'A New Kind of Ode,' Featherlight
In January of 2016 I walked the first of the only three couture shows I’d ever walk in my modeling career, for Chanel. In the show, I wore a pink dress that was designed by Karl Lagerfeld or his team, and manufactured by his Metiers d’Art atelier in Paris. Of this item of clothes, brought before the world on my body, The New York Times wrote in a review: “wood scallops were layered like feathers to form the hem of [a] sinuous underskirt topped by a sheer shell-pink tunic trimmed in the same scallops, which also formed a scrim over the shoulders” in what constituted, for the Times, “a new kind of ode to the natural world.”
The dress was squat and wide and gave me the appearance of being winged or tufted. Where the wood feathers ended at my armpit level a pale pink chiffon tunic began, and fell in a widening sheath to my knees. From under that filmy flowy skirt issued another skirt, this one made of the same wood chips and forming a narrow tube from my knees to the mid point of my calves, which on this winter morning in Paris’ Grand Palais were pinkish with cold.
Each of the wood chips on this dress purport to be hand-crafted. A video published to Youtube by Chanel titled “Savoir-faire of the Spring-Summer 2016 Haute Couture Collection” shows part of the making of my dress. The delicate flakes of wood are first cut into the shape of fish scales or giant finger nails by white women (with large, shiny fingernails of their own atop their fingers) wielding small flashing scissors. The chips are then affixed, using what appears to be a simple whip stitch, to a mesh backing. They are staggered in an overlapping pattern as real fish scales would be.
Then the video shows each chip being tinted along its curved outer edge by differently colored markers—pink, yellow, green—again wielded by nice white hands. The wood absorbs the ink from the marker along the grooves of its fine grain, so that the painted edge fades, by streaks and spikes, into the raw surface of the rest of the wood chip. Finally the video reveals me wearing the dress down the runway, panning slowly up from my feet stepping gingerly in their cork and grosgrain heels to my head with the hair by Sam McKnight. I blink and look straight into the camera.
The moment that I wore this dress is charged in memory by the knowledge I have today of its significance in the trajectory of my career. The SS16 Couture show would be the last show I ever walked for Chanel after having walked for them five or six times, in nearly every season since my career began. The reason for our split was that I was growing too pudgy in 2016 for the runway. Chanel’s casting director would later tell me, when she turned me away from Chanel’s casting two months down the road, that she thought my body seemed to be straining at the seams of this pink dress when I tried it on at Chanel HQ on the Rue Cambon. A few days before the show.
In the moment when I wore it, however, my wearing of the pink dress had none of this fateful meaning attached to it yet. It had only the sickening feeling of being slightly too tight on me, especially around my armpits and chest. This added a layer of shrill, gnawing self-consciousness to the baseline intensity that is the charged moment of walking on a catwalk, engulfed by loud music and bright lights as in the roaring hollow of a wave at sea. Carried by my nice white feet I glided across what Vogue described as the “Zen-like, eco-conscious” scene of the show: a Norwegian country house and garden of planed oak and short grass. The dress was heavy and with each step made a faint crunching sound as the wood shavings grated against each other.
In all my years working in and hanging around high fashion, it never occurred to me to inquire into Fashion’s history. The most useful theoretical framework I have today for understanding Haute Couture is a concept I gleaned from an art history class at Wesleyan, where I learned about Clement Greenberg’s notion of “medium specificity.” A critic writing in the 1950’s, Greenberg argued that works of art should entrench themselves in the specificity of their particular mode of address: a good painting, Greenberg thought, embodies the essence of paintings (flatness), while a good sculpture embodies the essence of sculpture (dimension).
Since learning this idea, I have sometimes thought of Couture as the medium-specific culmination of Fashion. To me, Couture embodies the fashionness of Fashion, which is to say it entrenches itself in the Western Fashion’s industry’s historic hallmarks of extravagance, elegance, artistry-for-artistry’s sake. It embodies the antithesis of what is cheap, convenient, or functional. It foreground adornment at any cost. In this sense, as the Vogue review of this show posits, Haute Couture could be understood as the opposite of fast fashion: “it’s handmade, takes infinite hours of work, and potentially lasts a lifetime.”
What does it mean that calls for sustainability in Fashion advance the most labor intensive, and therefor most expensive garments? How can so-called “eco-couture” be made accessible to lovers of clothes in all castes of society, not just the über-wealthy? Can clothes even be called “eco-couture” when they are debuted on a massive wood set that will be discarded after a single event? What about the environmental impact of convening celebrities and journalists from all over the world for this viewing? Even a cursory look into these questions gives the lie to Lagerfeld’s claim that “this is high-fashion ecology." This is, rather, high-fashion, as it has always been. It is devastating, it is breathtaking. It is an end for me. It is “a new kind of ode” for no one.