Monday, 6 April 2020

FICTION: "Nostalgia Is a Permanent Condition"

After the U.S. postal service collapsed, most fashion brands switched to paperless invitations. A number of startups appeared, claiming to give email the same weight as cardstock. An Italian brand that once sent my boss a box of marzipan fruit via courier sent a customized version of that animal game everyone played in quarantine. I bought a rod and fished in the digital ocean until I pulled up an oarfish. It spat out a coin with my name and the invitation details on it.

In the weeks leading up to New York Fashion Week, I watched a lot of Instagram stories posted from the waiting room of a trendy clinic that promised to get rid of fine lines around the eyes. Everything was about the eyes these days, although I still applied mint lip gloss when I wore a mask. A YouTuber I follow said it made her breath less stale, but I’ve never been able to smell my own breath. Anyway, it helped me forget about my breathing and focus more on the rest of my body. I felt like a colt, the way I instinctively spun away from people who got too close, suddenly unbalanced, even in flats.

The eye clinics were in an old coworking space. Most of the decorations were the same: color-coded books and terracotta end tables. The light pink walls were painted over, though. It looked more clinical that way. My friend texted me a photo of the free hand sanitizer in the bathroom. “Filling my purse, lol!” I mostly just carried a wallet. I didn’t like setting my bag down on the nearest surface; didn’t like wiping it down after.

“Everyone wants to know what will happen to the business,” said my friend Phil. “But what about fashion the idea?” His girlfriend nodded without looking up from her phone. “I heard New York is the new Berlin.” We were at brunch, which was starting to come back. The tables were further apart than they had been before and the menu was limited to varieties of eggs.

“For the first time, I think more about my body than what’s on it, even when I’m not exercising,” Phil continued. I told him I would send him an essay I liked by Umberto Eco about being hyper aware of his blue jeans. I discovered that my movements, my way of walking, turning, sitting, hurrying, were different. Not more difficult, or less difficult, but certainly different.

I color coded my calendar. Invitation-only digital shows were blue, publicly live streamed shows were red, and runway shows were green. A couple of my invitations were to CGI presentations and I highlighted those in yellow. I thought the CGI thing was a gimmick, but it was a gimmick that wasn’t going away. The magazine I worked at before the pandemic layoffs asked me to write about it for them and I wasn’t going to say no to the money.

Only a third of NYFW shows were in person. People weren’t flying from Europe unless their companies could pay for carbon offset. An acquaintance who split car fare with me at the Paris shows WhatsApped me to say I should eat a plate of gnocchi marinara for her at the red sauce joint that used to be popular with our crowd. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was still boarded up. I sent back a spaghetti emoji.

The last big event I covered before NYFW was the benefit concert for Chinatown at Citi Field. Two pop stars that had been feuding since the 2009 VMA’s came out wearing “I <3 New York” face masks and sang together. I got too drunk and rolled my ankle trying to avoid touching the escalator handrail and cried.

After 9/11, the surge of red, white and blue clothing had been inevitable. Everyone was eager to see what the classic Americana brands would show. After two years of tennis and golf tournaments played to crowds of less than fifty, I was seeing more polo shirts and cable knit sweaters around. A popular microtrend was to make your Zoom background a golf course.

My Zoom background was a picture of the coffee shop I used to write in. I had a huge crush on the barista and when I found out it was closing I sent money to his Venmo anonymously. Sometimes I peeked at his Instagram. I saw that he moved to a less expensive city in the Midwest. He seemed happy.

I started going to the Starbucks window on my block. Someone painted “caffeine drive thru” on the wall next to the window in white but someone else crossed out the word “caffeine” and wrote “gentrifier” in red. During quarantine, I began to give in to my most basic impulses and I didn’t see any reason to stop now. I started to dress like girls at college football games, in puffy vests and tall boots that reminded me of a certain sci-fi character. I redecorated my room with watercolor paintings of the ocean that I found on Etsy and strands of twinkling lights and pillows with cursive on them.

I wasn’t the only person to do this, of course. A trend piece in one of the three newspapers that actually seemed to be thriving called the aesthetic “slumber party mom” even though it was basically genderless. (When the other two newspapers ran a derivative version of the same trend piece they made sure to point that out.) One NYFW show would take place at the American Museum of Natural History, like a class sleepover fanned out around the dinosaur skeletons.

Even the cool, beautiful people that had their homes profiled stopped pretending that they shopped anywhere but the five places we all did. We Instagrammed our stuffed animals. White undershirts were big again. We bought our beauty products at the corner pharmacy. I was a cyborg with two laptops and a beaded butterfly curtain in my doorway.

User-generated fashion spreads were all the rage. Celebrities interviewing their friends became pages of celebrity selfies in pre-approved clothes directed by stylists on FaceTime. I missed the fashion photographer who used to shoot from his bicycle. I was tired of looking through street style slideshows taken by drone: zoomed in portraits of everyone’s botoxed eyes and luxury masks made to look like bootlegs of other luxury masks. I subscribed to twenty fashion newsletters for a dollar a month and none of them exactly filled the void of the publishing collapse.

My favorite newsletter was a roundup of underground events. It wasn’t illegal to gather, but nobody could afford a liquor license or their own space, so the best parties took place in boarded up retailers and restaurants across the five boroughs. I went to a dance performance called Nostalgia Is a Permanent Condition in a shuttered movie theater near Union Square. In unison, each of the dancers raised a charcoal pill to their mouth, chewed, and stuck out their blackened tongues. Then one by one they laid on their sides while an old song about a baby beluga whale played. My date reached over and squeezed my hand and I had to resist the urge to pull out my sanitizer.

I went to an event on the roof of a closed hotel where we all just screamed and raised our home-manicured middle fingers to the sky. As I was leaving, a girl passed me her business card. Custom filters it said with her Instagram handle. I was sick of doing my make-up for video calls. I sent her a DM.

I tried to spend more time outside. The air quality was noticeably better. Once the high speed rail up the East Coast was finished I planned to visit my family more. Most people I knew took vacations within a couple of hours of the city. I felt less guilty ordering a car to the Hamptons off of an app now that all of the drivers received paid time off and health insurance. An old coworker who once told me if people wanted more than minimum wage they should have gone to college got fired from his wellness brand for taking a suggestive picture with the Nurse Memorial they replaced the Wall Street bull with. Karma.

I would not miss the excesses of fashion week: the black cars and the bellini breakfasts and the cheek kissing. The jostling to get into clubs and the after-after parties in underfunded public schools in order to seem edgy and the programs littering the floor for unpaid interns to pick up. I would miss my barista and everyone else who couldn’t afford to stay and the magazines that informed my adolescence.

At the last show of the first NYFW after the pandemic, the mood was electric. Twin child stars known for being reclusive walked the runway while a NO SMOKING public service announcement played over a dubstep beat. I saw landline phones and Bye Bye Birdie, clear rivers and student debt forgiveness and glitter chapstick and Karl Marx saying it’s ok to wear jeans. I saw the Yellowstone volcano, and it was a she, and she said “don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time.”

Then the show was done. The lights came back up. We all walked out to The Way We Were.


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