Taking aim at the fashion industry

The fashion world is a topic that seems to render otherwise eloquent individuals apoplectic. There's just something about models -- those mutant offspring of rarefied breeding -- that leaves even the soberest of intellectuals at a loss for words. Even as adept a social critic as filmmaker Robert Altman, who so subtly skewered weighty subjects including Hollywood, the music industry, and the Vietnam War, took an aesthetic stumble when it came time to tackle the fashion industry. Perhaps this is why South Beach, a strip of sand where gawkers from around the world gather to gaze upon these leggy creatures striding about, revolves on its own axis, free of any gravitational pull from greater Miami. Indeed on the evening of April 22, as tear gas wafted through Little Havana and hundreds of Cuban-exile protesters declared war on the city's defenseless newspaper vending machines and Dumpsters, only five minutes east over the causeway it was just another Saturday night on South Beach. More than a month later, as the rest of Miami competes in flag-waving contests and Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez prepares for Elian postrepatriation riots, South Beach has its own weighty affairs to mull over: Mayya out! Baywatch Café in!

Part of the problem here may be in figuring out just what we talk about when we talk about models. "There is a 'world' of fashion, of course, but what exactly is that world?" asks Guy Trebay in his introduction to Runway, Larry Fink's new collection of photography. "Is it an atelier populated by madcap designers and their harried assistants? Is it a magazine office filled with superthin editorial adepts? Is it a modeling agency where chain-smoking agents sit at podlike desks while pimping their human products? Or is it a Hong Kong sweatshop, a factory's front room, a cutter's table, a mediator's office in Chapter 11 proceedings, the vapor of the Zeitgeist, the whirl of chichi cocktails, the particular clinic where the beautiful strung-out sixteen-year-olds are sent for a quickie rehab?"

It is, Trebay argues, all of those things, but they gather together at only one point: the runway. Appropriately that's where Larry Fink has situated himself for the stark black-and-white shots that compose Runway, creeping around both behind and in front of the stage, capturing candid moments: a make-up artist with a weary grimace closer to that of a shell-shocked Beirut refugee, Calvin Klein agog at his own handiwork, George Plimpton summoning a disapproving stone face as the haute couture set frolics around him, as if by script.

Strike a pose: Larry Fink's photography takes aim at the fashion industry
Larry Fink
Strike a pose: Larry Fink's photography takes aim at the fashion industry

What distinguishes Fink's work is its unique outlook, rejecting both the unalloyed celebration of this world (ironic or not) and the approach that seeks to make a grotesquerie of models and their stomping grounds. Instead Fink's eye takes on a cool, almost scientific manner. Whither fashion? It is what it is.

Speaking with Kulchur from his farmhouse in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, Fink explains, "My interest in the fashion world is not to join it but to observe it and," he continues without missing a beat, "to make money from it. I don't find myself drawn inexplicably to the magnetism of the people within that world. I'm often repelled by the niggardly cowardice, transcendent promiscuity, and pettiness of the industry."

Despite that attitude (or in a perverse testament to the fashion industry's sense of self-loathing, perhaps because of it) Fink has become a much-in-demand photographer for magazines such as W and GQ, and has been specially commissioned to shoot for designers such as Isaac Mizrahi and the late Gianni Versace. Though he may also have a prestigious career as an "art" photographer (including his well-received exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art, a faculty position at Bard College, and being the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and several NEA grants), Fink declares firmly: "I'm 59 and it's time to make a living." Thus this unabashed leftist is more than happy to take the Versace family's money, marking time while "the revolution is stalled." He adds dryly: "The fashion world was just an extension of my studies of the upper class. I've been studying the nature of power all my life. And power is what fashion is all about."

Still, this honesty only seems to endear Fink to fashionistas even more. Although this old-school bohemian proudly admits to having worn the same pair of pants for the past fourteen years ("when they wear out, I just buy new ones in the same style"), for his second marriage last month, no less than the New York Times' weddings reporter trekked out to his idyllic farm far from Manhattan's tony precincts. Jewish red-diaper babies aren't the usual fare to be splashed across the Times' Sunday "Vows" section -- a public barometer of Wasp acceptance -- but there was Fink's ceremony writ large in the paper. "I'm inside and outside at the same time," he laughs.

Turning to South Beach and those ruing their position on the wrong side of the velvet rope, Fink admonishes that his camera's subjects "may look like they're having a good convention of a good time -- they're surrounded by money, they go out on yachts, they fly on fancy jets, they have all the trappings. But their world is so anxiety filled because of the built-in obsolescence factor. You become consumed by change. And the change is never profound, it's always superficial.... It's theater without a plot. These people are the ultimate personification of what it means to be free marketeers: You market your clothes, you market your body, you market your very narcissism and vanity."

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