New York Fashion Week FW17 Live Sketching Portfolio

Flying into New York City felt strange. After spending four months in Toronto I was extra ready to get out of town, but it also felt like the beginning of an end. I’d already decided that this would be my last fashion season sketching runways. I would do New York and then Paris, and I wouldn’t do it again. I sent out my request emails for the last time; I tried to be gutsy as I clearly had nothing to lose. I sent out some inquiries that made my heart race in hope. Mostly, they slipped into the void, unreturned.

Am I really so bad at pitching things? Or maybe it’s just that asking is the least effective way to get anything.

I don’t often discuss politics, and certainly I rarely write about it. Given the frivolous nature of the talent that I’ve been granted by providence, it seems that the last thing everyone needs is a fashion illustrator’s opinion on current world events. Usually I try to stay in my lane. But here I will try to explain how it is connected to my work.

In spite of my efforts to elude it, politics is all up in my face everywhere I look. And it is truly a dark time. A palpable sense of dread hangs in the air. It’s not an easily dismissed paranoia, and it doesn’t even matter if the threat is false or not, because it is the reaction to the threat that is the real risk. Superpower is uncertain of its own superiority and is afraid. Anger, the catharsis of fear, is dangerously close to the surface. Fear is highly contagious. From my own personal experience (a long story for another time), American anger is barely concealed beneath an ostentatious facade, and has easy access to dangerous weapons. The animalistic instinct to attempt to release fear using violent action is exactly what will incite the horror of war. Right now many players are bluffing to get someone else to throw the first punch, to evade responsibility for the inevitable cascade of chaos that they desire.

This all made me reflect on my FW16 portfolio in Paris. I remember at the time feeling so sad but not being able to understand why. In my own life, everything was going great. I was living my dreams, doing exactly what I wanted. I’m not a depressive person, yet I had a hard time getting out of bed in Paris last winter. There was some sadness in my personal interactions, and my drawings too. Being in New York now, I realized that last year in Paris the melancholy was environmental, not coming from within me. I had been blaming myself for this blue mood, but it retrospect, it was like blaming myself for getting wet when it rains. Paris was a city in mourning, in a way that was philosophical and very French. Their language is very sensitive to emotions, so the way they process them is incredibly subtle and rational. As an artist channeling attitude, this phenomenon was literally passing through my body.

America is neither sensitive or rational in its expression of feeling.

The first show I saw was Nicholas K. I woke up in the morning and it was snowing. A lot. Blowing sideways. It was also the day of my book launch event at Housing Works. Oh, goddess. Although it was a snow day and many people were simply staying home, I had to go meet my destiny. So much work had gone into getting to this moment, and the sky was literally falling. I could of given up, but I didn’t. The snow must go on.

I packed everything I needed for my show (projector, books, paper, etc) into my Samsonite rolly case, which I couldn’t roll because the sidewalks were covered with snow and slush ankle-deep. I had to carry this heavy case clutched to my heart as I walked headlong into the wind, sleet blowing into my face.

Arriving at Nicholas K just in time, I pulled out my kit and got to work. As last season, they had live music – a rapper, Latasha Alcindor, whose message was timely, cogent and angry. It was so cold and wet, even inside, that the paint didn’t dry as I went. It all just puddled. So I had very little control over the sketches, above and below.

Though by the time I got there I was soaked, my show Draw Fashion Now LIVE at Housing Works went well. About half the people I was expecting showed up, but those that did come are very much beloved. The weather had self selected the ones that cared the most. I had a wonderful time. Thank you to everyone at Housing Works and my publisher Quarto for giving me this dream come true: a book launch event in New York City, in the snow.

At Chromat, another female artist DJ Haram rapped a strong message that was both positive and angry. It was so cathartic to see fashion designers literally giving the mic to black women. Let’s be honest, that’s exactly who we need to hear right now. We should have been listening to them all along. Injustice is nothing new to black women. They’ve been fighting for humanity all along, literally for decades, centuries. And they’ve been consistently dismissed and ignored, and look at where that’s gotten us, nowhere. This current regime is no surprise to black women, because it’s not a new regime.

The theme, bouyancy, was expressed literally in inflatables and philosophically in the sense of purpose and lightness that the models carried themselves with. These are people who are compelled to define and defend their own identities; the result is resilience and power.

The vibe at Chromat is so sincere and strong. The diversity of their models is not a statement, it’s a practice. The designer clearly thinks about how individual bodies need to be treated individually. Creating fashion for many sizes is not about making a standard style bigger or smaller. Enhancing the figure must respond to the figure. Bodies of different shapes require different designs, not different sizes.

At TOME, below, there were also models of different sizes, and the inspiration was from the infamous Guerilla Girls, in a somewhat literal way – lots of monkey fur, buttons that suggested ape faces, and banana decals.

Though there were models of different ages and sizes, the designs seemed less driven by diversity than concept. Here it was the branding of activism that played the top note.

Next I was invited to the Tracy Reese presentation. Once again it was in a spectacular setting – an unusual, eclectically decorated narrow townhouse in Chelsea. With so many people in it, it was hard to move around and even to get in at all – I arrived towards the end of the presentation and could only do a couple sketches.

With the models in tableau formation, I had a bit more time to render detail, above. Tracy Reese also had female poets of colour reciting their work – Aja Monet, Jenny Zhang and Dorothea Lasky. I wish I could have heard more of the performances. Once again, this season showed the cleverest designers using their platform to highlight underrepresented voices – the clothing is graciously stepping into the background, framing the individual rather than taking center stage.

The next show I saw was Vivienne Hu. I was not familiar with this designer, but the crowd that attended was certainly one of the more interesting ones I’ve ever seen. There was a lot of stunt dressers, others that looked like they might be Asian soap opera stars wearing plunging necklines and exposed thighs. I was seated in the middle of a contingent from Atlanta in flashy clothes – head to toe red, for instance. Elaborate false hair and makeup, off the shoulder furs, sideways trucker hats… the crowd was was all over the place. I had no idea what to expect.

It was one of the worst runways I’ve ever seen. The clothes had an unstudied quality to them, like someone had just gone to fashion school and hadn’t yet mastered the concepts of fit, or taste. This superficial interpretation of “fashion” might have worked if it was presented with enthusiasm, but it was the grimmest set of models I’ve ever seen. They were about as diverse as the March Vogue cover, except lacking the gloss of establishment approval. Clearly selected to conform to a rigid, narrow ideal, and with their individuality further obscured by heavy handed application of makeup, any sense of self was obliterated. One of the models was actually crying as she walked down the runway.

The people around me were inexplicably making approving noises, perhaps they were just happy to be at a fashion show. It felt like somehow the intent for assembling this collection didn’t exist beyond the purpose of having an audience at a fashion show.

At Zimmermann, the presentation was much more polished. That audience assembled in a chilly, freshly painted oblong lit by weirdly grey fluorescent lights, subdued ambient sounds playing softly. They were influencers and socialites clearly dressed in the actual collection – it seemed strange to see so many tall blondes wearing summery, billowing dresses in the middle of winter.

Although I enjoyed the music during the collection, and it was all very professionally executed, it seemed oddly sterile and the sketches didn’t really gel. All I got was the one above.

Exiting the venue after the show, my sunglasses blew off my head and this lovely young woman ran and caught them. Sunny – who is exactly as bright and glowing as her name – is an agent that works with influencers and we ended up having a nice talk over cookies and coffee. I tried to express this weird sense of dissatisfaction I felt – of course I felt like my drawings were slipping, and my access was so limited I couldn’t even really reach the subjects I needed to make an interesting portfolio. She reiterated the steps I would have to take to make it on Instagram – a practice I realize is deemed important but I can’t seem to find the motivation to dedicate myself to it. I somehow feel that it’s a false metric of value, although perhaps that attitude is limiting me. Of course it is. Still, the idea of spending all day doing the ‘engagement’ Instagram requires instead of living my life fills me with despair for some reason.

Then she gave me a wonderful gift – a ticket to the Libertine show. As usual, opportunity is offered, not asked for.

Libertine has so many colours and patterns that executing it in watercolour is to put it mildly, a challenge. I’ve tried once before. This time though, I got it. I loved the action and energy, and it was so warm in Skylight that the paint dried quickly. Plus, the giveaway on the seats was a sheet of stickers which I could incorporate into my paintings. I just had fun with it – and the result was I really liked the results. I even managed to render a tie dye convincingly.

The final runway show I saw was Zang Toi. This was pretty much the opposite of Libertine. Polished ensembles for wealthy women. The vision is so complete, it’s simple enough to execute in paint. But there’s something about it that’s not exciting. The whole thing is too flawlessly presented. The eye slides off the smooth chignons and the tops that match the bottoms that match the shoes.

I nearly didn’t go to the final presentation of the week. I felt like I was so over New York Fashion Week, forever. I was walking down the street to the subway and I kept turning around and then turning back. But I’m glad I did go. The last show was Claudia Li. The installation was magnificent – I overheard a worker saying that it took 10 hours to set up. The models stood in mirrored vestibules, the clothes were solid and chic, a massive crane with a camera was slowly crawling past them. I sat on the floor and sketched, just enjoying the space.

Photographer Maksim Axelrod took this photo of me in that situation.

It was a nice challenge to draw the models in three views and I did my best with it. It was sweet to be able to interact with the models and even though I tend to privilege runway shows over installations, I realized that sketching in an installation has its own type of magic.

For a variety of reasons, I don’t consider this a particularly outstanding live sketching portfolio. I felt mixed up and the drawings seem aimless somehow. The subject of clothing felt very much beside the point. Clearly I’m channeling something else, though it’s not so simple to articulate what that is, it has something to do with people, not fashion. I do have a premonition that Paris will be better for some reason, but I can’t help but feel relieved that I only have one more fashion week to do.