How I Snuck Into New York Fashion Week and How it Made Me a Coffee Drinker
New York Fashion Week ‘94 and my first cappuccino
A couple recent articles about people using TikTok to sneak into New York Fashion Week events en masse—Delia Cai in Vanity Fair and Danya Issawi in The Cut—had me recalling my own long-ago fashion show infiltration and how it made me into a coffee drinker.
I was a teenager who’d taken the Amtrak from rural Indiana to New York City with a vague dream, a few hundred bucks in my pocket, and somehow managed to make a go of it. The litany of weird jobs I stumbled in and out of would defy belief. Suffice to say, I built a life one slice of pizza and one street vendor falafel sandwich at a time. There was still a sliver of room to be a starving artist in Manhattan back then if you were clever, lucky, and could tolerate weird roommates.
One side hustle involved wrangling some licensing deals with fashion photographers and it provided an excuse to sort of waltz into the world of magazines and fashion. A friend who was an in-demand runway model suggested I might be able to get a standing room ticket to Ralph Lauren’s show kicking off New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park if I showed up early enough and found her.
This being the era before ubiquitous cell phones, it was easier said than done. I tried to pass a note at the backstage entrance through the stone-faced security detail to no avail. Another model hanging out at the tent door smoking a cigarette saw my plight and, to my shock, bestowed on me her lanyard with a “DESIGNER” all access pass.
Seconds later I was strolling easily past the guards who’d just thwarted me. Turning the first corner I brushed past Kate Moss getting her make-up done. I spotted my friend at a changing rack nearby and made a bee line. Strangely, she seemed not at all surprised to see me, quickly introducing me to supermodel Helena Christensen who was standing next to us, naked, extending her hand. All very charming. Around me was the sort of fashion chaos and famous faces I’d previously only seen on CNN’s Style with Elsa Klensch.
I suppressed the near panic attack feelings of I do not belong here, like a possum that just fell into an alligator pit. Almost every person in sight was someone whose name or face I knew and I surely stood out by virtue of being nobody. It was important to appear nonchalant, maybe I could mingle among the supermodel’s boyfriends hanging out by the port-a-johns? Oh look, it’s Johnny Depp being weird and hungover… fellow Hoosier John Cougar-Mellencamp… hmm… Small talk with Ralph Lauren’s friendly son? Should I try to meet Shalom Harlow? Are there snacks or anything back here?
In the VIP tent there was in fact a bar and a coffee bar. When you’re at a party and feeling uncomfortable it’s vitally important to at least have a drink in your hand. A prop to help you pretend to be comfortable and carefree. I sidled up next to Barbara Walters and Charlie Rose having an animated discussion I was too nervous to eavesdrop on and asked the person at the espresso machine for a cappuccino.
I did not even really know what a cappuccino WAS. This was 1994, nearly two decades before any “third wave” coffee bars would appear in NYC and I was not yet any kind of coffee drinker. All this hoity toity European-sounding stuff was far above my pay grade. If I needed caffeine it was usually going to come from coca-cola.
This small paper cup filled with brown liquid and bunch of thick dry milk foam was… kind of delicious. And in my nervousness I was sipping it fast, leaving only some dregs in the bottom of the cup so it could still serve as my necessary accessory. Not only did this coffee thing taste unexpectedly good, but I was awash in wide-eyed euphoria and, yes, surrounded by supermodels. Monumentally surreal.
As a souvenir I ended up leaving with Helena’s black Ralph Lauren terrycloth bathrobe (every model’s station had one) which I’ve since worn to many parties, half a dozen Burning Mans, and a police riot. I still wear it. I’m convinced it has magical properties.
I also ended up with that all access pass, which became the template on which dozens of additional counterfeit backstage passes for the remaining Fall shows (and the next round of Spring shows) were born. My miscreant friends and I became mysterious fixtures darting around for a bunch of shows. So many that people probably just assumed we belonged. Plenty of free champagne, but never did see another espresso machine.
I came to regard this cappuccino discovery like a powerful and dangerous drug that I must surely keep at arms length, to be called upon again only in dire emergencies. Too potent and compelling for me to be causal about. I didn’t yet realize that coffee was going to end up as my destiny.
Years later I’d find myself at Burning Man where late one night (wearing that magic robe), seeking a stimulant that could keep me up long enough to make more moon eyes with my latest crush, I hit the center camp’s cafe . That cup of drip coffee did me right, made the night, and became the first in an unbroken streak of daily cups I’ve held since, 22 years and counting
@Tonx co-founded Yes Plz and wants to send you a bag of beautiful, fresh roasted beans.