Feature All eyes may be on the catwalk at Milan Fashion Week, but the front row is just as interesting.
Front row fashion
As the fashion week season reaches its halfway mark this week, the style-watchers' attention, which is fickle at the best of times, will inevitably begin to stray from the catwalk in search of other stimulation. After all, how many different ways can one cut a harem pant? Luckily, they don't have to look far: the front rows have been making increasingly intriguing viewing for some time, as the assorted fashion editors challenge one another for prime position in full view of the photographers' pit. Especially now that the grapevine is abuzz with stories about Russian Vogue's editor, Aliona Doletskaya, whose presence on the front row has given rise to rumours that she could replace Vogue's indomitable editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, when she finally relinquishes her grip.
There's an art to attending the shows and the people who have truly mastered it are those who tackle the frenzy year after year: fashion's most important editors. Wintour is the queen bee (complete with a nasty sting, if her former employees are to be believed), watched obsessively by bloggers, other journalists and, since The Devil Wears Prada, gawped at by the general public too. With a level of fame that most other fashion editors try to avoid, Wintour's clothes, attitude, declarations and no-shows are dissected at length, which means she can't afford to put a slingback-clad foot wrong.
Luckily, she's a woman of iron will, which means that her trim figure can easily take a series of chic, prim little knee-length dresses or shirt-and-skirt combos, leaving her looking fresh, relaxed and crisp. With her morning routine (tennis at 5.45am, blow-dry at 6.45am, office at 8.00am), she is said to be in bed by 10.00pm, leaving those exhausting fashion parties after just 10 minutes, which explains her generally purposeful, alert demeanour (in contrast to everyone else's weary slouches). Add those intimidating shades that she wears throughout the show and the sinewy, toned upper-arms and it becomes apparent why there are so few people who can match that level of perennial, effortless chic.
Front row, continued on 3 Still, the blogging world, the ubiquity of the digital camera and the world of reality TV have created a few pretenders to her throne. Nina Garcia, for example, the former fashion director of US Elle, and now fashion director of Marie Claire, is also known for her role as a regular judge on Project Runway, meaning that she has become a whole lot more visible to the paparazzi in recent years. Her glossy locks and elegant little yellow dress at this season's Project Runway catwalk show were a distinct step up from her relatively casual former self.
Another of the most impressive characters on the scene is Carine Roitfeld, the beautiful editor-in-chief of French Vogue, who wields almost as much power as Wintour and inspires rather more affection. Her tall, fashionably thin frame (she used to be a model) is usually clad in black or neutral slinky, edgy dresses and separates, and her rod-straight, rock-chick hair frames dark eyes and a pale, angular face that could be terrifying if she was not so ready with a smile. This could explain the formidable "Nuclear" Wintour's recent thawing, with a sudden willingness to play nice for photographers, even going so far as to remove her shades, cock her head winsomely to one side and sweetly smile - yes, smile.
While the prospect of being surrounded by slender, willowy models, fashionistas and dressed-to-the-nines actresses may hold little fear for Wintour, lesser mortals take a different approach. Imagine being an unassuming but spectacularly good editor and knowing that you are going to be photographed standing beside the doe-like Chanel Iman Robinson, and probably immortalised on someone's fashion-insider blog not for your editorial skills, but for your dress. This is the sort of horrible situation that senior fashion editors find themselves in again and again, as they mingle at the after-parties, interview designers backstage and wait for the shows to start.
The best approach here seems to be to embrace one's difference and stick to a signature style. Glenda Bailey, for example, the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar and a former punk, was seated next to Tyra Banks (wearing a curve-boosting red number) at Calvin Klein's spring/summer 2009 show, and went for that classic combination of simple shapes in neutral colours with luxe fabrics and statement accessories, wearing a Fifties-style beige dress in heavy duchesse satin and one mother of a cocktail ring: a look all her own that made no attempt to compete with Banks's va-va-voom sex appeal.
Suzy Menkes OBE, the revered fashion editor at the International Herald Tribune, has her defining style down perfectly, with her unchanging black quiff, her bright, structured outfits and the occasional hat, making her instantly recognisable and pleasingly independent of the trend cycle. And of course, no fashion editor is as individualistic and unmissable as the veteran Italian fashion writer Anna Piaggi, whose extravagant ensembles even outdo the catwalks in wackiness.
Accessorising a simple look is a foolproof way of wearing a simple, understated outfit without underdressing, thereby saying "I am a hardened hack without the time or inclination to dress up for a mere fashion show. Yet, I grant you, I love fashion and will therefore deign to throw on an exquisite and fashion-forward piece of jewellery." Wintour always dresses up her simple tea dresses with large collars of sparkling gems, whether they go with the dress or not, while Britain's grande-dame of style, Hilary Alexander, the fashion director of The Daily Telegraph, has a less po-faced approach to fashion, mixing up eclectic, ethnic-looking finds in bright colours, and throwing big pieces of jewellery on top. With her academic-looking glasses perched on the end of her nose and her brown bob (an edgier version than Wintour's, of course), she dresses up to London's eccentric reputation and, when photographed, wears a big, happy grin.
The details are even more important for the male editors. Hamish Bowles, the European editor-at-large for US Vogue, is known for his dapper, well-cut suits, but he always takes care to subtly emphasise his fashion know-how by wearing a gently quirky accessory, such as a pair of leopard skin shoes or a vibrant tie. His fellow Vogue editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley, has abandoned his regal robes of former fashion weeks, having lost a considerable amount of weight. These days, he too clads his larger-than-life figure in elegant suits with colourful shirts and ties, but he still has the flamboyance and hauteur to carry off unusual accessories, such as the "Obama" tote bag by Diane von Furstenberg, which he flaunted at several shows in New York this season.
Still, the clothes merely provide the foundations for a good front-row performance, and with Dubai's own fashion week starting on October 5 (before even Paris has finished), it's worth appreciating the theatre that goes along with the costume. The mandatory facial expression is blank and inscrutable: no enthusiasm, of course, or wrinkle-building smiles, but nor should there be a hint of disapproval. Occasionally a whisper behind hands to a colleague or friend is acceptable, together with a look of knowing amusement and perhaps a judicious nod at the sight of some clever tailoring; and one should never, ever be the first and only person to applaud. Finally, consider whether to take notes or snaps. Wintour and her Vogue acolytes do neither, never taking their eyes from the clothes, and always ensuring that they have looked to the next outfit before the rest of the pack have caught up with the last one. As in life, so in fashion.