Five years ago, as New York Fashion Week began, Lehman Brothers began its fast slide into bankruptcy and as the shows progressed so did the sense that the consumer world as we knew it was about to change. The ensuing financial crisis altered not only the economics of fashion, especially fashion in Lehman’s home city, but also its aesthetic course, though perhaps not in ways anyone might have predicted. Or so was apparent from last week’s spring/summer womenswear season.
As consumer purse strings pulled tighter, designers have been forced to be more specific about identity; they need to tap into a sense of self in order to make “want” outweigh “need”. This has been most obvious in the more established houses, which hunkered down and honed their look, while some younger names are still struggling to carve out a specific point of view. Counter-intuitively, however, the years since 2008 have also seen the creative flowering of a new generation of New York designers who are transforming the city’s fashion landscape.
For proof, simply look to the catwalks.
It was a season of signature at Ralph Lauren, who has never met an era he couldn’t romanticise and this time turned to the 1960s, Beatlemania-style, with mod black and white minis and three-piece suiting (unfortunately complete with flower-bedecked black neckties), as well as cheeky neon shifts, before seguing into equally bright flounced and asymmetric evening wear without an edge of irony. And Marc Jacobs performed his usual channelling of pop culture to create a relentless parade of Victorian vampire dolls: martinet jackets (and their commercial sweatshirt equivalents) dripping with tassels and jet over matching long shorts, all in overblown wallpaper prints, followed by ankle-grazing dresses in the same mode, sequinned and jewelled and overwrought.
And so it went. Oscar de la Renta stayed in his own 24-carat groove, from a black and white polka dot bouclé lunching suit with lace tee and trim to an extraordinary peach pouf of a ball gown, taffeta over tulle; as did Carolina Herrera, who added a cool kinetic print twist to her layers of organdie; Vera Wang, who mixed performance gear with paint-splashed chiffon for a custom-built collection; and Reed Krakoff, whose architectural inclinations expressed themselves in precisely constructed blush-toned slipdresses, bonded satin skirts inset with voile and sleeveless wrap trench dresses.
Even Diane von Furstenberg stuck close to her 1970s-tinged homestyle in new look wrap dresses and tunics ’n’ trousers in a cool cork or graphic print, while Tommy Hilfiger went back to beach volleyball basics. Though such consistency is often criticised as boring, in fact it demonstrates a certain self-awareness; if you’ve got it, why not flaunt it again and again?
Besides, “consistent” is not a synonym for “exactly the same”, as Michael Kors demonstrated in a well calibrated shift from high-luxe sportswear separates to a new romance via swinging floral 1940s-esque dance dresses and slouchy Hepburn trousers. It takes finesse and great self-control to make these sorts of minor alchemical changes, which were also seen, albeit in a different sartorial vernacular, at Narciso Rodriguez, who expanded the confines of his own exact cutting by adding geometry and movement to slipdresses, miniskorts (skirt-shorts) and jackets.
Indeed, change for the sake of change can be a problem, as was clear at Donna Karan, where the woman who solved the problems of a professional wardrobe went in search of an ethnic scarf, and found instead scarf dresses, scarf skirts, and other pieces lacking in substance. If you are going to nudge a vision it’s best to do so in some recognisable way, even if it goes a little off-course, as it did for Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein. There, experiments with geometry and the body centred on a giant band that stood away from the body at the hips and mostly looked awkward (though Mr Costa’s exploration of texture, seen in two dresses woven from strips of snakeskin, were very good). Yet, they still had the minimalist structure endemic to the brand.
By contrast, it is increasingly hard to understand what Jason Wu (this season all slip dresses, lingerie details and safari jackets), or Prabal Gurung (who took a belly flop into a mix of Marilyn Monroe wiggle dresses, Pepto-Bismol colours and techno fabrics), represent. Derek Lam’s 1950s rigorously understated dresses are accomplished, but still look a bit too much like other people’s clothes, while Alexander Wang’s sporty-jokey-streety separates felt like they were done on autopilot – though one trenchcoat sliced like a cutaway was terrific.
As for Rodarte, whose undiluted creativity was a great hope of New York fashion, designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy are beginning to seem lost in inspiration options: witness this season’s fringed bras, micro shorts and animal print satins, which supposedly sprang from the streets of LA, but felt mostly like un-elevated kitsch.
It’s probably no accident that these labels were founded post-2000: Wu in 2006; Gurung in 2009; Lam in 2002, Wang in 2007 and Rodarte in 2004. They are all businesses born in a recession (either the post-dotcom-bubble burst, or the Lehman crash) and though normally such young brands would have had the luxury of time to discover their points of view, the economic imperatives have dictated otherwise.
The irony is, for the designers who understood this, the situation created an enormous momentum: out of necessity they went from nothing to full-fledged vision in only a few years. It’s an accelerated evolution exemplified by Proenza Schouler (founded 2002), where designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have always displayed a notably thought-through approach to dressing, evident this season in the way wide fluid culottes under curving jackets with mid-century modern hardware led to relaxed suiting, the seams and pocket picked out with chalk-drawn lines, which led to pleated skirts collaged with metallics, the whole marked by a kind of self-analytic chic.
And it can be seen in Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s The Row (established 2006), where the designers have perfected a Zen-like approach to urban dress, with crinkled georgette dresses under tailored jackets or over Indian embroidered separates in a subtle nod to the tension between home and away, and even, at the far other extreme, Thom Browne (women’s established 2007), whose Marie Antoinette-in-the-madhouse lace and pearl moulded corsetry, jackets and dresses threw commercialism to the winds.
As for Victoria Beckham and Joseph Altuzarra, they have a clarity of vision for their brands (both established 2008) that is definitive: the first with a streamlined modernity seen in skating skirts with pleats peeking out the side under body conscious tops or spaghetti strap tunics over tailored culottes; the second with a form of urban luxury that is all his own, from silks striped with mattress ticking and laced up the side to T-shirts-with-the draped satin skirts of a ball gown, albeit straight and to just below the knee.
Would they have the same lucidity without the recession? Perhaps. But they probably would not have felt quite the same pressing need to come up with their own solution to make order out of chaos in as beautiful a way as possible.
Like it or not, that’s the future.
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