New York Fashion Week: Caught in the vortex of pop culture storm

Time and tide waits for no fashion week. The New York autumn/winter womenswear collections began on the same day as the Winter Olympics, which happened to be less than a week after the Super Bowl, ran through the state dinner for French President François Hollande, and ended two days before the Baftas, which are themselves just a few weeks before the Oscars – all of these now considered, to a certain extent, fashion events. Where to focus?

Ralph Lauren’s patchwork knit Americana extravaganza in Sochi, or Ralph Lauren’s pastel pink and dove grey parade of standards – beaded flapper frocks, marabou muchness, luxe suiting – in New York? Carolina Herrera’s regal black lace and blue-taffeta ball gown on Michelle Obama at the White House, or Carolina Herrera’s haute urban geometry, alligator/cashmere patchwork suits, and op-print gowns on the runway?

It is conventional wisdom that style is part of entertainment and that is a good thing (more attention! More livestream!); as Thom Browne hinted by setting his show of exploded proportions, extravagant metallics, and extreme tailoring in a “church”, complete with pews, incense, and crosses, fashion has become a religion of the paparazzi masses.

But there is a risk in that evolution: whereas once the ready-to-wear shows provided the ultimate sartorial outlet, now they are simply one event among others. Caught in the vortex of a perfect pop culture storm, New York designers faced a dilemma: resort to various look-at-me strategies, or opt out by sticking to formula.

In the first camp were Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg, who leveraged anniversaries to make shows into scenes, the latter celebrating 40 years of her wrap dress by – well, wrapping: print tunics over jersey trousers and under curvy jackets; chiffon skirts and long, hostess dresses; even cardigans, all of it ending with a series of gold wraps and a shower of gold flakes. As for Karan, she commissioned a film from photographer Steven Sebring, meditated on a “woman’s soul”, and then sent out a series of powerful, structured jackets (shoulders squared, waists belted) over . . . thigh high boots. There were coats too, shearling and shaggy, offset by a number of sheer dresses with strategically placed devoré, but it was hard to see the finesse for the flesh.

Meanwhile Alexander Wang got the fashion world up in arms with his choice of venue – a giant, hard-to-access warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront – but then defused the fury by taking his trademark streetwear directly upmarket, with boxy 1960s shapes speckled with utility pockets and loops, astrakhan T-shirts, louche leather trousers, and posh anoraks painted with alien landscapes. The clothes would have held their own in any venue.

While environment cannot ruin the pay-off, however, it cannot substitute for it either, as was clear at Tommy Hilfiger, where an entire snow scene complete with pines and ski lift could not conceal the banality of a tartan-meets-sheepskin Rocky Mountain High collection, and at Prabal Gurung, where a gigantic row of golden gongs framed a confusing effort that ranged from clever multi-textured knits atop wispy skirts to inexplicably sliced and diced jackets woven with silk drapery, all in the burnt spice colours of Nepal.

At least when Marc Jacobs builds a set – this time an entire ceiling’s worth of rainclouds – it adds a dimension to what is on the runway: lyrically unpredictable wardrobe patterns in the form of skinny jersey tunics and leggings in cumulus shades, dresses of Swarovski-covered wind currents, and organza tiers so light they looked more like a breeze than a dress.

But why bother? Michael Kors, currently riding a wave of astonishing global growth, kept things to a predictable line, with deep-pile cashmere knits over Joni Mitchell chiffons under tweed coats or extravagant furs: steady on, oh ship of style. Ditto Oscar de la Renta, who is a dab hand with a day dress or suit, be it in pinstripes, ribbony leather, or tweed with a brocade overlay, and a master of the entrance gown, from duchesse satin and velvet to columns of beaded fringe. And ditto Derek Lam, whose assortment of easy separates in crepe, bouclé and Francis Bacon shades was typically understated. As for Joseph Altuzarra, with his consistently sophisticated take on everything from bathrobe coats (two-tone, with portrait collars) to craft (sheaths with macramé fronting menswear fabrics) he is clearly playing the long game.

So if Vera Wang stayed firmly in good witch/grunge mode, all chiffon tartan, jewelled beetles and shredded evening wear; Marchesa dressed the princess set in felted metallic lace, draped chiffon and exploding feathers; and Zac Posen mixed his Disneyesque strapless ball gowns with neat little tweed suiting – well, better safe than slammed, perhaps.

Still, a few designers did seize the moment and try something new, even if “new” in this context is a relative term: bright yellow and topaz and hip-slung skirts at Reed Krakoff, among the camel and greige and texture mixing of cashmere, jersey, python and fur; swishy silk pleats at the back of tailored coats and organza ruffles at the hems of jersey tunic/trouser combinations at Victoria Beckham. After all, when everyone is looking elsewhere, maybe that is the optimum time for experimentation.

Narciso Rodriguez let loose, literally, with collarless coats and jackets that moved like cardigans, vertical colour blocking on shifts and crescent moons of hemlines, and if some of the results were a bit blurry, evening shells and dresses embroidered in molten beading had the eerie properties of an etching. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez stayed firmly within their own vernacular at Proenza Schouler, but exaggerated and print-heavy, so arms curved stiffly from the body and pebbling mixed with puzzle shapes mixed with moiré swirls. It could all have gone horribly wrong, but instead looked fun: a party in a pantsuit.

Even Francisco Costa moved away from Calvin Klein’s pared-down roots via extraordinary tactile knits – cashmere and wool dresses and tunics and pleated skirts – in sludgy, fungible colours with big safety pin closures on coats. It challenged all assumptions about comfort dressing, normally associated with a certain shlubbiness, here elevated to grace, and the limits of a minimalist tradition. Half the snow-logged audience looked as though they were about to rush the runway to get some for themselves.

It was left to Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, however, to change the terms of the debate entirely – by simply ignoring it. Taking a tour through the icons of their childhood, they swung seamlessly from one idea and reference point to another: from cruise ship chiffons to Greenwich Village knits ‘n’ crafts to glam rock metallics to Guinevere gowns, before ending with Princess Leia white robes complete with Star Wars silkscreens. The result was weird and beautiful and wholly unrelated to the rest of fashion week.

You could not look away.

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