We get it—this is really, really not a fashion show.
There were clothes to be seen (sort of) and models to wear them (sort of), but otherwise the Imitation of Christ presentation bore little resemblance to a typical runway show (or anything else on the Fashion Week lineup). That much everyone seems to agree on. But if it wasn’t a fashion show, then what was it? And why, after days of mulling it over, is there still no consensus on what it all meant?
The event was packed into the Bortomali gallery on the western edge of Chelsea (a relatively small space for this kind of foot traffic), which meant editors were bumping elbows with buyers and photographers had to claw and wade their way through the chaos if they had any hope of leaving with an even remotely passable shot—no spoon-fed runway images here! This, of course, was largely the point: forcing frazzled attendees to doubt their usual poise while turning in place, needing to constantly reorient themselves as they scanned the room for whatever it was they were supposed to be looking at.
Models lined the main room’s outer edges; arranged clockwise from oldest to youngest, they varied in shape, race and affectation. Some were obviously professional hires, and others supposedly “regular” people. Unlike most fashion presentations, neither the models nor clothes remained static here. The mini tableaus appeared strung together somehow, like clunky, interlocking gears turning to power a larger, more spellbinding machine. But each “look” was also its own mesmerizing little performance: Stationed in front of their own separate mirrors spaced evenly apart, the models rummaged through fabric scraps, whole garments and odd accessories heaped in messy piles at their feet; continually dressing (and undressing), ritually assessing (and scrutinizing); pausing only briefly in each outfit before peeling down to nude leotards and starting all over again. The effect was more mundane than distressing, though it was impossible not to cringe when you saw the show’s youngest girls—and they were quite young—photographed and examined so aggressively as part of the spectacle.
And then there was the video installation: If you hadn’t thought so already, this was where the outré eased toward eldritch. Fashion enthusiasts rarely appear visibly shell-shocked, so it was surprising to see the group so unnerved, hovering in the entryway on the back wall and unsure which of Tara Subkoff’s fashion funhouses to flee to (or from). The shift in tone and art-house aesthetic was abrupt: Behind a cluster of nude and half-naked women—looking particularly sullen and holding transparent masks decorated with the unmistakable markings of a plastic surgeon’s Sharpie—droning footage flickered on the walls. We’ll ignore the film’s actual content (define: media stuff) because the message was immediately—almost insultingly—self-evident: Media, bad; women, good. I might have appreciated the desperately-wanting-to-be-radical-guerilla-art thing going on if it wasn’t quite so … desperately wanting to be a radical guerilla art thing. I didn’t even notice the bizarro choir in the front lobby until I was on my way out—12 girls singing an eerie adaptation of “Carol of the Bells”—but like the video component, it too was neither here nor there.
This show drove me a little nuts. It drove a lot of people a little nuts. Not because it was too unorthodox—is there such a thing in fashion?—but because it was complicated and crowd-stirring for the wrong reasons. To say the show was different does not automatically mean it was good… or effective, convincing, compelling, or new. Imitation’s divisive presentation eventually backfired because the show failed to accomplish what it was not even able to identify in the first place: What was it? The event’s self-ascribed cheeky title (“This Is Not A Fashion Show”) is only as provocative as what the show actually was instead, and the real meat of the affair was ultimately disappointing. From a distance, the show’s somewhat hipsterfied feminist positions looked like they might have been challenging, but up close they were less than heroic and annoyingly pedantic. I won’t comment on the line itself—Subkoff even said “I don’t want to talk about the clothes” the night of the event—because if not for the official thumbnails available online, I’d have no way of knowing what was for sale and what was for prop. (Click here to view the full collection on Style.com.)
The bottom line is that for all the bells and whistles, Subkoff didn’t communicate anything particularly original and she neglected her primary task as designer when she relied on everything but the clothes to tell this season’s story. Had she conveyed her intended message through craft and potent design-work—rather than prop up a (frankly flimsy) collection with artsy gimmicks and theatrics—Subkoff may have succeeded in producing something truly noteworthy. But you can only expect to be rewarded for disturbing the paradigm when you’ve produced something better to show for it, and Subkoff simply couldn’t deliver something better enough to match the risks she ventured to take.