"Fashion as Gritty Drama"
"In "Garmento," a new film about sordid
dealings in the backrooms of Seventh Avenue, Grindy
Malone, a waif from New Jersey, arrives at the showroom of
Poncho Ramirez, who designs men's padded underwear. She is
dressed in a boxy suit, and a hint of an overbite blights
her smile. Once she is hired, Grindy raids the company's
fashion closet, emerging sylphlike and confident, and
dressed all in black. Like the other characters, who dream
up depraved ad campaigns and pirate their own merchandise,
the more venal Grindy becomes, the sleeker she looks.
Grindy's makeover advances the plot in what typifies a
new genre of movies, books and televisions shows, one in
which the world of style becomes the framework for gritty
human drama. In a flurry of new Cinderella tales, that
drama is supplanting continuous runway footage as the
engine driving fashion entertainment.
On television in particular, fashion has stepped down
from its pedestal. "Whether the subject matter is
making over someone's closet, finding them a decent place
to live or getting them ready for the wedding from hell in
East Hampton, there is great drama in many new
shows," said Mindy Herman, the president of E!
Networks, which includes Style and E! Entertainment
Television. Viewers, she added, are responding to "a
human story with heart."
That wisdom informs such disparate vehicles as
"Down With Love," in which Renée Zellweger
plays a writer who sheds her brown wren image for a life
as a vixenish blonde, the better to snare the man of her
dreams; and "Elegance," a forthcoming novel by
Kathleen Tessaro, whose heroine trades in her cocoonlike
trench coat for stilettos and form-fitting sweaters that
lend her the courage to leave a moribund marriage.
On shows like "Extreme Makeover" on ABC,
physically and emotionally ravaged subjects are turned
into swans by a battery of surgeons and stylists. In an
episode of "A Second Look," new from the Style
network, Samantha, a victim of childhood sex abuse, gives
up drugs and leaves the garbage-strewn lot where she has
been squatting. The prizes for her efforts include a
trouser suit and a bouncy haircut.
In these shows, "fashion is no longer just
something we fetishize on screen, but a tool we can adapt
and use in our own lives," said Lisa Koenigsberg, the
director of programs in the arts at the New York
University School of Continuing Education. The more
user-friendly it becomes, the more likely fashion is to
show its seamy side, she added.
Fashion is seductive and sordid by turns in
"America's Next Top Model," a reality show
patterned on "American Idol" that begins tonight
on UPN. Conceived by the model and actress Tyra Banks, it
centers on a competition in which 10 beauties scheme and
beguile their way into the hearts of a team of judges.
"Garmento," too, exposes the desperation
behind fashion's slick facade, demonstrating that, like
any other business, "it is both glamorous and
shady," said Michele Maher, a former sales executive
at Calvin Klein who wrote, produced and directed the film.
"We've seen the glamour," Ms. Maher said.
"Now we're ready for the grit."
RUTH LA FERLA"