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What is the prognosis for the spirit of New York?

By Jackie Mallon

Jan 15, 2021

Fashion |OPINION

Once again the industry is bracing for another digital fashion week, and many are contemplating the prognosis for New York fashion. And what is to become of the city’s tradition of dressing for success? That slick manicured New York woman navigating Soho’s cobbled streets in heels, her glossy hair undulating around her face, multiple devices slid into the various pockets of the latest leather must-have, has vanished. The absence of the Caroline Bessette-Kennedy type particular to this habitat is palpable.

My hairdresser no longer has walk-in blow dry clients. Birkenstocks, Crocs and Uggs are experiencing a golden age. Disgraced designer, Alexander Wang, fashion’s ultimate party boy and celebrity magnet, is holed up in his affluent upstate home, having fled the glare of Manhattan’s media as allegations of sexual harassment against him from male models and trans people mount up. Add to all this the overarching narrative pouring out of Washington DC, and a sense of demoralization has taken hold that makes getting out of one’s pajamas every morning worthy of a CFDA award.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes this style slump more effectively than February’s poorly received Vogue cover featuring incoming Vice President, Kamala Harris, of which fashion critic Robin Givhan, in the Washington Post writes, “What should have been a blissfully distracting, glossy celebration of a barrier-breaking moment has become a cause for disappointment.” The nation’s first female VP-elect who is of Jamaican and Indian descent stands before a wrinkled curtain looking washed out, seemingly caught unawares, wearing the Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers she regularly wore on the campaign trail.

The disappearance of New York City’s polished professional

Pre-pandemic New Yorkers dressed for success and dressed to impress. They stalked their city to attend all the after-show parties, exclusive openings, and secret watering holes that sprung up overnight, their names on wait lists, guest lists and best-dressed lists. They have since reduced their appearance to filters and their appearances to Zoom.

Ritzy rooftop cocktail lounges boasting panoramic skyline views are closed. Manhattan is a ragtag landscape of hastily erected outdoor dining enclosures fitted with heat lamps which must comply with a series of finicky city codes. Inspectors with their own interpretations of these standards prowl formerly packed nightlife haunts ordering barricades to be thicker, planters to be deeper, handing out cease-and-desist orders. Struggling owners of once-happening restaurants who’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to do the right thing are unsure how long they can endure. Streets are still deafeningly quiet by the city’s usual standards––although the eternal construction work continues. Hopefully the silence will let us all figure out what we have to say next.

Meanwhile, those well-heeled New Yorkers now wear rubber, cork and foam-soled footwear with quilted down jackets. They carry swag cotton totes in case they make a pitstop at Trader Joes, not designer purses. They schedule daily constitutionals but leave the alfresco dining and drinking mostly to young millennials. For me, the hero piece for brunch with those in your bubble as temperatures hover around freezing would be urban skiwear. Think about it, you can move your arms while you eat and get to feel like you’re in an alpine resort instead of in an Astoria bike lane. I’m truly surprised it hasn’t become a thing.

New Yorkers’ conversation has become as banal as that of anywhere else: we talk about the weather now. It never mattered before because we were distracted and diverted. Whether baking under a relentless August sun or huddling against a vicious Noreaster, New York sizzled with energy. But there’s no energy in remote working. It’s the human connection that inspires NYC to be its brilliant, innovative, bonkers self. Inhabitants live and work in cramped quarters, trampling over each other. It’s been called the island of misfit toys, but New Yorkers fit. It’s not a fit experienced anywhere else in the country. It’s custom tailored for those who choose to live here. And we wear it well.

Post-pandemic prognosis for the city that never sleeps

News broke on social media this week that beloved TV show and paean to the Big Apple and its fashion credentials, Sex and the City will launch a new series, but without one of the main characters, Samantha Jones. That the brash, sexy head of her own public relations firm played by Kim Cattrall will be missing seems weirdly appropriate. The city too will rise again but there’ll be an essential element missing from the reboot, the outrageous confidence from having built a reputation on never sleeping. The city struggles to get out of its pajamas.

“Vogue robbed Harris of her roses,” Givhan goes on to write in her critique of the Harris photo, “Nothing about the cover said ‘Wow.’” That just about describes everything in the fashion city that Anna Wintour reigns over. There are no roses, there is no wow factor.

But New Yorkers are skilled in the art of compromise, understand everything’s a negotiation, and are accustomed to extremes. They are an impatient lot yet used to waiting: for that promotion, the perfect apartment, the perfect partner. But when things start moving, they move faster than anywhere else. When restrictions are lifted, and vaccines distributed, there will be an enormous sense of making up for lost time. And change is something New Yorkers do not fear.

Perhaps no one gets the character of the city better than that Manolo-clad columnist with the rent-controlled apartment in one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods who earns 4 dollars a word at Vogue but has no savings, eternal optimist Carrie Bradshaw. So we’ll give her the last word: “That’s another reason I love New York. Just like that, it can go from bad to cute.”

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photo: FashionUnited