New York may still boast the biggest share of the global luxury market, but it has one of the weakest fashion weeks. It kicked off last Thursday and culminated seven days later with a standout Marc Jacobs show, but the rest of the schedule was bloated with non-event. At the very least, the Council of Fashion Designers of America should consider trimming back an event that, rather like Donald Trump’s coiffure, is carefully arranged to suggest more than it is.
Designers are all in search of a solution that works better for their businesses. But the show format is a subject with which the industry struggles: should they combine men’s and women’s clothes? How seasonal should the clothes be? And why spend so much money on a production that accounts for the minority of sales? Younger US labels such as Rodarte, Joseph Altuzarra, Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler are expected to lead a vanguard of houses that will, in June, start showing pre-collections instead. Typically, pre-collections account for around 80 per cent of a brand’s sales, and the move will enable them to maximise the time needed for manufacture and distribution.
But will anyone come to see them? Who knows. No one has yet found a satisfactory answer to the show dilemma, and in the interim brands must play with the format to see what works for them. This season, Bottega Veneta travelled over from Milan. Next season Victoria Beckham will move over to London. For 10 years, she has brought her studio over to the US for the week preceding the show, and the costs are astronomical. In September, she will mark her anniversary year in her home town.
That New York fashion is in a state of transition is also evident elsewhere. In particular, the question of legacy is becoming more urgent. Carolina Herrera, the grande doyenne of the New York elite, handed over her creative baton this week at the age of 79. Her successor, Wes Gordon, is the 31-year-old design consultant with whom she has worked for the past year.
Herrera is not retiring — repeat, not retiring — but the succession felt significant: she now becomes the global brand ambassador of the billion-dollar house she founded in 1981, and the house enters its next phase. Diane Von Furstenberg is also re-examining her label’s future. Her new creative director, Nathan Jenden, has returned to the house following the departure of Jonathan Saunders. Jenden, the godfather of Furstenberg’s granddaughter, Talita, is thus far making it personal: in his first presentation he cast Talita as his muse.
At least the designers taking on the creative mantle at Furstenberg and Herrera can conjure the spirit of a founder who has encapsulated the essence of their brand in their own personal style; the codes of Furstenberg are wrapped, quite literally, in the bright stretch-jersey dresses she first created in 1974. Herrera will always be associated with a full skirt and white shirt (for her swansong, the models were all dressed in the uniform she has made her own, and it still looked fresh and modern). If Gordon can imbue future collections with that same clean, calm, elegant command, the $1.4bn business (which basically makes all its money through its fragrance and diffusion lines) will be fine.
The inheritors of Oscar de la Renta face a more difficult challenge. Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia arrived at the house last year, having been de la Renta’s studio heads for years, but they lack the simple tools of a founder wardrobe to exploit. When your founder is a man, finding a new feminine narrative is a trickier proposition. The designers are keen to drive the house forward, to modernise, and engage a younger client. But their second collection still felt confused — a theme in search of something to pull it all together.
What remains and what must change are key to the success of these older houses as they reach their senior years. Ralph Lauren, which will mark its 50th year in business this September, is still stuck in its age-old vision of preppy, polished glamour — this time it had a maritime theme with icky “youthful” touches. The collections, still led by its 78-year-old founder, make one ache for a shift in creative impetus. Ralph Lauren should be the home of smooth, polished sophistication but by failing to acknowledge the shifting culture, the way we now dress, or changes in consumer habit, the house is starting to look a little out of touch. Worse, it’s becoming irrelevant.
Raf Simons’ interpretation of Calvin Klein may seem a million miles away from the spirit in which it was founded, but first impressions can be deceptive. Simons’ third collection drew on a dystopian landscape — covered in popcorn — and featured men and women in uniforms more in keeping with hazard than high fashion. High-vis jackets, woolly balaclavas, huge oversized tailoring and silver foil capes starred in a show, titled “Landscapes”, that was dedicated to American heroes.
Raf Simons is exciting because — just like Calvin Klein did back in the 1980s — he examines American style today. Is there a national identity? What are its common threads? For AW18, he continued to pick at the all-American wardrobe: the prairie dress, the patchwork quilt, the cute varsity-style woollens, the bold lumberjack plaids. As an outsider, the Belgian-born designer is looking at the US with a fresh eye and provoking fresh debate. Will you be wearing his huge plastic gumboots, boobless dresses and balaclavas next season? Almost certainly not. But you may well be wearing the boxers, or the perfumes, or the jeans.
What else was good? Anna Sui, a New York landmark, who delivered a delicious show of bright floral cords, smart 1970s-style skirt-suits and richly printed silks. Sui has been around forever, but her strong, feminine show felt apt in this new sexually combative climate. Ditto Tory Burch, who staged her lovely AW18 collection in a field of carnations. Gabriela Hearst gave her guests lunch, and then sent out a sharp working wardrobe accessorised with super-chic leather lunchbox bags. Coach offered spectral goths, borrowed leather coats from Bonnie Cashin — the late American design legend — and prompted the question of whether, after four successful years as its creative director, Stuart Vevers might be heading off for Burberry. Phillip Lim was very pretty, Sies Marjan was saturated in glorious colours and textiles, and Michael Kors was jolly. Kors has lately realised he is one of the longest-running founder names still showing on the schedule. It lends him a near-veteran status — and so it should, because he’s quite brilliantly optimistic.
But the standout show, the show you should throw your salary at, was The Row. Designed by the former child actors and TV superstar twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the pair have carved an extraordinary niche in the contemporary luxury market. Private, exclusive, hideously expensive, their clothes are essentially supremely elevated basics. The perfect trench, an excellent blazer, a pointed kitten heel boot. And oh my God, they’re good.
Any sense of the work that goes into them, or their creative origins, is shrouded in mystery. Some might say anti-American. The Olsens rarely do interviews, they loathe press attention: even spotting them at their own show feels akin to seeing a unicorn. But the bizarre, quasi-religious mystique surrounding the label only adds to its allure. And their AW18 collection was utterly sublime.
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