The Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan is known as a literary landmark, having once been the regular lunch spot of New York’s wittiest writers, critics and actors. But tonight, it is the scene of something almost equally important: a feline fashion show. The small hotel is packed with people wearing cat sweaters, cat jewelry and cat dresses. Matilda, the official Algonquin Hotel Cat, lounges on the front desk, greeting guests with a haughty stare. She is swarmed by the hands of eager petters, bathed in the flashes of camera phones.
“She’s adorable,” a woman in a royal ascot hat coos, “and she matches my Pashmina!”
The idea of a pet as an accessory has always been popular (see Marie Antoinette’s dogs and Lord Byron’s bear), but recently the trend has led to an increasing amount of animals being abandoned once their charm has worn off. These status symbols have been particularly fashionable in New York City, where space is limited and appearances are crucial. Small dogs and well-behaved indoor cats have become the norm for most apartment-owners, and with the harsh winters that require all kinds of pet-sized sweaters and booties, it’s no surprise that dressing animals for practical reasons has somehow evolved into Pet Fashion Week, a spectacle of diamond encrusted collars, doggie manicures and cashmere kitty sweaters.
The downside to this trend can be seen in shelters around the city. “Over a dozen people call us a day to see if we can take in their surrenders or to see if we have space available for a stray they found,” says Rop Vazquez, shelter manager at the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC). Though BARC is a no-kill shelter, they can’t accommodate every unwanted pet they receive, though they try. In 2008, shelters saw a 40 percent increase in calls from owners requesting to relinquish their pets. And it isn’t just mutts: BARC is the home to perennially trendy breeds like Yorkies, chow chows, French bulldogs and beagles, usually at the tail end of their lives.
Having worked there for 11 years, Vazquez has seen people give all kinds of reasons for leaving their pets. He lists them off: “All of a sudden [they] have family members that became allergic to the animal, or by the end of the month, we get a lot of calls because people say their landlord will kick them out if they don’t get rid of their pets. Same goes for the summer months, when people seem to want to get rid of their animals because they will be on vacation. Others call because they found an animal before getting a job and are now stuck with the burden.”
No-kill shelters often have a lengthy waiting list, while normal shelters operate at full capacity, meaning they reserve the right to put down any animals unfit for adoption — or if time or space has run out. A few years ago, pugs were the it-dog of the moment, but as trends moved on, shelters are finding an increasing number of the once-trendy dogs in shelters. “Right now, the biggest trend is hypoallergenic dogs,” Vazques observes, “but people don't want to deal with [taking] them to the groomers when their hair gets tangled or matted.”
But the number of abandoned pets in city shelters isn’t a topic of conversation at the Algonquin on Wednesday night. Most of the gossip involves Ada Nieves, the celebrated pet fashion designer whose creations are on display but who can’t make it tonight as she’s busy with another fashion show in Florida. Someone in the crowd refers to her as a “goddess,” while others call her “the chihuahua whisperer.”
When I speak to Nieves over the phone on the day before the show, her enthusiasm for pet fashion is unbridled. “You could say it’s in my blood,” she says. “I come from a line of seamstresses, but I didn’t pursue it until the later years in my life when I acquired my dogs, and it became a passion.”
Nieves was part of the first class to receive the Fashion Institute of Technology’s certification for Pet Product Design and Marketing. But her big break came in 2005 when she decided to make dog-replicas of the dresses worn by celebrities at that year’s Academy Awards and was soon invited to show off her creations everywhere, from The Letterman Show to Conan. “Now I’m designing for all kinds of animals,” she says happily. “I did a rat fashion show a couple years back. I do this as a way to create awareness for all the animals that need help, so we can raise funds for them. At the same time, it’s a business where I get to sell merchandise and continue doing what I love, which is working with animals.” Since then, she’s become a regular fixture at Pet Fashion Week and the fashion portion of Meet the Breeds, the annual cuddle fest and pre-cursor to Westminster.
To Nieves, a pampered pet is a happy one. “What I want to do is to advocate for the animal, to try to promote attention to them so people see that they are living creatures, that they’re beautiful, and you can have fun with them.” When I bring up the idea of animals-as-accessories, she refuses to associate herself with the trend. “I don’t like when I see celebrities getting a pet, giving it attention and then dumping it. That’s not the message that I want to portray,” she assures me. “For me, it’s about the fashion.”
Indeed, animals and fashion seem to be enjoying the limelight at the moment. But what about the animals themselves? Are they comfortable? Nieves explains her design ethos: “I research the animal’s coat, colors, temperament and movement. I need to make sure the clothing is not going to restrict them. They should be able to move comfortably and not be bothered.”
For the most part, Nieves’ concern for the animals’ comfort seems apparent at the Algonquin. None of the cats have any trouble lounging on the many couches provided for them. In fact, most of them seem slightly out of it. It seems telling that the hotel is giving away free “calming collars,” which release pheromones that seem to leave cats in a lavender-and-chamomile-infused daze. Perhaps this is why many of the cats that night were so well-behaved or, quite frankly, appeared drugged.
In honor of the Algonquin’s literary history, the fashion show’s program declares that tonight’s collection is “inspired by some of the most prolific authors and writers of the century.” The detail and precision that goes into each costume is evident (as seen by an outfit dedicated to T.S. Eliot’s “The Naming of the Cats” that actually lists all the cat names in the poem).
The event is for a good cause (all proceeds go to Bideawee, a pet welfare organization), and a number of non-costumed cats are situated outside looking for foster homes. But it’s the costumed felines that get all the attention. Some of the guests have brought their own cats, each of them on glittery leashes or harnesses. One cat wearing a bell around its neck peeks out from a guest’s handbag, eyeing the table of sandwiches.
As photographers swarm the cats, their handlers coax them into sitting positions and smooth out their tutus or hats. They jingle shiny things before them to get their attention and make clicking sounds with their tongues. I ask one handler if the cat enjoys posing. “Oh, yes,” she gushes. “She just finished a show for Nickelodeon and absolutely loved it.” I look to the cat to see if she agrees. Her eyes give away nothing.
Kate Gavino is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for 7STOPS, CMJ and The Prattler, and is currently working on a novel.
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