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The Official Page of The Fashion Law.

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    Anyone who regularly reads what we at TFL have to say about fast fashion retailers has heard our pleas to withhold your support. These are stores that capitalize on the hard work of others, give you lesser quality, and put human lives at risk all in the name of a low price tag. At the risk of being repetitive, and with fashion week quickly approaching, the need to once again make our plea is of paramount importance.

    image courtesy of

    We are steadfast in our disdain for fast fashion retailers. But we do, however, recognize that there is now a need among us for fashion that’s fast. What we mean is that people want instant access to what’s coming down the runways, whether they’ve been given a coveted spot in the front row or not. And designers and fashion editors have obliged us with steaming coverage and up-to-the-second photos. What was once an experience reserved only for fashion’s elite is now something available, in some form or other, to us all. 

    For the time being, though, the ability to purchase still hasn’t caught up with the insatiable need to have what we want in our hands now. (The closest thing is Moda Operandi, the e-commerce site that offers trunk shows weeks after the looks hit the runway). Which means that there is still a window of opportunity for fast fashion retailers to observe the trends as defined by the runway, utilize sweatshops to create copies of the cheapest materials available, and put them in a store much sooner than the designer meticulously creating each original. Although some designers are bridging this gap by offering designs seemingly right off the runway (think: Rebecca Minkoff), the instant ability to purchase the designs you covet remains the exception to the rule.

    Honestly, if it means sacrificing quality in the name of expeditiousness, we’d prefer to wait. And this isn’t an empty statement, either. In fact, some of our favorite Fall 2013 designs have yet to be made available for purchase, leaving us patiently twiddling our thumbs. It has been a long and, at times, trying interval, especially when terrible copies litter H&M and Forever 21 windows, as well as Nasty Gal's virtual windows. But we will wait, as we have in seasons past and will in the future.

    Only days separate us from the latest in fashion and our request, as designers pour the last of what they have to give into their Spring 2014 collections, is that you join us in being patient. 

    Jennifer Williams is a recent law student grad, who writes about fashion, the legal avenues available for protecting it, and the ways in which the laws are falling short. For more from Jennifer, visit her blog, StartFashionPause, or follow her on Twitter.

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  • 08/27/13--17:19: Happy Birthday, Mr. Ford
  • In honor of Tom Ford's birthday, here is a look at some of our favorite Tom Ford ad campaigns (because in our opinion, he is easily one of the best brand builders of our time and his ads continue to go unmatched) ... 

    all images courtesy of tfs, tom ford

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    This is not Urban Outfitters' week. First the fashion retailer lost in a lawsuit against one of its insurance companies (and as a result, will have to pay its own legal bills stemming from the controversial Navajo related items), and now, its been slapped with a lawsuit. Causin Drama Inc and 54 Reckless LLC have filed suit against the retailer, claiming Urban Outfitters is violating its federally registered trademark, "Young & Reckless". According to the complaint, which was filed in a Los Angeles federal court on Monday, the plaintiffs own a brand (and the related IP rights) called Young & Reckless, which was founded in 2009 by skateboard pro, Chris "Drama" Pfaff. They further allege that Young & Reckless has been featured on "nearly every episode of MTV's reality television series 'Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory' since the premier of its second season" in 2009, and as a result, the Young & Reckless mark "has acquired distinctiveness and acts as a source identifier for the products produced by Plaintiffs." They also assert that Young & Reckless wares are sold at over 4,000 stores in the U.S. and in 50 other countries. 

    Young & Reckless' founder (left) & Urban Outifitters' t-shirt (right)

    Young & Reckless claims that Urban Outfitters has "deliberately," and with the intent to confuse consumers, sold garments bearing the Young & Reckless trademark. The company is suing Urban for trademark infringement, false designations of origin, trademark dilution, common law trademark infringement, and unfair competition under California state and common law (they claim Urbans' conduct is "extreme, outrageous, fraudulent, and was inflicted in reckless disregard of [their] rights"). And what are the Plaintiffs asking for? Well, injunctive relief, and a recall of all merchandise at issue and delivery to the plaintiffs so they can destroy it. They also want money, in the form of: all profits that Urban made from the sale of merchandise bearing the Young & Reckless trademark, punitive damages, etc. More to come ... maybe. 

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    In the first warm flush of a somber Parisian summer, Hedi Slimane, the creative director at the house of Saint Laurent, stands in a bunker-like studio at the Grand Palais and watches a familiar process start anew. It is the final evening of men’s Fashion Week, and Slimane, who may be the most scrutinized and controversial designer working today, is preparing to unveil his spring 2014 men’s collection. Few could keep cool under the pressure: Slimane’s previous Paris shows have been alternately called “genius” and “disrespectful,” and each season brings the hope that he will top what came before. Yet tonight he’s surprisingly, almost impossibly, calm. He wanders through the room with his hands in his pockets, making shy conversation with his friends backstage. He asks some bystanders about their recent travel. While hairdressers circulate with combs and makeup artists fuss with brushes, Slimane casts his eyes through the hall with the interest of a dispassionate observer. “I set it up before,” he explains; now the machine just has to be put into motion. Men’s fashion is his native element, and, unlike the strict, formally demanding women’s shows, it welcomes some swerves from the runway norms. “It’s more of an open field,” he says, rocking slowly from one hip to the other, his only hint of nervous energy. “The questions of ‘What is beauty? What is luxury?’—you can challenge those ideas without it being a big issue.”

    The scene backstage straddles two continents and several worlds. Slimane pauses to talk with the young French actor Pierre Niney, who’s been filming a biopic about Yves Saint Laurent with the director Jalil Lespert. Then he speaks with his models—or “boys,” as they’re known in the business—most of whom aren’t models at all. When he’s in L.A., where he spends most of his time, Slimane recruits in the wild, like a Hollywood talent scout, looking for young men who have the slender Slimane proportions and, even more important, a certain nonchalance of manner. He likes musicians because they know how to move onstage. When Slimane first approached the twins Fletcher and Wyatt Shears [pictured below], who have a band in L.A. called the Garden, they were confused. “We didn’t even know what Saint Laurent was at the time,” Fletch tells me. But he had a habit of wearing red lipstick onstage (it’s his thing), and Slimane loved that distinctive touch. “We’re like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” They Googled. Then they flew across the pond. This summer’s show was the second they have modeled for. 

    Slimane has bright-blue eyes and a thin aquiline nose, suggestive of Mozart in the famous late-life portrait by Joseph Lange. He wears his chestnut-colored hair with a modest degree of shagginess, parted on the side and sweeping down over his forehead. He’s polite to the point of solicitousness. “Did you take some Coca-Cola?” he inquires of one of the boys shortly before the show begins.

    “Not yet.” 

    “You should keep your sugar up.”

    At 7:50 p.m., there is a signal, and the boys move briskly to the racks, where they strip down to black Saint Laurent trunks. Clustering around them are the lovely, long-haired young women of Saint Laurent, dressed uniformly but unidentically; the women are tying ties, pulling cuffs under sleeves, knotting bandannas. “Can you head over there?” someone calls to the boys in English. They line up, and the crew steps back, hands on chins, knuckles on lips, assessing their handiwork like parents sending their kids off to prom. 

    Outside, in the hall of the Grand Palais, I find my assigned seat in the front, near the foot of the runway, not between two fashion doyennes but between the French electronica star Nicolas Godin, of Air, and Dean Spunt, from the experimental L.A. punk group No Age. (The latter created sound installations for Slimane’s “California Song” exhibition at the MOCA Pacific Design Center, in 2011.) The hall is lit crosswise with gentle fuchsia light. It centers on a towering, angular arch with a reflective metallic surface which Slimane designed himself. 

    The room goes dark. Music by the Bay Area rocker Sam Flax throbs over the sound system, loud and steely and unexpectedly clublike in the vaulted room. (Slimane brings in his own sound managers, from music festivals.) Metal columns on the edges of the runway begin telescoping upward—an idea that Slimane had one day while watching the radio antenna on his Rolls-Royce rise. Soon they mark the runway edges like palms on North Beverly Drive. At the top of each antenna is a light panel, sparkling and roiling in coordinated patterns. Then a boy appears, seemingly conjured by the music, wearing the first pieces of the collection. A young Frenchwoman nearby drops her jaw with wild delight—and stays that way, gaping, for a long time.

    In the past few years, Slimane’s work has transfixed many observers of the fashion world. Recall the “skinny suit,” which seemed to define the trajectory of men’s—and women’s—silhouettes in the new millennium? It was, by most accounts, Slimane’s invention. You know the cover of Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, framing the singer in an angular blonde bob—perhaps the most recognizable album art of the decade? Slimane took that photograph and designed the cover. Remember the “faux hawk”? That distinctive pyramid of hair, madly popular in the 2000s and still proudly worn by untold numbers of British men, is attributed to Slimane as well. (His own coif has clearly moved on.) The list continues. These days, Slimane maintains a large Twitter following and a highly regarded photography site, on which he features his unorthodox fashion shots and documents his rock-inflected L.A. life with images of concerts and rodeos and surfers on the California coast. The invitation to his show was a smartly bound book of colorful abstract prints by the American artist Matt Connors. Slimane seems to take fashion not as an end point but as an access point for general creativity. 

    Not everyone appreciates his approach. Although he has been called “the single most influential men’s designer this century,” criticism has nagged at him almost since the start. At Dior, his forms were said to favor “manorexia.” When he left Dior in 2007—and seemingly the fashion industry as well—to work on photography, that was seen as controversial, too. Since he took the helm of Yves Saint Laurent in March 2012, nearly every decision he’s made has been subject to intense debate. “The disconnect with the Saint Laurent customer seemed at times alarmingly wide,” one journalist wrote after his second show, which was heavily inspired by the age of Nirvana. “In California, where Slimane lives and to where he has moved the design studio, nineties grunge is a deeply felt part of everyday folklore; but in Paris, it is an abstract concept.”

    Perhaps most contentious have been the changes he’s brought to the tone of Saint Laurent, a house that in recent years has embodied soigné elegance and Right Bank luxe. Under Tom Ford, who took over Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear collections in 2000, it had a svelte, slinky reverence; Stefano Pilati, who assumed the role in 2004 and led the house till last year, offered an intellectualized approach with a couture polish. Slimane’s hiring left all that behind.

    There was, for example, his choice to set up a studio in Los Angeles, where he was living—a move that some saw as a rebuff to the ascendancy of French design. Then there was the name: Slimane redubbed the house Saint Laurent Paris, rendered in a clean Helvetica-like typeface, and required everyone who referenced the brand to do the same. Finally, there is the fashion itself. His first women’s collection—his first expressly designed for women—for spring 2013 reached back to late-sixties, early-seventies L.A., with broad-brimmed Janis Joplin–style hats, fringed suede, billowing chiffon sleeves, cropped jackets, and skinny black trousers. To promote his grunge second collection for fall 2013—his knowing take on plaid shirts, baby-doll dresses, men’s overcoats, fishnets, and slouchy sweaters—he launched something called the Saint Laurent Music Project, which featured his black-and-white photos of musicians with vintage allure, such as Kim Gordon, Marilyn Manson, and Courtney Love. With a few dark strokes, the Saint Laurent woman had been reimagined.

    “I was intrigued by what Hedi was doing,” explains Gordon, who first met Slimane one spring at Cannes and found they shared a love for Laurel Canyon style. “He said, ‘Pick out what you would feel comfortable wearing.’ ” Courtney Love couldn’t resist him either. “When Hedi’s collection came out, I was blown away. I was so happy,” she says. “They were such rock clothes. Everything seemed like it was mine.” Even as the moods of his collections change, Slimane’s style is unmistakable, based in precisely tailored garments in an almost photographic black-and-white palette. His aesthetic has been called androgynous, but a more exact term may be ambi-sexual: Like a pair of classic Wayfarer sunglasses, many of his clothes look equally natural on both genders. When women started buying Slimane’s Saint Laurent men’s ankle boots last year, he began selling the same shoes in female sizes. And when he showed resort this summer, he had the men’s spring 2014 collection placed alongside women’s resort 2014, stressing their interchangeability.

    Is this really so different from the work of Yves Saint Laurent—the designer who first taught the world that stylish urban women could look great in a safari jacket or a well-cut tuxedo? Thanks to the efforts of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s longtime lover and professional partner, and Philippe Mugnier (who helped care for the designer in his final years), the life’s work of Yves Saint Laurent is now preserved in an archive of some 5,000 garments, 35,000 accessories, and 55,000 sketches at the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent on Avenue Marceau. A look through this trove indicates what’s frequently forgotten: Saint Laurent, like Slimane, was preternaturally attuned to the street style and eerie cultural echoes of his era. At Dior, where he, too, had an early stint, Saint Laurent designed a rebellious Beatnik-inspired collection; during the riotous Paris summer of 1968—the season when Slimane was born—he channeled the mood of the time with fringed boots and duffle coats. In 1971, the year The Sorrow and the Pity came out, he designed a provocative forties-inspired collection inviting France to contemplate its compromised wartime past. And in 1976, as Russomania engulfed Europe and America alike, Saint Laurent unveiled his famous Russian collection. No wonder Slimane sees his work at the house not as reinvention but as restoration of this original tradition.

    “Yves had great admiration for Hedi,” Bergé told me recently. “In the fashion world, where frivolity is a must, it’s the opposite with Hedi—seriousness, integrity, honesty, and style.” Betty Catroux, the lithe Left Bank model who was Yves Saint Laurent’s close friend and muse, told me she feels more herself in Slimane’s clothes than she ever has. “Hedi saved my life because I don’t feel like a girl and I don’t feel like a boy. Since he’s been there, I’ve felt so good in my skin. He’s made for me,” she said recently in her well-appointed Paris flat, wearing new Saint Laurent head to toe: black tinted glasses, black shirt, black jeans, and polished oxfords. “He feels his times so well. I felt it with Yves, and I feel it with Hedi.” She added, “I’m very intimidated by Hedi. Saint Laurent had the same vices as I had, and you can’t be intimidated by someone who has the same defects. For me, Hedi has no defects. . . . He comes from another planet—the good one.”

    Working without the customary first assistant, Slimane launched a “permanent collection”—a camel trench, a tuxedo-inspired jacket, black and white crepe-de-Chine blouses, a line of classic duffel bags—to serve as a baseline for Saint Laurent’s aesthetic and a standard stock for its stores. Then, with the same hands-on brio, he started personally redesigning all the major Saint Laurent shops, one by one, to capture that sensibility: From New York to Paris to Shanghai, each shop is distinct, but they share a cool, elegant layout and several signature materials, like black-and-white marble and nickel-plated brass.

    According to Slimane, renaming the house Saint Laurent Paris was similarly meant to unify these ready-to-wear operations and to bring them in line with the house’s roots: The shops launched as Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and started going by the designer’s name only in the nineties. Slimane wants to reserve the YSL branding for a potential return of the house’s couture branch, which went dormant in the founder’s final years..

    “We needed someone who understood the brand, who knew what the brand was in the sixties and seventies, but to use that in a very modern, new way,” says François-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering, which owns Saint Laurent. “And I really must say, Hedi is the only one capable of that. His understanding comes with a very strong, very clear vision.” 

    Many of the details on which Slimane spends his time aren’t apparent on the runway. From where I sat at the men’s show, for instance, it was impossible to see amid the uncharacteristic splashes of color—the yellow-and-black striped shirts, the bright-red pants, the pink boots—that an apparently straightforward black jacket was actually made from a black-on-black leopard-print silk: an allusion to one of Yves Saint Laurent’s old patterns. It was not apparent that nearly all of Slimane’s women’s shoes are based on the profiles of two signature YSL models: the Paris, a classic high heel, and the Janis, a platform. Nor was it possible to deduce that the casual-seeming red bandannas around models’ necks were woven from couture-quality cashmere and silk. 

    Slimane does not like many of the fabrics available to designers today—he thinks they’re cheap and generic and don’t sit right—so he often commissions his own, harking back to the specialty weaves of the sixties and seventies. He believes strongly in the “patina” of wear. (For this reason, he never allows a new men’s shoe on the runway.) Many people were aghast, a few months ago, when it was reported that a nineties-inspired baby-doll dress from Slimane’s fall women’s line retailed for $68,000. Few realized that the price was a function of the hundreds of hours of tailoring involved. “What people didn’t see in the grunge was that literally 40 percent of the pieces were handmade in the old atelier,” Slimane says, done to the highest haute-couture standards. Partly, the idea was to remove the sheen of preciousness. But it was also to dignify street style with the craft that old-world techniques can allow. 

    After the men’s show, a line of well-wishers snakes behind the stage to compliment Slimane on his collection. At one point, I trip on the back of the set and nearly pitch headlong into a petite blonde American standing nearby—the singer-songwriter Sky Ferreira, who appeared in Slimane’s pre-fall campaign. “Sky! How are you?” Slimane says. He gestures toward a well-dressed, earnest-looking guy nearby. “Beck, my friend Sky.” Slimane is in a warm mood; he starts talking about John Hughes, the cinematic bard of the eighties teen dramedy and an initial inspiration for the show. “The last time I saw Sixteen Candles, I realized that there was a similar car in it, about the same year, in fact,” he said of his Rolls. A few moments later, No Age, the two-man band, approaches: “Hey, man. Congratulations.”

    Slimane grins, delighted. “This is like a whole California moment,” he says. “We should have come on a chartered plane.”

    The first time Slimane visited Los Angeles, he didn’t like it. But the city grew on him over subsequent visits, and by the late nineties, it was his creative idyll. Many fashion-world observers say a trace of California style started showing up in Slimane’s work during his first collections at Saint Laurent. He suggests this is a case of critics’ reading his biography rather than looking at the clothes. “Most of the Dior collections were designed from Los Angeles,” he says: From those early years, every time he had to start a collection he would head to L.A. Much of what’s thought of as Slimane’s French-period work was conjured in the L.A. landscape. 

    In his youth, Slimane entertained thoughts of becoming a journalist, and he still has a reporter’s eye for cultural news. As a result, he tends to gravitate toward milieus that combine a vibrant avant-garde with layers of history. For a while, in the early 2000s, he was in love with Berlin and would spend the workweek in Paris and most weekends there. But then the city started to get overgentrified and culturally shellacked (too much like Paris, he felt), and the scene faded. 

    Slimane moved to Los Angeles on leaving Dior, ostensibly to focus on his photography, and when he agreed to take the helm at Saint Laurent last year, it was with the clear understanding that he would move his head of operations to the West Coast. Today, he works from a spare, light-filled, unmarked modern building in the flatlands of West Hollywood. There’s a pleasant patio, with picnic tables where affiliated artists often work; inside, the studio is painted pristine white and is largely empty—save a work table, clothing racks, and a magnetic board where he hangs printouts of work in progress and mug shot–like portraits of potential models. L.A. has suited him perfectly, he says. Rather than tiring of the scene, he’s come, over the years, to love it more and more.

    One fragrant night in late spring, Slimane picked me up in his Rolls-Royce for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s opening of Le nozze di Figaro. He did not have a license before moving to L.A., but the Southern California road has recently become one of his greatest pleasures. He is wearing slim black Saint Laurent jeans, a closely tailored jacket (also black), a delicately striped shirt, and round sunglasses from his unisex line. The car is a triple black Rolls-Royce Corniche from the seventies that he’s updated with more modern dashboard equipment and a better stereo. “I don’t like contemporary car design, which I think shows too much the line of the computer,” he explains. 

    The Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills where we go for dinner is nearly empty, and the waitstaff is gathered in a loose ring around our table, eager to see whether Slimane enjoys the steak he’s ordered. (He eats about half.) We talk about what he’s trying to do with the house, the importance for him of photography and music. “It’s an idea of style, of colors, or proportions.” 

    Soon we realize that we’re running late. “I apologize for the speed of it all,” Slimane says. “But this opera. . . .” He leaves his car with the valet—parking is a pain downtown—and we climb into the large black SUV nearby in which Slimane’s driver is waiting. Slimane gazes out the window, at the sidewalk and pedestrians; I ask him what he looks for when he selects models. “Some kind of character,” he says, “rather than extremely pleasant physical beauty, which is not something I’m really interested in.”

    We arrive at Walt Disney Concert Hall with two minutes to spare. Slimane likes opera—he went constantly for a few years, starting when he was nineteen—and Le nozze di Figaro is his second-favorite. (He prefers only Così fan tutte.) And this opening is especially important because his friend the couturier Azzedine Alaïa designed the costumes: stylish and modern. “Look!” Slimane says, pointing to a couple of seats near the front, where Alaïa is sitting. He grins affectionately. “He looks nervous,” he says.

    Slimane lives in a 1961 house designed by the architect Rex Lotery and located in Trousdale Estates, a verdant expanse in northeastern Beverly Hills that once sheltered Ray Charles and Elvis and now houses artists such as Ed Ruscha. Slimane likes the work of Lotery, who is more under-the-radar than many of the iconic L.A. modernists, and whose style, at once casual and precise, seems to share something with his own. 

    Since Slimane bought the house in 2009, he has been working hard to restore it to its original early-sixties condition. He undid some renovations that he found misguided. He furnished the rooms with vintage tables and chairs. (Many are the work of European modernists, whom he’d begun collecting in Paris.) When we arrive, someone—it is not clear who—has started a fire in the home’s walk-around hearth. A few candles, well placed, are flickering on the tables. The whole house has the air of a dream realized, from the lush, big-leafed plants bordering the lawn to the pristine night-light pool to the single-story interior, elegantly leveled (a step up here, a couple of steps down there). We sit down by the fire, and Slimane produces a good red wine, from France, and a little silver cup of imported chocolate, which neither of us eats. He begins explaining why the criticism of his work does not rankle him too much. “It’s hardly a contest of popularity. I defend my ideas. I might be wrong, but I can’t hesitate. It’s not about pleasing,” he says. A singer-songwriter is crooning softly over the stereo. 

    We take a tour of his art collection—an arch term, considering that some of the works are by local artists he considers friends. There’s a black-on-black canvas by Mark Hagen, a Rashid Johnson, a Bruce Conner from the early seventies. As we pass through the rooms, I’m struck by an organizing intelligence so distinct it’s almost palpable. In the living room, art and color-theory books: Jasper Johns, Josef Albers, Joseph Beuys. In the small working studio near the back of the house—Slimane generally designs at home in the morning and then heads into the Saint Laurent office for business midday—pencils and paper on a simple table by the window. Slimane’s music room has a turntable, a neat stack of vintage LPs. (Dylan is on the top.) The bedroom is small and sparsely appointed, with what appears to be a fur bedspread. It is the home of somebody who has the uncanny capacity to shape an aesthetic from every channel through which style can be expressed.

    “I like to pursue organically one single idea. How many styles can you have?” he says. “Singers—there’s a tessitura to each one: The first second you hear the voice. So: How to progress without being repetitive? That’s a question I find very interesting.”

    Slimane grew up in the Buttes Chaumont neighborhood of Paris but used to spend hours in the Louvre, before it got redone. “I wasn’t the most sociable child,” he says wryly. His first great passion was for French history, especially of the eighteenth century. “I was reading history books all the time,” he tells me. Later, he became an equally attentive student of art. His parents, a Tunisian accountant and an Italian seamstress, supported his various fascinations. When he was a teenager, he fell in love with Russian Constructivism, and with the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko in particular—those flat, energetic compositions seemed to redefine, for him, what it was possible to do with color and geometry. As he grew older, he joined the rigorous preparation track for Paris’s elite L’Institut d’Études Politiques, better known as Sciences Po. This was when his focus as a student began failing him. He was eighteen, and he started going out into Paris’s night life. 

    Slimane comes from a family of tailors. In addition to his mother, who taught him to sew, he had a great-uncle, in Italy, whom he never met, and an uncle who were men’s clothiers. When he began going to clubs, he found that no garments he could afford properly fit his skinny frame, and so he started making his own. 

    That simple habit of creation—not a kid’s bedazzlement with a world of glamour and camera flashes—was his entrée to fashion, and it has arguably colored his priorities ever since. “It’s not like, ‘This season I’m going to do rock music and next season something else.’ This is his world,” Emmanuelle Alt, the editor of French Vogue, explains. She and Slimane, roughly the same age, have been close friends since meeting at a dinner party one evening. (“It was a coup de foudre, like with a boyfriend, except friends.”) “He’s very interested in the reality of a scene,” she went on. “Any girl of 20 years old can completely relate.”

    Slimane never made it to Sciences Po. But in the early nineties, after a course of study at the École du Louvre, he landed an apprenticeship with Martin Margiela, and his career as a designer took off quickly from there. In 1996, when he was 28, he visited what was then the headquarters of Yves Saint Laurent, on the Right Bank. (“I was petrified,” he recalls.) Pierre Bergé hired him to direct the men’s ready-to-wear collection; he worked under the house’s founder himself. Four years later, he left YSL to become the creative director of menswear at Dior.

    It was at Dior that Slimane found his signature. It was also where he started connecting with many of the art- and music-world figures who make up his circle. He earned a reputation designing stagewear for such pioneers of stylish androgyny as Mick Jagger and Daft Punk. “That’s one of the reasons Dior Homme was so popular,” Courtney Love says. “First the power lesbians were wearing it. Then chicks like me started collecting it really fiendishly, almost like Prada cigarette pants. I’ll never forget Michael Stipe pulling out this Dior Homme suit when R.E.M. was still together, and he’s like, ‘I just indulged—you have to see this.’ I put it on, and it was so beautiful.” 

    When Slimane left Dior, in 2007, and moved to L.A., he assumed he was leaving fashion permanently. “L.A., it’s much more his world,” Alt says. “Freedom, skateboarders, the beach. If you’re that interested in music, Paris is not the right city for you.” 

    “The first election”—of Obama, in 2008—“was a big part of me moving,” Slimane says over breakfast one morning at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I thought it was a very promising time for America—I’ve always been more interested in politics in the U.S. than in France.” 

    When Slimane returned to Yves Saint Laurent last year, it wasn’t because he wanted to rejoin the fashion world. (He didn’t.) It was because he wanted to rejoin YSL. But he would do it, he decided, not as a Parisian fashion guy but as a California artist. Because he moves increasingly with L.A. rockers, he has a sense of the new vanguard of style. (“Many of the cult figures in men’s fashion were musicians,” he observes.) And because he has one foot in the art world, he’s able to approach style in its purest form: not as a thing to be sold in department stores but as an original art, a process of experimentation with color and materials, focused through his own camera lens. Traditionally, designers are not supposed to look directly at a model or client during a fitting; they study the clothes only in the mirror, a method of stepping away from the material—the way a playwright might watch rehearsals from the back row. (Christian Dior famously used a long wand to gesture during fittings, the better to get farther away still.) Slimane says he thinks of his camera today as a couturier’s mirror. His hope is, ultimately, not so much to invent fashion as to capture life.

    The morning after the men’s runway show, I meet Slimane at the eighteenth-century building where he’s constructing a new Paris studio and atelier for Saint Laurent—part of his plan to return the house’s heart to the Left Bank and revive its couture operation. Slimane loves the building, but he hates the way that it was renovated. For one thing, there are weird floors: modern tile in the main salon, brand-new hardwood everywhere else. For another, the detailing is lousy: There’s embarrassing faux-marbling on the molding, and the doorknobs are all contemporary. Then there are the fireplaces, nineteenth-century models unsuited to the rest of the room. Slimane wants to replace them with period-appropriate hearths, but because the updated fireplaces are considered nineteenth-century artifacts, one of his architects explains, the local government has placed red tape around their removal. Slimane shakes his head. 

    The stately three-story building with large windows will house the receiving studio and tailoring room. (Across the street, on the Rue de l’Université, is a Sciences Po campus—the irony is not lost on Slimane.) When I arrive, he has just had chandeliers hung in the receiving room, which has an arcing balcony above the large stone courtyard. The chandeliers are dummies—he does not yet have the right period antiques—but he wants to see how they look as visitors enter. As with the chassis of his Rolls-Royce or the shoulder width of a suit, it is crucial to get the proportions right.

    When Slimane is at work like this—on the trail of the real thing—his demeanor changes. He is no longer shy, deferential, and gentle; he’s confident, unwavering, wry. “Are there any questions?” he asks his architects. After pausing to wince at an electrical-outlet panel that someone planted in the middle of the floor (“They must have been drinking or something”), Slimane steps gingerly out onto the balcony and proudly surveys his work in progress. If he does everything right, he explains, this atelier will have a sense of the old Parisian “ritual,” a line of continuity back to the past.

    “There is that balance I want to find between the contemporary world—my studio in Los Angeles—and Paris—the church, pure tradition,” he explains. “The fashion is about both influences.” He pauses. “It’s the moment juxtaposed with tradition. That’s the house.”

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    After being dealt an unfavorable ruling in its battle with former unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight Pictures sought (and was granted) permission to appeal. In June, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley held that the unpaid intern plaintiffs, who worked as production assistants on the film “Black Swan” in New York, were actually employees, and thus, Fox violated federal and New York state minimum wage laws by not paying them. A month after the ruling, Fox filed to appeal, arguing that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals should identify the standard for determining whether unpaid interns are workers entitled to wages. 

    image courtesy of fanpop

    Interestingly, in their attempt to convince Judge Pauley to certify the ruling for interlocutory appeal, Fox's lawyers also claim that the Black Swan interns cannot show that the case against Fox is different from one against Hearst Corp., in which the plaintiffs were denied class certification. (In June, the Hearst plaintiffs were given the go-ahead from U.S. District Judge Harold Baer to appeal his ruling refusing  to certify a class on their New York Labor Law claims and denying them partial summary judgment on the question of whether they qualified as “employees” under federal and state wage law). 

    As of this week, Fox has a small victory to speak of: according to Law360, a New York federal judge narrowed the scope of collective action claims brought against Fox Entertainment Group Inc. on behalf of unpaid interns allegedly owed wages, but he refused to strike two Fox entities from the definitions of previously certified class and collective groups. More to come ...

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    For the most part, American Apparel is a brand that appears to try way-too-hard and usually just ends up offending people and getting sued repeatedly, but on this one occasion, the Los Angeles-based brand is not being terrible. The retailer took to its Instagram on Monday to announce an upcoming casting call and somewhat surprisingly, they aren't looking for 15 year old white girls. They're looking for transsexual/transgender men and women. The often controversial brand has used "transsexy" models (their words, not mine) in the past, including Isis King from America's Next Top Model. Turns out, the company held an open call for transgendered/transsexual models at their Chelsea store. Maybe Lea T (our favorite transgender model) showed up!

    images courtesy of american apparel

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    I give Brian Lichtenberg's new “designer drugs collection” about 5 minutes before all hell breaks loose (just as he had planned, I'm sure). The designer, who is known for his "Homies" and other designer "parody" wares (which may not actually be parodies after all), has now taken on prescription drugs. The tees read Xanax, Vicodin and Adderall and retail at Los Angeles hot spot, Kitson, for between $58 and $98. Despite whatever Lichtenberg's upcoming PR statement will claim (see it after the break), this is very likely not an attempt to raise awareness about prescription drug addiction. Instead, it appears that he is glorifying drugs to remain relevant and to make a profit. Agree or disagree? 

    image courtesy of bl

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    Turns out, the controversial t-shirts that make up Brian Lichtenberg’s "designer drugs collection" may not even be original! According to Lil Government over at Bullett, "Brian Lichtenberg stole the idea from a teenager. And not just any teenager, but 19-year-old Alex Kazemi, author of Internet novel Yours Truly, Brad Sela." See the email exchange between Kazemi and Lichtenberg, in which Kazemi proposes the idea for the shirts, over at Bullett.

    image courtesy of hypebeast

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    Style Caster recently addressed a point we've been talking about for some time now. Givenchy's foray into streetwear is getting a bit out of hand. We first mentioned this last year during what looked like the height of the Givenchy streetwear phase (aka after Kanye West finished his Watch the Throne tour and every rapper and street style icon under the sun was wearing a Givenchy tee or star-embellished sweater), and we spoke of this again when Riccardo Tisci failed to show couture collections for two seasons. The latter was more of a red flag than anything, because, honestly, Rottweilier t-shirts are only sustainable for so long, and Bambi-inspired sweatshirts certainly cannot carry a luxury design house. It appears, however, that Givenchy's PERVERT t-shirt from Pre-Fall 2013 was the red flag for our friends over at Style Caster ...

    In a piece entitled, Does this Givenchy t-shirt stray too far from the label's core?, Style Caster's Perrie Samotin acknowledged the obvious: the design house's introduction of t-shirts bearing the images of Rottweilers and sharks, and its courting of a younger, hipper clientele. Samotin takes issue with the PERVERT tee, saying: "It was one thing for designer Riccardo Tisci to infuse streetwear elements into Givenchy’s recent menswear collections ... Selling a shirt that says 'pervert' on the back, however, seems at odds with the label’s respected highbrow history." 

    While I would argue that introducing printed tee shirts (whether they consist of mirror orchids prints or of the word PERVERT) seems a bit at odds with the fundamentals of the brand, it is interesting to see that other are catching on. Sure, streetwear is very much in fashion right now and it doesn't seem to be going away just yet. And yes, the house is certainly profiting from the sale of its t-shirts, which retail for anywhere from $300 to $700, but at what point is the consumer's perception of the design house altered? At what point do luxury shoppers (the ones consistently buying dresses and trousers and non-t-shirt garments) say (consciously or not), "I don't want to spend $4,000 on dress from that design house that is best known for making t-shirts for Jay Z or Bryan Boy or [enter name of trendy public figure here]."? Because eventually that will happen. Thoughts?

    images courtesy of, fashionbombdaily

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    Louis Vuitton is pretty consistent and pretty aggressive in policing its trademark (here's a recent filing, and another, and another), and rightfully so, given the value of its truly iconic intellectual property and the fact that it is the trademark owner's duty to police its mark to ensure that it does not become generic and thus, useless. This week, the Paris-based design house won a $1.6 million judgment in a Miami federal court, stemming from a recent case against a group of online sellers hawking counterfeit goods. The vast majority of the domains were registered under Chinese names, and because there was no Return of Service (written confirmation under oath by a process server declaring that there was service of legal documents, such as a summons and complaint, to the defendants), a default judgment was entered. U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke ordered the immediate seizure of nearly 70 different domain names, which were selling various types of counterfeit merchandise, as well as nearly $2 million in damages. In order to attain maybe small portion of the judgement amount, Cooke granted orders for PayPal to freeze and turn over funds in accounts associated with the various website at issue.

    image courtesy of tfs

    In case you've been wondering why so many trademark counterfeiting cases have been filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, here's why ... Fort Lauderdale-based attorney, Stephen Gaffigan, who represented Louis Vuitton in this case, has become the go-to lawyer for luxury design houses fighting online counterfeit sales. Gaffigan has also represented Chanel, Gucci, Tiffany & Co., and even Abercrombie & Fitch and Adidas, in an outside counsel capacity. Hence, the regular filing of this type of cases in Gaffigan's home court. 

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    Under the direction of Alexander Wang, Balenciaga menswear is set to make a splash this Fall. The Paris-based design house is opening a mens-only boutique on Mercer Street in Soho, conveniently located right across the street from their new womenswear shop. Just in time, the design house, which bid adieu to its longtime creative director Nicolas Ghesquière this past fall, has released a few shots from its Fall 2013/Winter 2014 Campaign shot by Josh Olins and starring Sylvester Ulv. It released the F/W womenswear campaign (the first under Alex Wang) not too long ago, as well. More to come ...

    image courtesy of tfs

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    It appears that the drama over Brian Lichtenberg's designer drugs t-shirts has only just begun. Three major drug manufacturers are contemplating filing suit against Los Angeles-based boutique Kitson (and Lichtenberg?) for selling t-shirts bearing their brand names. The makers of Adderall, Vicodin and Xanax are reportedly set to take legal action against Kitson, and with the drug companies' nearly unlimited budgets for legal proceedings, Lichtenberg and Kitson likely don't stand a chance.

    image courtesy of daily mail

    A representative from one of the producers of Adderall said: "We had no involvement NOR do we approve of the sale of such a product using Adderall to glorify the misuse of our product." 

    Further, a spokesperson from Abbott, the firm behind Vicodin, claims: "Prescription drug use should not be trivialized. It is a serious issue and we will be taking legal action to stop the clothing company from trying to sell such a product."

    Exactly what claims the drug manufacturers will bring is not clear just yet. While each of the prescription drug companies has active federal trademark registrations that cover the names Adderall, Vicodin and Xanax, these marks are only valid in the class of goods related to pharmaceuticals. None of the registrations extend to clothing or accessories. With this in mind, the drug makers could likely sue for trademark dilution (per the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2006, regardless of actual or likely confusion, assuming the drug companies' marks are "famous"), which comes in two forms. One type of dilution is by blurring, which involves the gradual whittling away of the identity and distinctiveness of the mark or name by its use upon non-competing goods (aka the use of the company's mark by another makes the brand less recognizable). The other type is tarnishment, which generally arises when a party's trademark is linked to products of inferior quality or is portrayed in an unwholesome or unsavory context. Generally, tarnishment has been found in cases where a distinctive mark is depicted in a context of sexual activity, obscenity or illegal activity.

    If Kitson/Lichtenberg want to claim the affirmative defense of parody/fair use, they will have to prove it. Generally, a parody must be clever enough so that customers will not assume the original trademark owner is connected with or approving of the parody. So, the critical issue for achieving a valid parody, is whether the party that created the "parody" sufficiently exaggerated or distorted the trademark so that it is clearly distinguished from the original.

    You may recall that in 2007, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Haute Diggity Dog's “Chewy Vuiton” plush dog toys were successful parodies that did not infringe or dilute the famous LOUIS VUITTON trademarks or trade dress. We'll see how this plays Lichtenberg's "parody" tees play out. More to come ... 

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    NYFW is right around the corner, and a few of the hotly anticipated shows this year aren’t from household (or GQ-approved) names. NYC has typically been the place for the most wearable mens fashion – at least since 2008 and the rise of #menswear dominance. Traditionally, Paris houses the avant-garde and Milan has…well, tax evasion and lots of monogramming. But lately, the US has seen a rise in a new generation of avant-garde designers, many of whom hail from the West Coast – and a few of whom will be showing this year in NYC.

    Labels like Skingraft (which offers a womenswear range, as well) and En Noir (pictured above), which burst onto the scene in the past year under the “street-goth” aesthetic, will both be showing this season. And while their roots might be in streetwear, and their biggest supporters are rappers, not moneyed Europeans (because who else is keeping labels like D&G in business?)  – the creativity and skill evident in the designs turned out by these labels put them in the running to go up against many of the directional labels coming out of Paris or Milan.

    This might leave a few people scratching their heads – as both labels, and others like them (think: STAMPD LA and Fear of God (pictured below)) have gleamed both their aesthetic and their fan-base from the streetwear world – but the products alone make it painfully obvious that they don’t belong in the same conversation as the average screen-printed t-shirts that have long defined the streetwear uniform. It might be that it’s the next step in luxury streetwear – following in the tradition of BAPE and BBC/Ice Cream. Or, it could be that there’s a new crop of avant-garde-ish designers emerging in America - operating outside the establishment and pulling from their own inspirations – working to change our perception of what’s possible in American fashion.

    images courtesy of freshness mag, fashionisto

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    New York Fashion Week. To the newbie, the words evoke an almost indescribable sense of excitement, glamour, fast-paced intensity and that elusive touch of exclusivity everyone seems to so desperately crave. When I attended my first ever season last September, I was similarly fresh faced and engulfed in starry fascination with the blur of activity around me. Was that Marc Jacobs entering the tents with Hanne Gaby [pictured below]? You bet. Pat McGrath working her magic backstage? Yep. Linda Fargo, garbed in something deeply fabulous scribbling front row at Proenza, whispering to Altuzarra? A-huh. You might catch a glimpse of a Fanning or an Olsen. Karlie Kloss might hand you one of her Kookies. It's all very seductive. Almost like a weird hyper-real fashion mirage. 

    You're seated in rooms with people from the highest echelons of the industry (albeit in the nether regions). You're ALMOST rubbing shoulders. You go to a smattering of shows, attend some presentations, sip sponsored cocktails on rooftops at after parties. You're a mere 5 feet away from Amanda Brooks and Jenna Lyons. Derek Blasberg fervently tweets close by. You're giddy with a sense of being a part of the whole circus (although all that caffeine you're mainlining to stay up at night writing reviews and editing photos might also be contributing to the shakiness). How could you not be?

    Soon, you're two seasons in, PRACTICALLY A VETERAN and you're spending increasingly less time being grateful for a rare opportunity and more time complaining about the long hours, the 15 band-aids holding your heel-wrecked feet together, the fact that you no longer recall what a night's sleep means. The long hours, the peacocking outside Lincoln Center, the endless barrage of people who don't really need to be there, over saturation of content, it's all starting to get to you. You churn out little pieces on the shows and presentations, but why should someone be listening to you when they could be reading one of 800,000 other sources (most more reputed) who are writing about the very same shows? SO WHY ARE YOU THERE?

    This question is posed to bloggers and the general outliers who by some stroke of luck (and entrepreneurship coupled with the ridiculous digital bubble) like myself have attended these shows and gone through said motions. To be clear, I am not referring to those who blog as their day job. I'm also not referring to news blogs that provide original reporting, critique and thoughtful industry centric articles. I'm looking at all of us mid level "personal style bloggers" who vociferously Instagram and hashtag about the myriad shows, previews and events.

    "But the internet has made fashion democratic! It's a dialogue instead of a monologue! Etc." And I wholeheartedly concur. But democratic doesn't equate to everybody assuming the role of the creator. It means everyone is able to participate in a conversation and engage. Not that we all start covering each show and putting more and more clutter out into the internet. Especially not if it means that 50 bloggers need to grace NYFW like an army of iPhone wielding, Celine toting, self-proclaimed Twitter cognoscenti. We need to take a step back, take a deep breath and extract our egos from the situation. One doesn't need to attend fashion week simply to say one attended fashion week and have consequent anecdotes (and war stories) to relate at dinner. Simplistic concept and yet until this season, I hadn't fully committed to it myself. Major style bloggers bring press. Or they cover for their vast audiences. That's legitimate grounds for being a new voice and present at these shows. Most bloggers however, do not. This aspect of the digital bubble is on the cusp of bursting and I'm glad for the most part. There is such a thing as too much content, and much of it bringing nothing new to the table.

    Fashion likes to cling to the past. It's what makes designs beautiful and nostalgic and relevant in a larger historical and cultural context. But it means it takes us a hot minute to catch up. So now, after being a bit tardy to the digital game, (some) designers in mortal fear of being "left behind" are, instead of smartly targeting and curating compelling new, interesting content along with select bloggers that speak to their customer, just running helter skelter and partnering with every blogger with a url and an affinity for sneaker wedges.

    Now, if you're able to gain access to the show or presentation of a designer you truly admire, of course you should go. I'm not suggesting some kind of draconian clap down. I think a dose of bloggers at fashion week is healthy, when they have a reason to be there. At the end of the day, amid the hoopla of the event, we conveniently forget that fashion week is a time for editors/journalists/bloggers/writers and buyers to WORK. So if you can honestly answer the question of why you should be another person attending the shows, maybe it's best to sit at home and watch the livestream/the tweets and Instagrams. You'll be more comfortable on your couch with a snack anyway.

    Arushi Kholsa is currently an Advertising and Marketing Communications student at Fashion Institute of Technology. She is a Digital Intern at Nanette Lepore, and has held similar positions at Tory Burch and Oscar de la Renta. Check out Kholsa's blog, Bohemian Like You, here!

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    The CEO and President of Los Angeles-based celebrity-favorite brand Wildfox Couture is coming under fire for allegedly taking advantage of and sexually exploiting underage model Meghan Chereek for several months, after promising her a modeling career with his brand. According to Chereek's complaint, which has been filed in a Los Angeles court, she met Sommers, who was 43 and according to Wildfox's is also a musician, at a restaurant in July 2012, and he offered her a tentative modeling contract with the brand (which is designed by Emily Faulstich and Kimberly Gordon). In the months that follow, Sommers repeatedly forced Chereek (then aged 17) to have sex with him, continuing to promise that she would model for the Wildfox brand. According to the complaint, Chereek never appeared in any Wildfox campaigns. 

    The complaint further alleges that Sommer's behavior (think: “regular demands that Chereek engage in sexual contact with him - which she submitted to based upon her fear of him and her desire to establish a career as a model") was intended "to vex, annoy, or injure Plaintiff, and he unjustly and cruelly exercised his authority and power as president of WILDFOX to manipulate and sexually exploit Plaintiff." The complaint also refers to how Sommers allegedly manipulated Chereek into performing sex acts on another adult male in his presence. Sommers is being accused of the following charges: unlawful sex with a minor, unlawful oral sex with a minor, gender violence against the young woman, among other charges. Chereek is seeking unspecified damages for mental and emotional suffering, counseling and therapy expenses, as well as future therapy expenses, among other damages. More to come ...

    Sommers (left) with Scott Disick & designer Kimberly Gordon
    images courtesy of wildfox

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    We all know that sex sells but does the same go for depictions of violence against women? The Standard, a small chain of boutique hotels, ran an ad in the summer issue of Du Jour magazine and it is causing quite a bit of controversy based on this notion. The company (which boasts trendy hotels in Los Angeles, Hollywood, New York and Miami Beach) has been placing ads in smaller magazines for the past year (think: Fantastic ManInterview and CR Fashion Book). Each of the campaigns features a  photograph previously shot by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm. They've been attention-grabbing in the past (Wurm's work is known for pushing boundaries), but it seems the hotel's latest campaign takes the cake. Shown below, the image depicts, well, according to many, domestic violence and violence against women. 

    Feminist blog, Make Me a Sammich, was the first to discover and address the ad campaign, claiming the image, in connection with The Standard's endorsement, "sends a message that dead women make great advertising fodder." The blog's writers have since created a petition calling on The Standard and Du Jour to apologize. The Standard has pulled the ad and replied with the following statement:
    The Standard advertisement utilized an image series created by the contemporary artist, Erwin Wurm. We apologize to anyone who views this image as insensitive or promoting violence. No offense or harm was intended. The Standard has discontinued usage of this image.
    The writers over at Make Me a Sammish (who are not terribly pleased with the response) have "translated" The Standard's statement to mean the following: 
    This is art, dummies. Blame the artist, not us. We don’t see it that way, but we’re sorry you do, and if you do, it’s not really our fault. We didn’t mean to do anything wrong, ergo, we didn’t and/or you should let us off the hook because our intentions were not evil. We were done with this campaign anyway, so here’s a bone.
    Are YOU offended by the campaign? We want to know what you think. Chime in below in the comments section!

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    In February 2011, American Vogue magazine published an article titled, A Rose in the Desert, a feature on the first lady of Syria. Asma al-Assad, who is of British heritage, wears high fashion, worked for years in banking, and is married to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed thousands of civilians and many hundreds of children. The article presented the Assad's as a "wildly democratic" family-focused Christian couple, who vacation in Europe, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the "safest country in the Middle East," and want to give Syria a "brand essence."

    Per The Atlantic, "Sadly, Vogue's piece of the Syrian puzzle [which is featured in its entirety below] has been almost entirely scrubbed from the internet [largely by Vogue, which subsequently fired the author, Joan Juliet Buck]. However, as the world watches for cracks in the Assad regime and in the Assad family, Buck's interviews are an increasingly important tool for understanding the man at the top of Syria and the woman next to him" ... 

    By Joan Juliet Buck

    Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

    Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark. Asma’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with a startling 97 percent of the vote. In Syria, power is hereditary. The country’s alliances are murky. How close are they to Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah? There are souvenir Hezbollah ashtrays in the souk, and you can spot the Hamas leadership racing through the bar of the Four Seasons. Its number-one enmity is clear: Israel. But that might not always be the case. The United States has just posted its first ambassador there since 2005, Robert Ford.

    Iraq is next door, Iran not far away. Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, is 90 minutes by car from Damascus. Jordan is south, and next to it the region that Syrian maps label Palestine. There are nearly one million refugees from Iraq in Syria, and another half-million displaced Palestinians.

    “It’s a tough neighborhood,” admits Asma al-Assad.

    It’s also a neighborhood intoxicatingly close to the dawn of civilization, where agriculture began some 10,000 years ago, where the wheel, writing, and musical notation were invented. Out in the desert are the magical remains of Palmyra, Apamea, and Ebla. In the National Museum you see small 4,000-year-old panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl that is echoed in the new mother-of-pearl furniture for sale in the souk. Christian Louboutin comes to buy the damask silk brocade they’ve been making here since the Middle Ages for his shoes and bags, and has incidentally purchased a small palace in Aleppo, which, like Damascus, has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years.

    The first lady works out of a small white building in a hilly, modern residential neighborhood called Muhajireen, where houses and apartments are crammed together and neighbors peer and wave from balconies. The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement—a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

    Asma Akhras was born in London in 1975, the eldest child and only daughter of a Syrian Harley Street cardiologist and his diplomat wife, both Sunni Muslims. They spoke Arabic at home. She grew up in Ealing, went to Queen’s College, and spent holidays with family in Syria. “I’ve dealt with the sense that people don’t expect Syria to be normal. I’d show my London friends my holiday snaps and they’d be—‘Where did you say you went?’ ”

    She studied computer science at university, then went into banking. “It wasn’t a typical path for women,” she says, “but I had it all mapped out.” By the spring of 2000, she was closing a big biotech deal at JP Morgan in London and about to take up an MBA at Harvard. She started dating a family friend: the second son of president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar, who’d cut short his ophthalmology studies in London in 1994 and returned to Syria after his older brother, Basil, heir apparent to power, died in a car crash. They had known each other forever, but a ten-year age difference meant that nothing registered—until it did.

    “I was always very serious at work, and suddenly I started to take weekends, or disappear, and people just couldn’t figure it out,” explains the first lady. “What do you say—‘I’m dating the son of a president’? You just don’t say that. Then he became president, so I tried to keep it low-key. Suddenly I was turning up in Syria every month, saying, ‘Granny, I miss you so much!’ I quit in October because by then we knew that we were going to get married at some stage. I couldn’t say why I was leaving. My boss thought I was having a nervous breakdown because nobody quits two months before bonus after closing a really big deal. He wouldn’t accept my resignation. I was, like, ‘Please, really, I just want to get out, I’ve had enough,’ and he was ‘Don’t worry, take time off, it happens to the best of us.’ ” She left without her bonus in November and married Bashar al-Assad in December.

    “What I’ve been able to take away from banking was the transferable skills—the analytical thinking, understanding the business side of running a company—to run an NGO or to try and oversee a project.” She runs her office like a business, chairs meeting after meeting, starts work many days at six, never breaks for lunch, and runs home to her children at four. “It’s my time with them, and I get them fresh, unedited—I love that. I really do.” Her staff are used to eating when they can. “I have a rechargeable battery,” she says.

    The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

    In 2005 she founded Massar, built around a series of discovery centers where children and young adults from five to 21 engage in creative, informal approaches to civic responsibility. Massar’s mobile Green Team has touched 200,000 kids across Syria since 2005. The organization is privately funded through donations. The Syria Trust for Development, formed in 2007, oversees Massar as well as her first NGO, the rural micro-credit association FIRDOS, and SHABAB, which exists to give young people business skills they need for the future.

    And then there’s her cultural mission: “People tend to see Syria as artifacts and history,” she says. “For us it’s about the accumulation of cultures, traditions, values, customs. It’s the difference between hardware and software: the artifacts are the hardware, but the software makes all the difference—the customs and the spirit of openness. We have to make sure that we don’t lose that. . . . ” Here she gives an apologetic grin. “You have to excuse me, but I’m a banker—that brand essence.”

    That brand essence includes the distant past. There are 500,000 important ancient works of art hidden in storage; Asma al-Assad has brought in the Louvre to create a network of museums and cultural attractions across Syria, and asked Italian experts to help create a database of the 5,000 archaeological sites in the desert. “Culture,” she says, “is like a financial asset. We have an abundance of it, thousands of years of history, but we can’t afford to be complacent.”

    In December, Asma al-Assad was in Paris to discuss her alliance with the Louvre. She dazzled a tough French audience at the International Diplomatic Institute, speaking without notes. “I’m not trying to disguise culture as anything more than it is,” she said, “and if I sound like I’m talking politics, it’s because we live in a politicized region, a politicized time, and we are affected by that.”

    The French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, was there: “She managed to get people to consider the possibilities of a country that’s modernizing itself, that stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides—and the driving force for that rests largely on the shoulders of one couple. I hope they’ll make the right choices for their country and the region. ”

    Damascus evokes a dusty version of a Mediterranean hill town in an Eastern-bloc country. The courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque at night looks exactly like St. Mark’s square in Venice. When I first arrive, I’m met on the tarmac by a minder, who gives me a bouquet of white roses and lends me a Syrian cell phone; the head minder, a high-profile American PR, joins us the next day. The first lady’s office has provided drivers, so I shop and see sights in a bubble of comfort and hospitality. On the rare occasions I am out alone, a random series of men in leather jackets seems to be keeping close tabs on what I am doing and where I am headed.

    “I like things I can touch. I like to get out and meet people and do things,” the first lady says as we set off for a meeting in a museum and a visit to an orphanage. “As a banker, you have to be so focused on the job at hand that you lose the experience of the world around you. My husband gave me back something I had lost.”

    She slips behind the wheel of a plain SUV, a walkie-talkie and her cell thrown between the front seats and a Syrian-silk Louboutin tote on top. She does what the locals do—swerves to avoid crazy men who run across busy freeways, misses her turn, checks your seat belt, points out sights, and then can’t find a parking space. When a traffic cop pulls her over at a roundabout, she lowers the tinted window and dips her head with a playful smile. The cop’s eyes go from slits to saucers.

    Her younger brother Feras, a surgeon who moved to Syria to start a private health-care group, says, “Her intelligence is both intellectual and emotional, and she’s a master at harmonizing when, and how much, to use of each one.”

    In the Saint Paul orphanage, maintained by the Melkite–Greek Catholic patriarchate and run by the Basilian sisters of Aleppo, Asma sits at a long table with the children. Two little boys in new glasses and thick sweaters are called Yussuf. She asks them what kind of music they like. “Sad music,” says one. In the room where she’s had some twelve computers installed, the first lady tells a nun, “I hope you’re letting the younger children in here go crazy on the computers.” The nun winces: “The children are afraid to learn in case they don’t have access to computers when they leave here,” she says.

    In the courtyard by the wall down which Saint Paul escaped in a basket 2,000 years ago, an old tree bears gigantic yellow fruit I have never seen before. Citrons. Cédrats in French.

    Back in the car, I ask what religion the orphans are. “It’s not relevant,” says Asma al-Assad. “Let me try to explain it to you. That church is a part of my heritage because it’s a Syrian church. The Umayyad Mosque is the third-most-important holy Muslim site, but within the mosque is the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. We all kneel in the mosque in front of the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. That’s how religions live together in Syria—a way that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. We live side by side, and have historically. All the religions and cultures that have passed through these lands—the Armenians, Islam, Christianity, the Umayyads, the Ottomans—make up who I am.”

    “Does that include the Jews?” I ask.

    “And the Jews,” she answers. “There is a very big Jewish quarter in old Damascus.”

    The Jewish quarter of Damascus spans a few abandoned blocks in the old city that emptied out in 1992, when most of the Syrian Jews left. Their houses are sealed up and have not been touched, because, as people like to tell you, Syrians don’t touch the property of others. The broken glass and sagging upper floors tell a story you don’t understand—are the owners coming back to claim them one day?

    The presidential family lives surrounded by neighbors in a modern apartment in Malki. On Friday, the Muslim day of rest, Asma al-Assad opens the door herself in jeans and old suede stiletto boots, hair in a ponytail, the word happiness spelled out across the back of her T-shirt. At the bottom of the stairs stands the off-duty president in jeans—tall, long-necked, blue-eyed. A precise man who takes photographs and talks lovingly about his first computer, he says he was attracted to studying eye surgery “because it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood.”

    The old al-Assad family apartment was remade into a child-friendly triple-decker playroom loft surrounded by immense windows on three sides. With neither shades nor curtains, it’s a fishbowl. Asma al-Assad likes to say, “You’re safe because you are surrounded by people who will keep you safe.” Neighbors peer in, drop by, visit, comment on the furniture. The president doesn’t mind: “This curiosity is good: They come to see you, they learn more about you. You don’t isolate yourself.”

    There’s a decorated Christmas tree. Seven-year-old Zein watches Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland on the president’s iMac; her brother Karim, six, builds a shark out of Legos; and nine-year-old Hafez tries out his new electric violin. All three go to a Montessori school.

    Asma al-Assad empties a box of fondue mix into a saucepan for lunch. The household is run on wildly democratic principles. “We all vote on what we want, and where,” she says. The chandelier over the dining table is made of cut-up comic books. “They outvoted us three to two on that.”

    A grid is drawn on a blackboard, with ticks for each member of the family. “We were having trouble with politeness, so we made a chart: ticks for when they spoke as they should, and a cross if they didn’t.” There’s a cross next to Asma’s name. “I shouted,” she confesses. “I can’t talk about empowering young people, encouraging them to be creative and take responsibility, if I’m not like that with my own children.”

    “The first challenge for us was, Who’s going to define our lives, us or the position?” says the president. “We wanted to live our identity honestly.”

    They announced their marriage in January 2001, after the ceremony, which they kept private. There was deliberately no photograph of Asma. “The British media picked that up as: Now she’s moved into the presidential palace, never to be seen again!” says Asma, laughing.

    They had a reason: “She spent three months incognito,” says the president. “Before I had any official engagement,” says the first lady, “I went to 300 villages, every governorate, hospitals, farms, schools, factories, you name it—I saw everything to find out where I could be effective. A lot of the time I was somebody’s ‘assistant’ carrying the bag, doing this and that, taking notes. Nobody asked me if I was the first lady; they had no idea.”

    “That way,” adds the president, “she started her NGO before she was ever seen in public as my wife. Then she started to teach people that an NGO is not a charity."

    Neither of them believes in charity for the sake of charity. “We have the Iraqi refugees,” says the president. “Everybody is talking about it as a political problem or as welfare, charity. I say it’s neither—it’s about cultural philosophy. We have to help them. That’s why the first thing I did is to allow the Iraqis to go into schools. If they don’t have an education, they will go back as a bomb, in every way: terrorism, extremism, drug dealers, crime. If I have a secular and balanced neighbor, I will be safe.”

    When Angelina Jolie came with Brad Pitt for the United Nations in 2009, she was impressed by the first lady’s efforts to encourage empowerment among Iraqi and Palestinian refugees but alarmed by the Assads’ idea of safety.

    “My husband was driving us all to lunch,” says Asma al-Assad, “and out of the corner of my eye I could see Brad Pitt was fidgeting. I turned around and asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’”

    “Where’s your security?” asked Pitt.

    “So I started teasing him—‘See that old woman on the street? That’s one of them! And that old guy crossing the road?

    That’s the other one!’ ” They both laugh.

    The president joins in the punch line: “Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!”

    After lunch, Asma al-Assad drives to the airport, where a Falcon 900 is waiting to take her to Massar in Latakia, on the coast. When she lands, she jumps behind the wheel of another SUV waiting on the tarmac. This is the kind of surprise visit she specializes in, but she has no idea how many kids will turn up at the community center on a rainy Friday.

    As it turns out, it’s full. Since the first musical notation was discovered nearby, at Ugarit, the immaculate Massar center in Latakia is built around music. Local kids are jamming in a sound booth; a group of refugee Palestinian girls is playing instruments. Others play chess on wall-mounted computers. These kids have started online blood banks, run marathons to raise money for dialysis machines, and are working on ways to rid Latakia of plastic bags. Apart from a few girls in scarves, you can’t tell Muslims from Christians.

    Asma al-Assad stands to watch a laborious debate about how—and whether—to standardize the Arabic spelling of the word Syria. Then she throws out a curve ball. “I’ve been advised that we have to close down this center so as to open another one somewhere else,” she says. Kids’ mouths drop open. Some repress tears. Others are furious. One boy chooses altruism: “That’s OK. We know how to do it now; we’ll help them.”

    Then the first lady announces, “That wasn’t true. I just wanted to see how much you care about Massar.”

    As the pilot expertly avoids sheet lightning above the snow-flecked desert on the way back, she explains, “There was a little bit of formality in what they were saying to me; it wasn’t real. Tricks like this help—they became alive, they became passionate. We need to get past formalities if we are going to get anything done.”

    Two nights later it’s the annual Christmas concert by the children of Al-Farah Choir, run by the Syrian Catholic Father Elias Zahlawi. Just before it begins, Bashar and Asma al-Assad slip down the aisle and take the two empty seats in the front row. People clap, and some call out his nickname:
    “Docteur! Docteur!”

    Two hundred children dressed variously as elves, reindeers, or candy canes share the stage with members of the national orchestra, who are done up as elves. The show becomes a full-on songfest, with the elves and reindeer and candy canes giving their all to “Hallelujah” and “Joy to the World.” The carols slide into a more serpentine rhythm, an Arabic rap group takes over, and then it’s back to Broadway mode. The president whispers, “All of these styles belong to our culture. This is how you fight extremism—through art.”

    Brass bells are handed out. Now we’re all singing “Jingle Bell Rock,” 1,331 audience members shaking their bells, singing, crying, and laughing.

    “This is the diversity you want to see in the Middle East,” says the president, ringing his bell. “This is how you can have peace!”

    0 0

    Jul 30, 2012, Newsweek

    Just before the Arab Spring, Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck [pictured below] did an infamous interview with Syria's first lady. For the first time, she tells the story behind the debacle.

    Late in the afternoon of Dec. 1, 2010, I got a call from a features editor at Vogue. She asked if I wanted to go to Syria to interview the first lady, Asma al-Assad.

    “Absolutely not,” I said. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.”

    The editor explained that the first lady was young, good-looking, and had never given an interview. Vogue had been trying to get to her for two years. Now she’d hired a PR firm, and they must have pushed her to agree.

    “Send a political journalist,” I said.

    “We don’t want any politics, none at all,” said the editor, “and she only wants to talk about culture, antiquities, and museums. You like museums. You like culture. She wants to talk to you. You’d leave in a week.”

    A week: clearly my name was last on a list of writers that the first lady had rejected because they knew nothing about Mesopotamia. I didn’t consider the possibility that the other writers had rejected the first lady.

    “Let me think about it,” I said. I had written four cover stories that year, three about young actresses and one about a supermodel who had just become a mother. This assignment was more exciting, and when else would I get to see the ruins of Palmyra?

    I looked up Asma al-Assad. Born Asma Akhras in London in 1975 to a Syrian cardiologist, Fawaz Akhras, and his diplomat wife, Sahar Otri. Straightforward trajectory. School: Queen’s College. University: King’s College. Husband: president of Syria.

    Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss. My notions about the country were formed by the British Museum: the head of Gudea, king of Lagash, treasures from Ur, Mesopotamia, Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon—all of which had occupied what is now Syria. Both Aleppo and Damascus had been continuously inhabited for more than five millennia. This was where civilization was born, 6,000 years ago.

    I knew the country’s more recent past was grim, violent,and secretive. The dictator Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970 and, until his death in 2000, ran the country as cruelly and ruthlessly as his idol Stalin. He was an Alawite; he dealt with a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982 by killing 20,000 of its men, women, and children.

    Bashar al-Assad looked meek. He’d been studying ophthalmology in London in 1994 when his older brother, the heir to the presidency, died in a car accident. Bashar was brought home, put into a series of military uniforms, and groomed for power. At Hafez’s death, a referendum asked whether the 34-year-old Bashar should become president. There was no other option. He “won.” At first he was perceived as a reformer, but his only reforms were to do with banking.

    Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria was still oppressed, but the silence and fear were such that little of the oppression showed, apart from vast numbers of secret police, called Mukhabarat.

    Syria and Hizbullah were the suspects in the 2005 car-bomb murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus was home base for Hizbullah and Hamas; Syria was close to Iran. But these alliances also made Syria a viable interlocutor for the West, even a potential conduit to peace in the Middle East. In December 2010, Obama had just named a new ambassador, the first since George W. Bush had broken off diplomatic relations in 2005.

    In 2010 Syria’s status oscillated between untrustworthy rogue state and new cool place. A long 2008 piece on Damascus in the British Condé Nast Travellerdescribed its increasing hipness. It was the Soviet Union with hummus and water pipes. In the worldview of fashion magazines, Syria was a forbidden kingdom, full of silks, essences, palaces, and ruins, run by a modern president and an attractive, young first lady. Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry had visited, as well as Sting, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Francis Coppola.

    It was also a Pandora’s box.

    Syria was a dictatorship, which was the default mode throughout the region. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a veteran of 30 years in the CIA, says: “Until a year ago, every Arab state was a police state—some cruel, some not so cruel.”

    In 2010 I didn’t call Bruce Riedel.

    I called Barbet Schroeder, who’d made the ultimate documentary about a dictator, General Idi Amin Dada.

    “Hafez al-Assad was the worst evil genius in the world, but I think his son is trying to be a reformer,” said Schroeder.

    Someone who had a house in Aleppo said that Asma al-Assad was a bright, energetic woman, to all appearances English, who drove herself everywhere. And, unlike other heads of state he knew, “the Assads really care about their people.”

    An aesthete who went to Syria for its ruins raved about Damascus, mentioned in passing some men seen hanged outside the Four Seasons Hotel, and then raved about Palmyra.

    I should have said no right then.

    I said yes.

    It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Voguewanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.

    I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer.

    There was no way of knowing that Assad, the meek ophthalmologist and computer-loving nerd, would kill more of his own people than his father had and torture tens of thousands more, many of them children.

    In December 2010, there was no way of knowing that the Arab Spring was about to begin, and that it would take down the dictators of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

    There was no way of knowing, as I cheered the events in Tahrir Square, that I would be contaminated because I had written about the Assads. There was no way of knowing that this piece would cost me my livelihood and end the association I had had with Vogue since I was 23.

    I met the devil and his wife, with full fashion-magazine access to their improbable fishbowl apartment where they lived out their daily lives on display to the eyes of thousands, like a Middle-Eastern version of The Truman Show. They showed off their fantasy lives for me.

    Assad told me just who he was, but I didn’t use it; he repeated it a year later to Barbara Walters, but no one heard him.

    The Assads’ PR firm, Brown Lloyd James, took care of my visa. In the offices, flat-screen televisions mounted on walls played only Al Jazeera—one of their clients, along with Gaddafi’s son Saif and the government of Qatar. Lloyd and James were absent, but Brown turned out to be Peter Brown, a bearded Englishman with a languorous voice who’d once managed the Beatles.

    Asma al-Assad was about to sign an agreement with the Paris Louvre, about Syrian antiquities. We sat with Brown’s associate Mike Holtzman. I wanted to know about the ancient cities, Aleppo, Damascus. They brought in their intern, a 22-year-old named Sheherazade Ja’afari, the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations. She and Holtzman would be in Damascus with me.

    Friends knew Gaia Servadio, an Italian author based in London who had been hired by Asma al-Assad to set up an arts festival in 2008. I went via London to meet her. She told me she liked the first lady, but, due to certain factions in power who did not, the festival had never taken place.

    I landed in Damascus in the snow late on the night of Dec. 12, 2010. Sheherazade was waiting on the runway in a government car, incongruously with a bouquet. She handed me a Syrian cell phone. “Your American one won’t work here,” she said.

    The next day a large woman pulled my toes and cracked my back with indifferent dexterity in the Hammam Amouneh, where the flagstones were worn soft by eight centuries of unbroken use. Sheherazade took me through Damascus; in the dark early-evening streets, I felt uneasy. Mustached men stood in our path, wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters.

    Holtzman came with us to the Umayyad Mosque, empty after evening prayers, huge enough to hold 6,000 people. I didn’t know until last week (from Al Arabiya) that Holtzman had emailed Sheherazade that day saying that I had “No impression at all of Syria” and “not to mention anything controversial, lists Syria may be on, rumor, etc.,” that what I saw “must be 100 [percent] affirmative.”

    We three dined together in the hotel restaurant, as we would almost every night. I reset my geographical coordinates. Egypt to the west of us. Water supply questionable. Avoid raw salad.

    The next day, Dec. 14, I left my laptop on the desk. A government car conveyed us to the first lady’s office, a fairly anonymous little white building in a residential neighborhood. I was to meet her alone.

    Asma al-Assad was informal and cheery. A good-looking woman of 35, she wore a pale blue jacket and dark trousers. Her curly chin-length hair was sprayed into place, her eyebrows delineated in the Syrian manner. She was as brisk as a prefect, as on-message as a banker, as friendly as a new acquaintance at a friend’s cocktail party. She sounded like the kind of young Englishwoman you’d hear having lunch at the next table at Harvey Nichols.

    She was on show, “on,” and delivered a well-rounded and glossy presentation of a cozy, modern, relaxed version of herself, her family, and her country to an American fashion magazine. With a London accent.

    Her parents came from Homs. She’d grown up with two younger brothers in what she called Ealing and what the London press calls the less upscale Acton: she rode horses; her school friends called her Emma; she cut class to hang out on Oxford Street and got her degree in computer science at King’s College. She briefly worked at Deutsche Bank in New York, and was back in London at Morgan Stanley, about to take up an M.B.A. at Harvard, when, on holiday at her aunt’s in Damascus in 2000, she remet Bashar al-Assad, a family friend. She was 25, he was 35. She said she began to go to Damascus on weekends to see the president’s son. The word president rang as glamorous in her mouth as movie star. The word dictator never got in.

    “You don’t plan to do this,” she said. After Hafez al-Assad died and Bashar became president, she quit her Morgan Stanley job and moved to Damascus. They married, and now had three children: Hafez, 9; Zein, 7; and Karim, who was about to turn 6.

    She liked secrets. Their wedding, she said in a conspiratorial tone, was held in secret, its exact date still private. She spent her first three months as Mrs. Assad traveling through Syria with people who, to her delight, did not know who she was. She was not wearing a wedding ring. Her husband did not either. “When you meet him, you’ll understand why,” she said. It was a little coy.

    I wanted to hear what the Louvre’s experts were going to do in Syria. She wanted to tell me about Massar, the series of youth “discovery centers” she was setting up. The first Massar was in Latakia, where the Assad family came from. A huge center was about to be built in Damascus.

    “Massar in Arabic means path, destiny,” she said, “and destiny is created by the choices you make. Our project is about empowering this generation of young people to become active citizens, able to be part of the change the country’s going through.”

    Almost half the Syrian population was under 14, she said, and Massar “Green Teams” had gone around the country to share its tenets of active citizenship with 200,000 children.

    I asked if we could see Palmyra or, if not, a museum?

    “That’s what we’re doing right now!” she said, and drove us to a museum for a meeting with a group of Italian archeologists and the Italian ambassador. There was nothing to see there but offices.

    Wednesday I sat with Holtzman, unfed, through long meetings about fundraising for the Syria Trust.

    “Doesn’t she stop for lunch?” I asked one of her aides.

    “Never,” the aide said proudly.

    Before the next meeting sandwiches were served. I avoided the lettuce; Holtzman did not.

    Asma unwittingly gave me a glimpse into the Assad way of thinking: “I told my kids yesterday there’s a journalist going to be writing about me,” she said, “and my eldest, Hafez, asked, ‘What’s she going to say?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he asked, ‘How can you get her to write about you if you don’t know what she’s going to say?’?”

    A chic Damascus lady took me to the souk. At last I saw the town in daylight. The older buildings were sagging, dusty, derelict. This was clearly an earthquake zone without public services. I later described Damascus, too subtly, as a Mediterranean hill town in an Eastern-bloc country. The souk’s entrance was topped with milky plastic, its roof corrugated tin like a Quonset hut, but it followed the path of “the street called straight” in the Bible. Turkish families in heavy coats trudged through the souk, and sat in clumps in an ice-cream parlor, under a large picture of Bashar al-Assad. The same mustached men in leather jackets and curious shoes dawdled among the wares, kaffiyehs, jewelry, erotic underwear, and blackout hijabs.

    I was told there was no crime in Damascus. A few days later, on a pretext involving wooden spoons, I returned to the souk alone except for a driver I could not shake. I think I saw why there was no crime.

    A mysterious metal box on wheels was parked outside the souk. It was about seven feet long, six feet high, with one barred window in the back. Its surface was dangerously unfinished, raw, full of metal splinters. It looked like a mobile prison. Later, I asked a local about the box. He said he’d never seen such a thing.

    That night, Sheherazade was going out to dinner and Holtzman was in bed with food poisoning. I ate a bowl of stew in my hotel room and uploaded photos and reference videos to an American website. I used the Ethernet cord from the bureau drawer.

    The next day was Friday, the Muslim day of rest.

    Sheherazade called, sounding like a very old man with a sore throat. “I ate salad last night,” she said, “and I had the driver take me straight to the hospital. They pumped my stomach. It hurt my throat.”

    The first lady was making lunch at the presidential residence. It would be fondue, the family’s favorite.

    Holtzman met me in the lobby, still pale. He had a bouquet for the first lady. We set off for the old apartment of Hafez al-Assad, which they had redone, over five years, into three stories of modern, child-friendly open space.

    Both Assads were in jeans and sweaters. Bashar turned out to have a neck so long that he looked like something you might glimpse breaking the water in a Scottish loch. He spoke with a slight lisp. He showed me his cameras, described the wide variety of lenses now available, and showed me framed photos he’d taken on family holidays in Qatar. He didn’t strike me as much of a monster.

    And he wanted to talk. I thrust the recorder at him and asked the most innocuous question I could think of.

    Why had he wanted to become an eye doctor?

    “Because it’s never an emergency,” he said. “It’s very precise, and there is very little blood.”

    Never an emergency. Very little blood.

    He wanted to talk about computers. “When we met, I was Mac and she was PC!” he said.

    Their daughter, Zein, a 7-year-old with curly hair, watched Alice in Wonderland on her father’s iMac. Asma’s iMac faced a side window.

    The entire back half of the apartment was glass, rising from the lower level through the main reception floor above, and perhaps even farther up. Other residential buildings with hundreds of windows had an unobstructed view of the Assads’ doings. The apartment was like a custom-built habitat in which a rich first family could go about its domestic life in front of a large audience.

    I wondered how this meshed with the secrecy Asma seemed to prize. I wondered who lived behind all those windows out there, and who they worked for.

    Nosy neighbors, Asma said, had commented on their orange seating area.“This curiosity is good,” said the president. “Even if you want to be secure, you have to choose between being secure and being ... psychotic.”

    The kitchen, at the opposite end from the windows, was the only place that wasn’t exposed to public view.

    Asma pulled open three boxes of fondue mix. The base of the saucepan she used was bright and brand new. The president attempted to ignite a little can of Sterno with a match. “I’ve never tried it, this is the first time,” he said.

    If this was a set, the props were well chosen: rubber boots and slickers piled by the lower-level door, a collection of completed Lego projects—trucks, buildings, a shark, all perfect—lining the edge of the plate-glass walls, a decorated Christmas tree. There was no staff to be seen, no nannies, maids, or cooks. Friday, the staff’s day off?

    The 9-year-old, Hafez, asked sharp questions about the workings of Congress. He was blond, like his brother, Karim, who, the first lady reminded me, had just turned 6 the day before.

    I had brought nothing.

    I rooted in my bag for something that could pass as a birthday present for a 6-year-old. Aha. Star Wars flash drive. R2-D2, blue and white.

    It was all I had.

    I showed R2-D2 to Holtzman, who said “Why not?” I asked the president if I could give his son a Star Wars flash drive of mine. He asked if I wanted to clean it up before I handed it over, and led me to his wife’s iMac. I put the R2-D2 flash drive in the socket, and a Word document popped up on her screen. I wasn’t going to open the Word document with the president of Syria leaning over me. As far as I could remember, it was a few transcribed lines about her taste for mathematics. But had I added anything more personal? Had I let rip about the security, the secrecy? About the metal box outside the souk?

    I sat in his wife’s chair, wondering what to do. The president suggested I might want to put the document in the trash. I pulled it to the trash. “Empty it,” he said. He did. I didn’t dare look at Asma. I handed the R2-D2 flash drive to Karim, who was only mildly impressed.

    We all clustered around the dinette table in the kitchen and dipped squares of bread into the fondue. Assad told jokes; they weren’t funny. Everyone laughed.

    After lunch, Asma announced we were going to Massar in Latakia.

    It was Dec. 17, 2010. In Tunisia that day, the Arab Spring began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street fruit vendor, set himself on fire.

    We arrived in Latakia in sleet. An SUV waited, identical to the one we had left in Damascus. Asma drove us to Massar; it was sleek, well designed, and looked expensive. It was also noisy and crawling with kids.

    I was told they were learning “action and process”: they had rid Latakia of plastic bags and run marathons to fund a dialysis machine for the hospital.

    The teenage boys had wide, unformed faces, bad haircuts, breaking voices, and used their arms to create their own territory. The girls had sloping shoulders and tapered limbs. They all stood up when Asma came in, and then cleared their throats and pulled at their sweaters and debated and argued and proudly showed off for their first lady. Massar, where they came to change their town and build the future, was her gift.

    Dressed like them, in jeans and a cardigan, she listened to a long debate about standardizing the spelling of the word Syria. Then she rose and made an announcement.

    She said: “There isn’t enough money for Massar, and this center has to close down so that we can open another further up the coast.”

    Some kids’ mouths fell open. Shoulders rose. Heads went down. Boys and girls went silent. Some cried.

    A boy stood up.

    The translator whispered: “He says, ‘I understand why this should happen, but it’s not fair.’?”

    Another boy spoke. “He says we’ll show them how to start up their own center, we’ll help.”

    Asma al-Assad said: “What about we fire the person who gave me this bad idea to close this center?”

    Another boy responded: “Let’s debate with him instead.”

    She spoke again, this time with a big smile. The translator relayed:

    “Now she’s saying that this center isn’t really closing. It was just a test to see how much they cared.”

    It took a moment before the kids showed any joy or any relief. The little ride they’d just been on was no fun.

    I wandered out among the kids. Boys clustered around me, sweet teenagers. They had a poor grasp of personal space, spoke English, were eager, intense. They wanted to know everything about New York and movies.

    More teenagers clustered around Asma as she headed for the door. She didn’t seem to want to leave.

    I asked her why she’d made the fake announcement about closing the Massar center.

    “There was a little bit of formality in what they were saying,” she said. “It wasn’t real—it was just nerves, or respect. So the idea was to get them out of their comfort zone, throw them off. I do it all the time. We need to get past the formalities if we are to get anything done.”

    Back in my hotel room, I found the Ethernet cable ripped out of my laptop so violently that the plastic tab on the end had broken off.

    The next day, Dec. 18, demonstrations broke out across Tunisia as Mohamed El Bouazizi lay in a coma in hospital, dying of his burns.

    I went to the main museum. I expected a profusion of extraordinary treasures. It was modest, unheated, sparse, and dusty.

    Snowstorms in London trapped me in Damascus for two more days.

    I never made it to Palmyra. I attended a concert. Two hundred children sang carols, Broadway hits, and Arabic rap. The president shook a little bell to “Jingle Bell Rock.” The priest in charge promised that next year all the songs would be in Arabic.

    I found myself in the opera-house foyer with the Assads.

    “Do you understand now?” Asma asked, looking at her ring finger and then at her husband.

    “Yes,” I said. I understood nothing. That was our parting.

    I sat in the hotel bar with the French ambassador and asked what was really going on in Syria. He took the battery out of my Syrian cell phone and then did the same with his. This must have set off an alert, because suddenly Sheherazade materialized in front of us.

    “What are you doing?” she asked.

    “Aren’t you sick?” I asked. “Go back to bed.”

    The ambassador drew maps of Syria’s shifting boundaries, with dates.

    The next day Sheherazade took me to Ma’loula, the village where they still speak Aramaic, the language of the Bible.

    She said: “We don’t want you to talk to the French ambassador.” “You can’t talk to me that way,” I said.

    When I opened my laptop at the Vienna airport on the way back to New York, an icon on the screen announced itself as the server for someone named Ali.

    I arrived in New York on Dec. 21, 2010, and quarantined the compromised laptop.

    I watched Al Jazeera on my other computer as I transcribed. A small uprising in Algeria at the end of December was quickly squashed. In Tunisia on Jan. 4, 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi died of his burns, and the country erupted.

    I watched the protests in Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. In my earpiece as I transcribed, I heard the voice of Asma al-Assad talking, on and on, about empowering children to build a civil society.

    I watched Al Jazeera constantly. I didn’t want to write this piece. But I always finished what I started.

    I handed in the piece on Jan. 14, the day President Ben Ali fled Tunisia. “The Arab Spring is spreading,” I told Vogue on Jan. 21. “You might want to hold the piece.”

    They didn’t think the Arab Spring was going anywhere, and the piece was needed for the March “Power Issue.”

    I got an expert to clean Ali out of the laptop. “They weren’t very skilled, but they were thorough,” he said.

    On Jan. 25, protesters massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Sunni Muslims in Lebanon staged a “day of rage” against Hizbullah. It felt like 1989, when CNN gave us a front row to history. Back then the plot was basic, binary: communism ends.

    But binary had gone out the window with the end of the Cold War. This was tweets and blogs and Al Jazeera online and the BBC, and CNN roughed up in Tahrir Square. You couldn’t say what the plot was: power to the Arab people, or the end of secularism and the rise of an ominous tide of pan-Arab fundamentalists?

    On Jan. 31, Bashar al-Assad gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal. He made no sense. “There is nothing called behavior,” he said. “As states we depend on our interest, and not on our behavior.”

    On Feb. 11, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt. I cheered, inspired and touched by Tahrir Square. There were protests in Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, Bahrain, then, unbelievably, in Libya.

    I asked Vogue’s managing editor if we could meet to discuss how to handle the Assad piece. A meeting was held, without me. I was asked not to speak to the press.

    On Feb. 25, as Libyan protesters demanded an end to Gaddafi, my piece on Asma al-Assad went online at They had excruciatingly titled it “A Rose in the Desert.”

    I was attacked as soon as it went up. How dare I write about Asma al-Assad? By describing Syria’s first lady in Vogue, I had anointed her.

    Syria stayed quiet until the middle of March, when a small incident set off the horrifying massacres that have now gone on for 17 months. In a town called Daraa at the end of February, 15 children broke the country’s silence. I don’t know if it was the euphoria of the Arab Spring or if they had been empowered by the Green Team from Massar.

    The boys, ages 9 to 15, wrote, “The people want to topple the regime” on the walls of their school.

    The police arrested them. When they had not been released after two weeks, their families staged a protest on March 15.

    At a second protest, on March 18, Syrian forces fired on the crowd and killed four people.

    The boys were released from prison. Their families saw that they had been tortured and took to the streets. On March 23, a grenade was hurled into a crowd of protesters in the Daraa mosque.

    Assad’s forces began to kill Syrians every day. They fired on mourners at funerals, men gathered in mosques, women and children in the street.

    They arrested more children. They tortured more children.

    On April 29, a chubby 13-year-old boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb was arrested during a protest in Saida, near Daraa.

    On May 24, Hamza’s mutilated body was returned to his parents. The report by Al Jazeera said: “The child had spent nearly a month in the custody of Syrian security, and when they finally returned the corpse, it bore the scars of brutal torture: lacerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face, and knees. Hamza’s eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly. On Hamza’s chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off.”

    Asma al-Assad had said that “Massar” meant destiny.

    Bashar al-Assad blamed the uprising of the Syrian people on terrorists from both al Qaeda and the United States.

    Through 2011, I wondered about Asma al-Assad, the woman who cared so much about the youth of Syria. How could she not know what was happening? How could she stand by and do nothing while the Syrian regime ate its young?

    In May of 2011, Vogue took the piece off its website. I kept my word and did not speak to the press. At the end of the year my contract was not renewed.

    I was now free to react to the Syrian carnage with the only medium I had: Twitter.

    Last December, Bashar al-Assad told Barbara Walters the truth on ABC: “No government kills its people, unless it’s run by a crazy person.”

    I wondered what their massive windows looked like now, and whether they still lived on show to the gaze of thousands.

    Was Asma locked up, or back home in Ealing, or Acton? When pictures of her appeared making charity packages with her husband or voting—voting!—in a referendum, I wondered if she was drugged, compliant, indifferent, complicit.

    Most of all, I wondered about Massar and her project to empower 6 million young Syrians to become “active citizens.” “Part of the change,” she’d said.

    Was she conscious that by empowering the children of Syria to take charge of their destinies, she was feeding them to her husband’s torturers?

    What is consciousness when you are first lady of hell?

    I will never know.

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    Our favorite menswear models, Casey Legler (the first woman to ever list exclusively on Ford's mens board), has teamed up with Portland, Oregon based brand, Wildfang. In case the name doesn't ring a bell - its an online shop that as launched by two friends and that curates "some of the raddest tomboy fashions." They've just launched a new campaign entitled, “Show Us Your Wildfang," which features artist/olympic swimmer/model Casey Legler, actress (and Elvis Presley's granddaughter) Riley Keough and musician Sara Bareilles, among others. Of her involvement in the campaign, Legler says: “I feel lucky. It’s a huge privilege to be able to articulate the way in which gender signifiers can be critically engaged with on their way to freedom.” Yay, #Diversity casting.

    images courtesy of wildfang

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    The fashion industry has been hit with yet another unpaid internship lawsuit. Vallentino Smith, a 25 year-old from Queens, New York, has filed suit against Donna Karan International in a New York federal court. Smith, who interned at the company's Seventh Avenue headquarters in 2009 when he was an undergraduate student, claims he worked 16 hours a week without pay, getting coffee and organizing the company's fashion closets. According to Smith's lawyer, Lloyd Ambinder, his client, "like a lot of undergraduates trying to build up a resume, went for an internship in a glamorous industry where jobs are harder to get." Ambinder also shares some other choice words, saying: “They took advantage of him. You don’t see this in waste management or funeral homes." 

    Smith, who alleges that Donna Karan has violated both federal and state wage/labor laws, is seeking class action certification, which would enable other former Donna Karan interns to join his lawsuit and share in any potential damage awards, and is also asking for the wages he believes he is entitled to (minimum wage of $7.15), among other damages. 

    According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid intern program must meet the following factors as provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act in order to be considered an intern, as opposed to an entry-level employee, who must be paid:

    images courtesy of donna karan

    1. The internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational institution. The more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience, as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience (this often occurs where a college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit. However, simply receiving academic credit is not always enough to prevent an intern from bringing a successful lawsuit).

    2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern. This means that the more the internship provides the "intern" with skills that can be used in multiple employment settings, as opposed to skills particular to one employer’s operation, the more likely the intern would be viewed as receiving training.

    3. The intern does not displace a regular employee, and works under close supervision of existing staff. If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to supplement its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation, if applicable. 

    4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and, on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded. If the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work, such as filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers, then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits, does not preclude them bringing a lawsuit. This is because the employer is benefitting from the interns’ work.

    5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship. Unpaid internships generally should not be used by the employer as a trial period for individuals seeking employment at the conclusion of the internship period. If an intern is placed with the employer for a trial period with the expectation that he or she will then be hired on a permanent basis, that individual generally would be considered an employee.

    6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages.

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    The Hearst Unpaid Intern Lawsuit is Over

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