THE FASHION CYCLE. By Irene Daria. Simon & Schuster. 240 pages. $21.95.
WITH AIDS killing designers and a deepening recession killing potential customers as well, the fashion business is very much in decline. Yet somehow, Vogue magazine keeps pushing $5,000 dresses and designers keep talking about being "modern," "free" and "romantic." While all may be in shambles beneath, the surface of fashion shimmers.
"The Fashion Cycle" attempts to delve beneath this glossy veneer by going backstage with five top U.S. designers. Irene Daria paid regular visits over one year to Bill Blass, Donna Karan and Arnold Scaasi (who dress the very rich) and Liz Claiborne and Adrienne Vittadini (who dress upper-middle-income women).
The interviews were held during 1988 and 1989, and there's scant mention of the faltering economics of fashion. Daria instead examines the working process of each designer. Arnold Scaasi offers a keyhole view into couture for socialites. Bill Blass exemplifies massive self-promotion. Adrienne Vittadini jets off to Hong Kong and the complexities of overseas clothing production. Liz Claiborne has the headache of running a gigantic, publicly held business. Donna Karan battles the stress that comes with success.
Daria watches designers pin fabric on models, argue with staff, wolf down sandwiches and make off-color jokes. She doesn't leave out a giggle of gossip. All characters are referred to by first name, as is done in the industry to flaunt familiarity. Ultimately, this affectation confuses the reader, who must wade through a text of endless Richards and Davids. The book reads like an unedited, direct transcription from a tape recorder. These verbatim accounts include topics such as the price of fabrics and whether so-and-so may visit the bathroom.
Because of the plodding narrative, "The Fashion Cycle" does not begin to match the delicious bite of Nicholas Coleridge's "The Fashion Conspiracy," another behind-the-scenes book published in 1988. But Daria takes a shot at Coleridge, criticizing him for not accurately describing the size of Bill Blass' showroom.
This malicious way with minutiae fits in with the general temperament of the fashion crowd, which is less interested in important issues than itself. And boy, do designers like talking about how hard their lives are!
"I'm bored with designing, but I can't take a break," says Adrienne Vittadini.
"I always worked," reflects Liz Claiborne on her impending retirement. "I used to envy all those women at Fire Island who didn't work and could stay at the beach all week, all summer. Now it's my turn."
Of all the designers described, Arnold Scaasi offers the most amusing stories about the eccentricities of his famous customers. Donna Karan is the most candid.
"Sometimes I wonder about what we do here," Karan says to a group of fashion editors come to preview her transparent chiffon fashions for spring. "Like this whole sheer thing. That's strictly editorial. It's to keep us stimulated. But who wears it? Sometimes I wonder. We sit here in our wonderful atmosphere creating our own stimulations, but who gets it? Like the whole short thing. If women didn't go out and buy short last year, the whole thing passed them by, and now long is back again. They have to realize they no longer have to buy what we tell them to. It all happens so fast. All they have to do is sit tight and their old clothes will be back in style."
"Don't let them hear you say that," says one of the editors.
But Daria does, and it's a delicious moment indeed to hear a designer say that fashion need not be followed.
The other interesting phenomenon Daria exposes is the often incestuous relationship between fashion press, buyers and designers. Backstage at the Bill Blass fashion show, the Cable News Network journalist, Elsa Klensch, helps herself to costume jewelry with Blass' permission. Daria also listens in to journalists and buyers making nasty, critical comments to each other during Arnold Scaasi's fashion show. Then, when the critics are asked their official opinions by another journalist, they say only nice things. The fashion press, it seems, has made a deal with the devil; its members are entitled to enter the glorified world of fashion if they are willing to heap praise on the designers and the retail industry.
Daria, who has worked at Women's Wear Daily and Harper's Bazaar, strives to set herself apart from the tawdry fashion flock. It is ironic that the flattering promotional blurbs on the back of the book cover are written by a journalist, buyer and socialite treated respectfully within the book's pages.
Sujata Banerjee covers fashion for The Evening Sun.