Jan 19, 2012 – 7:15 AM ET | Last Updated: Jan 18, 2012 4:57 PM ET
Models present creations at the Derek Lam Fall/Winter 2011 collection during New York Fashion Week February 13, 2011.
In Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant,Women’s Wear Daily calls its young protagonist’s first collection of see-through burkas and pasties “a Bildungsroman.” I write about fashion and I don’t even know what they mean, and that’s the point.
The speaking in riddles worthy of Lewis Carroll, interludes with fashion’sJabberwocky of nonsense words and tautologies (“I thought a political message in the collection would be appropriate since we’re living in such a political time with the war on terror and everything”) are how Gilvarry blends his serious commentary with satire. He recounts the tale of a 25-year-old aspiring fashion designer from Manila who arrives in post-9/11 New York like a fame-seeking missile, but ends up in solitary confinement awaiting trial, extradition — or worse.
A faux “Acknowledgements” section sets up the conceit, introducing the first-person novel that follows as the confession of one Boyet R. Hernandez, written from June to November 2006. Boy thanks his fashion publicist Ben Laden (“no relation”) and a handful of designer superstars — “Coco, Yves, Karl” — the first-name basis coyly implying intimate acquaintance. My first chuckle came not from this self-aggrandizement so typical of fashion-speak, however, but from the model-friends our hero later thanks, the litany of Olyas, Anyas, Dashas and Irinas that have lately sprung from Eastern Europe to dominate international runways.
From its first pages, From the Memoirs of Non-Enemy Combatant reminded me ofFabulous Nobodies, a gorgeously barbed satire of the downtown New York fashion scene in the late 1980s for which I have a lot of affection. Boy’s Holy Grail is his own label hanging at Barneys — a fame he believes can be attained if he could just stage his own runway show at Fashion Week in Bryant Park.
At the beginning of the novel, Boy is typically wide-eyed. “New York’s subway system is a rubber band of sexual tension, stretched and twined around the boroughs, ready to snap,” he recalls, before enumerating the denizens who orbit the micro-world of the various L stops.
What follows is less a confession than a retrospective declaration of innocence, and some things Gilvarry gets just right — such as the ease with which a persistent, vaguely promising designer who has yet to deliver a finished collection can, with the right connections, worm his way into a fashion magazine profile. Gilvarry chose an interesting time in U.S. policy but also in fashion because that’s when the slow revitalization of Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear began, as did the scrum to be the “next big thing” and the rise of Asian-American designers such as Derek Lam, Alexander Wang, Doo-Ri Chung and Jason Wu.
Although Gilvarry name-drops real fashion people and places, it’s not quite a roman à clef. In some parts there seem to be just surface understanding of what’s involved in designing and sewing, perhaps a result of too much Project Runway viewing.
And yet some of the satirical elements are so spot-on — such as Boy’s frenemy, the fellow wunderkind Filipino designer behind a label called Philip Tang 2.0. Other knowing winks of composite characters skewer personalities that only industry insiders would recognize, such as the sex-mad creative director at Barneys.
If it’s not exactly Louis Auchincloss, the novel hits several snide bull’s eyes about the vapidity and morality of fashion — until the Gitmo stuff pokes in, that is. The confession is written while Boy is incarcerated by the U.S. government in a location that strongly evokes Guantanamo Bay, after what he dubs the “Overwhelming Event.”
One night, agents break down Boy’s door and he is hooded, drugged and taken into custody, detained for months without due process as a fashion terrorist. Authorities insist that Boy and Ahmed, his dubious backing investor, were involved in arms deal with Somalis.
With this turn of events, the novel’s tone changes from a fashion industry Candide to experiences in solitary confinement and is less subtle. A plum opportunity to bring the two disparate points together is missed, too — that Coco Chanel was involved with a Nazi officer in occupied France and certainly facilitated certain covert events, a fact long believed and that a historian substantiated with documents last year, is deserving only more than a footnote. It’s one of the many annotations throughout Boy’s confession that elaborate and clarify on the facts he presents, clearly in hindsight, and reduce him to an unreliable narrator.