Fascinatin' Fashion Dominates The Popular Imagination

Fashion could be spelled fa$hion. Regardless of what's trendy this season, the trillion-dollar fashion industry thrives on selling image. In its world dependent on change, one thing remains constant: the push to buy, buy, buy.

Fashion is increasingly impressed on consumers - from videos in department stores to the well-publicized lives of supermodels. While the number of places one can buy designer labels has increased 10-fold in the past decade, so has the number of places where one is exposed to high fashion, from the checkout line to cable TV.

In recent years, TV and film have given fashion the exposure that has transformed regular models into supermodels and fashion shows into a game of spot-the-celebrity.

Director Robert Altman is the latest to flirt with fashion in his film ``Ready-to-Wear,'' which opens tomorrow (and will be reviewed in that day's Monitor.) Named after the ready-to-wear (pret-a-porter in French) shows held in October and March, the film looks at the glamour and absurdity of the fashion world. Altman has inserted a cast of stars into the Paris scene and thrown in a murder mystery.

Fabulous, darling, fabulous

Valerie Steele, author of several books on fashion and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (N.Y.) supposes that Altman chose fashion because ``It's a business full of bloated, fragile egos. That provides potential for parody.

``Competitiveness is a big part of it,'' Ms. Steele says. ``There's incredible hatred and jealousy. Who's making more money? Who's copying them?'' That is why it's a perfect place for a murder mystery.

The average show costs more than $200,000 to produce and lasts 40 minutes. A designer shows his or her line via models strutting down the catwalk, and the media cover it (sell it) by generally saying nice things. History has proven that if you're a reporter who is not complimentary, you risk being banned from the next shows.

``If you can't say something nice don't say anything at all. Fashion carries this to extremes,'' Steele affirms. Art criticism and certainly restaurant reviewing is much more fair, she says.

``There isn't anything as inside its own culture as the fashion world,'' says Christa Worthington, former European editor for ``W'' and ``Women's Wear Daily.''

Whatever the city - Paris, Milan, Tokyo, London, New York - the shows are curious scenes. People fight for a good seat, photographers and reporters scramble, buyers scribble, attendees wonder ``Who's who in the front rows?,'' and they all look at zany clothes on models slim enough to slip through a basketball hoop.

The average woman may see these fashions in a magazine or on TV and think of halloween rather than haute couture. It's easy to see how people may interpret all of this as a big con game, but they don't get it, author Steele says. ``There is this tremendous reservoir of anti-fashion sentiment in America,'' as opposed to in France where no one seems to question it, she says.

Beneath the glitz, the aim is pure profit. These shows are theater, and they are also effective advertising, Steele points out. The designers are making an investment. For consumers, these high-fashion shows often indicate things to come.

Footage on Fashion

Through television, the public is exposed to fashion more than ever before, whether it's on MTV or Entertainment Tonight. Ironically, the timing was bad for the industry: Women don't follow fashion as slavishly as they used to. ``Fashion has been deconstructed,'' says Ms. Worthington, who is also author of the book ``Chic Simple Clothes.'' It's much more up to the woman to decide what she wants to wear.

Consumers are more conscious about the ``Emperor's New Clothes'' syndrome, Worthington says. Fashion has become practically a spoof of itself, she observes. ``It's been dismantled.''

Now the public is fascinated with fashion's stars just as much as - if not more than - the clothes. Also, Hollywood's ties to high fashion have tightened. The glamour and gossip are almost commodities, whether it's Madonna boosting designer Jean Paul Gaultier, actor Kyle Maclachlan dating model Linda Evangelista, or Robert Altman filming ``Ready-to-Wear'' and ruffling designer Karl Lagerfeld's feathers. (He feared Altman would portray the fashion world as a ``nightmarish cartoon.'')

``It's like a soap opera. We're all terribly interested in the cast of characters and have become much more aware of them,'' says Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Conde Naste in London, publisher of British Vogue magazine.

Undressing the Mystique

Robert Altman is not the first to drop in on the fashion world. Author Steele speaks of the 1966 film ``Qui etes-vous Polly Maggoo,'' by William Klein, as a ``very funny'' spoof of the industry. A more serious work is the BBC's 1992 TV series ``The Look.''

Back in 1988, Nicholas Coleridge came out with ``The Fashion Conspiracy,'' which serves as an entertaining expose.

Some people think that the mystique of fashion would be tarnished by having it looked into, Steele says, ``almost as if you anatomize it, you might kill the beast. I think the more you know, the more interesting it is.''

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