May 20, 2003-


Juan Carlos Hernández is Poncho Ramirez, the underwear designer, in "Garmento."

The New York Times - Changing of the Garde

"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"