February 10, 2014 1:16 pm

New York: Runway report 3

Pity the poor New York fashion designer. They have to compete against not just each other for attention this week, but against the Olympics. And not only do they have to compete against the Olympics for eyeballs, but also sartorial identity. After all, “sportswear” in the sports world, and “sportswear” on the runway are far, far different things – the latter having nothing really to do with actual sports, but rather an aesthetic that once defined New York fashion, with its allegiance to the idea of ease and simplicity and separates. You can see how the parlance might be confusing, however, when you pick up any newspaper and real sports wear – what athletes wear for sports – is on every front page.

Which maybe explains why, on day three of the New York collections, designers seemed to feel under some pressure to dress up their kind of sportswear in fancier language. Differentiate! Differentiate!

However, as Thakoon Panichgul’s puffa-meets-floral parka, his stripy shrugs-atop-knits-atop-flyaway skirts, demonstrated, it was not always a winning idea.

At Victoria Beckham, for example, the designer said her line had been “further evolved” by “a 360 degree application of curves, pleats, intarsia, ruffles and cut outs.” Despite the implications, this did not mean an entire abandonment of the streamlined and slick signatures that made her name (and, in their sportswear-vernacular, made her choice to show in New York so logical), but it did mean a gussying up of the usual: tunics and T-shirts with an undulating organza ruffle at the hem; tailored coats closed on a hip with a heavy gold chain, and insert with pleated silk at the back; cutaway tuxedos made to bare the back and shoulders over slouchy trousers, chiffon peeking out the bottom.

Some of it was good – those new tuxedos, and a terrific sleeveless micro-pleated evening gown, cut low in the front and worn atop a cashmere tank top, gold chain at the waist – and some a little awkward (a bright squiggle print looked like a renegade from another show), but mostly it felt like a collection in transition. It is good for Ms Beckham to push her own boundaries, but the combination of hard and soft, romance and tailoring, was not resolved. An organza sweatshirt on its own is an interesting idea, but with an enormous ruffle stuck on the front, it becomes . . . well, awkward.

The simpler pieces were better, as they were at Derek Lam, one of the masters of the sportswear thing (to the extent that his clothes often look deceptively uncomplicated; fact is, a perfect line is never easy). Francis Bacon colours – mustard and forest green and lilac and greys – came in simple swing skirts that hung just below the knee, paired with bouclé jackets and asymmetric bias-knits that owed a debt to Rick Owens. Mondrian geometries matched up in leather skirts under polo necks, and together they created an appealing coolness – more so, certainly, than the overly tricksy skirts and crepe satin dresses with peekaboo-seams inset with little gold balls. “Now you see my bottom, now you don’t” is not really a game where most women compete.

It was hard not to wish Mr Lam had had the courage of his simpler convictions. Diane von Furstenberg did, and the result was one of her most coherent collections in years.

Entitled “Bohemian Wrapsody,” it focused – you will never guess – on her signature wrap dress, though not just the wrap dress: also the wrap tunic (best over slinky jersey trousers and under a cocooning jacket, all three in contrasting geometric prints), the wrap cardigan (silver sequinned, over a neat little print dress), the wrap evening dress (cut to the navel in front and sweeping the floor), and the wrap skirt. And in all those incarnations it proved stretchy and slinky and easy to wear.

When the finale of 15 short gold versions of the dress was unveiled – gold lace, gold lamé, gold sequins, and so on – it was hard not to get the point: the designer was in her zone, and headed for the podium. (In case you missed it, though, DVF and her models actually took to a stage post-bow.) When it comes to sportswear and sporting times, implication is, why force the issue? Perhaps it is best to just play it as it lays.

Apologies to Joan Didion, of course.

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