The Cult of Fashion

New York Times/August 28, 2005
By Horacio Silva

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful -- on the inside.

I wasn't born with an inner glow; I just have an unfair advantage because I work in fashion. Seriously. A multibillion-dollar celebration of the ephemeral and the superficial, the fashion world is an unlikely church for mystic awakenings and self-awareness, but it seems that everyone from models to stylists and publicists is desperately seeking substance.

Models these days are as interested in treading the path to enlightenment as they are in walking the runway. Peep backstage at any fashion show, and you'll find posers of both sexes with their cheese-cutter noses in oft-thumbed copies of ''The Celestine Prophecy'' or ''Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.'' Those who aren't hitting the books are striking poses in the yoga studios.

And they're not the only ones lost up their own kundalini. Designers are also searching for answers in faiths both age-old and New Age. At one show, the divine Donna Karan handed out a CD of spiritual poetry read by Deepak Chopra and Demi Moore, among others. Diane von Furstenberg even has a yoga studio adjacent to her office.

Witness, too, the conversion among the style set to cabala, which almost overnight made all other forms of spirituality appear as outmoded as last season's handbag. Until now, that is. Lately, two self-awareness groups have the fashion world buzzing about transformation and empowerment. The Hoffman Process is an eight-day self-analysis retreat at which devotees are encouraged to wear labels -- not Prada or Gucci, but tags like ''victim'' and ''undeserving,'' based on how they perceived themselves as children. It sounds diabolical, but that hasn't stopped the tough-love process from gaining a foothold in more than 14 countries.

But its impact is nothing compared with that of Landmark Forum, called est in an earlier incarnation, which has all but seduced the front row. Just as people used to talk about who did and didn't have colonics, it's become a demimonde parlor game to speculate about who has and hasn't attended Landmark. Not that acolytes are shy about outing themselves. In the last few months, several of my style brethren have tried to recruit me, including one public-relations person who, sensing my irritation, told me: ''Why are you so upset? It's no different than recommending a good restaurant.'' Ah, I'm on a gobbledygook diet, thanks.

Maybe I'm a cynic for not wanting to try anything founded by the man who served up the phrase ''Thanks for sharing,'' but apparently a lot of my peers think that Landmark is really, really yummy. ''It's the best decision I've ever made,'' says Josh Reed, a 27-year-old fashion publicist. ''You really should give it a go.''

Susannah Phillips, who produces photo shoots and was introduced to Landmark by a fashionista friend, is another believer: ''It's helped me to offload the baggage that was preventing me from becoming the person I wanted to be.'' She says she liked it so much that she went for an advanced course called S.E.L.P. (the Self Expression and Leadership Program).

The testimonials are as long as an Easter Mass, or at least a Landmark weekend: the introduction course takes place over three 13-hour days and costs you about $400. On the flip side, Web sites like are filled with damning, unconfirmed accounts about Landmark (everything from people who claim to have had nervous breakdowns after attending to a Minneapolis doctor who snapped and stabbed her son to death). And even though I would rather sit through Iceland Fashion Week than share intimacies with a bunch of strangers, I can understand why it could be attractive to someone trying to get a leg warmer up the corporate ladder (it's funny how many of the people I know who have done Landmark work for bosses who proselytize about it in the office).

Success in fashion -- particularly in modeling -- often finds young people at precisely the time when they are trying to find themselves. And why shouldn't a hairdresser attempt to untangle life's mess? But I wonder how much of it has to do with the industry's sense of entitlement -- ''I look cute; ergo I deserve to be happy ... now!'' -- and its thirst for the next big thing. And doesn't Landmark offer the fashion flock yet another reason to talk about themselves for hours?

''You know, every industry has its nuances,'' says Dr. Joe DiMaggio, a senior program leader at Landmark. ''But the fundamental basis of the Landmark Forum is a dialogue and an inquiry into what's relevant and important in being human.''

Not everyone is convinced. ''I don't want to say anything negative about Landmark, because I know so many people who have done it,'' says Anne Slowey, the fashion features director at Elle magazine, ''but I just didn't feel the high they talk about. Then again, I left after three hours because I was on deadline. I also think that if you want to really understand human nature, read Henry James.'' Amen.

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