For a few hours on Monday night, the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts felt like a style-centric take on an old-school talk show, with Neiman Marcus Senior Vice President and fashion director Ken Downing taking on the role of affable and engaging host joined by a couch full of high-profile guests that included designers Zac Posen and Christian Siriano and the mother-daughter supermodeld duo of Pat and Anna Cleveland.
The talk (co-sponsored by Neiman Marcus) closed out the venue's 2014-15 "Arts & Ideas: Conversations at the Wallis" series, which has featured the likes of Dick Cavett, Norman Lear, Leon Panetta and David Axelrod. Despite the serious-sounding title "Designer as Dramatist -- The Intersection of Fashion and Theater," it turned out to be a lively and laughter-filled 90-minute romp that touched on everything from the design process to pet peacocks and a little of everything in between.
Designer Siriano, who won Season 4 of "Project Runway" and launched his namesake line in 2008, was the first to join Downing on stage. Among the insights he shared with Downing -- and the audience -- (besides that his astrological sign is Scorpio and that he's turning 30 this year): that it's tough to please everyone ("The things the editors hate in the collections are usually the things that are bestsellers," he said), that fashion shows are a lot of work ("I love resort [collections] -- [because] you don't need to do a show and you get sales!") and that dressing celebrities is a mixed bag ("[S]easoned actresses are better [clients] than the annoying little young ones.")
The next guest to join Downing onstage was supermodel Pat Cleveland, whose career stretches from the 1970s (where she was muse for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Halston) all the way up to a recent ad campaign for Lanvin (with her daughter Anna). Speaking mostly in pull quotes, Cleveland held forth on everything from attitude ("It's important not to be serious, she said, you have to be whimsical -- designers don't just want a [clothes] hanger") to her career trajectory ("Fashion has always been my magic carpet") to her favorite fabric ("If you don't have chiffon in your life then you're missing something.") And, for anyone who has ever wondered what models are thinking about as they clip-clop down the runway, Cleveland said this: "When I walk out on that runway, I think: 'Who is in the back room sewing? Are they going to eat tonight?'"
She described the fashion industry as being similar to the pet peacocks she keeps. "At my house you'll see one put up this big blue fan [of feathers] but if you look around behind him, you'll see there's a whole lot going on back there to make it look that way."
The penultimate person to join Downing on stage was Cleveland's daughter, Anna, who began modeling at the tender age of 10 days old ("in my arms and chewing on the Duchess of Windsor's pearls," as Pat Cleveland put it) but decided to work outside of the business for a while before choosing modeling as a career. "My mom let me do my own thing," she told Downing, "I was a waitress in Florida for a while before I rejoined fashion. I think it's important to have that freedom." She credited the night's final guest with ushering her back into the fold on her own terms. "I met Zac Posen and he really believed in me," she said.
Posen joined the fashion fray onstage at about the one-hour mark. His first order of business was to recap a career that began in 2001 ("We started in half a loft on Spring Street [in New York City] where I grew up," he said) and has since grown to include some 18 collections a year (including his own apparel and accessories, his work with David's Bridal and his new gig as creative director for Brooks Brothers' women's line) and an ongoing gig as a judge on "Project Runway." Then Posen talked about how things change as a business grows.
"When you start it's all very pure," Posen said, "Then you start hearing all these voices -- PR, production companies … I remember the first thing someone said was: 'No more warhorses' [referring to the models being cast]." He explained that's why he decamped to show in Paris for several seasons before returning to the New York Fashion Week scene.
Posen touched on brand building ("People say brand like it's a dirty word," he told Downing, "But you're building a brand – and you need to make sure it connects on a visceral level"), passion ("At the end of the day, my passion is about dressing women") and his obsession with Hollywood glamour, earning a hearty round of applause for remarking that "every woman deserves to feel glamorous."
By the time the event ended, it had taken on the feel of a freewheeling five-way cocktail party conversation that one could easily listen to all night long -- no big, over-arching conclusion to be made, nothing for Downing to exactly tie up in a tidy bow.
It was, to borrow Pat Cleveland's analogy, enough of a look at the business end of a peacock to appreciate what goes into the fantastical fantail of fashion.