IT IS 10:30, a Wednesday morning. Some people have been arranging papers on their desks and curling quick sips of coffee over their tongues for two hours. But in a windowless room on Neiman-Marcus’ second floor, 17 of Dallas’ best runway models are sitting on cold linoleum – stripped to hose and skin-toned body stockings – waiting for their clothes.
Not just any clothes. The clothes. Overloaded rolling racks of gorgeous clothes line the room, softening its acoustics and warming the fluorescent glare. If one cared to count, one could find 121 Oscar de la Renta samples; it would take between $3,000 and $5,000 to replace the precious silks or wools in just one piece.
Along the wall, shoes are aligned in formation, each shoe like a colorful member of a mini marching band. There are more than 100 pairs of pumps – in flamingo pink, flat black, bright orange, turquoise and green. About $125,000 worth of earrings, hats, hose, necklaces, gloves and scarves are scattered across a tottering banquet table. All the coffee inside a commercial-sized urn has been consumed, and a few of the models – already restless-are smoking cigarettes with some aplomb, squashing the butts into their coffee saucers.
“La-dies! Ladies, all these second tweed outfits get shoes and stockings, not boots.”
A man in his shirt sleeves is shouting commands from the center of the room as he traces an even arc down the row of near-naked girls. His forearms are wrapped in heavy merchandise. Clothing hangers flop at his knees. Wearing a snappy bow tie, crisp, blue slacks and a shameless pair of two-toned wingtips, he makes announcements to the group between halting remarks to individual girls. He hands each an ensemble, but his feet are far faster than his hands. He takes little steps forward, pivots, then takes a half-pace back. He murmurs: “You wear this. Okay. I want to see you in – nnnnn this, no, this. Try this red. All right.”
His name is Jack Alexander, and it hasn’t been too long – maybe 15 pounds – since he was a model himself. He has come from Oscar de la Renta’s showroom to see that the fall 1982 line has as stunning a debut in Dallas as he believes it had in New York. The Dallas show will be the closing segment of a gala benefit sponsored by Neiman-Marcus for the Center of Marketing and Design at North Texas State University. But Jack, at this point, doesn’t know who the show is for. He knows Oscar de la Renta is the person to please.
Jack is being assisted by Sid Shaw, a woman from showroom sales who is wearing a lightweight suit in taupe, a black sleeveless shell and a string of pearls. She seems firmly footed on her sensibly heeled taupe shoes. Her square-cut, hip-length jacket has been tossed onto the accessory table where-if the fitting room doesn’t become too cluttered – she can find it again before lunch. The fashion show will be rehearsed at four o’clock. Sid’s watch is set on New York time; she never changes it.
Although Sid and Jack act as though they’re in charge, real control rests in the hands of four inelegantly clad women. They are Neiman-Marcus’ arbiters of the good, the bad and the beautiful: Sandy Waddill, Marcia Barrett, Delpha Simpson and Daria Retian. They are the au courant consciousness behind Neiman’s couture. Their corporate office of fashion communications (frequently shortened to “fashion office”) in Dallas is responsible for teaching buyers, department heads and salespeople how to articulate the “statement” that means Neiman’s. Monitoring fittings like this one and organizing fashion shows are tiny parts of what these women do.
Ordinarily, class and confidence is what Sandy, Marcia, Delpha and Daria project. But on this particular Wednesday – as they help Jack with the fitting – all four are a little more cautious and subdued. Most designers let Neiman’s fashion office oversee these shows, knowing that their clothes are in the business’ most capable hands. But Oscar de la Renta is being unusually persnickety about this opening, and the fashion-office women have stepped aside. It’s considered a courtesy for a store – any store, even Neiman’s – to let a designer and his representatives exhibit the merchandise exactly as they want it shown. With Jack’s first-hand experience at the New York opening and with the fashion office’s understanding of what constitutes a successful Dallas show, Oscar de la Renta can reasonably expect the evening’s entertainment to flow flawlessly. But everyone associated with the fashion industry believes in Murphy’s Law, Marcia says: “Anything that can screw up will.” So it is with hopes for highly visible successes and barely noticeable failures that everyone in the fitting room proceeds.
The tempo has picked up now that the models are trying things on. One fulllength mirror has been positioned in a corner, and the girls take turns admiring themselves.
Sid says, “Ladies, these are sure sellers. So show them.”
Sandy Waddill is trying to write up the runway order. She is a tall, assertive woman with striking auburn hair cropped short and swept up off her forehead. “Okay,” she says, “it’s Dee-Dee, Debbie, Madge, Margie and then . . . Connie? Who are you really behind?”
Daria Retian, the fashion office’s director, is surveying all the confusion from a sensible distance through wire-rimmed eyeglasses that seem thick as binoculars. Egyptian-born, Sorbonne-educated and a former model as well, Daria has seen Dallas change dramatically in the 20-odd years since Stanley Marcus lured her here. She and her cohorts venture to Europe several times a year for the major shows; they have seen styles fly in the face of presumption and change drastically from season to season. Nothing fazes them. Even less fazes Daria, who is resting her jaw upon her thumb now and gripping a cigarette between two knuckles of the same hand. She looks as though she’d like to say something but is waiting for just the right moment to speak out. Her long, gray hair is pulled back tight. Her posture is always regal; her expression – as she studies a particular model struggling with an asymmetric coat dress – is circumspect. Jack has just handed the dress to the girl. It is the kind of garment that demands some coercion to gain entry. Daria looks for an ashtray, but her mind is on the dress. She frowns.
“I don’t like that dress,” she says in a heavily cigaretted growl. “I didn’t like that dress in New York.”
Everyone in the room-except Sid and Jack – would admit it is a silly dress. An inspired dress, perhaps, but still a silly one. Daria stands and suggests that the dress is on the wrong girl. Jack agrees. A second model takes the dress willingly, but looks bewildered as she attempts to get it on. Is this a collar? Where is the sleeve?
“La-dies! Please be careful with these necklaces. They are very, very, very, very, very expensive.”
Each model will have seven changes, so Jack has to “fit” fast. The models are scampering every which way, gathering hose, scarves and shoes.
One model edges backwards around a table, holding up her hair with one hand. “Delpha, will you help me with the zipper?”
Delpha says, “Are you getting out of this or in?”
Marcia says these girls were booked because they had that “certain look” Neiman’s needed. Oscar de la Renta is showing lots of little hats this fall that rest low on the forehead. Five girls had their long hair cut short so the hats could be shown well. But a model’s intelligence is just as important as her body, Marcia says. Since there is no runway commentary, the girls will be “keying” off each other, and that takes intuition and tact. In the old days, you couldn’t find 17 “like-quality” runway girls in Dallas, Marcia says. Today, Dallas models have an excellent reputation for looking good and working well together.
“Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Okay, now here. . .,” Jack says as he divides the line of girls into two different groups, “we have a change in music.”
Marcia makes a face. Of the four women in the fashion office, she has the best sense of whimsy. Marcia whispers: “The music they want to use is classical. We tried to talk them out of it. We kept telling them that this is Dallas, Texas, and that these people will have been eating and drinking before the show – which starts at 10:30. Classical music will put them right to sleep.”
“Let’s keep that same music through those black velvets,” Jack says. “Then, start with new music on the taffetas.”
Jack seems slightly defensive about the music. It is the same music – Mozart and Beethoven – that Oscar used in New York. Sandy is sitting on the floor now with a legal pad between her knees. She marks the music change in her notes.
Toward the end of the fitting, Neiman-Marcus’ public relations representative, Jan Roberts, comes into the room, steps over several trunks labeled with the same Seventh Avenue address and tells Sid that Mr. de la Renta will be met at the airport by Mr. Marcus. If he wishes, he can have lunch in his room at the Plaza of the Americas. Sid says, “Great. Whatever. Fine.”
The last piece of apparel – the last hoorah, so to speak – is a wonderful white bridal gown with a hat and cape and wintry touch of long-haired fur.
“Boom. Boom. Then we have the Queen of Hearts!” Jack says. “This veil will need to be ironed. And we will be getting a small bouquet of roses that are red, red, red, red, red- right?”
“Yes,” Sandy says. “They’re coming from the display department.”
And once the bridal gown has been duly adjusted for the lucky girl, the fitting room begins to be transformed. Racks of fabric roll from one side of the room to the other. Models are changing back into their own things. The fitting, apparently, has ended. Sid asks Jack if he wants to have lunch back at the hotel. “Oh no,” Jack says, “I’ll have lunch with these people. Can I have lunch with you people?”
Marcia, Sandy and Delpha say sure; they’ll all go grab something quick to eat. Daria slings a handbag over one shoulder and stands in the doorway slightly slouched. She says, “I’ll see you all at the hotel.”
FOUR TATTOOED light technicians are standing around a decorated banquet table. Their jaws are slack and their mouths are open. From their chairs, through the orchid centerpieces, they can see the girls – sitting, rummaging through handbags, filing nails or just contemplating simple things like their own shoes or sleeves. The girls are in their street clothes. One of the guys watching the girls is wearing a T-shirt that says “Charley Pride Tour ’82.”
Marcia, wearing the same black pants and tunic top she had on this morning, stands before the models and says, “As I understand it, Oscar does not want you to appear to be modeling.”
The girls nod as if they know what she means. They begin to line up according to the previously outlined specifications. Dave, the man in charge of the sound system, asks: “Ready?” Marcia gives the go-ahead, the music starts and Jack begins to pace back and forth beneath the elevated stage. The third pair of girls turns the wrong way.
“No, no, no, no, no!” Jack says. Marcia shouts over the music to Dave. He begins again.
Jack whispers to Marcia, “If they knew what to do without us, they wouldn’t need us.” Then he says to the first models, “Okay, you two. Continue your tricks!” The girls prance up the stairs and down the runway again.
After a few minutes of this, Jack says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Slow this down a little bit. So far, nobody knows what they’ve seen.”
Daria, who has been smoking a cigarette and talking to Sid, stands and says that the girls should walk the length of the runway twice.
“You’re right, Daria,” Sid says.
“I know I’m right because I’ve made that mistake too many times.”
The models take note of this revision. Dave rewinds the tape and says, “Tell me when you’re ready.” With the officially typed runway order and two packs of cigarettes in her hands, Sandy jogs into the banquet hall like a torch bearer at the Olympics. Once the papers are distributed, the models trudge again up the stairs.
Someone says, “I’m glad we’ve got the lights on because that terrible rubber smell will burn off, and tonight the lights won’t make the air seem so smoky.”
“We should have sprayed the room with Oscar,” Sid says.
“With Oscar’s eau de cologne.”
Jack is shouting over the music to the girls: “These are all three black and white singles out there. La-dies, wiggle these. I want more hand action, too.” He slaps his arms at his sides. “I don’t want hands here.”
“I should have thought to bring some samples,” Sid says. “Daria, what would be our chances for getting the store to deliver some of Oscar’s cologne?”
“Cologne?” asks Daria.
“To spray the room.”
Daria’s eyes are riveted upon two models stepping off the runway, giggling to themselves and not taking the rehearsal seriously.
“That was pretty poor, you two,” Daria says. The girls look genuinely embarrassed. They smile. They shrug. Daria’s head turns toward Sid like a cannon on its bearings. She says, “You want cologne to spray the room.”
“It would be nice,” Sid says.
Marcia is shouting to the girls on the runway. “This is 10:30 in Dallas, Texas, ladies,” she says. “Let’s have a little life here!”
Daria gets up to have a private word with one of the light technicians. Jack ambles over to Sid and sits down. Folded napkins have been placed pointing up on each table.
“These tunics just do not work to this music,” Jack says. “It’s terrible.”
“Well, why did you let her do it?”
“Because she says people will be falling asleep by now. I think it’s all wrong,” Jack says. “I have to tell her.”
On the other side of the banquet hall, the man in charge of the lighting is telling Daria what she already knows. The tinted sheets of gel taped over the spotlights create an unflattering effect.
“We’ve been doing these gels for yearsand years,” he says. “We should do something new. I know it means a lot in timeand labor… “
Daria asks how long it would take to rip the gels out. The man figures at least an hour. “You’ve got it,” Daria says. Happily, the man walks off to get a ladder.
Jack is looking sad. “This music is just too march-y for these little Chanel-y dresses,” he says to himself. “This won’t work.”
But Jack never argues with Marcia. After several other stops and starts, Dave is presented with the final instructions on what to play when. Jack gets what he wants. The models seem clear on what they’re all to do. The light man centers his ladder in the runway, and Daria watches as he takes out the gels. Jack gathers all the models around him near the stairs.
“Whenever you have down light like this, ladies, you get shadows,” he says. “So I want your hair off your face. We like makeup. Real makeup. Hair off the face. Smoky eyes. And red, red, red, red, red, red lips. This is a happy show. Nothing sad. I want red lips, red nails. No browns. Happy. Happy. Think sexy. Think pretty. And we’ll see you at 8:30.”
Some of the girls groan.
Jack says, “Eight-thirty sharp.”
SANDY AND MARCIA have been wandering around the back hallways of Plaza of the Americas for 20 minutes trying to find something to eat. The employee cafeteria has closed. The sandwich shop upstairs is serving barbecue that neither woman is in the mood to consume. They look for a vending machine and can’t find one.
“So much for food,” Marcia says.
“Well. I’ll go put some lipstick on,” Sandy says.
Just beyond the backstage curtains, several hundred well-dressed banquet patrons are gorging on better-than-average banquet food. The chamber seems heavy with the accumulated tinkling sounds of salad forks and coffee spoons. A low, steady conversational mumble hovers beneath the cigarette smoke clouds that are dissipating near the ceiling at a height of 40 feet.
“Here is that cologne, Daria.”
“That. Oh,” Daria says. “I don’t know what she expects us to do.”
“Well, we can’t spray it while they’re eating,” Sandy says.
“Maybe if we just spray it around Oscar.”
Celebrities are in the audience. Jack Evans. Carol Channing. Rita Clements. And Oscar, of course, is at the head table. Sid and Jack have changed into formal clothes, and are sitting near enough the curtains to surreptitiously slip through. Daria, Marcia, Delpha and Sandy look just the way they looked at the fitting, only by now, they are feeling slightly fatigued. When Jan Roberts sneaks away from her table and wanders backstage (holding her evening gown up above her ankles so she won’t stumble), she finds Daria sitting on the floor propped up against the wall.
“How is everything?”
“Tell them to hurry up out there,” Daria says. “Is there any way you could possibly get us some coffee?”
“Sure, sure.” Later, Tom Raney, Nei-man’s senior vice president in charge of sales and promotion, comes through the partition and sits on the floor in his dinner jacket, next to Daria. It becomes apparent that both Jan and Tom are slightly more at ease backstage than in the limelight at the banquet tables.
Nine female “dressers” have been employed to check the samples, make sure everything necessary is in its place and get the models dressed during the show. A female rent-a-cop is guarding the merchandise. Another woman is ironing pieces on a board stretched out in the hallway. The models are filtering in and out of the ladies room to check their makeup and roll their hair. At the mirror they exchange stories about ad agencies and fashion photographers.
Dinner drags on. Dessert arrives at 10:30, the time the show was scheduled to begin. Coffee is served. Then come the speeches and door prizes.
In the meantime, some of the models are acting like hybrid racehorses – the kind that kick apart their stalls. The cumbersome tweed outfits they’re wearing are making them perspire. Their makeup is beginning to take on a sheen. All 17 models, eyes wide and heads heavy, are beginning to run out of cigarettes and topics of conversation. One says: “I’m going to freak out if I don’t get out of here!”
Daria, still sitting on the floor, is getting contemplative. “Some day, people will be very bored with this kind of show. This runway technique is very primitive. It’s an old technique. There’s very little one can do.”
The future, she says, is in video. “1 can go to Europe, tape a show and bring it home. Then, on my little screen, I can do anything. I can make the models fade in. I can make them fade out. I can outline them in red. I can do anything. This,” she says, gesturing toward the runway stage, “is all so old. They go up and down. That’s all they can do.”
Jack is backstage. “It looks as though we’re beginning,” says one model to another. The other says, “Thank God.” The show is running more than an hour late.
A full-length mirror has been positioned close to the runway so the girls can stop for a final look while receiving styling assistance from either Jack or Daria; Mar-cia controls the pace and jabs her thumb back and forth in a hitchhiking motion to tell the girls when they’re on. Dave, the sound man, is hunched over a sophisticated sound board. From here on in, everything should run smoothly.
But before the first 10 models have their spin on stage, something terrible happens. The Beethoven and Mozart recordings that were chosen for their spritely, pastoral tones are sounding indistinct and fuzzy. Pfffffffttxxxxxttzapppoffftt.
It gets a little worse. Then, statick-y, scratchy noises fumble out of the speakers, nearly lifting everyone in the audience straight out of their chairs. When this happens, even the models on stage cringe spontaneously. ZZZzxxxxffffffuuuppp-ppkkkktwasx.
Oscar de la Renta sits through the first two aural assaults. Something is clearly wrong with the tape. Oscar is poised. He pats his left hand on his napkin, pushes his chair slightly back, then stands and turns to walk backstage. As he glides past the other tables, he is smiling but is not looking up. His chin is tucked into the bib of his formal shirt and he looks as though he might be enjoying a thought-provoking stroll in a far more pleasant and less populated place. How self-possessed, his demeanor suggests. What a gentle soul! He is, indeed, a remarkable man!
But when the curtain parts, Oscar changes. He walks rigidly, almost militarily, over to the sound board and with his hands on his hips has a little discussion with poor, pathetic Dave. Dave is lifting his hands in submission and shaking his head. The tape is still doing it. KKKKK-Kssssppt. And the girls are still walking the runway as cued.
Apparently, there is nothing either Dave or Oscar can do. The question seems to be “Should we start the show all over?” For a few minutes, the tape behaves.
Oscar says something to Daria, then glances out toward the stage. Three girls wearing those low-on-the-forehead Oscar hats are receiving their final styling touches. Oscar walks up to the first girl, flips up the brim of her hat and studies the next one in line. Flip. Flip. He touches the cheek of the third and smooths down a stray strand of hair. Then turning to the mirror, he surveys himself, straightens his bow tie and lifts the backstage curtain in the same single sweep. He aims for his table and smiles confidently as he’s getting there.
The static reappears intermittently. When the bride starts out toward the runway, she trips and then acts as though she’s lost a shoe.
And Marcia thought people would fall asleep.
It is, all in all, a lovely show despite the misfortunes. Everyone is saying so.
The models beckon Oscar up onto the runway at the very end. He takes the 4-foot elevation in a single leap. Wild applause. Everyone is grateful.
Oscar jogs backstage, puts his arms around Daria and says something like “I’m sorry. I get so nervous.” Dave is transfixed at the sound board.
The speediest girls are already clutchingtheir car keys. Clothes are flying everywhere, and almost everyone filtering outof the banquet hall is talking aboutclothes. Style, after all, is communication,and the truth about clothes is reserved forthe people who deal with them daily.Daria, Sandy, Marcia and Delpha want togo home. They’re not talking.