September 14, 2012 4:31 pm

A vote for everyone

With an election on the horizon, designers found most success by being more things to more people

It’s a funny season for US designers. Because of the fashion calendar, they spent last week showing clothes for next spring/summer – but next spring/summer, thanks to the upcoming US election, the world, or at least this country, could look very different. Literally.

As the Obama and Romney camps increasingly define themselves according to attitudes towards wealth – Mitt Romney symbolising the man who made good on Wall Street and is willing to show it (see his personal car elevator) but not tax it, and President Barack Obama increasingly pushing himself as the everyman who wants to make the wealthiest 1 per cent pay – what’s a designer who is trying to appeal to the high-end, which may, or may not want to appear high-end when these clothes reach stores in March, to do? Rich or reduced? Which aesthetic road do you take?

It’s a puzzlement. And, not surprisingly, some designers were overly puzzled. At Prabal Gurung, cool tuxedo suiting was followed by ever-more complicated print silks, which merged wings and flowers and what appeared to be spines. It was followed by ruffled long chiffon antebellum dresses with sci-fi metallic belts, all culminating in a whole series of prom dresses – and confusion.

Jason Wu, meanwhile, who made a name for himself with youthful uptown chic, went off into Shades of Grey-land with a lingerie-heavy collection of black leather, lace underpinnings, harness straps and flesh-coloured, body-hugging skirts.

It’s possible to swing with the zeitgeist convincingly – see Rodarte’s move from the grassy heartland collections of recent seasons to spring’s crazy mash-up of pattern, space age silhouette and medieval decoration – but you have to do it with utter conviction.

Besides, the majority of New York designers chose rather to go in one of two general directions: either to stick their heads in the sand (or rather, their own ateliers) and ignore the election issue entirely, or attempt to satisfy both constituencies at once. For some this worked; for others less so.

In the first category was Ralph Lauren, who took his usual silver-screen romance down Mexico way with serape knits over flowing black trousers, gold embroidered toreador trousers, summer suede (ahem) in spicy colours, and tiered flamenco skirts paired with cotton shirts. Ditto Tommy Hilfiger, who revisited his Americana theme via nautical boys’ suiting and sundowner dresses, and Diane von Furstenberg, whose iconic woman this season was a peripatetic principessa fond of bright layering with Moorish accents.

And so it went, with Derek Lam’s trademark ’70s-twist expressed in patchwork madras, macramé, and sweatshirt tops over skirts glinting with three-dimensional foil, and Zac Posen’s ’40s-movie star tea dresses and statement gowns. Victoria Beckham ever-so-slightly nudged her signature streamlined body-conscious power dressing into longer, looser silk sun dresses, sharp suiting and A-line minis. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen at The Row provided yet another version of long, languid loungewear – the sort
that makes older women look cool, and youngsters look sophisticated.

If it all seemed a bit predictable, it also had the reassuring aspect of the familiar, though the danger of such self-reference is loss of perspective.

See, for example, Marchesa, where designers Keren Craig and Georgina Chapman found inspiration for their parade of lavish red carpet finery in India, and ended up in Bollywood. And see Reed Krakoff, where personal signatures – sculpture, athletic clothing – were expressed as washed-out flesh tones and layers of almost oily fabrics (“stocking jersey” – a nylon-like fabric; satin, and silk). Very pretty blush slip dresses and jazzy snakeskin skirts aside, it just wasn’t flattering, and the net effect vaguely creepy.

Still, although some results, such as Donna Karan’s celebration of nature in sand-toned empire waisted dresses with belling skirts and bolero jackets, soft silken slips sparkling with night stars, were truly graceful, ultimately, this approach felt less relevant than the collections that tried to be more things to more people. Which sounds like a recipe for mess, but often proved surprisingly smart.

Witness Joseph Altuzarra’s engineer-striped, understatedly elegant cotton denim suiting, which evolved into a finale of gold-threaded, crystal-encrusted, fringe-swagged dresses fit for a modern Pasha, the two extremes linked by a wholly consistent, narrow silhouette: same frame, different fabrics.

It was an approach mirrored by both Vera Wang, who contained elaborate tone-on-tone embroideries in identifiably urban shapes – tailored shorts, tunics, shift dresses – and Carolina Herrera, who let some of the stiffness out to draw her uptown chic with a relaxed line.

If things got a little wonky at Oscar de la Renta, who balanced his lavish tulle, lace and lunching creations with some weird latex blouses and evening shorts (an unconvincing concept), and Calvin Klein, where cropped pants with contrasting seams and structured jackets with integral peplums looked modern, but geometric bra dresses did not, the power of the dual approach was revealed at Proenza Schouler; there, street shapes met exotic skins in an alluring mix.

Biker vests and jackets came reimagined in neon python patchwork, pleated skirts and T-shirts were done in perforated leather, and simple sleeveless dresses of double-face satin were printed with digital photographs of summer scenes and then decorated with neon embroidered polka dots and grommets. Think not hippie deluxe, but hipster deluxe.

It was desirable in any scenario, though a powerful argument was made by Marc Jacobs for the virtues of simply wiping the slate clean and getting down to basics: celebrating the strength of plain shapes (hip-slung skirts, T-shirts, buttoned-up jackets and long jersey dresses) and broad lines.

Wide black-and-white stripes, vertical or curving or horizontal, were ubiquitous, even paved with sequins for evening. Together, they made for a vision of decisive clarity.

Realistic or not, who wouldn’t want to vote for that? After all, you know what they say about fashion: it’s the dream.

For daily reviews of all the womenswear collections, visit www.ft.com/fashionweek

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