When Auckland model Renata and actress Alicia-Anne Crawford stepped out last week at Une Enveloppe to announce the opening of "Fashion Month'' -- Blair Trader's new eatery on Auckland's fashionable Sandringham Road -- there were audible whispers and faux-gasps in the room. Both were wearing outfits -- "consembles'' as Auckland couturier Stef Britta wittily observed -- in the style of New York's StreetChic which, to outsiders, looks like an explosion in the Sesame Street costume department combined with westie-girl pragmatism. And, funnily enough, it is.
Usually a fashion style creeps up by increments, invades the media through showings and magazines, then goes mainstream. The next thing you know we are all wearing frilled leather miniskirts and platform soles, or loony bellbottoms and t-shirts with "Manbreasts'' or "Boychild'' stencilled on them. This process commonly takes many months to travel from the catwalks of New York and Milan to Wellesley Street in Auckland. StreetChic has done it in fewer than six weeks and has surprised even seasoned fashionistas and toy-boys by the rapidity of its arrival. Its progress can be charted on a daily basis if you follow the New York weeklies, as many "early adopters'' do.
After Une Envelope's opening -- well attended by "celebrities" from television news and reality programmes -- StreetChic achieved high visibility in Vulcan Lane last Wednesday and later that afternoon was seen on High Street. By Friday it was on Queen Street and already weekly magazines and fashion monthlies are commissioning stories on it. Helpfully, as often happens these days, StreetChic comes with its own soundtrack and three dance parties are scheduled incorporating elements of the style.
The hybrid of the garish and glam that has become StreetChic started only six weeks ago with the hip-hop outfit the Lo-Fat Tong from New Jersey whose career consisted of only two appearances in a local playground.
But when a local cable channel played the episode of Sesame Street with Teri Garr as guest the Lo-Fat Tong crew taped it and sampled voices when Kermit was in the Muppets' costume department. Later that day they used a loop from the tape in a rap track and dressed up Muppet-style for a local DJ competition. Footage of their performance was picked up by New York news channels. Overnight they became local heroes. The following weekend two other hip-hop crews paid respect by adopting the look and releasing dance singles in the Lo-Fat Tong style.
(Incidentally, Spannerman's "Sesame/System" is a much better single than Lo-Fat's "Survive Da Street", however Spannerman was last month labelled the commercial cash-in by rap tastemaker Doggy-D and his sales have suffered accordingly.) Features of the Lo-Fat Tong visual style were oversized fluffy slippers from K-Mart, striped leggings, brightly coloured shorts, and something lumpy and large as a top. As the Tong's Laramie Indian told CNN: "Dis was our style from da first-up. Ain't nobody done da style wasn't down with it forever, know-wha'umsayin'.''
When it moved out of the hip-hop community the following weekend it underwent a crucial transformation. Ludicrously large hats -- like those worn by German skiers -- came in and tops became multi-coloured rather than with a single splash of colour in the Lo-Fat look. It is those modifications -- a "loosening up'' according to fashion watcher Fiona Van Suiter -- which captured the imaginations of designers, models and those who attend gallery openings. Yet despite its op-shop, anything-goes, psychopathic, cartoon look there are rules. "Men! Women! You would never, never wear anything under the top,'' announced Giovanni Romano of Paris fashionhouse $tylu$. The look was adopted by model Melaney Evangaline -- "By choice,'' she insisted with a laugh -- who wore a StreetChic ensemble (by David Karin-Carpenter of DKC-NYC) to the opening of David Polsky's new multi-media opera "Hanoi, Under Night" on Broadway.
By coincidence one character in Polsky's five hour event Wysteria, a drag queen based on Jane Fonda, also wears a less extravagant version of the StreetChic style. The look was dubbed "StreetChic'' by Mike Walker on CBS's Today/Tomorrow programme. A style was born.
The following week New York's Village Voice had two major stories, one an interview in Ebonics with Lo-Fat Tong who distanced themselves from the clothing ranges but also announced they'd perform as special guests at Klaus Bergan's showing in Milan. In this country Net surfers were parodying the style three weeks ago, but then StreetChic appeared in a segment on TV3's Nightline which used UK footage in which Jean-Claude Gauloise discussed it with tastemaker Vivienne Eastmann. Both loved it, TV3's Catherine Bryan looked less convinced. Now social critics are weighing in. New York columnist Barbra Kaiser explained StreetChic as "the exegesis of theatre, fashion and media's infiltration of our socio-conscious selves. It is an ironic comment on our adult urbanism mixed with regressive fantasies of childhood and its cultural aphoristic codes. It is ironic it should be so ironic at a time when there is so much irony.''
"It is significant it should come in the Bush II Era,'' says Newstimes art critic Bruce Hughes. "This is a time of programmatic amnesia and infantile yearnings. It's the banner of America's obsession with the childlike, in a country where an anthropomorphic mouse is its most recognisable cultural artefact.''
Michelle D'Art-Traff writing in Belle Cite says however, "People will wear what they like and feel comfortable in -- and right now we are telling women that like it or not they will feel like and feel comfortable in StreetChic.'' Auckland sociologist Marie-Claire Symonds says its hardly surprising a style based on Sesame Street should catch on here: "It's kitschy and has that careless quality, like, 'So I look stupid. Who doesn't?' thing. It allows people to break away from trends and hop on a bandwagon instead.
"And of course Sesame Street had a huge impact on Aotearoan cultural mores. A 1994 survey showed 73 per cent of the population could count to 10 in Spanish. Directly attributable to Sesame Street.''
Parnell designer Anne Nagel (TM) says while she has worked on the periphery of the style for some years it was coincidence it arrived at the same time as her own "Chic-in-da-Street" collection. And Nigel Sharon's new outfits unveiled in a St Mary Bay brasserie last week featured tops of bilious green, garish red shorts and his local variant, ugg boots.
"We too often ignore footwear and I just felt the need to go with something unself-conscious, something you don' t have to think about. After all many people will find the tops, the fly-away vests and tight shorts challenging enough -- and what better way to say to yourself, 'Just enjoy' than ugg boots? It just adds a fun element to something which is otherwise quite serious.
"The American style is less playful than what we have been doing,'' says Nagel. "It is constrained by colour rather than liberated by it. Our work is vibrant and fun, theirs is more aware of the sense of it actually being a 'fashion.' "
And certainly the Nagel designs Renata and Alicia-Anne Crawford wore at the opening of Une Enveloppe were vibrant. Most stunning however has been the bright yellow jumpsuit over a red and white striped top that former City Life star Jo-hannah Cheng wore to a SkyCity function last Saturday. But local commentators looked aghast at her "super-sized" red shoes and remembered something Klaus Bergan said in Berlin last Wednesday when the doyenne of the catwalk Mikahora used similar large shoes in her SummerChic showing.
"It was a pretty collection, so special from someone so very, very special to us all. But the large red shoes? I suspect that is just Mickey's little game, teasing us with the idea that any serious fashion style could accommodate something as absurd and populist as a clown's shoes, and expect to have billions of customers served.''