Author Molly Young
Designers come in all shapes," Benjamin Liu is musing as he surveys the party on the third floor of 120 Walker Street, the triangle-shaped Chinatown building where designers like Joseph Altuzarra and Proenza Schouler have established studios. "Some are showmen, like Isaac Mizrahi. Others, like Marc Jacobs, understand the social connectiveness of the fashion business. Alexander Wang revels in his youthfulness, which is great PR for the brand. But generally, the new generation of designers is humble. They're like a family, in a loose sense. And they embrace all the arts—painting and music especially."
It's Saturday night, Fashion Week, and Liu's been up since 5 a.m. working on this morning's United Bamboo show, where Kim Gordon, Karen O, and Harmony Korine sat in the front row evaluating linen shorts from a label also known for their $500 outfits for cats. Officially, Liu is a planner of fashion shows (Richard Chai, Moschino) and fashion parties (Nom de Guerre, Barneys New York, Vena Cava). Unofficially, he's a fashion-world fixer—someone who keeps constant track of the local time in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London, and finagles solutions where solutions don't seem plausible. One such moment arose in 1982 when Liu, working as an assistant for Andy Warhol, was asked by his boss for a "haircut." Liu remembers courteously snipping at the sides of Warhol's wig. "Pop art involved trimming hair," he shrugs. Liu knows all about solutions.
A fashion show is a big task made up of a thousand micro-tasks, each of which Liu hammers out himself. There is music to arrange and a delivery of water bottles to manage and questions of lighting and models and the renting of space. The details count. "It's important to provide catering for backstage," he explains. "I don't mean you need a caterer. But you need to go to a place like City Bakery to get good coffee in a good urn and baked goods. And you need yogurt and fruit for all the models. The models hog the fruit." Last season he did too many shows, so this season Liu says he's keeping it simple and planning just the one. Seriously, that's it. The after-party begins at midnight.
But first he wants to stop by the Spring 2011 presentation of Highland, a hip little menswear line by Liu's friend Lizzie Owens, who is known for costuming MGMT and Brandon Flowers. Highland is the opposite of United Bamboo—it references Utah's mountains and flat-bottomed canyons instead of origami—but Liu knows Owens because he knows everyone. (Really, everyone—Chloë Sevigny and Diane von Furstenberg and the artist Terence Koh, with whom he goes way back: "Terence has a great sense of filial piety to all things perverse.") 120 Walker Street, the site of Owens' presentation, is in an old (c. 1920) building that stands around the corner from Jewelry Magic Jewelry and across from the Chung Pak Day Care Center. There's a fish head in the gutter. "This is so Brooklyn," Liu says as he climbs the stairs.
The third floor is filled with young men drinking cups of whiskey and wearing slim button-downs in madras and that distinct swimming-pool shade of blue that only occurs in expensive shirts. Highland's collection is distributed around the room in a half-dozen outfits, each resembling the clothes worn by adventurers in semi-offensive colonial-era children's books. The outfits are draped over Styrofoam cactus figures instead of models. There's a lightweight toggle coat, a sturdy sweater, and shirts in ikat print with breast pockets big enough to store a shitload of trail mix. "This is like a nice home-brewed apple cider," Liu says obliquely.
Curious about the Styrofoam mannequins, Liu wanders over to visit the artist Benjamin Phelan, who's in charge of the party's atmospherics. "Who makes Styrofoam?" Liu asks. "What country exports it? What is Styrofoam?"
"Extruded polystyrene," says Phelan, who carved the mannequins from hand with a hot wire cutter. He's helming an LED display from his laptop through a computer file labeled "Party."
"How much does it cost?"
"Thirty dollars for a four-by-eight sheet. It's less expensive when you buy it at Home Depot than at an art-supply store."
Benjamin Liu likes to ask a lot of questions, and he remembers everything. Last year, for example, he threw a party at a restaurant that specialized in Jewish food and became fascinated, in a gothic way, with schmaltz ("It's liquid chicken oil"). He's discussing schmaltz when Lizzie Owens comes over to slap Liu playfully on the bottom and to talk about the collection, which she describes as "clothes for guys who don't like to shop, except maybe for a backpack." Word comes in that the toilet is overflowing and Lizzie goes in search of a plunger and a flashlight, which strikes Liu as hilarious ("It really is Brooklyn in Manhattan!"). A broken toilet is not, however, something that would happen at a Benjamin Liu event.
As with anyone who's very good at his job, it's tempting to study Liu for clues about his success. These include behaviors (he watches financial news every morning and does not check his phone during conversations) as well as instruments (he wears charcoal-gray Nom de Guerre for Converse sneakers and prefers stenographer's note pads, which he buys in a six-pack from Staples). The more mystical of Liu's traits, like his taste and charisma, are harder to analyze. He has a habit of introducing everyone he knows to everyone else he knows.
One such person is Yeasayer's Chris Keating, who's sporting a three-day beard and dancing goofily in a corner with his willowy wife, Willow. Liu goofy-dances over to them and Keating explains how he tried to get his younger cousin to come to the party. "I was like, 'Dude, you're 11 years old. Let's fuckin' rock.' And he was like, 'Saturday Night Live is on in an hour, so I don't know if I'll make it.' Then he threw some magnets at us." Someone texts Keating, are you hot assholes in brooklyn? and Keating, Willow, and Liu decide it's time to head to the United Bamboo after-party at the Wooly. They go downstairs and head down Canal Street to hail a cab. "Is it too late to buy a fake Vuitton bag?" Liu wonders, watching the street vendors roll up display blankets and stuff purses into garbage bags. "It's never too late, Ben," Keating says gravely. "It's never too late."