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At Fashion Show, U.N. Tour Guides Walk Runway

By James Barron

United Nations guides wear new uniforms designed by Elie Tahari, at the U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan, Sept. 15, 2017. In a red carpet show complete with booming bass, the General Assembly lobby was transformed into a fashion show unveiling new uniforms for the cadre of guides who field questions and give tours of the building.
 
Chang W. Lee
United Nations guides wear new uniforms designed by Elie Tahari, at the U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan, Sept. 15, 2017. In a red carpet show complete with booming bass, the General Assembly lobby was transformed into a fashion show unveiling new uniforms for the cadre of guides who field questions and give tours of the building.

UNITED NATIONS — New York City has had Fashion Week in some form for more than 70 years, and the United Nations has had guides leading visitors on tours for almost as long. So perhaps it was inevitable that the fashion world and the diplomatic world would converge.

And so they did on Thursday, with a red carpet in the General Assembly lobby and music with a pounding bass booming from speakers. There was what amounted to a fashion show, with designer Elie Tahari looking on. He had designed the new uniforms for the U.N. guides, who showed them off for the first time.

Bright lights switched on and photographers lined up. There will be more photographers next week with the convening of the General Assembly, another ritual of September in New York that brings kings, presidents and other heads of state — and gridlock alerts on the East Side near the United Nations, motorcades led by police cars and security people with earphones. President Donald Trump is scheduled to address the General Assembly on Tuesday and is expected to call for concerted moves against North Korea and Iran.

The guides will have been briefed, as they are every day, so they will be ready for questions from visitors on tours at the United Nations.

Visitors often ask about the size of the U.N. budget — the core operating budget is $5.4 billion and the peacekeeping budget totals nearly $8 billion. The U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, has said that she would like to cap U.S. funding for the peacekeeping budget at 25 percent, down from a little more than 28 percent now. The United States pays 22 percent of the core budget under a formula set by international agreement.

If anyone asks about the uniforms, the guides can tell them about the show Thursday and that the first two uniforms were worn by models who work for Tahari. The others were worn by 15 of the guides. The United Nations has 25 guides.

Chang W. Lee
 

They came down the ceremonial stairs and crossed the lobby without teetering or tumbling, as sometimes happens during Fashion Week. But parading for cameras was not a role some of the guides had expected to play.

“Not really,” said one of the guides, Helin Argav, who studied political science and international relations and completed internships in Berlin and Washington before arriving at the United Nations last year.

If runway-walking was new to the guides, designing uniforms was new to Tahari, who said these were his first. He was known for popularising tube tops in the 1970s, tailored suits for women in the 1980s and 1990s and, later, luxury ready-to-wear clothing for men as well as women. The uniforms have dark navy blue jackets with narrow lapels with pencil skirts and pants for the women and slacks for the men.

Tahari said that the uniforms were “meant to look elegant, classic and professional, and be comfortable.” He also said that designing them was “a long two-year project.”

“The simpler it is, the harder it is to design,” he said. “You can’t design still water.”

Chang W. Lee
 

The United Nations said the uniform is the latest in a sequence that began in the 1950s. The first guides’ uniforms were inspired by the look of flight attendants — air travel was still a luxury in the early 1950s, and jets were just beginning to join the fleets of commercial airlines. The United Nations said the first guides were provided with summer and winter uniforms that had “a somewhat military look,” with a tailored suit that had cordons or epaulets.

The shoulder ornamentation was dropped in the 1960s “to lessen the military influence,” the United Nations said, and those uniforms were dropped altogether in 1963 for dark-jewel-blue skirts and jackets.

In 1969, the flight-attendant look returned, with outfits from the fashion house Evan Picone, which the United Nations said made uniforms for Pan American World Airways.

Chang W. Lee
 

The Hollywood designer Edith Head sketched the next uniform, with a longer hemline and what was described as a “classic silhouette that would not be thought of as any particular country’s fashion attitude.” It was introduced in 1977, the year the first male guides were recruited. They were given dark blue blazers, grey slacks, white shirts and ties, all from Brooks Brothers.

By the early 1980s, the female guides had uniforms from Christian Dior. Those were replaced in 1985 with new suits by U.S. designer Harvé Benard. Benetton donated uniforms in 1988 that had a black-and-white houndstooth check pattern and a royal blue knit top. The men had purple V-neck sweaters. Since 2001, the guides had worn uniforms from Italian fashion house Mondrian.

Tahari’s design passed muster with Helene Hoedl, a U.N. official who said she was not only a former guide but a former chief of guides. She said the Tahari uniforms were “on the conservative side, but for the U.N., it works.”

Another former guide, Israel Machado, said the Tahari uniform “brings a new flavour.”

“But you still have to be knowledgeable about the work of the U.N.,” he said.