10/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Two Faces Of Fashion Week: Good And Evil

This is the first thing that comes to mind when I'm asked what New York's Fashion Week, which begins today, is like:

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit

And the vermin of the world inhabit it

And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit...

At the top of the hole sit the privileged few

Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo

Turning beauty to filth and greed...

I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders.

--Benjamin Barker, Sweeney Todd

And the second thing:

"The Quidditch World Cup is Aces, Harry! All the teams from all over the world get together and there's this massive show and witches and wizards from all over the world come together!"

--Ronald Weasley, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

To those typing WTF in the comments below: hang on. There's no denying Bryant Park and its surrounding style orbits have a lot of beauty, a lot of glamour, and a lot of fun humming through them this week.

But anyone who's ever watched a grown woman lie and claw her way through a publicist just to crash a fashion show, anyone who's ever fallen knees-first on Soho cobblestones because their overpriced heels couldn't hold their ambitions, and anyone who's felt - despite fighting it - like she wasn't good enough, blonde enough, or thin enough to stand beside her peers at an open champagne bar, knows that those experiences are as intrinsic to this week as Betsey Johnson's annual cartwheel down the runway. Which, by the way, is pretty awesome.

And Fashion Week might shatter more than one imagines, especially now, when the industry is at a crossroads. It's a place where wealth, class, and fear crash into each other with alarming speed and harrowing subtlety. It's also a place where hundreds of versions of vision seep together in search of something deeper - a visual expression of who we, as Americans, want to be. There's some fear in that, too, but really, it's thrilling.

At its core, Fashion Week is much like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, or for the more fanciful/more juvenile/more me, the opening exhibit at the Quidditch World Cup. It's where everyone in the fashion world convenes, shares collections, opinions, and a sense that perhaps the world can shift through seams alone. Your identity can liquify with a catwalk; "I want that skirt" becomes "I want that attitude" becomes "I want that change in myself." You can't deny that's powerful. Is it also superficial? Perhaps, but then, isn't architecture?

Also powerful: the underside of this garment gathering in Bryant Park, which boils down to one sour, dour truth: creative people cling to ego. Your show venue holds 500 seats, and only 75 of them are in front. Whoever muttered "power struggle" is correct. It's true people further back (disclaimer: usually me) check the front with interest, but the reverse is just as true, and a lot of the scoping and the head-checking comes from section A-1, where more powerful editors, celebrities, "celebrities," and buyers crave seeing who they've beat.

Progressive types believe that the industry should ditch fashion shows altogether and broadcast their presentations live online, so everyone gets the same perfect view (and the fashion houses save the million dollar budget from a show). That's pragmatic and democratic, and it'll happen after Sarah Palin's daughter gets an abortion.

In fact, fashion shows are premised on exclusion. If the brand is hard for all but a privileged few to snatch immediately, then people want it even more. If people want it even more, they try harder to get it -- by mentioning it more in their magazines, by name-dropping it more on TV, by - gasp - buying it at retail.

Does fashion need to be exclusive in order to be powerful? Is aspiration just the flip side of jealousy? And wait, remind me, why does Fergie exist? These are just a few of the questions we should be asking during Fashion Week.

Meanwhile, I'll leave it here: Just as Dolce can't be without Gabbana, just as Carrie Bradshaw can't exist without Pat Field, these two sides of fashion- the desperate wanting and the feeling that if your eyes are open you can own the whole world with a higher heel and a freer spirit - can't really be torn apart.

But I'd argue that ambivalence - the loving it so much you worry what it does to you; the hating it so much you sign up for extra yogurt - it's worth it if you really think the industry can make a positive change on society through aesthetics. On a more personal (and, okay, less pretentious) note, it's even more worth it if a dress can shift the way you see yourself -as long as you agree it's not the only way to make that change.

So I guess we've all got to choose our preferred attitude before gleefully entering the tents this week - are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

Or does it depend on your daily choice of heels - like it does for me?