'Dogs don't have egos, humans do'

Visitors to the New York Fashion Week this month with their canine companion. This year’s event featured a segment in which dogs took – or were taken on – to the runway, with “humans as the accessories”.
Visitors to the New York Fashion Week this month with their canine companion. This year’s event featured a segment in which dogs took – or were taken on – to the runway, with “humans as the accessories”.PHOTO: REUTERS

What does it mean to have a 2018 spring/summer line in dogswear? The writer went to a former synagogue in Manhattan to find out

As I shuffle into the main hall at Anthony Rubio's Canine Couture collection in New York, I see a child shyly clutching a stack of cards.

"What are those?" I ask as I draw up to her. The top of her braided head is level with my waist.

"They're her business cards," her mum replies. I take one. There are two photos of the girl, side-by-side with herself, behind a printed caption. It's her Instagram handle.

"How old is she?" I ask the mum, while smiling at the daughter.

"Six." "Oh, great," I say. I don't know why I said that. I was at a loss for words many times that night in the former Manhattan synagogue.

I say goodbye to the child (noting as I wave that her eye makeup looks neater than mine) and dip back downstairs, hoping to find some quiet or at least some free booze. I find neither.

A photographer asks for Kim to pose with the dog she'll be walking with. She takes the small dog (whose name I can't remember) and I notice he's shaking all over. Kim notices it too and tries to pet him. The owner is standing next to me - "Is he OK?" I ask. "Oh yeah, he's fine," she says, but she's frowning and leans forward to take him in her arms. She comforts him: "Aw, it's OK." Then, looking at me: "He's just a little nervous."

I spy pecs and abdominals attached to young men in speedos milling around a mirrored column. They're taking it in turns to look at or for something in their reflections. One of them is using a white baby wipe covered in grey streaks to clean the sole of his foot. I look away and watch a young woman striding across the cramped basement. She gently tugs her denim shorts from where they are lodged within her labia.

I dart into a side room. Another woman, this one much taller, moves past me in a floor-length black shiny skirt and a black shirt which is 100 per cent see-through. She's not wearing a bra so I really do see through it.

I have just enough time to think that her nipples look different to mine but not enough time to figure out how. Someone behind me says: "That's too sheer." I look back. The voice must have come from the older woman who is inspecting the blouse and its contents. A man next to her pouts and says: "But I like it."

The show will start soon and, despite smiling a lot while holding a notebook, I still haven't interviewed anyone - human or otherwise. This is Anthony Rubio's fifth Canine Couture collection. I do not know what it means to have a 2018 spring/summer line in dogswear. Aren't dogs hot in summer? Isn't fur bad enough? Why add clothes?

A few days ago, I received a press release that started with the words "**MEDIA ALERT**MEDIA ALERT**MEDIA ALERT**MEDIA ALERT**" and ended with photos of dogs in dresses.

Buried in the middle of the e-mail was a line that I haven't been able to get out of my head - it's the reason I'm here: "Where the humans are the accessories."

"Ah!" I thought. "This is what Dr Manokha meant when he said capitalism was untenable!" Manokha was my politics professor at university who referenced Marx repeatedly, joyously. Surely Manokha would say that there is no future for a country where 31 million children are facing poverty, but where you can buy a "custom tapestry coat" for a dog.

Warily, I approach a human (they are getting far less attention than the dogs in pushchairs). Kim is wearing a long, bright blue dress and I already know which dog she'll be paired with - he too is wearing a bright blue dress. It's Kim's third show with Rubio and she is eager to tell me why.

The designer, she explains, cares about the dogs.

During auditions, he makes sure that the dogs are comfortable in their outfits. They must walk in them even though most of the dogs don't actually walk the runway, they're held. They must be at ease with their human accessories too, so they're introduced ahead of time. All the profits from the show, she tells me, go to charity.

I ask Kim about herself. She tells me she just graduated from Yale. She's a Google consultant also working with a company called Rxall that is finding ways for people in developing countries to scan a pill to check if it's counterfeit.

A photographer asks for Kim to pose with the dog she'll be walking with. She takes the small dog (whose name I can't remember) and I notice he's shaking all over. Kim notices it too and tries to pet him. The owner is standing next to me - "Is he OK?" I ask. "Oh yeah, he's fine," she says, but she's frowning and leans forward to take him in her arms. She comforts him: "Aw, it's OK." Then, looking at me: "He's just a little nervous."

Someone to my right says: "Gooooo mummy!" A woman beside me is clutching a pale baby in a pink tutu and pointing at a woman moving down the runway in a red gown. The baby's face instantly shifts, the top lip rides up to the nostrils, the jaw drops, the eyes squeeze shut and she lets out a loud high wail. The woman gives me an awkward smile as she shouts: "Ah, it's too loud in here!" I worry again.

Looking for my next interviewee, I notice the only big dog in the room. He's lying on his front sleeping and I can't see his face, just a mound of long, dry, brown and black hair. This is Hollywood the Leonberger.

His owner, Morgan Avila, winks and tells me "put down 49" when I ask her age. She's more straightforward about the dog. "He's four, done everything - he's ranked 15th (in the US) in dock diving (I make a mental note to Google dock diving), the fastest Leonberger in the 100-yard dash, he dances, he sings, he was in the Equalizer with Denzel Washington… "

"Erm," I interrupt, glancing at his leash which is made out of a string of pearls, "how much does he get paid?" (I had to say "he" - it's rude to ask how much a person earns.) It varies, I'm told, but for this show, US$1,300 (S$1,750). That's a month's rent in this city. Easy.

It's time for the show to begin.

Back upstairs, I don't vie for one of the gold-backed, linen-based chairs lining the runway. They look like they were left by a wedding party earlier that day. I stand behind the last row and feel strangely nervous. The temple is showered in lights. The back wall, with its big Star of David, is covered in a bright pink glare. There are red and blue accents on the upper windows.

After a brief introduction from Mariah Carey's former husband, Nick Cannon, the pre-show opens with Gwen Stefani's song Luxurious featuring Slim Thug. The music booms. It's a slow one, so the models don't walk too fast. It looks a bit like they're stifling smiles.

It's only now I notice something I would have noticed long ago if this weren't my first foray into fashion. This crowd, these models, they're really diverse. Not box-checking diverse. The only way you could have got this range of thigh sizes, skin tones and wrinkle depth would have been to do an open audition on a New York subway car. I realise why some of the audience look particularly eager - they're friends with the models.

The crowd is whooping and, what's this? I am too! Next up, those male models I spotted downstairs. More whooping (I put my pen between my teeth in order to clap better) and lots of excited looks with other applauding ladies. OK, OK, these fit guys really aren't all different body types at all but… I've forgotten, what was I saying? The designer steps out with the last model and three of his friends jump up from the first row to scream with pride and take pictures.

Someone to my right says: "Gooooo mummy!" A woman beside me is clutching a pale baby in a pink tutu and pointing at a woman moving down the runway in a red gown. The baby's face instantly shifts, the top lip rides up to the nostrils, the jaw drops, the eyes squeeze shut and she lets out a loud high wail. The woman gives me an awkward smile as she shouts: "Ah, it's too loud in here!" I worry again.

Anthony Rubio's show begins. And ends - all in about five minutes. I couldn't tell you what songs were playing, what clothes were worn or whether the smell of hairspray overrode the smell of dogs. Because once the show started, all I could notice were their hind legs.

It certainly wasn't all of them, but it was probably most. A constant trembling. You could see it even in the wisps of quivering fur. These dogs were petrified. And it feels as though I was the only person who was worried. A woman in the front row with poker-straight black hair and a wide, red-lipsticked mouth yells "you're so cute!" at a dog. Everyone else is grinning. Everyone.

The announcer thanks the show's sponsors - the Aids Healthcare Foundation, Monster Energy drinks and Hairdreams, the official hair of New York Fashion Week. The dogs have had their day.

I know better than to verbalise my feelings to any of the other people. I would expose myself as a po- faced liberal who takes life's every joy and turns it into a thinkpiece.

I put away my notebook and pen but as I do so I realise I've lost the child's business card. Oh God. I imagine her finding her twin faces lying on the floor, trampled by the exodus of spectators. What would that do to her young self-esteem?

That's when I realise what I find so offensive about all this. Dogs don't have egos. Humans do. Isn't that part of the reason these creatures are loved so dearly? They are unburdened by any idea of the self. Isn't that why they don't need clothes, let alone fashion shows - they have no modesty to protect. Their genitals can hang freely. Nay (I'm getting riled up now) their genitals should hang freely.

I want to speak to Anthony Rubio before I leave so I head back into the throng downstairs. I bump into David Yip and his two-year-old dog, Yorkie. "How did the show go?" I ask. "He did great," he replies. The dog, a Maltese wearing a suit and top hat, does look quite serene.

"What's that on his face?" I say, pointing to a pink streak on the white fur. David laughs and says: "Lipstick." Then he says: "Oh shit! We have more shows! That needs to come off." He starts frantically pulling at the fur on the dog's snout as he says "f..k me, f..k me" with increasing franticness. The pink is still very much there. I suggest he ask someone for makeup remover and he disappears.

Hovering while he poses for photos with the dogs and the women, I eventually catch Anthony and he agrees to sit down for a quick interview. I understand why everyone has spoken so warmly about him. He seems like a nice guy.

Anthony tells me he was raised in a New York apartment with animals. Lots of them. "We had everything from frogs to ducks, you name it." Twelve years ago, he adopted a rescue dog named Bandit and made him a promise: "The rest of your life is gonna be heaven - and that's what it was."

Bandit got famous, being used by Macy's advertising department. Anthony now has two chihuahuas. "We travel every year for their birthday to a different country."

I listen patiently before plucking up the courage to ask: "I did notice a couple of the dogs trembling a little bit on the runway." "Yeah," he interrupts. "It's the noise, it's the flashing cameras... I mean, I shook the first time I was out there."

"You think it's worth it?" I ask.

"Absolutely," he says. "... the dogs are seen, they're photographed, they go all over the Internet".

"But the owners get something out of that, right? Not the dogs."

Rubio says "we have stage mums" and he points at a woman who has just entered the room. "You know, I teach high school, retiring this year after 30 years doing it. She graduated from my high school and I said: 'You should come model for me one day,' and sure enough, she did."

He really does seem like a nice guy, even if he didn't answer my question. The interview is over. This is Rubio's big night and other people want to speak to him.

In the cab home, I narcissistically review the Instagram stories I posted of the night. I didn't manage to capture the final moments on the catwalk, when Anthony Rubio stepped out on stage waving, waving, smiling, waving. He had a dog, too, but he wasn't holding it up for the crowd to see; it was on a leash. I craned my neck. It was a large poodle - she could have been slim but then again she could have been hiding some fat behind all that long curly black fur.

Did she look like… me?

No. Can't be. I don't walk like that.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline ''Dogs don't have egos, humans do''. Print Edition | Subscribe