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The virtues of staring

At Fashion Week, it's not just OK to gawk — it's rude not to. By Paige Ferrari.

I’m frumpy at Fashion Week. 

A 4 year-old brings this to my attention. Five minutes after I enter Bryant Park’s great white tent she sashays in front of me in silver high heels and white short shorts.  The back of her shorts are Bedazzled with one word: RICH. Her look is the mixture of boredom and disdain some women acquire only after multiple divorces.

Welcome to New York Fashion Week, a world of its own, complete with its unique customs, culture and — of course — costumes.  It’s a place where conventional wisdom is frequently stood on its head and — let’s get this over with right off the bat — you do look fat.  I do. She does. Everyone but a handful of Eastern European teenagers does, so please don’t bother even asking.

The big name runway shows are what everyone’s here for. Who wouldn’t clamor to enjoy a tightly choreographed performance piece in which impossibly attractive genetic mutations march down a runway in unthinkably expensive garments, somehow spending the GDPs of  several small countries in the time it takes to play twodrum-and-bass songs, looking incredibly bored all the while?  No one cool, that’s who.

But before I glimpse a single beefy man thigh in Perry Ellis shorts, or ogle some artistic side-cleavage care of Sari Gueron, I take in a rather less rehearsed show in the purgatory of the main foyer. It’s here that one truly absorbs the people’s Fashion Week.

Mother always told me not to stare.  She also told me to always wear comfortable shoes which, when put into practice at Fashion Week, has resulted in people giving me quizzical looks, as if to say, “Poor thing, she’s clearly on her way to tech a high school musical and is terribly lost.” When I first flash my press pass and enter the main tent, I find that I can’t seem to avert my eyes from the many conversation pieces, bedazzled and otherwise, waltzing about the main promenade.

For one thing, there is a fellow dressed in a UPS costume. I say costume and not uniform, for his getup seems to show a lot more leg than regulation.  While I suspect that this has something to do with UPS’s corporate sponsorship, it seems equally likely that he is lost on his way to a bacherlorette party, or an actual UPS man who — when delivering a package to the tent — defied company dress protocol like a naughty Catholic schoolgirl rolling up her skirt.

Another man, wearing a polka-dot hat and a shirt with vertical stripes in all the colors of the sherbet family, putters around outside the booth for the WE network.  His vigil is similar to that of a confused elderly person, patiently waiting for a train that hasn’t run on a set of tracks for years, as a sign from WE informs all comers that the coveted swag bags are gone, and there will be no more today.

I feel guilty for staring.  After all, these are human beings. That’s when UPS beefcake grins and says he’ll take a picture with a fan. A woman in a red hat coos at the ensemble of my RICH 4-year-old nemesis, and the nearby mother of RICH beams, then instructs her daughter to do a twirl for the admiring stranger. Polka Dot, undeterred by the fact that the swag train don’t stop here anymore, strikes a pose for a woman with a very large camera.

That’s when I realize: This is Fashion Week.  Objectify away.  It’s actually rude not to gawk at the native’s costumes.  After all, college funds aren’t being frittered away and teams of underpaid seamstresses aren’t going blind in Sri Lanka so that I can respectfully avert my eyes from a fabulous garment. 

Of course, for all the grade-A people watching, there are downsides to the main tent.  It’s not the inner sanctum. It’s the waiting room for people who aren’t on TV. You may gain entry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll catch more than a glimpse of Paris Hilton or Carmen Electra, or even that girl from Laguna Beach (who apparently has an entourage and gets to breathe the same air as Anna Wintour).

It is, however, a guarantee that, between attempts to finagle your way into a full show, you can make the rounds and gather C-grade swag from a variety of distributors.

“New York is very commercial, not like Paris,”  says a photographer. He sees me taking notes as women clutching thousand-dollar designer bags queue up three, four, even five times in succession for free shots of flavored water from the Aquafina stand.

Culture shock
All around the tent, fashion writers, industry types and ladies who lunch (most teetering on enormous heels, some strangely at peace with the fact that they’re wearing leggings) make laps around the corporate sponsors, loading up on what’s good.

Later, at the BCBG show, I stare down from a perch atop the back row hoping to see  a few celebs. One woman towards the front catches my eye. I recognize her as someone who took Aquafina for all it was worth. She is scribbling furiously, giving each model who passes an appreciative nod and leaning in to her friend as if to say “I’m tempted to buy the whole line.”  I wondered if she partially finances her fashion habit through subsisting on samples. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Fashion Week is a bit of culture shock, but after a day or two, I’m nearly acclimated.  I’m gawking without shame. I have a T-shirt from Perry Ellis and a perfume sample for something called Sexy Beast, which I did not know was a perfume intended for dogs until I noticed that my neck hair had a particularly glossy sheen and smelled like bone marrow.

As for tomorrow: I’m back and better prepared.  Sorry mom.  I’m wearing my most impractical heels and, should I find my Bedazzler, some shorts that read, “Take a Picture, It Will Last Longer.”

Paige Ferrari is a freelance writer in New York City.