February 9, 2014 4:38 pm

New York Fashion Week: Runway report 1

Altuzarra takes a strict line while Wang recasts utility streetwear with evening extravagance

New York Fashion Week began with new mayor Bill de Blasio proclaiming his allegiance to the industry – “[Fashion] is part of how we will build one New York where everyone rises together and opportunity is something that is available to all” – and as proof announcing his wife, Chirlane McCray, would be attending her share of shows. Thus was launched the new fashion game: “Spot the Chirlane.”

Still, on the first few days of the season the city’s First Lady was nowhere to be seen – interesting given the fact those days also featured the next generation of American designers: those post-9/11, mid-recession names that that other First Lady, Michelle Obama, has made a point of supporting.

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Vanessa Friedman

Maybe it was a distinguishing thing, or maybe a prior-commitment thing, but either way it was probably a good thing: if Ms McCray had been looking for help in shaping her Gracie Mansion style, she might have been confused by what she saw. You know the Pirandello play Six Characters in Search of an Author? The opening shows often felt a bit like “Some designers in search of a style.”

Jason Wu, for example, who made both Mrs Obama’s inaugural gowns, eschewed that type of fairy tale frippery for something altogether tougher and more 1980s: big, round-shouldered cocoon jackets with silver hardware or gold zips; wide trousers under devore velvet polo necks with tone-on-tone animal stripes; and some very pretty, and deceptively simple, velvet slip dresses. In its nod to ye olde power dressing and ye newer minimalism the collection was on-trend and season-appropriate, but because of that it also felt a bit paint-by-numbers. Where’s the signature here?

It’s a question that also perennially hovers over the work of Peter Som, who in the past has tended to embrace an uptown, coolly decorative vibe, but who, for autumn/winter, pared away the sweet in favour of navy pea coats and crackled leather, leopard spots and long white shirting, and it’s a question that plagues Prabal Gurung, who seems to swing from influence to influence with the change in the weather.

So while last season was Marilyn Monroe-meets-1950s, this time around it was urbanity via Nepal, with a nod to Bottega Veneta’s recent asymmetric ruffles, all in an autumnal palette of burnt sienna, black, burgundy and grey. This made for smart textural knits over flyaway chiffon skirts, one tail dangling (or floating in the wind, depending on your point of view), which then segued into odd deconstructed jackets woven through with draped satin, and complicated pleated, wrapped evening gowns with peekaboo cut-outs at the ribs.

The sweaters were great, but an embroidered bustier dress with satin drapery around the bottom and more embroidery dangling down one leg was inexplicable, and together they simply created an identity problem.

It’s fine to try on different guises to find one that fits; it’s what adolescence is all about. But to do it in your professional life is another story. Fashion is a crowded space, and to stand out – not just during fashion week but on a shop floor – a designer needs to define their territory, which is to say their woman, with consistency. It’s not that these clothes are bad; some are very nice. They just aren’t specific enough.

By contrast, at Altuzarra the designer Joseph Altuzarra has always taken a strict line, not just in his clothes (though he does that), but with himself, so each piece of a collection relates to the next, the whole pointing to an idea of a grown up: cosmopolitan, a little subversive, and in control. So bathrobe double-face coats had oversize collars and tightly belted waists in contrasting colour block shades: fluid crepe below-the-knee skirts were sliced to the thigh on one side; and crafty knit sheaths fronted men’s tailoring wools, backs left bare; and grey bustier dresses were trimmed in neon.

And at Alexander Wang the eponymous designer stuck to his aesthetic vocabulary but raised his game by recasting familiar utility streetwear tropes, so that shortened 1960s shapes were decorated with various pockets and loops, astrakhan T-shirts topped loose leather painter’s pants; lustrous paisley silk shirts were paired with knee-length tailored shorts; and laser-cut leather jackets and coats had the extravagance of evening wear. There was neon, and caveman-finished suede, and parkas finished with alien landscape scenes, but the richness came from ideas, not excess.

Mr Wang does double duty as creative director of Balenciaga, and while that kind of moonlighting can often cannibalise itself, in this case at least it seems to have inspired him to approach his line from a more sophisticated angle: cushioning its forward momentum in textural luxury.

There’s a woman out there who will see it, and see herself, redefined. Even if she doesn’t live in Gracie Mansion.

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