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The collective mood inside the Level nightclub for November 17's Ford Models' Supermodel of the World competition was less exultant than simply relieved. After all, for the past two months the very existence of the modeling industry has been called into question. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, New York City's Fashion Week, which for Beach fashionistas anticipating the coming season is as crucial an event as Punxsutawney's oh-so-shy groundhog, had been canceled. Gathering to applaud a week's worth of runway shows, goose-stepping models, and $10,000 scraps of couture seemed downright unseemly. Footwear deity Manolo Blahnik even pulled his latest $800 offering from the market; rumors flew that he was deeply concerned his three-and-a-half-inch, razor-sharp stiletto heels could become deadly weapons in the hands of cockpit-storming terrorists. Not so, insisted a company rep as the story hit the British tabloids. The heels were being recalled only because they tended to scuff floors and tear up carpets. Still the contretemps raised a larger question: When would the fashion world return to normal?
Of course, fashion's denizens have a slightly skewed take on what constitutes international normality. To most Westerners, for example, thinking about the Yugoslav nations of Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia initially brings to mind images of bloody civil war. To modeling scouts, however, those countries are merely the latest hunting grounds for runway fodder; the dust had barely settled from NATO's bombing of Belgrade before scouts were hitting that city's clubs and cafés in search of finely chiseled cheekbones.
"Life goes on," insisted Cathy Gould, director of Ford's annual Supermodel contest, before stressing that the evening's charity component (a host of marquee names from Calvin Klein to Vera Wang had created dresses that would be paraded by the event's finalists and then auctioned online via eBay) was a way for the industry to come together on a positive note. It was also a valuable piece of self-promotion.
"This is a great tool for Ford to find new talent. It's not all about the winner," Gould explained of the 38 competitors, many flown in from the Eastern bloc, most between fifteen and seventeen years old. "It's about finding great girls. And a lot of these girls will end up working for us, whatever place they finish in."
Just as important for the financially depressed local fashion biz, Gould dangled the possibility of permanently relocating Ford's globetrotting contest here. In recent years it has been staged in various locales from Disney World's Dolphin Hotel to the less-festively named Worker's Auditorium in Beijing, China. But Gould waxed enthusiastic about our town: "Miami Beach has everything we're looking for right now." Everything, that is, except the willingness to pony up what Gould felt was the appropriate level of financial support. "Ask yourself," she prodded, "why is everybody going to South Africa instead of Miami Beach?" Throwing down the gauntlet to freshly elected Beach Mayor David Dermer, Gould concluded, "Somehow the new city government has to come up with better incentives for businesses in the fashion world to come down here."
The attendees at the Supermodel of the World contest itself were more than willing to do their part. The celebrity judges and corralled talent were strictly B-list -- an unshaven and groggy-looking Stephen Dorff, past-their-sell-date boy band LFO, Ford's own dimming star Rachel Hunter, and MTV second-string VJ Brian McFayden -- but all received spirited hoots and hollers from a crowd that clearly knew better.
Likewise the Baby Phat outfits being worn by the 38 contestants as they strode up and down the runway seemed less fashion-forward than just plain tacky. Though the mall-rat-chic nods to circa-1983 Porsche racing jackets, stone-washed denim, and hot-pink tops were certainly meant to be hiply ironic, few of the models seemed at ease in this trip back to Chess King. Still the applause rang out for each and every ensemble.
Perhaps just as crucial, everyone trooped over to Lincoln Road's Rumi afterward and dutifully played out their roles. Once past the growing crush at the velvet rope, there was Dorff getting cozy on a banquette with one of the (most definitely underage) finalists. Nearby Hunter tossed her hair and wiggled to the beat as Jennifer Lopez's "I'm Real" boomed out, singing along with bizarre relish at the line: "I tell them niggas, mind their biz, but they don't hear me though."
At Rumi's upstairs bar, Katie Ford, the agency's president and CEO, struck a more demure pose, sipping her drink warily as Kulchur cornered her for a few post-September 11 questions. Were designers making different aesthetic choices now? Those decisions had absolutely nothing to do with her, she answered patiently. Ford was a modeling agency, she reminded Kulchur, and all it did was hire out models. What designers chose to drape over those models was none of her business. Ford gave a quick sideways glance, perhaps in search of a helpful security guard. "Does September 11 make me re-evaluate what I do?" she offered up with a note of finality. Then came a derisive huff: "It makes me re-evaluate life, but not fashion."
Next week: Local agencies sound off on what will it take to rejuvenate the Beach's modeling trade.