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Personal: On Fashion and the NYT Article on "Becoming One of the 'Relevant'"

Honestly, I cannot believe the drivel that gets published sometimes, even in The New York Times. I understand that fashion is a business, and that it changes, and that there are therefore inevitably significant business interests tied up and investing in driving those changes forward. But it seems kind of horrible to me – a tragedy, even – if someone is stuck in the belief that fashion matters as some sort of end in itself. So this article about the insights of a young fashion guru, and all the attention being heaped upon her insights, turns into a sad, ironic commentary on the importance of appearance for the immature. Rather than getting to grow up and into the real insight that being a teenager can just plain suck rocks, and that you get to grow out of it, this is the story of a girl who in "rebelling against her unpopularity" in high school by becoming what she and others imagine to be a leading fashion "maverick" has instead married herself into the cycle of judging and being judged by clothes and appearances, rather than transcending that worry.

I can remember the pain and embarrassment of being fifteen, of not having any particular fashion sense, and of being poor: of the reactions I was getting (no doubt much amplified in my imagination) at the regional Illinois Musical Educators Association festival as I changed into my dress clothes for the concert. I was wearing a dark blue velour sweater that was Just Not 'In' in the mid-1980s, and I remember beginning to writhe inside in the knowledge that I'd made a poor choice, which was confirmed for me when an older guy in my school choir tried to help by complementing the sweater. I'm not discounting such pain, but neither do I want to institutionalize it. And, consciously or unconsciously, I began to move past it. In college, I took only enough notice of fashion to play with it, enjoying the humor of wearing wildly clashing clothes, or of the contrasting effect of wearing a bow tie and jacket with my shoulder-length hair.

The final lesson really came the summer I spent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, as I was shopping in the amazingly alternative shops on State Street, enjoying the look of some of the cool clothes that appealed to my tastes which were then largely driven by my love for the current alternative music scene. I suddenly realized that these "alternative" clothes – whether newly manufactured according to "alternative" tastes, vintage, or artfully altered for alternative effect – wear just another fashion: as cliquey and effectively judgmental as the clothes that might be marketed to the preppy, entitled crowd that we alternative folk imagined we were being alternative to. I bowed out of the fashion world by then setting off what increasingly in retrospect looks like a fashion domestic terrorism strike by deciding that my Uncle Johnny's old jazz musician goatee from the 1960s looked kind of cool, and growing one myself, thus starting a national fashion wave that spread from alternative Madison to the rest of America, and for which I'm becoming more apologetic as the years go on.

And that was the end of thinking that fashion really mattered. I realized that spending inflated prices for State Street alternative clothes didn't make me any different than spending inflated prices at whatever store was popular at the suburban mall. I had a good laugh at myself for having fallen into a different version of the same thinking, and became content to not be naked and to enjoy whatever currently inoffensive clothing Mom had bought me for my birthday from Sears. That's not to say that I don't enjoy wearing a good-looking suit, or some cool, casual shirt. Of course not. Everyone likes looking their best. But being so invested in fashion in the manner of the poor girl in this piece from the NYT? That's just taking teenage misery, shallowness, and judgmentalism and institutionalizing it. Maybe the 1980s, with all of its fashion loopiness (I swear the oversized clothes of the 80s did a real number on me, and that I only figured out how to find clothes that fit after the millennium), still has a bit of wisdom to impart: I think the computer, "Joshua," from War Games got it right. Like with "Global Thermonuclear Warfare," the game of triumphing over others by fashion is a personal, moral and spiritual dead end. The only way to win is not to play the game.
Up Close
Becoming One of the ‘Relevant’

By CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN for The New York Times
Published: July 6, 2011

ON a recent Friday night, Bebe Zeva, a teenage fashion blogger, journalist and model based in Las Vegas, was dining at the restaurant Lodge in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a group of 20-something contributors to the online magazine Thought Catalog.

“I like to concentrate on the cuteness of what I’m eating,” Ms. Zeva said. She had switched from coconut and almond vegan ice cream to a skirt steak. In a black minidress, black stockings, a sheer black and navy metallic robe and a floppy black hat, with dozens of long silver and gold chains slung from her neck, she looked like a brunette Stevie Nicks in miniature.

“Don’t leave the house unless you look like you’re going to a funeral,” was Ms. Zeva’s style rule for the weekend, which she was spending in the company of Leigh Alexander, a video-gaming journalist. Ms. Zeva calls this style Cyber Goth.

When someone at the table asked Ms. Zeva her age (she recently turned 18), the novelist and poet Tao Lin said: “She looks a lot more like 12 to me. But she seems like a genius.”

Ms. Zeva was in town for the premiere screening of “Bebe Zeva,” a feature-length video produced by Mr. Lin and Megan Boyle, who are selling it through their Web site, mdmafilms.org. (It was also screened this spring in Houston.)

In January Ms. Zeva appeared in Seventeen magazine, dispensing style advice. Later she was named a judge at the WWD Magic trade show, which will be held in her hometown in August. On April 1, Elle’s blog asked, “Is Bebe the new Tavi?” referring to Tavi Gevinson, the 15-year-old who became a New York Fashion Week staple after starting a blog at age 11 from her home in Illinois. Mr. Lin helped cast Ms. Zeva as Audrey, an ingénue, in a planned film adaptation of his novel “Shoplifting From American Apparel.”

All of this has come naturally to Ms. Zeva, who discusses the contours of her “career” with an endearing nonchalance. She was born in 1993 in Miami Beach. “Bebe” was a nickname she earned when her sister, Rachel, wasn’t able to pronounce her real name, which she does not reveal publicly. “Zeva” derives from a Hebrew word that means “she-wolf,” and she adopted it as a screen name at her mother’s insistence that she not use her real name upon joining MySpace. (While Ms. Zeva does not use her birth name publicly, she said she intends to legally change her name to Bebe Zeva in the near future.)

With her mother and sister she moved to Springfield, Mass., when she was 6 years old. They stayed for five years, then moved to St. Louis for a year before coming to Las Vegas, where she now lives in a high-rise condo on the Strip.

Ms. Zeva’s evolving sense of chic sprang from a period of alienation she suffered during high school, where she found herself surrounded by peers she terms “lifers” — those whose lives are defined by “God, softball and the suburbs.”

“I wore flared jeans and tight-fitting crewneck T-shirts from the likes of Hollister and Abercrombie up until my second semester of freshman year,” Ms. Zeva wrote in an e-mail after the night at Lodge, “when I made the conscious decision to pursue the hipster lifestyle.”

It was around this time, Ms. Zeva recalled, that she went through a period of “relentlessly” Googling the word “hipster.” On the Web, she discovered the party photographer Mark, the Cobra Snake, and the blog Hipster Runoff, whose author goes by the name Carles. Both men have since become mentors of a sort.

Ms. Zeva’s first taste of Internet fame came as a T-shirt model for Hipster Runoff. “I owe him my career,” she said without irony of Carles, with whom she began a correspondence over MySpace, after her mother gave her blessing. The blog would go on to dub Ms. Zeva an “alternative it-girl.”

But her growing Internet fame did not translate into popularity at school. “I was rejected by the ‘alternative crowd’ at school, or so I assumed by their collective refusal to make eye contact with me, so I chose to become a neo-hippie instead,” she wrote. “I wore ankle-length skirts, horizontal headbands, bundles of necklaces, and no shoes. I carried books by Abbie Hoffman as props.”

In the summer of 2008, she switched to neon V-necks, colored tights, skinny jeans and metallic headbands. Life among the “lifers” soon brought on what Ms. Zeva terms “a severe case of depression,” during which she “wore the same Sarah Lawrence hoodie with a pair of dark-wash Abercrombie & Fitch skinny jeans and Target moccasins” for months.

She made her final break from suburban conformity and the “lifers” by transferring to Virtual High School online. She created a profile on Lookbook.nu, a user-generated fashion photography site, which — along with her blog, Fated to Be Hated, the title a reference to her unpopularity in high school and among some blog commenters who have accused her of betraying the hipster aesthetic to “go mainstream” — brought her to the attention of magazines like Seventeen and Elle, and convinced Mr. Lin and Ms. Boyle that she might be a worthy subject for their documentary.

Ms. Zeva’s and Mr. Lin’s first contact came in October 2009, when Ms. Zeva, who had been reading and enjoying “Shoplifting From American Apparel,” purchased an instant-message session with the novelist on eBay.

“What are your ambitions in life?” Mr. Lin asked during the exchange that followed.

“I think my ambitions involve ‘proving a lot of people wrong’ and being ‘extremely relevant’ and ‘well known,’ ” Ms. Zeva wrote.

Fame remains central to Ms. Zeva’s ambitions. She hopes to pursue a career in “fashion, journalism and sociology.” In the fall, she will enroll for a semester at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but she hopes to transfer shortly to Pratt Institute, Parsons, the Fashion Institute of Technology or New York University.

“I’m leaving my heart here and coming back to retrieve it later,” she said at Lodge.

After the meal, the diners were choosing between two parties to attend, one given by Ms. Alexander’s musician friends in Bushwick and another at the offices of Verso Books, in Dumbo, to which Mr. Lin had been invited.

“Which party will have the more relevant people?” Ms. Zeva asked.

“Verso publishes Slavoj Zizek,” Mr. Lin said.

Ms. Zeva is an admirer of the Slovenian philosopher. “Will he be there?” she asked.

“Probably not,” Mr. Lin said.

The crowd hailed cabs and went to Bushwick. They finished the night at Ms. Alexander’s apartment nearby.

On Sunday, the day of the premiere of “Bebe Zeva,” Ms. Zeva was seated at Gimme! Coffee, on Lorimer Street in Brooklyn, where “Kids” by the group MGMT was playing over the speakers, to Ms. Zeva’s displeasure. “I would expect to hear this in the suburbs, but not in Brooklyn,” she said.

From there she walked over the Williamsburg Bridge to Soho House in the meatpacking district.

On the way, she discussed the unavoidability of cliché in style. “Nobody can help being a cliché,” she said. “I started out as one cliché, preppy, and since then I’ve cycled through a series of other clichés. Now I’m trying to create a new cliché for the next generation to imitate.”

She was dressed in a Cyber Goth outfit identical to the one she had been wearing Friday night. She caught her robe once on a traffic cone that was blocking off a pothole. At Papaya Dog, on Sixth Avenue in the West Village, she bought chicken wings to take to the premiere.

“Walking into the premiere eating wings is perfect for my personal brand,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in print on July 7, 2011, on page E2 of the New York edition with the headline: Becoming One Of the ‘Relevant’.
Tags: beauty, economic, funny, high school, new york times, niu, philosophical, psychological
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