September 18, 2009 10:49 pm

The usual rules no longer apply

What happened here had already happened elsewhere.

It happened in politics, when heavy-hitting names such as Hillary Clinton and John McCain lost to the relative newcomer Barack Obama. It happened in film, when mega-stars such as Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks proved less alluring to audiences than a bunch of Transformers.

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Vanessa Friedman

What, exactly? The realisation that the traditional predictors no longer applied. There is a paradigm shift occurring in Washington DC and Los Angeles and last week it became clear it had reached New York via ready-to-wear. Well, why not? Fashion has an affinity for pattern and trend. With this one, however, comes chaos, opportunity and, occasionally, new ideas.

Once, three names were all you needed to know to understand American style: Ralph, Calvin and Donna (they didn’t need surnames). They were synonymous with a certain kind of clean and functional sportswear, which defined the local aesthetic. But last week, while there was classic sportswear on view, there was also conceptualism, experimentation, decoration.

Not that Ralph et al weren’t any good – in many ways they were, with Donna Karan in a return to form, literally, thanks to softly moulded linen skirt suits and liquid draped dresses; Ralph Lauren evoking Depression style through a luxe lens of faded “denim” charmeuse jeans, transparent layered organza shirt dresses and lamé overalls; and Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa pushing his experiments with fabric and form further through the use of needle-punched silk organza and sculpted combinations of silk and mohair. It’s just that they are simply no longer able to shape the discourse. There are too many other voices who can articulate alternative, and convincing, points of view.

There are, for example, the slick street brands, darlings of the retail set thanks to their cost-effective pricing of cool: Rag & Bone, experts in underground tailoring; Alexander Wang, who married athletic club to disco club; and Helmut Lang, the brand that transformed the legging (joining them is new name Carlos Campos, a Honduran designer who also specialises in sculpted seaming).

This downtown crowd is matched by uptown equivalents: Diane von Furstenberg, who took Nefertiti and married her to Aphrodite (imagine the prints!) for spring/summer; Tory Burch, who went from tie-dye shorts to gold tunics; and 3.1 Philip Lim, with his light-as-air leather dresses.

Also fighting, successfully, to be heard are the “we know it ’cause we live it” designers, Victoria Beckham and L’Wren Scott, who have perfected the art of internal corsetry and are branching out into more complex detailing, so at the latter a black sex-bomb sheath turns to reveal a white rose, and a floor-sweeping brocade coat is lined with feathers. As for Marchesa, it owns the 24-carat red-carpet space.

This is just the beginning. Have you heard of Sophie Theallet? She makes a shirt dress full of je ne sais quoi (Michelle Obama wore one). Juan-Carlos Obando? His micro-pleated dresses look like abstract works of art. Each still-obscure designer has their fans, and many of their supporters work at Vogue.

Next come the society suitors (and suiters), such as Oscar de la Renta, who showed a masterful collection of eyelet and crochet day suits and elegantly ruffled evening wear; Carolina Herrera, who stumbled a bit with evening shorts but came through with day suits; and Isaac Mizrahi, who over-egged it all with sequins and shirring.

There is a younger generation of the same, which includes Jason Wu, with his bubble-skirted feathered prom dresses; Thakoon, who had a rare misstep with overly derivative floral frocks (think Balenciaga a few season ago); Zac Posen, who went all clichéd 1960s pop and 1970s hippie de luxe; and Peter Som, who Jolie Madam’d his way through tweeds shot through with sparkle and pretty prints.

There’s more. There is Vera Wang, who has carved herself a niche out of a darkly romantic view of the world expressed as an affinity with black chiffon, whether it is cut in a man’s vest or wafting gracefully in a cocktail frock.

There is Narciso Rodriguez, whose extreme form of body engineering through stitches loosened up to great effect for spring, billowing out in silk dresses short in the front and cloud-like in the back, and jackets with a high waist finished with crinkle silk peplum over skinny stretch minis.

There are the young-ish classicists, Michael Kors and Derek Lam, who took their inspiration this season from, respectively, “urbane renewal” (shift dresses with zipper geometry and vinyl inserts) and “Key West and carnivals” (mini star-spangled boardwalk dresses; suede skirts under brightly coloured shirts). All are doing their best to capture attention.

As is, once again, Tommy Hilfiger, back with a big new Fifth Avenue flagship and a collection of pink, red, white and navy blue basics: the cargo pant, the tux, the jersey column. Russell Simmons gave him a standing ovation. So did Mary-Louise Parker.

Fracturing and factionalisation of audience and taste has become the norm. In the end, the most powerful shows were the ones that had the courage of their own idiosyncrasies: Proenza Schouler, with its little, absolutely-not-black dresses in colour-saturated quasi-animal prints finished at the thighs in bristles of metallic sequins; and Rodarte, where the clothes were extraordinary and impossible to parse: wild combinations of boiled wool, leather, silk, lace, sequins, beading and burnt cheesecloth that looked both elemental and elegant.

The Metropolitan Museum recently announced its costume blockbuster for the summer – which opens with the party of the year in May – is going to be called “American Woman: A Celebration of Fashion’s Role in Defining the Modern Woman”. The problem is, judging from the differing ideas on view last week, who knows what that will mean? It comes down to (to borrow a term from Obama, who got it from Ted Kennedy) the “character of the country”.

When we know what that is, then we will know what clothes it wears.

For reviews of New York and London Fashion Week, see www.ft.com/fashionweek

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