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Joe Zee

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Reality Bites

Posted: 10/05/2010 12:14 pm

This recent headline from a fashion trade scared the crap out of me: The Nineties are Back!

It wasn't that I was weary of our slow bounce back from recession (if in fact we really are) or afraid of the high unemployment rate still plaguing our country or, on the fashion front, all those Belgian designer-inspired longer hemlines and chunkier shoes I saw coming down the runways for spring. It was something else: For the first time since I've started working in this industry twenty years ago, I've witnessed the recycling of a style generation I've already lived. Frivolous to some, I know, but it still struck a chord.

I remarked to a friend recently that I had unofficially dubbed this fashion season a reality check. Again, not in the sense that the designer clothes showed at fashion week felt soberingly real (some were, some weren't) or the fact that some front rows at Lincoln Center dazzled with more reality stars than not (ha, no judgments there) but in the revelation of this impending nineties comeback. The Nineties! That was the hard-hitting reality: My own generation was now considered vintage.

In my career, having worked everywhere from WWD and W to Vanity Fair and now ELLE, I have reported and dissected every trend from every decade. Those past headlines were easy: The Fifties New Look Revisited! Studio 54 Dances On! Eighties Power Shoulders Are Bigger Than Ever! It was so simple to be seduced by an era, any era, where my only knowledge of it came from books and movies and fashion research. Of course, a John Galliano twenties-inspired beaded frock could make me dance with joy -- I never experienced Black Friday and didn't live through Prohibition wearing it.

Same goes for the sexy translations of seventies Halston gowns Tom Ford would send down Gucci runways during his tenure there. Dresses that were reminiscent of the glamorous ladies envisioned in the recesses of my mind, gliding past velvet ropes and ducking straight into secret VIP backrooms. It was easy to have a backstory for all the clothes I loved; I had no living experience from which to draw from. Instead, I lived vicariously through those dresses -- dresses that oozed sex appeal for me, enough to leave a Gucci show feeling intoxicated -- and entertained.

But the nineties are a different story.

I started as a fashion assistant back in 1992 making about $280 a week. It was at a startup magazine called Allure, and I worked for fashion legend Polly Mellen. She taught me to see clothes and design in a different way and relish in details, even when they weren't readily apparent. Once, during a run-through, she snapped a couture jacket off a hanger and turned it inside-out to show me that what you didn't see was more important than what you did see. My fashion education started that day.

After that, we spoke constantly in hyperboles of all that inspired us: stark images by Corinne Day and David Sims culled from underground British magazines; a new Austrian designer bursting onto the scene named Helmut Lang and the relaxed but tough sensibilities of Ann Demeulemeester or Jean Colonna; or just the perfect heel on the perfect shoe.

My nineties were my formative years. My So-Called Fashion Life. The years I learned to "develop my eye" as Mrs. Mellen would say, and where eventually I'd take that schooling and apply it in this crazy, topsy-turvy, constantly changing industry. The nineties are my memories -- memories I'm not ready to lose. Think of it like this: You remember your favorite childhood meal at a local restaurant back home, but when you go back to sample it as an adult, it doesn't taste nearly as good. And in some way, it forever skews the pleasant memory you have. As the cliché goes, some things are best left alone.

Most recently, photographer and film director Carter Smith and I produced a photo portfolio and short film of 25 twenty-five year old women in the entertainment industry for ELLE's 25th anniversary. In the interview, they were asked for their best birthday memories, but for me, the more poignant question was "What did you think you'd be doing when you turned 25?" These were Oscar and Emmy nominees, Olympic gold medalists, acclaimed artists and journalists, yet most thought they'd just be married (Megan Fox thought it'd be George Clooney) or some were so driven, they only saw their destiny. Either way, most felt twenty-five was a turning point for them. In that instant, I knew exactly how they felt too. I turned twenty-five one year after I started working for Polly and for me, that was my turning point.

A turning point which -- despite the spring runways -- I am not yet ready to give up.

 
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