Sean Baker, the NYU-trained writer-director celebrated for indie films about people on the margins of American society (Tangerine, The Florida Project), has shifted to a new far-left political move. His latest film, Khaite FW21, showcases the Fall/Winter 2021 Collection of designer Catherine Holstein’s Khaite fashion brand. Livelier and even more facetious than Baker’s feature-length films, this short celebrates the COVID social transformation that’s made America entirely marginal.
Jokingly publicized as Baker’s “all new epic film,” Khaite FW21 is a series of cinematic scraps — a continuous montage of models strutting the streets, swanning through “subterranean corridors . . . collapsing past and present to evoke a city defined by extremes — perilous yet alluring, raw yet resilient.” Baker and a gang of models reenact New York’s bad-old-days — the crime and graffiti-ridden 1970s — that look just like the city’s COVID present. Baker’s brief credit sequence imitates Walter Hill’s 1979 street-gang classic The Warriors: fake nostalgia, fake news.
The fashion industry often depends on perception and prescience. Khaite FW21 cunningly (accidentally?) depicts national urban suffering and self-loathing that the mainstream corporate media, always promoting political mandates, gussies up as “news.” The models’ tough-gal, aggressive postures, meant to be chic and entertaining, seem bizarre considering that contemporary New Yorkers have knuckled under arbitrary tyrannical mandates.
With The Warriors title font, Baker invokes Walter Hill’s colorful, kinetic analogy that connected modern, downwardly-mobile urban youth to the desperate societal objectives of Xenophon’s Anabasis, written in 370 b.c. Baker then switches to “New York Groove,” a ’70s hit by KISS, to serenade COVID realities, though the former go-getter groove has been destroyed by local and state policies and violent anarchists. Baker, Holstein, and model girls try to turn ruinous signs of anarchy (blasted store fronts, empty streets, wanton destruction) into punk style. (Instead of KISS, Baker might better have used the 1973 prêt-a-porter hit “Living for the City,” by Stevie Wonder, an audio-cinematic narrative about police brutality and urban anomie that is ready-made for Black Lives Matter exploitation. But fashionistas don’t go deep into R&B except to imitate Beyoncé’s baseball-bat-wielding feminism in the “Hold Up” video for Lemonade.)
Baker was commissioned to make Khaite FW21 for this year’s Fashion Week, which was held virtually, yet his film falsifies reality as much as old Hollywood backlot street scenes imitating NYC did. Baker’s runway conceit reveals the haut-bourgeois attitude that separates the classes in New York and throughout COVID America. (Manhattanites annually suffered an oppressive motorcade of limousines bearing press, designers, and models during we-versus-you Fashion Week.) Only the rich can afford this urban pretense. Baker perversely goes back to the filthy, gritty 1970s in order to promote acceptance of the wreckage that has befallen an America where the economy has tanked, small businesses are decimated, and rioters rule.
Khaite FW21 displays the fashion elite’s blasé attitude toward corrosive political reality. It congratulates haut-Hollywood’s steady employment and wealth, where “urban” essentially means “pied-à-terre.” Making a fashion show of privilege has become Hollywood’s new means of messaging. Last week’s virtual Golden Globes telecast presented its own fashion show where the Hollywood Foreign Press Association ordered that all celebrities dress up for their remote Brady Bunch–style screen appearances. In-studio celebs from Jamie Lee Curtis to Jane Fonda to Bryce Dallas Howard put on the dog as if red carpet life was back to normal — and don’t you wish you had one?
Our social demarcations are now clearer than ever. We endure the world of celebrity elites where designers and performers reign, where Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey are besties and John Legend and Chrissy Teigen audition to be the new Barry and Michelle. You’re left outside of their circle, worshipping petty media royalty because that’s the only kind that’s left.
Sean Baker is paid to pay tribute to this new aristocracy. So the same filmmaker whose breakthrough was the homeless transsexual exploitation film Tangerine, followed by the public-assistance tale The Florida Project, where the welfare system was juxtaposed to Disney World, now takes residence among the enviable affluent. But Baker hasn’t switched allegiances. “Haunts of the Rich, Famous, and Resentful” is Baker’s new demimonde.
Lady Gaga witchily droned, “We’re all in the shallows now.” Fact is, we’re all in the margins now. After the fashion industry disgraced itself by banishing Melania Trump, this latest debauch comes as no surprise. Khaite FW21 disproves the deceptive COVID slogan “We’re going through this together,” which actually only means: We’re going through this simultaneously.