Fashion's Surprising New Face

Article excerpt

Byline: Robin Givhan

Michelle Obama's glamour has democratized fashion and given rise to an unlikely star.

Bonnie Morrison is a celebrated social schmoozer. She can shift from an entertaining riff on the merits of The Real Housewives to an astute monologue on the social mores of WASP privilege and then to the complexities of navigating a fashion industry that can at times feel impenetrable--particularly to a person of color or someone without means.

As New York slips into the throes of the fall 2011 Fashion Week, the city will see plenty of Morrison. She is the gracious freelance flack who prevents the backstage area of a runway show from turning into a free-for-all of half-naked models, roving photographers, and air-kissing notables. She sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the denizens of fashion's front rows in her off-duty hours and is friendly with all the golden-haired young women of notable lineage. She is a party girl--the cool black chick in all the society pictures.

Morrison, 35, is fashion's unlikeliest "it" girl. Her rise has surprised no one more than Morrison herself, who has spent most of her time in the fashion industry working behind the scenes. But in the last few years, the culture has shifted, the industry has changed, and now Morrison, a middle-class black woman from San Francisco, breathes the rarefied air once reserved for the daughters of power brokers.

Morrison enjoys the attention, the invitations, and the free clothes. But life at the top of the fashion heap is not without peril. In an industry where appearance is paramount, Morrison fights personal demons about hers. Friends are effusive about her charm and style, but Morrison wonders if a black woman can ever really meet fashion's unforgiving demands. Or is her paranoia all in her head?

"I've internalized race to a degree that I sort of believe that the ideal beauty, when we're casting for things is--I've let myself believe that it's a white person," Morrison says.

An "it" girl is that rarefied creature who inspires designers, shows off their wares, and always seems to be having the time of her life. In the past, that woman was typically in her 20s (think Paris Hilton without the police record). She was pretty and rich--and if her money was not coming in the form of dividends, then she had married well or gotten herself a boyfriend with bucks. If she worked, it was a choice, not a necessity. If she was not a society girl, then she was a starlet, a Blake Lively type, better known for her sense of style than her acting chops. And generally she was white.

But we now live in the era of Michelle Obama, a time when the fashion industry is enthralled by this sophisticated black woman who dresses with flair. Obama is not unique in her love for clothes, but her high profile has hammered home all that she symbolizes. A sluggish economy has forced designers to sober up and think about all working women, not just the ones who travel by private jet. And in today's political climate, inherited wealth and status have been maligned as character flaws.

Given such shifts, it's only natural the fashion industry would have grown less comfortable with the usual show ponies and clotheshorses. And, frankly, having a front row filled with CW starlets and reality-show gadflies was becoming a cliche.

"It's cooler to be a working girl, to have great style and credibility, rather than showing up at every fashion show in a different gown," says Amanda Brooks, socialite, former Tuleh muse, and the recently named women's fashion director at Barneys New York. "I think most girls would be covetous of Bonnie's ability to have such an inside role in fashion -- Bonnie has a role wherever she goes. She's not there preening."

"It's a quieter role," Brooks adds. "It's more honorable, interesting and sophisticated."

If anything, Morrison is a throwback to the "it" girls of the 1950s and '60s, women who, even in middle age, were still in their social heyday. …