashion Week creates an opportunity for subversion, for non-campy introspection and revision, which is exactly what Rick Owens, an American designer who works in Paris, did with a collection and show he called “Vicious.” (Owens employed step teams instead of models to show his latest collection.) But by and large, Owens was on his own, as he often is. Too much money and too much cool are at stake. When Donatella screams in the trailer, “I AM VERSACE!”, we’re reminded that, for better or worse, image and branding are everything in fashion.
Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.