“This kind of thing just couldn’t have happened five years ago,” somebody says, and I agree. Five years ago Karl Lagerfeld wasn’t the world’s hottest fashion designer, as he is today, and he wouldn’t have chosen Houston for the American premiere of his latest collection. And even if he had, Neiman-Marcus would have greeted him with ersatz Continental elegance instead of the Texas-style reception planned for this lucent May afternoon. But today, Texas chic is the hottest chic there is, so somewhere in the endlessly blue sky above Hobby Airport is a private jet carrying Lagerfeld and a whole cross section of executives from the multitiered fashion industry. Below it we are standing on the tarmac, waiting along with the one-hundred-strong, red-white-and-blue-clad Kashmere High School Marching Band (which appears to be 100 percent black and not exactly wild about doing a few tinny bars of “The Eyes of Texas” and the theme from Rocky); eighty cowboy-booted and -hatted, fringe-trimmed Westchester High School Wranglerettes (who appear to be 100 percent white and not entirely overwhelmed with standing in the sun for an hour without the chance to do even a few kicks); a dozen Lone Star flags propped up by the drill team; and seven white and three black Cadillac limos headed by a gold and black Coupe de Ville with five-foot longhorns on the hood and a horn that plays “The Eyes of Texas.” This last item is the property of a grizzly, mustachioed roofing contractor named Richard Brannon, who wears a tailored three-piece suit with a cowboy hat and chomps incessantly as though he is about to spit tobacco, which he never does.
The creator of this cheeky and artfully contrived Texana extravaganza is Neiman’s PR director Lissa Ikard— young, willowy, auburn-haired, and virtually a one-woman show. But today Lissa has a strong supporting cast of Neiman’s executives, including president Phillip Miller (who looks like Jon Voight), vice president Lawrence Marcus, and Larry Schatzman, vice president and manager of Neiman’s Houston Post Oak store. They will hand over bunches of Texas wildflowers to honchos from Elizabeth Arden Cosmetics and the Paris-based House of Chloé for whom Lagerfeld is the sensational and notorious designer. Trailing Lagerfeld will be representatives of Parfums Lagerfeld; like all hotshot designers these days, Karl is also in the lucrative fragrance business. And everybody will be watched by reporters, photographers, and Susan and Alan Raymond, who brought the tribulations of the Loud family into our living rooms and who are filming this as part of a PBS documentary called Houston: The Third Coast. Alan Raymond is a big man, but he moves with his heavy shoulder-mounted camera like Dr. J going to the hoop, and his wife is always popping up in the middle of conversations with her enormous foam-covered shotgun mike. Watching them work is like watching a couple of world-class athletes in action.
A Jet Commander touches down and taxis to the far end of the landing apron. Momentarily, hysteria sets in, and the band hastily tunes up. But it isn’t the right plane, so we go and have hamburgers. Forty-five minutes later the big Grumman Gulfstream II comes screaming down the taxiway, and everybody knows that this is it. The purple carpet (purple is Karl’s favorite color) is aligned with the aircraft, the door opens, and Lagerfeld appears. He is the epitome of what the French call soigné, or what we would call exceptionally well turned out. Immaculate from head to toe, Karl has his hair pulled back slickly across the top of his head, ending in a neatly curled little ponytail. His plum-colored jacket is matched by a plaid tie with a pearl stickpin against a mauve shirt with a white collar; the white is picked up in the chic touch of white socks between brown tassel loafers and khaki slacks. He considers the scene for a few seconds, and then descends into the reception maelstrom.
The band plays “Rocky” and then some disco tunes, and the fashion execs get their bouquets. Lagerfeld poses in front of the longhorns, smiling even though “The Eyes of Texas” is blaring into his sacroiliac, the photographers go crazy, and suddenly Raymond wheels and starts filming the shutterbugs. For some reason his gesture is shocking, almost like a GI in a firefight turning on his buddies. Lissa is hopping around like a coked-up kangaroo, and I am getting the same rush: glamour, panoply, squads of pleading paparazzi, and over all the heavy musk of big bucks. It feels so good, it must be addictive.
Lagerfeld and Miller obligingly pose inside the limo, champagne glasses aloft, and then they are gone, the whole entourage following. The band and drill team remain at attention, and when I ask some of the Wranglerettes about Lagerfeld, they giggle politely. It seems they are more interested in football heroes than fashion stars. “We’re going to the Pro Bowl in January. In Hawaii,” says an impossibly blue-eyed and extravagantly fresh-faced blonde. “Well, I’ll see you on TV,” I say as they march off in single file. Then the Kashmere band heads out, zigzagging and jiving. And Alan Raymond is still filming.
That evening at Neiman’s Post Oak store cocktails and champagne are served prior to the “special invitation only” premiere of Lagerfeld’s 1979 Chloé collection. The music by the River Road Boys is strictly country-and-western, but the crowd is big-city eclectic. Young gays rub elbows with old rich, unconstructed jackets jostle with dark suits, and glamour girls in sheer, clingy things and cabaret costumes prowl the floor. It seems that string ties are the in thing for men this season, and then there is the mens wear fashion fringe: the cowboy glitter look, represented by suede chaps with a big fur trim or the tight black leather vest worn sans shirt and jacket and topped with a matching cowboy hat. For the ladies, hair up and tightly coiled in forties styling is a popular touch.
After an hour of boozing, the pack is hustled upstairs for the fashion show. Chairs crowd to the edge of the runway, but even so there is now standing room only. When Schatzman announces that New York is getting this show after Houston, everyone cheers. The crowd hushes as disco music comes on, and then out parade the beautiful clothes and beautiful women, shimmering under hot quartz lights. One at a time or in pairs, the models strut up and down the runway in short, saucy steps with hands on hips that chug to the disco beat. Lagerfeld’s trademark is a large fanlike hat that is very deco but really looks like Napoleon’s imperial headgear. And the coats and jackets have a science-fiction military look, some with big, thick cuffs that suggest flight jackets or space suits, and then there are the spats—button-up tight leggings that run from above the knees to the tops of high-heeled pumps. There are some huge collars coiled around necks like giant snakes, large deco pearl brooches, evening dresses pinched at the waist and flared at the hips, white and black satin, glittering silver sequins, leather and suede, thick knits and ruffles and quilts, and always the hats. It is all very sleek, sexy, and macha. The models play it up, flashing sultry eyes at the crowd and smoldering, their hair pulled back and slicked with Vaseline.
The clothes have everyone completely bedazzled, and each time a new outfit appears there is a crescendo of applause and enthusiastic hoots. The models know something extraordinary is happening, and some of them hyperventilate at the head of the runway like a swimmer on the starting block. One scintillating black woman is a crowd favorite, and she has a magnificent snarling glare that seems to say, “How’d you like to be my slave, baby?” The air is charged with electricity, the procession of pain-and-pleasure allure is mesmerizing, the gay contingent is going into convulsions, and some of the grande dames are grinning from ear to ear. The only people who aren’t really getting into it are the young, fashionable women in the audience. Their eyes narrow as they follow the hip-popping models, and the malice isn’t an act. Nobody likes to be upstaged.
At the end Karl appears and takes a bow and all of the models descend at once for a last phantasmagoric prance down the runway. Later, fashion cognoscenti will tell me that this is one of the best fashion shows ever. Karl is very pleased with Neiman’s, and he is in a bubbly mood when he is closeted with the Raymonds, who pump him with all the basic questions. Yes, he enjoyed the airport reception. It was all a big Hollywood production, but a little disconcerting; after all, he is not the Queen of England. Yes, he likes Western wear, a look that is “as classic as the English raincoat,” but no, he doesn’t think that he should do it in Paris when it is done so well here. He wears the ponytail because his hair is curly and this is the only way he can make it look straight without a lot of fuss.
Lagerfeld’s evening won’t be complete without a trip to Gilley’s, the hangar-size Pasadena dance hall where John Travolta’s new movie will be filmed. Ha, ha, what a clash of cultures, we joke, Karl versus the kickers. Things become confused for a while, however, when a bus that was to carry the whole entourage fails to show up at the store. Phillip Miller, who has changed into Western hat and coat and boots and now looks just like Joe Buck, worries. Karl is in a dark three-piece suit, and he has produced a wooden Egyptian-style fan about the size and shape of a ping-pong paddle. He fans himself while Elizabeth Arden president Joe Ronchetti takes a spin on a computerized exercise machine, and someone keeps playing a tape of the evening news coverage of the airport ceremony over and over again on a display Betamax. Alan Raymond says he isn’t going, since Gilley’s is under contract to Paramount for the Travolta film and can’t permit anyone else to shoot on the premises.
Finally a fleet of cabs gets everyone to Gilley’s, where it is obvious that Karl and the kickers are mutually underwhelmed. A demonstration of the celebrated mechanical bull is underway, but nothing can get Lagerfeld to try it, not even after stout, silver-haired Lawrence Marcus removes his coat and climbs aboard. The woman who will ride the thing in the movie approaches and says she can ride it and she’s five months pregnant. “Yes,” says Lagerfeld, “and if something happens to you, you can start over. I can’t.” A loaded kicker in a T-shirt and gimme cap leers over Lagerfeld, his head bobbing crazily. “Where’re you guys from?” he cackles. “He’s from Paris,” I say, while Lagerfeld tries to ignore him. “Aaaaw, c’mon. Where’re you guys really from?”
Lagerfeld tells me he likes Texas because Dallas and Houston are such slick, cosmopolitan, modern cities, full of extremely well-dressed people. This is the place where the future is going to happen. And the cowboy stuff? Well, Karl knows a lot about show biz himself. So he endures the cotton-eyed Joe, gets more involved with Carroll Gilley’s Jerry Lee Lewis-style rocking, and when the band leaves and some disco music comes on, Karl shakes his groove thing and fans to the music.
It seems that all the regulars at Gilley’s have either got a part in the film or at least auditioned for one. Aside from that, the favorite topic of conversation is sex, which apparently is as easy to find at Gilley’s as would-be movie stars. I am mulling this over when in walks a woman in a gold cowboy hat, tight T-shirt, gold hot pants over red tights and multicolored above-the-knee socks, and silver cowboy boots. The regulars have never seen her before, and she has the same impact a new planet would have on an astronomer. She identifies herself as Liz the Cosmetic Cowgirl. Did she come here to see Lagerfeld? Nope, never heard of him, and this is her first visit to Gilley’s. You see, she’s modeling T-shirts for her T-shirt designer friend, and there is indeed an arty surrealistic design on the front of her shirt. “There’s a lot behind it,” says the designer as Liz projects her well-formed chest.
Unfortunately I am wrenched away from Liz as our party prepares to depart. Liz’ unexpected appearance has something to do with all the rest of this, I think. But longhorns and high school kids, pouty models and flashy fabrics, John Travolta and make-believe cowboys who cavort in the shadows of the world’s most sophisticated petrochemical technology, Lissa the beautiful PR superstar and Liz the Cosmetic Cowgirl, and a German-born Paris designer who has brought his science fiction clothes to the science fiction canyons of Houston are all jumbled up in my mind. I resolve to get it all straight tomorrow.