The She-Wolves and Lionesses of Fashion Week

The fashion world is notoriously cutthroat, but is it lions-and-tigers-and-bears-level ferocious? The question arose earlier this month, when National Geographic held its first-ever New York Fashion Week show, in SoHo. The occasion was the première, next week, of “Queens,” a new docuseries about female wildlife: Ethiopian she-wolves, Tanzanian lionesses, a deadly orca grandmother. The series, narrated by Angela Bassett, also has a female-led filmmaking team, and the theme of the runway event, “ ’Fit for a Queen,” was girl power across species.

“There are so many subtleties in female leadership,” Sophie Darlington, a veteran wildlife cinematographer, said before the show. “It’s not all fighting, although we’ve got a lot of that as well. There’s some badassery.” After working on “Queens,” she was there to walk the runway, in a flamingo-pink linen pants suit. Sakinah Bashir, the evening’s stylist, had pulled together nine nature-themed outfits. There were rules. “No fur, no leather,” Bashir said backstage, as models primped nearby. “I was inspired by late-nineties runways. They had a lot of animal prints.”

Ignoring male beasts and their bravado had freed the filmmakers to capture the wisdom of nature’s matriarchs, such as the elephant who leads her herd along ancient savanna pathways. But there were divas, too, including an iridescent orchid bee in the Central American jungle. “She would absolutely be at New York Fashion Week,” Darlington said. “Female leadership isn’t always pretty. She basically gets her daughter to do all of her work.” Bonobos were gentler. “You’ve got these beautiful elders—which I love, being an elder—and they make love to calm everybody down.” She clarified, “I’m not advocating we all go and do that.”

Darlington, who had briefly modelled in Dublin in her youth—“I used to walk on a plank laid over beer barrels for nuns, and you’d flash your knickers at them”—was mentored by Hugo van Lawick, Jane Goodall’s first husband. (“He was not scared of strong women.”) Having risen in a male-dominated industry, she and her collaborators brought on young female filmmakers for “Queens.” Faith Musembi, from Kenya, joined as a field director and bonded with a pregnant elephant. One day, after turning on her car and startling the animal, she realized that she was blind. “I played her lots of Disney soundtracks,” she said.

Erin Ranney, who filmed in Alaska, where she was born, came across a waterfall where female brown bears were sharing a fishing spot. “There was only one dorky male who came in at one point, and we’re pretty sure he was related to the top female,” she recalled. She wore a secondhand one-shoulder white jumpsuit that showed off an arm tattoo of a bear hunting salmon. In the wild, she usually wears “greens and browns and a lot of sunscreen,” she said. “Now we’re not trying to blend in, which is very weird.”

Out by the stage, fashionable mammals sipped sparkling rosé as “I’m Every Woman” blasted over speakers. A pair of fashion vloggers, Jayria Nicole and Iesha Gilchrist, sat in the second row. “I’m a Leo, so I would absolutely be a lion,” Nicole said. “Lions are fierce!”

Gilchrist saw herself as a giraffe: “I want to be able to see what everyone else has going on.”

“You give long neck,” Nicole agreed. Monét X Change, a “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” champion, prowled the room in a gem-studded lioness bodysuit, fondling her tail. “The vibe is Scar from ‘The Lion King,’ ” she said. But, she added, “I identify with the rhino—hard on the outside, very soft internally.” A rapper in leopard-print spandex, Maiya the Don, eyed her and said, “I wish I had a tail. Motherfucker!”

The lights dimmed. Holograms of roaring lions and growling bears alternated with fauna-inspired looks, including a lioness-like crushed-velvet bodysuit and a bearish burnt-sienna dress with a bubble hem. At the end, Alicia Graf Mack, the dean of dance at Juilliard, came out with her seven-year-old daughter, both in gray stretch-nylon suits. They performed a pas de deux, reinterpreting a scene from “Queens,” of a mother elephant protecting her calf from hyenas.

At the after-party, Musembi and Ranney surveyed the partygoers—including a few peacocking males—and saw traces of the jungle. “The posturing, the dancing. It’s like animal society,” Musembi said, comparing the swarm around the bar to “hyenas at a carcass.” Ranney was reminded of a lion’s den: “The females are really in charge—you just don’t realize it.”

Darlington, having changed from pink to black, said, “This is like a flock of the most beautiful flamingos. Everyone’s out in their finest.” She was relieved to be done with her runway moment: “I’m much happier watching cats walk than being on the catwalk.” ♦

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