September 8, 2013 4:26 pm

New York Fashion Week: runway report 1

The first two days of New York Fashion Week – that is to say, the first two days of the entire spring/summer 2014 season, which will run through London, Milan and Paris until October 3 – played out against the backdrop of the final days of the US Open (pun fully intended), and even though tennis and fashion have become ever more interdependent thanks to Vogue editor, tennis fan and FoF (friend of Federer) Anna Wintour, it was hard not to feel this time there was even more symbiosis than usual between the two.

(Yes, you’re looking at a tennis metaphor here. Bear with me.)

Over in Forest Hills, after all, as big stars like Andy Murray and Roger Federer flamed out before the semi-finals, Stanislas Wawrinka took the tennis world by surprise: though he didn’t make it to tomorrow’s finals, his epic 21-minute single game against Novak Djokovic earned him a standing ovation, and the acknowledgment that he had vaulted out of the great upper middle into the top ranks. Which is, after all, what every “promising” young designer dreams of during the collections.

So on days one and two did any perform a similar feat? Certainly, there were a lot of attempts to change the game.

Indeed, only one designer was really hanging back and playing it safe: Peter Som, whose swirling moiré print car coats, rough-edged linen short suits, and mix of neoprene and eyelet were very pretty, but lacked power. Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung, however, both attempted to mix things up, about-facing from last season’s respective looks of uptown power woman-seduction and military dominatrix in shows that, for Mr Wu, featured sheer fabrics with sequin overlays, lingerie and safari details and fluid suiting, all largely in various shades of cream (with some sea foam green and navy thrown in for good measure), and, for Gurung, “the elegant woman . . . in a modern context” as inspired by Bert Stern’s photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

In practice this meant classic 1950s skinny skirts, picture necklines and bustiers, but reimagined with a bad taste techno vibe that gave it a frisson of interest (with a nod to Miuccia Prada), thanks to Pepto-Bismol colours and fabrics with an oily sheen; clear PVC raincoats embroidered in metallic roses; and cotton day dresses that turned to reveal harnesses over skin at the back. It was weirdly mesmerising, but in the context of the designer’s past work, didn’t seem to display anything resembling a consistent point of view (or attack).

This is also a problem for Mr Wu, who is famous for making both Michelle Obama’s inaugural gowns (much tweeting post-show about how Mrs O wouldn’t be able to find her next dress here), but not necessarily revealing lots of skin. And while both designers can be commended for expanding their repertoire, if they don’t do this in the context of their own aesthetic identity, they’ll never be able to win the long game.

Yet even Alexander Wang, who arguably has already effected the great leap out of his peer group (at least employment-wise) by becoming creative director of Balenciaga as well as his own brand, was wrestling with some identity issues at his eponymous house: after opening with looks that cleverly used menswear shirting – complete with embroidered monogram – in classic womenswear tropes, from baby-doll dresses to tap pants and hipster pleated schoolgirl skirts, he segued into an “Alexander Wang” logo-a-gogo laser-cut into leather, embroidered on the corset waists of dresses, and worked into cropped lace tops like an endlessly repeating punch line. It had a juvenile edge, like the chiffon-and-cotton sweatshirts sporting the message “Parental advisory: explicit content” across the bust, and ultimately undermined the adult intelligence of a trench angled like a cutaway on the sides.

Whether Mr Wang can define two entirely different, yet specific, brand visions at the same time remains a question. It’s hard to keep each eye in a different court without sometimes resorting to the cheap shot.

At least Joseph Altuzarra, who is about to become Mr Wang’s semi-stablemate (on Friday Kering, Balenciaga’s parent company, announced they had taken a minority stake in the young brand) doesn’t have to think about any brand except his own, and perhaps as a result produced a collection that had both the specificity of a single silhouette – elongated and languorous, in three-quarter-length skirts, skinny trousers, cropped jackets and layered tops – and the surprise of finely calibrated juxtapositions: skinny-knit T-shirts with gold or silver satin skirts attached, the fabric swagged at the waist like a ball gown; silks that referenced both red, white and blue mattress ticking and pirates without ever losing their cool; and patchy faded denim printed on to tailored silks. Watching it zoom by it was hard not to think: Ace.

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