Silver screen is idealised in New York

Before New York Fashion Week even began, the emails and tweets were flying: “[model] Jessica Stam to host Marc Jacobs’ pre-show show!”; “For a sneak peek at backstage and the show, go to Michael Kors Live”; join “The Conversation #Tommyfall13”. At Lincoln Center, purported home base of Fashion Week, the scene in the main hall resembled nothing so much as the food court at a mall, with sponsors hawking their wares and crowds elbowing their way around to grab more stuff to tweet, blog or Instagram.

In other words, as the autumn/winter womenswear season began, the hyperbole was heightened, the buzz was overwhelming – and none of it was about clothes. Or not about clothes on the catwalk; the clothes on the audience, or wannabe audience, were being photographed right and left.

What this means for fashion itself, and to what degree designers should take into account the transformation of the shows into reality TV, was the subtext of the week. Like it or not, on one level every brand now has to consider when they are putting a collection together is “how will it play on screen?”

This was most apparent when it came to the Oscar de la Renta show, the most sensational of the week – though not because of the collection itself (which was fine). Rather, the speculation was all about disgraced former Dior designer John Galliano’s three-week “internship” at Mr de la Renta’s studio, and his input vis a vis the show. Would John take a bow? No. Would he have an influence on the collection? Yes.

No matter that the juxtaposition of classic Galliano pieces – hip-swagged 1940s suiting; bias sheer dresses; velvet rocker pants with transparent chiffon tops – with impeccable de la Renta – lace tea dresses; silver beaded matching tops and skirts; silk faille ball gowns glinting with gold – did not make for a coherent message for any woman who encounters it in-store as the backstage storyline was so exciting!

Granted, for some designers drama is less of an issue, because they naturally create clothes that seem made (sometimes literally) for the movies. Ralph Lauren, for example, has of late taken a visibly cinematic approach to his collection, and this season was no different, as blouson Cossack trousers, braid-bedecked wool jackets, and lavish velvets led inexorably via the sea front (pea tailcoats; cable knits) and fur hats to Anna Karenina-worthy shirred taffeta gowns under fur stoles.

The idealisation of the silver screen also runs through Marchesa, where designers Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig played a 17th century theme in duchess satin infanta gowns, nude tulle dripping floral embroidery and sheer chiffon shirts tucked into bustier dresses; and Zac Posen, who pried himself away from his favourite fishtail shapes in heavy satin to expand into more mobile bias-cut chiffon (by contrast, the downtown grunge of Theyskens Theory’s leather shorts-with-long-jackets almost screamed “indie feature”).

Still, arguably no one understands the need to “pop” onscreen better than Michael Kors, a TV star himself thanks to Project Runway. This season that meant taxicab yellow, black and electric blue athletic wear de luxe: tuxedo track pants; rubberised ribbed knits; camouflage mink and little black dresses ringed in neon coloured parachute taffeta peplums that became trains at the back and had a look-at-me zest.

Indeed, it’s hard not to think that the “show” imperative has had the creeping effect of upping the colour and print ante of many designers, as Diane von Furstenberg returned to her 1970s heyday with a riot of leopard and chain prints and wrap dresses and alligator lamé, and Tory Burch bejewelled art nouveau poesies and dragonflies, new vintage tweeds and crinkled silk. There’s nothing like a riot of bling and flowers and neon to catch the eye – except, maybe, the truly unexpected, as seen at Rodarte, where the segue from low-slung trousers over high-cut leotards and loose men’s jackets to tie-dyed silks collaged with nude tulle over-embroidered in beaded flowers and foam tabards seemed like a form of performance art: not exactly pretty or wearable but hard to ignore.

Sets can also serve the same purpose, however, though it’s a bit of a cheat (shouldn’t it just be about clothes?): see Tommy Hilfiger’s “library,” which resembled nothing so much as the dining hall at Hogwarts’ (minus the flying owls) complete with collegiate Prince of Wales plaids and argyle dresses – albeit made of leather. Or see Thom Browne’s forest featuring men with crowns of thorns bound to cots (they were the props) and women in hyper-exaggerated New Look-curved dresses, coats sprouting shoulders that reached to the skies.

Even Jason Wu bought into this approach, hanging an enormous crystal chandelier in a Park Avenue drawing room the better to refract light on to his structured velvet-meets-wool-meets-mink trench dress, his corset dresses sporting hand-pleated panels of silk. Prabal Gurung sent a military troop’s worth of models dressed in army and navy-ready slick suiting out as a finale, and Alexander Wang added in-your-face accessories (elbow-length bear-like fur mittens; a knit cap that covered the neck and head) to hip-wrapped overcoats bloused at the back, and duchesse satin t-shorts with matching pleated trousers. The extreme addition is a visual hook.

There was no one as fully integrated set and show, however, as Marc Jacobs. Under a giant sun (a tribute to Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project”) he sent out an ode to material sources of light – lamé and crystal mesh and silk and sequins and paillettes and lurex – all in simplified shapes of clothes worn to wake up with the day. There were pyjama suits and housedresses, coats clutched close at the throat to hide the transgressions of the night before, and lingerie gowns.

The clothes were pretty, but in that context they looked more extraordinary, which underscores the benefits that can accrue from inspired showmanship. The problem is, if such efforts don’t work – if they feel forced – the exertion can be undermining. Such was the case, anyway, with both Donna Karan, whose trademark graceful jersey draping got very extreme in a bid for attention, and Vera Wang, whose sculpted nods to couture shapes came in so many different options (lace for you! And rose print for me! And metallic jacquard for her!) that it was hard to know where to look. At least Carolina Herrera seemed to have reached a successful compromise, balancing her discretely chic café au lait tweeds with vampy Joan Crawford evening wear: fully covered, but body-aware, and liquid with black sequins.

This trade-off may be an impossibility, however, for designers whose expertise is fully invested in the details. At Calvin Klein, for example, Francisco Costa pushed his own tailoring boundaries with highly structured but unconstricting jackets and skirts, the seams marked out by real brass hinges, while at Joseph Altuzarra, the undersculpting of the dominatrix-chic suits was the most provocative part of a smart show. Reed Krakoff explored subtleties of shade in velvet and cashmere and alligator-pressed satin, as well as the slight asymmetry that elevates the uniform to the adult. Yet viewed via pixel these signatures, undeniably alluring yet almost invisible unless you are up close, would be lost, and the allure of true design mislaid.

This is the greatest risk of the Kardashian-isation of ready-to-wear, along with the danger that the original purpose of a show – the tour through a designer’s mind that builds from one idea to the next to create a picture of where we are going – will disappear, because if you don’t grab the viewer in the first five exits, you’ll never keep people watching until the end.

To understand what a loss that would be, simply consider the elegant progression of Narciso Rodriguez’s masterly tour through the variations of a tuxedo, from colour blocked day suit to bone-embroidered evening shell, or Proenza Schouler’s transformation of the 1960s suit into something wholly new via tweed made from strips of leather, techno-punched lace, and a chainmail sheath.

If you’d yawned after the first two suits and gone to get coffee, you would have missed the whole point – the joy that comes from being guided gently to a new way to present yourself in the world. Which is not the same thing as being a presenter.

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