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Aggieland: A Fashion Hot Spot.... No Joke!

Let's say you're an editor at a London-based magazine looking for a glamorous spot to anchor the photo layout unveiling the Spring 2008 men's fashions from high-end designers like Versace and Armani.
Milan? Paris? Monte Carlo?
The winner is: College Station.
And that's no Aggie joke.
A photo team working for the British edition of Esquire Magazine
spent much of this week in the hometown of Texas A&M University, a
school founded on farming and engineering and where one is more
likely to see boots and jeans than Dolce & Gabanna.
"We do realize that," photographer Philip Toledano said.
"That's part of the thing. It's a nice juxtaposition. Contrast is
always interesting, particularly in art."
Intended for use in the March issue, the photo crew, a hunky
model and the fashion director of the magazine invaded the Brayton
Fire Training School, a renowned firefighter training site run by
the Texas Engineering Extension Service at the far edge of the
sprawling A&M campus about 100 miles northwest of Houston.
With the goal of filling a 10-page spread in one magazine's
largest editions of the year, Vancouver-born model Matt Gontier was
photographed as he perched on the edge of wrecked trains, scrambled
through of piles of debris and dashed amid smoke from a flaming
tanker - a la James Bond - and all without rumpling one of the
almost dozen $2,000 suits brought from London.
Even his coat remained buttoned.
"It's a journey though the apocalypse, I guess, or some form of
it," Toledano said of his theme.
He could have been speaking about the previous night, when he
and Gontier and some other members of the team ate dinner at a
barbecue chain called Texas Roadhouse, where chicken fried steak
and catfish share the menu with a piece of beef smothered in onions
that's known as "Roadkill."
"All those waitresses were in a line dance," a disbelieving
Toledano said.
Welcome to College Station.
Toledano, 38, born in London but now living in New York, was
here about a year ago for a different assignment for another
magazine that brought him to the fire school, the largest
live-fueled fire training facility in the world. He thought a
fashion spread using the training site as a backdrop would be
terrific and pitched the idea to Catherine Hayward, Esquire's
fashion director.
She was intrigued.
"I ran it by my editors," she said. "This is a big issue,
March and September in the magazine world. It's the beginning of a
new season, with new-season tailoring."
The school, with a section of it known as Disaster City, offered
"the kind of vibe we wanted," she said. "We also wanted
something quite odd and quirky.
"'Apocalyptic' is the word we've been using," she said,
echoing Toledano.
Hayward did an Internet search for Disaster City, found a phone
number, made a call and got approval.
"It's not a run-of-the mill fashion shoot, which can be a bit
boring," she said as Gontier was enveloped in white smoke from a
fog machine. Flames from a burning tanker spewed black smoke behind
him, all under the watchful eyes of a fire crew hosing the tanker
with water - and out of sight of Toledano's camera.
One bystander remarked the camera probably cost more than his
pickup truck.
"How much polyester in the clothing?" the school's training
coordinator Brian Smith cautioned Gontier. "Polyester melts."
The bigger question is whether a Versace suit even contains
polyester.
"We've got to have lunacy," Toledano said, directing the
model. "That's going to make the whole thing."
The idea of haute couture in College Station isn't that lunatic,
said Cheryl Bridges, director of Texas A&M's Center for Retailing
Studies.
"Fashion shoots quite often are in the most unlikely places,"
she said. "It has to do with the feeling of whatever the designer
or photographer is trying to get. And very often they try to pick
offbeat places."
Not that College Station is offbeat, she added.
"We're definitely a college town," she said. "And yes, the
perception of a university town is jeans and T-shirts. And that is
what you usually see day in and day out."
Even on fashion models.
Gontier shed his gray plaid designer suit, with matching shirt
and tie, and donned black jeans and a white sleeveless T-shirt. His
closet was the rear of a rented minivan. His dressing room was a
dirt and gravel parking lot.
He'd change again, maybe into something from Savile Row.
A train wreck was waiting.
"It is really kind of absurd," Jay Socol, communications
director for the Texas Engineering Extension Service, said. "But
it's fun to watch."


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