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Martin Marks Headshot

Under the Big Top

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For me, New York Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week used to be that magical time of year when I'd remind my more modish friends that invitation was the nominal form of the verb to invite (as in: "I received the invitation," not: "I got your invite"). Back then, all my grammatically hyper-attuned self knew about those eight days were the cluster-drunk parties that seemed to pervade every square inch of Manhattan -- and some of the yachts moored nearby. I watched as waifish editrixes stood with their champagne flutes at half mast, their eyes glazed over with a look that suggested one part dismay, one part blasé, in what I assumed was a contest to see who could strike a more "over it all" pose. How wrong I was.

Last year, a friend referred me to a freelance gig covering most of the shows at Bryant Park. By then, I'd worked on an archeological dig in southern Italy -- 12 hour days in temperatures that often peaked at 43 degrees Celsius, a campsite infested with beetles the width of 1000 lira notes and packs of feral dogs that howled all through the night. I'd gone on 10 mile jogs through South Florida's dead August heat, and narrowly escaped death while riding an autobus across the Peruvian mountainside. And yet, I've found that there's been nothing quite so fascinating, or overwhelming, as the eight days I spent picking Empire waists out of a line-up.

I arrived at Bryant Park on a Friday morning, freshly showered and well rested -- the last time I'd feel either of those two things for the better part of a week. As if drawing from Dante, all-those-who-enter have to wade through a crush of FIT students hoping to catch a glimpse of a Fergie or von Furstenberg, vying for standing-room-only tickets or handing out Fashion Dailies. Then, it's up the Charonian steps, past the security guards, through the doors and into the scrum itself.

To think of this Midtown panoply as just a series of "tents" is like referring to Versailles as France's national bungalow. The area surrounding the Bryant Park fountain becomes an elaborate, corporately-sponsored Grand Central Foyer of Fashion, leading off to Bryant Park's three runways: the smaller Salon, the larger Promenade or the Coliseum-like Tent -- with room to seat almost 1,000 people and sets that sometimes rival those of the Ballet Russes. (Moving the proceedings to Lincoln Center leaves me wondering whether New York would ever host the Super Bowl at Carnegie Hall.)

By the second or third show, the clocks start to run on a bizarre, Alice in Wonderland-like schedule (if a show's running 45 minutes late, then it's right on time), which causes the assembled to act as though they're waiting for the last helicopter leaving Saigon. Publicists have the unenviable task of herding photographers, reporters, editors and oddly enthusiastic Japanese camera crews, doing so largely through the use of shrewd, dismissive glares.

For eight days, you fight through these crowds, subsist on wayyy-too-strong cappuccinos and infrequent bites of 'Wichcraft goat cheese sandwiches, and line up with New York's most fashionable for port-o-potties that seem as though they've been flown in from the Glastonbury Music Festival. And as with any structure so grand, the tents are impressive, but imperfect. Water sometimes leaks from the roof when it rains, and the temperature never seems to be quite right, so you spend the most of your time in a state of "thermal whiplash" -- the constant transition between Bryant Park's blast furnace heat and Manhattan's February cold -- as you file stories while simultaneously trying to avoid electrocution.

I soon found that fashion's Survivor challenge comes replete with its very own Panopticon; you have to avoid electrocution, but you have to do so chicly, with an immaculate wardrobe and accessories to match, because the entire week transpires under the gaze of innumerable cameras and voguish onlookers, with almost all news of the outside world coming from Fashion Dailies or "how busy I am" Facebook status updates -- perhaps the only thing more annoying than the "how fabulous it is" Art Basel Miami update.

Naturally, these conditions could only be exacerbated by one factor: the barrels' full of (free) champagne and (free) vodka and (free) wine that springs forth from the stands surrounding Bryant Park Fountain like it was, well, a fountain. Not since my senior prom have I seen more alcohol foisted upon young ladies -- or me.

And this is before the actual work of fashion week. By the time the last model walks down -- or in some cases, topples over the side of -- the runway, the casual observer would be hard pressed to describe what the first dress even looked like. But those reporting on the shows need to have mastered an entire host of fashion vocabulary -- the models, designers, seasons, and historical contexts. With each designer showing roughly 40 looks, twice a year, at four main fashion weeks, it's a multiplication table of memorization before you can even begin to formulate the sentence, "Designer X's gowns/shifts/raiment/duds compellingly invoked Designer Y's oeuvre."

This being the woeful period in our history before the iPhone thesaurus application, I started running out of synonyms for some very simple, fashion-oriented words after about the eighth show, and spent most of my free time -- that is, between trips to the free beverage bar and from 3 to 6 a.m. -- in a panic to come up with variations for the noun "dress" and the adjectives "beautiful," "whimsical" and "feminine."

After a week of synonym-searching, crowd-avoiding, hangover-recovering and clothes-watching, I discovered the synergistic effects of life under the tents. I was watching the cab's video monitor in a taxi speeding back to my apartment when all of a sudden my vision occluded, Mayor Bloomberg's voice became more gravelly than usual, and I fainted. Fortitude, as it pertains to fashion, might not be my strong suit. But at least I had six solid months before the next New York Fashion Week, enough time to find out if Yohji Yamamoto designed riot gear, and to invest several hours in a deep tissue massage, if not a sensory deprivation chamber.