Chasing Fashion’s Cutting Edge

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Chasing Fashion’s Cutting Edge

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Dustin Pittman’s gaze roamed the bustling back office of Century 21 on Cortlandt Street, where Kim Shui was prepping her fashion show. In an instant, he found his mark. She was China Lee, who would be modeling one of the giddily mismatched plaids and brocades Ms. Shui planned to unveil a couple of floors below.

Moments later, Mr. Pittman was hustling Ms. Lee into a nearby restroom, propping her against a suitably uncluttered wall and, camera raised, sweet-talking her into a series of poses, some coy, others as steamy as a night in Belize.

“I want a little bit more you, not model-y,” he said. “Kind of play with the dreads. Look at me, intense — that’s nice, fire in the eyes, that’s it, that’s it.”

Ms. Lee complied, tossing her braids this way and that. In a scant five minutes, Mr. Pittman had what he’d come for. “She lost the veneer,” he said. “Now you can see who she is.”

If he’s brash, even a little over the top, well, that’s a privilege he has earned. Mr. Pittman has forged a career of stalking the weird, the bold and the sublime in dimly lighted basements, galleries and stray pockets of Manhattan’s after-hours life. A veteran of publications including Women’s Wear Daily and W, and various Condé Nast magazines, he has been photographing the intersecting worlds of fashion, music and art since the late 1960s.

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His Instagram feed, @dustinpop, some 30,000 followers strong, contains nothing less than a capsule history of New York fashion and night life. Among its cast of characters are Velvet Underground stars and Warhol divas; fashion legends including Betsey Johnson, Stephen Sprouse, Tina Chow and Marc Jacobs — the latter long before he was a marquee name; concert idols in the making, including David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Iggy Pop; and louche habitués of the fabled nighttime haunts Area and the Mudd Club.

Mr. Pittman updates that catalog regularly with fresh party shots and images of designers poised somewhere near the edge of fame.

Nimble, wiry and quick to pounce, Mr. Pittman, wearing a Ramones denim jacket, was bent as usual last week on unearthing the kind of “downtown” talent that hovers just below the radar. Yes, there is still is a downtown, he is apt to insist — so what if a string of patently commercial shows would seem to argue otherwise. There is plenty of creativity to be mined.

His mission remains what it always was. “I’m old school,” he said, more than once. “I want to get back to the roots of things.”

A dozen years ago, well before the fashion pack anointed them, he staked out renegades like Rio Uribe of Gypsy Sport, Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air and Telfar Clemens of Telfar, getting to know the designers and the casting agents who helped put them on the map.

“I watched these guys grow up,” Mr. Pittman said. “They were all about breaking boundaries. They were casting with diversity, working with models no one else would touch. I gravitated toward that. I stuck with them.”

And they stuck with him. “You trust his instincts,” said Ms. Shui, who studied at Parsons and Central Saint Martins in London. She was confident that Mr. Pittman would capture her intention. It was, as she explained, “to explore the fine line between accident and plan.” Her designs, spliced, sashed and knotted every which way, are shape shifters, she said.

All enthusiasm, Mr. Pittman chimed in: “You can’t wear them the same way twice.”

The next day, twitchy as a dowsing rod, he followed his vibrations to the Bridget Donahue gallery on the Bowery, where Raffaella Hanley, the designer behind Lou Dallas, was applying last-minute flourishes to her fairy-tale-like collection.

“Raffaella stokes my imagination,” Mr. Pittman said. “She’s an original from the roots.” With a nod toward the rear of the gallery, where seamstresses were still tugging at the fabrics, executing Ms. Hanley’s 11th-hour instructions, he added: “Raffaella is hands-on. I love that.”

With its hand-dyed fabrics in a palette of mostly yellow and lime, the collection had a whimsical aura. “I wanted to create a cinematic experience,” Ms. Hanley said. “I thought about a field of sunflowers with a castle in the background.”

For Mr. Pittman, the behind-the-scenes ambience alone was inspiring. “You feel a sense of community with the models and the people who work with the designer,” he said. “There’s not the frenetic craziness you find in so many places.”

Not that he is put off by more riotous or raunchy scenes. Another evening found him at Maison the Faux, the collection by the Dutch designers Joris Suk and Tessa de Boer, a crazy quilt of fabric and pattern.

“We think it reflects a cut-and-paste culture,” Ms. de Boer said of the largely conceptual, gender-bending show of chaps, laced bondage-style; clashing tweeds; and fake Mongolian lamb sweatshirts worn over fishnets and little else.

Similar themes filtered into the denim-based Hardeman presentation at the Chinatown Soup, a gallery on Orchard Street, inspired by American biker culture. Mr. Pittman was snapping away as one model posed gamely in jeans that exposed his backside. The show, an installation really, was risqué. But for Sophie Hardeman, the designer of the label and a native of Amsterdam, it was all meant in fun.

“You see pregnant women and older men, girls who are girlie and girls who are boys,” she said. “All of them having a jolly good time.”

Dauntless, Mr. Pittman set off later that week in pursuit of Vaquera, a design team of four who are confectioners of the absurd. Their collection — tweaked, twisted and blown up to outlandish proportions — was highlighted by a terry cloth bathrobe reworked as a voluminous evening dress, a flower-patterned minidress gift wrapped with a giant bow; and a billowing dress shirt, sleeves trailing nearly to the floor.

In its way the show expressed an American identity crisis, said Claire Sully, one of its designers.

Mr. Pittman wound down a week of wildly off-center shows with a backstage visit at Helmut Lang, where Shayne Oliver presented a capsule collection, his first for the label, a kink-imbued parade of bondage pants, burly coats and winking Leather Man references.

For Mr. Pittman, this occasion, more than most, was worth celebrating. “I was with Shayne from the start,” he said, a little wistful. “He was one of my babies. Look at him now.”

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