Runway Rookie: A Dude's Take on Fashion Week

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Jason Kempin / Getty Images

Models walk the runway at the Rebecca Taylor Fall 2012 fashion show at the Stage at Lincoln Center during New York Fashion Week on Feb. 10, 2012

During my first two years living in Manhattan, a funny thing happened every Valentine's Day. There was a particular buzz in my SoHo neighborhood, home to hundreds of boutiques that collectively carry zero items that would fit me. The excitement, I was told, was for Fashion Week, the biannual gathering of designers, editors, models, celebrities and other tastemakers to view the season's latest runway collections.

Here is what I know about fashion: the industry is arranged in houses centered on famous designers, some living, others dead. I learned this after the scandal in which designer John Galliano was arrested in Paris after allegedly going on a drunken anti-Semitic tirade. A good friend of mine who writes about fashion told me, "Galliano is done, but the House of Dior will survive." That's about it. I spent the first five years of my adult life learning to blow things up and lead troops in combat and then lived for 2½ years in the boutique capital of New York, blissfully ignorant about what actually happens at Fashion Week. So when I was handed a ticket to the Rebecca Taylor show at Lincoln Center this year, I jumped at the chance to attend.

I arrived at the show with my colleague Kayla Webley on a cold Friday afternoon. The ticket said 2 p.m., and I didn't want to be late for my first Fashion Week experience. But Kayla explained that while we needed to be there on time, I shouldn't expect anything to start right away. Great, I thought. "Hurry up and wait" is a deeply ingrained Army philosophy, so there was no surprise there. Once inside, we were sorted through a series of increasingly narrow holding areas. Because we had tickets, we got to leave the riffraff and tourists outside. A scan of our tickets gained us access to an assembly area packed with eager people. The fashions among the fashion viewers were diverse: there were jeans dressed up, jeans dressed down and even fur coats, despite the fact that it was north of 70°F inside. The man behind me pulled off an amazing combination of Nantucket red pants, a red plaid shirt, a black velvet bow tie and a black cable-knit cardigan. Clearly this was the major leagues.

At about 2:15 p.m., the gatekeepers opened the ropes, and we rushed into a second staging area, where we were sorted further. Because Kayla is important, she was given a seat, whereas I was a plebeian at this event and had a "priority standing" ticket. After waiting an additional five minutes or so, the doors opened, and Kayla joined the noble seat holders, while we standers were ushered up a staircase. I have no idea what treasures my priority-standing ticket was supposed to grant me, because at the top of the stairs, I joined the throng of other plebeians who all craned their heads to ensure they could see the runway. After about five minutes crammed near a fire exit, I decided I needed a better vantage point and someone to explain what I was seeing. In Rome, plebs could move up in station. So I decided to sneak into the upper ranks by slipping down to the seats. From the seats, the world was different. For one thing, you could see all the celebrities at very close range. A scrum of photographers surrounded Olivia Palermo, who was a favorite among my soldiers in Iraq. I'm happy to report she's just as cute in person as we thought she was on TV. Just as I relished in my first celebrity sighting, the person whose seat I had occupied tapped me on the shoulder, so it was back to steerage. But when I ventured up to the standing area, I suddenly had a front-row spot — just in time for the lights to go out at precisely 2:33 p.m.

Suddenly brilliant lights erupted over the runway, and one by one, the models came out. They were clad in leggings and leather; I remember a black fur coat on a woman who was carrying a handbag. "I wanted a girl to feel very richly textured and layered and autumnal," Taylor told the Washington Post. Having read this, I'd say autumnal was a perfect word to describe the collection. I found the clothes to be very autumnal, and seeing as that's what Taylor was going for, the collection was a great success. But honestly, watching the people watching the models was far more fun. The extremely important people in the very center studied each woman fixedly. Palermo, no longer surrounded by press, looked as if she was contemplating Proust. A few of the VIPs took photos with their iPhones, apparently forgetting that 150 photographers with high-powered lenses were snapping away as well.

Then, just as I was starting to enjoy myself, nodding to the rhythm of the electronica music, the models all came out at once, and everyone clapped. I glanced at my watch — just under 11 minutes for the entire show. When I said something to that effect, someone near me said, "This was actually quite long." What in the world could possibly be accomplished at a short fashion show? As everyone began to clear out, I dashed down to meet Kayla, who, as an important person, had a piece of paper that would get us backstage. A security guard told us we would have to wait for the models to change. Great, I thought, more standing around. "It only takes them about 45 seconds to change," the gatekeeper said. Forty-five seconds! I can't put my shoes on in 45 seconds! We had to wait for one "slow" model who took just over a minute and a half. Still, at 90 seconds, she was pretty impressive.

Backstage, an army of assistants speedily zipped up black garment bags and whisked the outfits away. Past makeup stations and bright lamps was a refrigerator filled with water and chic, skinny cans of Diet Pepsi. Just as Kayla asked Taylor what the best part of New York was, two adorable children ran up to her. When Taylor said she was excited to see the coming snow, her kids grabbed hands and jumped up and down, saying, "Snow is coming tomorrow!" Taylor responded, "Yaaaaay!" She was one of the nicest people I could have imagined.

Moments later we were back outside in the cold, gray afternoon. I tallied it up: 49 minutes of waiting, standing and waiting some more; 11 minutes of fashion bonanza and 3 minutes or so of talking. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Multiply that by more than 200 shows, and you total an $865 million economic impact on the city, according to Mayor Mike Bloomberg's office. The same friend who once educated me about the House of Dior also told me that the styles we see in the lines today will become the clothing we'll see in department stores tomorrow. This is a powerful thing to know. A year from now, when I see something remotely similar to what I saw in that fashion show, I'll say, "That's a very autumnal piece. It must be inspired by Rebecca Taylor's 2012 fall-winter collection." Whoever I say this to will be incredibly impressed. And that, I know, will be worth the wait.