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What happened on the first pandemic fashion show in New York?

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Jason Wu said he felt zen, swiveling in a desk chair in his studio near Penn Station.

It was Saturday afternoon, the day before his show, and he was surrounded by his team of designers and stylists, fitting the models into the outfits from his spring 2021 collection. The clothes were light and airy; the sizes were elastic, the bras were cashmere, the hats were tall, and the sandals were flat.

He flipped through his phone for a video of one of the models walking down a rural tree-lined road that had been sent the day before. He approved the casting over text, and today she was there, he explained with awe.

Models came and went, floating from their accessories to their Deborah Lippmann manicures in an adjoining room, which Mr. Wu called the spa. Jazz played from a speaker somewhere. There was still a lot to do, but nothing seemed too intense.

I think this might be my favorite show, Mr Wu said.

It was perhaps his strangest, too. This season, Mr. Wu was one of the few designers to host a traditional runway show during New York Fashion Week. The pandemic has pushed most designers online, offering videos and lookbooks (disguised as digital activations) instead of shows. But not Mr. Wu, who made his NYFW debut 14 years ago when he was just 23.

Mr. Wu had also decided to show his contemporary line on the catwalks for the first time, rather than his more glamorous Jason Wu collection, with his evening looks and Manolo Blahnik heels. Mr. Wus ‘dresses gained prominence when Michelle Obama wore them to her two husbands’ inaugural balls. He still regularly dresses celebrities for red carpet events, not that there have been many this year.

This may have been the source of Mr. Wus Zen; for once he was showing caftans instead of formal wear. Or maybe it was, like he said, it’s not my first rodeo. Either way, his Saturday tranquility belied Sunday’s big stakes.

The future of fashion week is not clear. Traditional parades are petri dishes filled with spectators, no one knows how long pandemic restrictions will hamper international travel or dictate the parameters of events, and although thousands of people depend on the work of fashion shows, to many creators are fed up with it. many of them.

To host a show now, when hardly anyone else in New York City will, is to declare that the trail still matters that even with a pandemic, it’s worth it. And for that statement to be convincing, it just has to be a good one.

Mr. Wu decided to go ahead with a parade in July. It was partly the pride of his hometown; he felt that New York Fashion Week, which has slowed down in recent years, still needed to be represented on the international calendar, through the good times and the bad.

The pandemic is still a reality, he said. But I think as businesses and creators we kind of have to lean in and make a decision. For example, are we going to continue creating, or not?

He had also had an interesting sponsorship opportunity. Lowes Home Improvement was teaming up with NYFW and would provide the materials for their ensemble.

There was also the fact that a show in a pandemic would surely get more attention than a show in a normal season, when Mr. Wu had to compete with names like Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Oscar de la Renta (all of whom were skipping NYFW this season). In February, Mr. Wus’ show was scheduled in the midst of the Oscars, one of fashion’s most publicized events.

I guess the pressure is on, he said on a phone call in late August, laughing a little but not a lot.

The show would be performed by Focus, IMG’s in-house production company, owner and operator of NYFW: the Shows, which has stood firmly behind the physical events this season.

We really believe in the physical format, said Leslie Russo, executive vice president of fashion events group IMG. It remains to be seen if this physical format will evolve. I think people love the parades. I think people love to sit in the front row.

The theme of the show would be Tulum, Mexico, one of Mr. Wus’ favorite vacation spots and the location of his wedding in 2016. It was convenient, given that the show is scheduled to take place outside. After months of discussions with IMG, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo allowed New York Fashion Week to take place with a live audience only if the events were held outdoors and attendance was limited to 50 people . Indoor events were not allowed to have spectators.

This summer, Dominic Kaffka, Head of Production at Focus, presented Mr. Wu with a plan to transform the roof terrace of Spring Studios in TriBeCa into a common site for indoor performances into a kind of socially jungle beach. distant.

I think you can certainly interpret it as an escape, Mr. Kaffka said right after Mr. Wu signed the design plan, about three weeks before the show. You go to the beach, you are in Tulum, you have a drink, no worries. That’s what I think I was trying to recreate, for at least one evening.

Guests on the show would include some 30 friends of Mr. Wus, as well as industry figures and a few fashion editors. It will be very, very exclusive and very private, Kaffka promised. But the show would also be broadcast online and the challenge would be to give the masses a sense of escape as well.

However, the most obvious and urgent task was to organize any kind of event with strict security requirements. Anyone working on set builders, trainees, and models should not only be screened with thermometer guns, but also show negative Covid-19 test results before being allowed into the building.

Still, there was something refreshing about working under such strict rules and under strange circumstances, Mr Kaffka said. Parades have a formula: they last less than 10 minutes, in front of 300 people, and location is everything.

Every six months the same group gets on the same planes and watches the same shows, he said. It was extremely stimulating this season to be forced to do something else.

Three days before Mr. Wus’ show, it rained all day in New York. Mr Kaffkas’ team closely watched Sunday’s forecast showing precipitation as well. The rain itself was not a big deal, he said; guests could be given clear umbrellas and some humidity would only make the jungle more realistic. But if the rain turns into a thunderstorm, they should consider a schedule change. Moving the show indoors was not an option.

We love to create a perfect moment, and it can only be perfect if there is some risk of things going wrong, he said. That’s the beauty of it.

But the fashion gods have hit Lower Manhattan. The forecast brightened and late Friday night construction began. The rooftop restaurant has been stripped down to make room for a few tons of play sand and hundreds of tropical plants. (The number ranged from 850 to 1,000, depending on who and when you asked.)

Plastic sandbags and palm trees wrapped in brown paper were stacked in two freight elevators, then lifted to the roof of the seventh floor, where several masked workers waited to unload them. That alone took about eight hours. Then work began to organize the plants and props (like coconuts) in a landscape with hollowed out enclaves for hidden camera operators.

Twenty-four hours before the show, Mr. Wu arrived to check on the progress. As the elevators opened, a film crew came closer, following him as he walked down a lush alley that eventually opened up onto a flat sand. Wooden chairs would be placed here for the audience, framing the curved track and spaced six feet apart in all directions.

On Sunday afternoon, the models arrived. Casting for the show had been tricky. Earlier this year, many New York models who had European work visas moved for the summer. New York is the least desirable location for a model in terms of available jobs, said Rachel Chandler, casting director.

After sitting down to do their hair and makeup, hairdressers wore masks, but makeup artists wore face shields. Models moved to their large communal dressing room, where their outfits hung on individual racks sandwiched between d ‘thick plexiglass panels. During rehearsals they wore masks, but they had to be reminded to spread out.

The six-foot-apart rule was complicated policy. No one who works behind the scenes of a fashion show can really do their job without coming into close contact with another person. All they could do was try to avoid it.

Upon arrival, the 36 guests filled out a health questionnaire on their phones before having their temperature taken. They were escorted to the freight elevators, where stickers on the floor told them where to stand, then onto the track.

Despite their socially remote headquarters, the guests gathered, greeting each other a bit awkwardly, it’s never immediately clear who was for a forearm lump and who didn’t and talked about how strange it was. to be at a parade again. Strange, but nice. Most agreed it was good.

The show started on time. The first model was actress Indya Moore, wearing a long loose sleeveless orange dress with eyelets around the calves. (Mrs. Moores’ mother was in the audience.) Nine minutes later, it was over. The small audience applauded.

As Mr. Wu picked up his bow, he noticed something: When he was walking on the track, he could make eye contact with people, including friends and loved ones. It was not normal. He used to look at a crazy sea of ​​phones.

I just felt connected, he said the next day. I can’t say that about every show.

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