In a city where the new guard is better known for its youthful downtown-inspired daywear than sumptuous, intricate attire more suited to an uptown ballroom, New York’s dedicated coterie of eveningwear experts were keen this week to show their potential heirs how dressed-up fashion should truly be done.
That said, many shows this season were underpinned by nostalgic personal paeans to the romance of lost youth – not just a glorification of a lofty professional heritage.
J Mendel’s show – inspired by Serge Gainsbourg’s cult 1971 tune “Cargo Culte” about a young lover who vanished in a aeroplane crash in a far flung corner of the South Pacific – took classic form-flattering silhouettes but gave them new life through playful use of sunset colours and texture blocking, albeit through an atelier’s lens.
A frothy, coral-hued plunging V-neck fishtail gown blossomed thanks to effective panel-blocking of graphic latticing and traditional lace, working to a similar effect on a basic white T-shirt paired with an elegant asymmetrical crepe de chine wrap skirt.
The point was that less can also mean more; restraint when it comes to heavy patterns and embellishments reveals the beauty of complex structure and design.
Meanwhile, Jenny Packham – a British import whose polished and pretty designs are often sported by the Duchess of Cambridge – continues to roll out elegant red carpet-style cocktail numbers that cascade with endless fussy beading and glistening paillettes. More interesting this season, however, were the pieces that took things slightly off the beaten track.
Looking to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, a film about turn-of-the-century schoolgirls lost in the Australian outback, Ms Packham offered several billowing Edwardian gowns adorned with charming touches of both pioneer spirit and, occasionally, the 1970s. Initially these were genteel – think airy, creamy chiffon dresses with a pussy-bow halter neckline, or a dove-grey full pleated organza prairie skirt with a diaphanous pleated blouse. Things then got a little wilder via a silky fire-red flannel-checked creation with a gloriously languid skirt and sleeves – serving to remind Ms Packham as she looks forward that fortune often favours the brave.
On the subject of new paths, Naeem Khan (a staple of Michelle Obama’s State dinner wardrobe) is unveiling a bridal line this autumn. He closed his Lincoln Center show on Tuesday with a capped-sleeve ivory organza confection that had the audience gasping with delight. Elsewhere, the collection focused on dark enduring Latino beauty; ruched organza flamenco dresses, trumpet skirts and off-the shoulder peasant blouses – though a standout piece was a nude mesh gown adorned with pinot noir rose patterns in delicate Chantilly lace.
Finally, over at Ralph Rucci, in front of row upon row of the Charity gala set, the clothes on display revealed that this homegrown designer continues to be the closest thing New York has to an uptown couturier. Still, his inspiration also seemed to be slipping downtown at points, with hemlines coming up up up on a little white matte python slip, velvet apron dress or burnished bronze paillette shift with a squared-off chiffon neckline. Va-va-voom 1980s style pieces went confidently back to his roots: tapered organza cigarette pants were the stem of a terrific evening jacket of thick black roses, flowering in layered ruffles both upwards and outwards and showing a masterful control of volume. So did a strapless structured gown of undulating feathers called “The eyelash cage”, which, despite going 3D, still described a tight ultra-feminine silhouette.
These were clothes that were both experimental and true to a consistent brand DNA, and could well serve as a model for any designer of any age and genre, no matter what their aesthetic.