Wherein actor, author, anchor,
and resident Esquire anthropologist Jon Stewart goes
into the wilds of Manhattan's far west side to study a colony
of female fashion types
WEST SIDE HIGHWAY, NEW YORK CITY: a riverside
repository of impounded cars, abandoned piers, and, for now,
the world's largest remaining reserve of models. I am being
shepherded to this tantalizing oasis by two veterans of many
a fall-fashion preview. Their cool detachment, born of years
on fashion's frontlines, does little to calm the pounding
in my chest as we approach our destination. We have set our
course for the DKNY show to learn about man's beautiful
cousin, the model, and its rarest of subspecies, the supermodel.
My excitement at knowing I will soon be interacting
with the world's largest living bipeds is tempered by the
knowledge that their numbers are dwindling.
The first documented sightings of the supermodel
occurred in the twentieth century, dating back to the late
sixties and early seventies. British scientists are credited
with the discovery, having unveiled a tall, thin subject that
didn't fit into the traditional categories of models. This
phenomenal breakthrough was called Twiggy and was corroborated
quickly by an American subject dubbed Cheryl Tiegs. At first,
scientists were baffled, thinking they might have stumbled
onto the missing link-- the last piece of our evolutionary
puzzle. Further study, however, showed this to be a
red herring, and the conventional wisdom became that these
new and magnificent supermodels were perhaps an odd
mutation of the previously discovered group "really hot
While supermodels flourished during their
Golden Age, the late eighties and early nineties, the herd
is now unquestionably thinning. No one is quite sure
why they have begun to disappear, as they have no known enemies,
but many now chalk this disturbing trend up to a combination
of factors, including the aging process, carbohydrates, and
man. Notably French man. Notably old, creepy French man with
money and a lot of coke. Poachers are also a problem,
as a model's hand is considered a good-luck talisman in many
Third World countries. This week of runway presentations could
very well be my last opportunity to observe them in their
We arrive at the show right on time: twenty
minutes after it was scheduled to kick off. One of my guides
assures me that no one but discount-department-store buyers
actually get there at the official start. The grounds are
heavily patrolled by Jewish and Asian women in stylish black
uniforms, their ever-present headphones connecting them to
an intricate satellite-network-communications security system.
A small patrol stops us by the elevators, and I fear for my
mission, until one of the enlistees recognizes my guide from
a Hamptons fundraiser. We are in.
The backstage area is a swirl of activity.
Elsa Klensch, the Dian Fossey of model study, is interviewing
a new subject from Sweden. Donna Karan herself is putting
the finishing touches on the fabric they use to best display
and highlight this wonderful collection of models. And a trainer
is instructing the models in the logistics of today's show.
The pattern the models are to walk in, judging from the diagram
being frantically gestured to, is a rectangle. I'm not sure
his message is getting through, but I imagine once the show
starts they'll just follow the rectangular path of the fabric
that has been laid on the floor in preparation. (The catwalk
planning seems excessive until you remember the parallelogram
tragedy of 1992 during the Milan shows, when many models were
crushed while bunching up in a nonright angle.)
The backstage chaos is controlled by a headphoned
man in a black outfit, who identifies himself as the producer.
He breathlessly apologizes for the disorder and explains that
this show is unprecedented because it normally takes place
in November, after Milan, not in September, before Milan.
I ask if the early migration of these models is yet another
effect of this year's powerful El Nino. Unsmiling, he blames
it on Helmut Lang. The models seem agitated as well and
are soothed backstage by caffeinated soda, nicotine, and a
Janet Jackson CD.
I settle into my work as unobtrusively as
possible. At each show I attend, I wear the clothes of the
designer being highlighted. It is a clever trick that allows
me to walk among the models and observe without arousing suspicion
or fear. Their sense of smell is not as acute as their vision,
and they can spot an outsider in OshKosh B'Gosh overalls from
five hundred yards. In my new designer clothes, I have been
able to approach them and take notes almost at will. My only
disappointment is the lack of supermodels. I ask a man dressed
in a black outfit where the supermodels are. He takes off
his headphones and explains to me that, at this event, the
one remaining "big girl" ("big girl" being
hip insider jargon for "supermodel") is Esther.
As I move to inspect her more closely, two Jewish women in
matching black outfits and headphones gleefully explain that
Esther is going to marry Mark, a male supermodel. The male
supermodel is an even rarer creature, and I interpret the
women's joy at this pairing as perhaps the last chance at
breeding supermodels in captivity. Earlier breeding experiments
had paired supermodels with rock stars, and the results were
mixed, sometimes resulting in very tall women with Keith Richards'
complexion, sometimes in waifish, delicate men with good rhythm.
It is said that the rock group Hanson is the result of one
such ill-fated pairing.
The show itself is uneventful. I learn throughout
the week that each event is rather uneventful. (Subsequent
observations at the Mark Eisen and Calvin Klein shows and
an Armani party offer little more than I learn during the
first encounter.) Sitting on bleachers, you watch the models
walk past to music you've never heard before. Each one walks
past between four and seven times, depending on which show
you attend. At first, I believe this is a game called Do You
Still Know It's Me If I'm Wearing a Different Top? which displays
the models' well-publicized playful side. I find out this
is not the case when I attempt to play along. I call out to
a model who seems to be falling backward as she walks
forward, "Hey, didn't I just see you a second ago wearing
something orange?" The question goes unanswered, and
a bald German man wearing headphones and a black outfit shushes
The week wears on. I find that my observations
end at the superficial, and I'm frustrated at my lack of meaningful
contact with my subjects. I was unable, during my time in
the field, to engender sufficient trust to be accepted by
the community I was sent to study. I fear failure and a cutoff
of my funding. As I leave the final show, my mood is dark.
I've not made a significant breakthrough, and I probably won't
even get to keep the clothes. I turn toward the exit and reach
into my pocket for a breath mint. Just then, something extraordinary
happens. As I open the tin, two of the younger models, whom
I had come to know as Freckles and Ladybug, reach out tentative
hands and grab an Altoid. All under the watchful gaze of the
dominant females. In that moment of transcendence, as my eyes
lock with theirs, I realize that not only have I been studying
them, but they have been studying me. This is an intelligent
species, and perhaps one day our worlds will find ways to
communicate... for the betterment and understanding of both
worlds. With the flush of success, I turn to go. An Asian
woman wearing a bald German man, headphones, and a black outfit
smiles as I walk out into the hopeful roar of the West Side
- - -
Jon Stewart is the author of Naked
Pictures of Famous People (William Morrow), is the new
anchor for The Daily Show, and can currently be seen
in two movies, The Faculty and Playing by Heart.
At left, a rare photograph and the grail
of my field research: one of the world's last remaining supermodels.
On this page, I can be seen wearing the fashion culture's
traditional ceremonial garb -- what we would call a "suit."
Clockwise from top left: I conceal myself
in a group of fashion photographers to get a better view of
my quarry. . . . Wearing an appropriate designer disguise
and acting inconspicuous, I approach a pod of models, hoping
not to scare them off. . . .Later, I slip into a blind. (The
need for stealthy observation of these creatures cannot be
overstated). . . .In a rare moment of contact, I attempt to
converse with a pair of older females who dress the younger
females and who are known, curiously, as "dressers.".
. . .Examining one specimen's feet for signs of chiggers.
Clockwise from left: An inquisitive member
of the group discovers me in my makeshift hiding place. (Such
constructions, racks of clothes, really, line the backstage
area of a fashon show.) . . . . Sitting atop a midden of discarded
materials at the end of my week in the field, I contemplate
my failure, but then . . . Triumph! I finally succeed in getting
Freckles and Ladybug, along with a third, unnamed member of
the pod, to take food from my hand.