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Missed Opportunities in The Tents, a History of New York Fashion Week

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Click the video above to view the trailer for The Tents, or click here to watch it on YouTube.

Those who thought sliced bread, Brown vs. the Board of Education, and penicillin were symbols of greater human progress need to reconsider.

It’s the tents.

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Fashion types have a reputation for hyperbole, but that tendency is taken to new heights in the alternately engrossing and bombastic documentary The Tents:The New York Fashion Week Documentary about the rise of the phenomenon known as Fashion Week. Director James Belzer’s documentary charts a subphylum of New York fashion history. The film follows the movement of the annual fashion shows that occasion the fall season from squalid, cramped New York lofts to the theatrical, ethereal, attention-grabbing white tents that sprung up twice a year in Manhattan’s Bryant Park in the the Garment District in 1993. That was before Fashion Week eventually migrated in 2010 to its present location at Lincoln Center.

Before the tents, or “BT,” fashion types had to endure cramped stairways and firetrap quarters in an ever-changing array of Manhattan buildings to see designers’ new collections. And such unglamorous quarters seemed to keep the New York fashion world perennially playing second fiddle, suggests Belzer’s film. The fashion insiders interviewed in the documentary admit that the New York fashion world was always seen as the amateur league following in the footsteps of the higher-profile European shows in Paris and Milan. It’s a rather shocking history lesson, considering what can seem like the city’s top-dog status these days. With the resourceful contributions of the impressively determined New York Fashion Week president Fern Mallis, who narrates much of The Tents, and the willingness of magazine dynasties like Hearst and Conde Nast to foot the bill, American designers finally found their rightful place in the global fashion marketplace, in large part due to the cachet of the tents.

The Tents’ most enjoyable aspect may be its who’s who of high-fashion notables including Zac Posen, Isaac Mizrahi, Tommy Hilfiger, Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, and Betsey Johnson offering their take on the past and present of American fashion. The documentary covers the significance of the annual gathering of fabulosity not just from these designers’ point of view, but from the vantage of journalists, editors, buyers, hangers-on, photographers, and high-profile New York dandies like Paper magazine’s Patrick McDonald and the irrepressibly wacky chick-fashion commentator Lauren Ezersky with her nasally Yonkers delivery. The doc could have used more of the irreverent wit of voices like Ezersky’s which brings the tang of reality and humility to the proceedings.

Though it is touched upon in the documentary, the tents seem significant for inaugurating high fashion’s increasing mass-culture prominence and the trickle-down influence of designers like Jason Wu and Zac Posen. While their sudden visibility spread to the rest of the city, the tents became the fashion world’s equivalent of the¬†Academy Awards’ red carpet: an occasion for the public to gape and comment and yearn for a glimpse inside.

If the events at Bryant Park New York Fashion Week have been called the most glamorous trade shows in existence, then The Tents looks very much like an unapologetic promotional for that world. Like a fully-loaded Cobb salad, The Tents will be seductive catnip to fashion types even as it fails to deliver some of the deeper access documentary fans count on from the genre.

There are fleeting moments of insight, like the late-blooming epiphany experienced by stylist Robert Verdi while considering the clients of designer Oscar de la Renta who include Barbara Walters: the women-of-a-certain-age who buy his clothes are not the pre-pubescent girls who sashay them down the runaway. It is one of the non-sequiturs of the fashion world: the women who can afford the garments are in no way represented in the atelier or on the runway of the couture shows. But, Verdi notes, those fetal models give clients a contact-high of eternal youthfulness. They can imagine that, by donning de la Renta’s clothes, they will be transported back to their girly selves.

A rash of recent fashion docs, including The September Issue, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Bill Cunningham New York, and Lagerfeld Confidential, have peeled back the scrim to offer outsiders a privileged gander at the fashion world. The Tents is never as incisive or as all-access as most of those films. Instead, the predominance of industry talking heads makes it a certain kind of cloistered, hagiographic doc that never goes very far beneath the surface.

The Tents screens Thursday, April 19, 11AM, followed by a discussion with director James Belzer as part of SCAD-Atlanta’s SCAD Style 2012. The event takes place at the main Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design in the fourth floor Events Space, building C, at 1600 Peachtree Street.