July 10, 2002

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Confessions of a fashion drudge
Thou shalt not worship false mullets.

By Abigail Goldman

LIKE ANY FASCIST regime worth its salt, the fashion industry has a rigid caste system. One person designs a model's skirt, one person looks up it as she catwalks, and one person is everybody's bitch. The latter position is also known as an internship.

The fashion machine is greased at the gears with interns, young lemmings who, fighting to get their foot in the door, prop it open with their necks. A few months ago I was one such individual, a San Franciscan reborn as a roach on the wall of a glossy New York fashion magazine, studying journalism in college whilst working at some strained form of it in life – part-time, for no pay. This was the stuff of résumé building, and I had to beat out rumored "hundreds" of hopefuls who were itching to share in the glory of my impressive intern duties – I've picked up coffee ("Lots of milk, medium sugar"); I've fetched pretzels ("Could you squeeze it to make sure it's soft?"); I've grammar checked, spell checked, fact checked. I've transcribed hours of celebrity interview banter. I've cleaned a copy machine. I've sold my soul at a discount, and I don't particularly want it back.

What I do want, however, is clarification. No one ever said the climate of high fashion wasn't chilly, but since when did the most fabulous become the least convincing? The acts of fashion I witnessed from the trench were, frankly, ugly. The handful of powerhouse glossy magazine spreads all too often could have passed for police lineups – crimes against fashion, or so I thought. My "eech" was everybody else's "fabulous" – so what was I missing? In short: money. The difference between ugly and ironically hip, I learned, could be read on a price tag.

Every fashion bottom-feeder has his or her private reveries. Running clothes from photo shoots back to the design house, I'd sit in the depths of New York subways, garment bags full of shockingly expensive clothing so bad it was rumored to be good – or more accurately, so expensive there had to be a reason why, right? Perfectly distressed designer jeans made to look piss-yellow dirty, complete with perfectly scattered holes, doubtlessly punched in the recesses of some grim sweatshop. Strange leather items from strange animals. Enormous, yellow, windshield-wiper sunglasses hewn from titanium, inspired by fly's eyes – I was told Lenny Kravitz had a pair. Anything and everything '80s. A senseless range of accoutrements no one should want but everybody had to have, all worth more than my kidney on the black market, all toted around in unmarked sacks with the dimensions of body bags. Clothes that should have, nay, would have been met with scorn and disbelief in most social circles were lauded with praise, high prices, and press coverage inside this one. I, both member and nonmember in the dizzying fashion club, was broke, confused, and thus, deeply unhip.

My most frightening discovery: seven levels deep into style hell, the grotesque gets confused with the glamorous. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I refer you to exhibit number one: mullets are high fashion. Consider the mullet in all its complexities: short in the front, long in the back – it's the best of haircuts, the worst of haircuts, and it's not going to die. I saw at least two at a photo shoot once, warming the necks of sinewy, shivering models. The upper echelon of elite style was looking like the nosebleed-seat NASCAR crowd, and I was in the pits, a small cog in this machine of confusion.

The fashion industry, epicenter of aesthetic control, loves to kill what it creates, banishing what's hideous with one hand and holding it close with the other. The so-bad-it's-good school is fabulously brainwashed and frightfully exclusive. It's risky business: to wear a mullet at high-fashion altitude is to operate a heavy-equipment symbol – you've got to know it's out to know it's in, which must have been the case for $120 Comme des Garçons T-shirts that simply read "Ham" or "Fat," $500 limited-edition Adidas sneakers, and diamond Hello Kitty anything.

So what's the punch line? If a mullet grows in mainstream fashion conscience, can we hear it laughing?

No, but we can hear cash registers ringing. With a sense of humor, ugly can be chic. With a sense of irony, ugly can be chic. But without a sense of money, it can only be ugly. In other words, a mullet is a mullet is a mullet – unless it's really expensive. And then it's fashion. But I'm not sure mullets are truly ironic adorning the heads of our fashionistas. In fact, I'm sure they're pretty close to serious, seeing as people pay for them with a wad of un-ironic Jeffersons. From the outside looking in, I can't tell the difference between the supposedly ironic fashion mullet and the conventional, non-ironic mullet. I know one is a $100 mullet and one is a free, weed-whacker-to-the-cranium mullet, but when does the magical combination of taste and trash breech the barrier between the two?

Brendan Sheehy, hair stylist at the über-hip Mudhoney salon in New York City, had the following to say apropos our long-in-back, short-in-front mullet styling: "I guess for like the last year, 18 months, it's been like the biggest, biggest thing."

"Really?" I demurred. "Why?"

"It's the '80s. Everybody is sort of loving the '80s for the last year or two."

Absolutely. Perfect sense.

"Who's getting them?" I asked.

"It's like the more extreme kind of mullets are basically the fashion kids, anyone in music and fashion ..." he said. "It kind of does take a little longer than the average haircut, just to get it right – about 45 minutes, you know?"

"And how much does it cost?" I asked, ever frugal, ever concerned.

"I charge like 60 bucks."

"That's not too bad." I said. It was only when I hung up the phone that I realized: it's not bad, it's terrible. Sixty dollars is a tragic flash in the pan these days, but we've got to take it in context. Sixty bucks for a haircut Jerry the barber in Reno would happily give for $8.50. You decide – symptoms of style, or the slow decay of Western civilization as seen on Jerry Springer?

Incidentally, Sheehy specializes in mullets, deals in the ape drape, gives the gift of bi-level. Hold your applause.

Of course, mullets are only the beginning. Other items that come to mind? Well, J.Lo pink velour sweatsuits, embossed with a rhinestone "J.Lo" on the butt, win my Senseless Excess award. (Easily yours for somewhere in the neighborhood of $100.) So does faux-dirty anything, graffiti-sprayed anything, and neon-airbrushed anything. It's nothing short of mad science, or bad science, and it's working.

Not scared yet? Cue Sheehy, once again: "I think pretty much over the last six months, people still want some kind of mullet but more of a variational mullet, and I think what I have more of over the last six months is kind of like, rattails. It's like a short, kind of textured, messy haircut, basically with a rattail left out on the neck."

Rattail? Variational mullet? Where can I run for safety? Where can I buy a Flo-bee?

In a vain attempt to penetrate the heart of the beast, I cajoled Walter Cessna, fashion stylist and haute couture writer, into talking with me. Cessna had just returned from designing a spread titled "Cartoon Couture" and featuring models in Mickey Mouse-ear hats and designer clothes. He was in the Pocono Mountains when we finally got in touch.

"I just finished talking with someone at Mudhoney who specializes in mullets," I told him.

"What I think is so sad," he said, "is that instead of people realizing how silly it looks even when it's done on a high-fashion model, they think that because it's on a high-fashion model, it loses all the silliness. Unfortunately, it just gains a whole bunch more silliness."

In other words, the mullet is a class-based hairstyle. On a model, it means one thing. On daytime trash TV, it's quite another. "Where I'm living right now, people have mullets for real," Cessna continued. "There is no irony; this is just a hairstyle they've had forever and that is never going to leave them."

From mullets, Cessna's thoughts turned to the highly touted '80s resurgence, which has replaced our '70s retro bell-bottoms and corduroys with skinny ties, floods, and Gunne Sax dresses. Why can't the fashion world get its head out of the decades-dead genre's ass? Cessna intellectualized: "We're stuck, totally stuck. All these looks that we had regurgitated to death are with us again. And it's because everybody is so afraid of the future, they have no clue of what to do. People are so freaked out right now that they want their reality served up hardcore."

But whose reality is the mullet? Last I knew, it was the white trash coat of arms, a cultural token belonging to the lowly "others," the emblematically "undesirable" haircut of the nitty-gritty, unwashed masses – totally homesick atop an airbrushed model's head. The reality of fashion, it seems, is so unrealistic that its trendsetters needed to co-opt the only haircut it could never really make legitimate. "Freaked out" by its own soullessness, the fashion world doused the mullet with money and tried to make it its own, demonstrating that nothing, not even the mullet, can't be bought and whored in the name of cost-exclusivity.

"We should be scared, because the mullet's been made into a classic now. It's the establishment now – in a really sad, weird way," Cessna said.

Two days later I was in Urban Outfitters. There I saw Mullet Men action dolls – plastic action figures mocking those "bad" mullets. Highly self-referential, highly amusing, seeing as I bumped into a young mullet man-cum-hipster with one of those "good" mullets shopping for his up-to-the-minute fashions on my speedy way out.

Somewhere along the line, ugly became the new black. Subjective, of course, but worth thinking about before you invest in anything from the J.Lo line. Rest assured, if it's expensive, someone will think it's good.

And if it's not expensive? Sudden death. Toward the end of my career as a magazine lemming, a salesgirl at Unnamed Pretentious Establishment caught me, lowly grunt, slinking around post-errand, looking for someone to sign a clearance form for the delivery of some Gucci crap. To my surprise, this violently fashionable creature cooed, "I like your sweater," while pointing emphatically at her own. Somehow, our tops were practically the same, I discovered, and the transitive property of clothing had rendered me simultaneously complementary and threatening. Had I trespassed on her aesthetic property? Would I live to claim-jump her look again? "Thanks," I said, "it's from the Salvation Army." In keeping with the politics of stylish cruelty, we paused, allowing a moment of silence for her freshly slain compliment. Yet again, in this game, cost determined quality. She retreated to her reflective metal counter with "très thrifty," and I mumbled, "I like to save money so I can eat." My priorities were clearly off. We, the sweater and I, failed a test. I refuse to apologize.

But I never refuse a little help, and working in proximity to fashion greatness afforded me glimpses into what I could be with some platinum credit-card cachet. Standing at my boss's desk one evening, I was offered a small token from the day's fashion shoot: a strange Christian Dior bracelet made out of a sculpted orange plastic complete with special carrying satchel. It was beyond gaudy, and I was, shamefully, blinded by the designer name emblazoned on the side – a thing of status beyond myself. If I wore it, surely people would assume I had bought it. The uglier it was, the better. "Do you want this?" she said, offhand, holding it in front of me casually. A tangible indication of wasted wealth, for free, for me! "Um, yes," I said, "if no one wants it ..."

"Yeah," she said. "They didn't use it in the shoot. No one really liked it." She handed it over.

So style isn't just money. The rejected bracelet, high-priced logo or not, was worthless. I wasn't being gifted; I was being garbaged. The simple economics of style – demand creates desire creates cost – had bankrupted itself on my gift. It was like paying for an expensive perm when mullets are hot, or dropping dollars on alligator-skin shoes when everyone else is sporting lizard; if the fashion world doesn't like it, nobody will. Nobody but a fool, and I was that fool, trying to fool everyone else. In too deep to change my mind, I took the Dior bracelet. I had failed another test.

I recently wandered into the clutches of Louis Vuitton and asked the first employee I saw, "What is the trendiest thing you have here?" She looked at me blankly and said, "I'm a security guard." A salesperson wafted toward me, his current in-store disturbance. I repeated my question. He drew me close to a series of wallets and purses, all under glass. "These," he said, "are limited edition. We had a large bag from the same line for about $3,750, but it sold out before it hit the floor. The waiting list was 60 people long."

"Why do you charge so much?" I asked. He waxed poetic about craftsmanship for a minute and then smiled, adding, "Because we can."

And they do.

And there is nothing I can do – all I can offer is a don't. As in, don't even try to understand mullets, money, the strange postures of excess; don't bend over a case of purses full of status that are really just empty beneath the glass. Walk away from the accident scene semi-unscathed, because ultimately, who cares? With fashion, you go with it, or run from it, or stand back at a distance and laugh. Why? Because you can. I'm done interning for now. But maybe there's a light at the end of the runway for me. I still love the goddamned Salvation Army, and if I had a mullet, I'd probably brush it a hundred strokes every night before bed, no matter what it cost me.

Abigail Goldman (abigailgoldman@hotmail.com) is a freelance writer and former Bay Guardian intern.