On Tuesday New Yorkers go to the polls to vote in the mayoral primaries and on Monday, day four of Fashion Week, it was hard to turn a corner without someone thrusting a “Di Blasio for Mayor” or “Quinn for Mayor” or “Thompson for Mayor” flyer in your hand (“Weiner for Mayor” was harder to come by). It’s transition time for the city, the end of the Bloomberg era and the start of something new: as yet unknown, but guaranteed, whatever happens, to be very different. Fashion is in much the same place.
The old guard – the houses with the same high global Q rating as the present mayor – are still performing at a high level, but it’s the new guard that are making the waves. Even if Tommy Hilfiger did set his collection on the California coast (complete with sand and dunes).
Despite the inspiration, the bright colour-blocked leather T-dresses, bomber jackets and quasi-athletic shorts just looked beached and though much was unquestionably commercial – especially if you imagine the neoprene trousers and pencil skirts actually zipped at the crotch, as opposed to open à la Jim Morrison as they were on the catwalk – they aren’t going to change the tide.
By contrast, at The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen took their Zen-luxe and gave it a twist by setting urban against Eden, often literally in the same garment: a crinkled three-quarter length georgette dress with the stretchy ease of the Seychelles under a tailored blazer over a silk underskirt that just peeked out the bottom; the same georgette this time trapping an Indian-embroidered scarf top and skirt underneath; a shearling coat laser-cut into airy lace. As a play on youth and age, freedom and responsibility, and the push-pull of compromise, it was both understated – and a bit of a dare.
And so it went. Carolina Herrera produced a lighter-than-ever collection (literally so), based on the kinetic art movement and the work of Venezuelan artists Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto, that was marked by the use of layers of organza and offset geometric prints to create a blink-and-blink again optical effect. This was echoed in smart and simple silk Tee dresses traced by whorls of raked lines and extrapolated in the simplest cream top, its back billowing out like a train, over a rust-coloured skirt. But while the looks gave a lift to her trademark uptown cool, they didn’t challenge it.
Granted, that’s probably a relief for her customers, unlike Donna Karan’s odd foray off-signature-suiting piste into scarf dressing (scarf skirts, scarf jackets, scarf jumpsuits), all marked by a tribal geometric print or drapery and, save one terrific sharp leather jacket and some cool denim, all as unstructured as the idea. At least Maria Cornejo, as usual, had something stronger to grapple with: “I’m interested in finding a modern way to look at things that have already existed,” she noted, be it the curvilinear structure cut into a car coat made of neoprene, or a cropped top with a train over sweatpants all in sapphire lame, or one of the best black tie looks of the season, a strapless black wrap tunic over black and white nomad-ready trousers.
The real agent provocateur of the New York catwalks, however, is Thom Browne: one of the few designers willing to abandon the garment legacy of fashion entirely in favour of in-your-face creativity (or costumery, depending on your point of view). This puts him at odds with a chunk of the New York fashion establishment, which tends to take pride in its understanding of fashion as a business and also makes him the darling of a certain sector, which likes to think of fashion as art.
This season exemplified why, as headless mannequins hung from the ceiling amid small rooms done up like an asylum, complete with giant jars of “pills” (white M&Ms) and a flickering neon light. When the clothes appeared, they resembled nothing so much as a wardrobe for Marie Antoinette in the madhouse, an all white lace-and-latex-and-pearls extravaganza of exaggerated corsetry, ridged seams and extreme tailoring.
Mr Browne owes a huge debt to Alexander McQueen (the designer, not the brand), who paved the way for these kinds of immersive shows and many of the same shapes. And Mr Browne, like Mr McQueen before him, has learnt to insert some wearable pieces (sans styling) amid the extremes: in particular a silver lamé and lace dancing dress over a honeycomb petticoat and some beautifully cut safari-to-the-Petit-Trianon jackets.
In another fashion city (OK, London), these might not cause the same frisson they do in New York, but here, like them or not, there’s no denying they have enlivened the sartorial debate. And that is – as the slogans go – change worth voting for.