What is happening to the luxury industry? In New York, the most unashamedly commercial of markets, brands are becoming increasingly polarised in attitude. In an attempt to counter digital ubiquity, high-street reproduction and their own dependence on a sales distribution network that finds their stock discounted and devalued at outlet malls, the bigger, more established houses are headed towards the more urgent model of see-now-buy-now: offering catwalk extravaganzas in photogenic arenas showcasing clothes that can be bought in-store immediately after the event.
In the most flamboyant expression of this, Tommy Hilfiger staged a huge spectacle on a waterfront pier complete with themed funfair, in which many of the clothes had been rehashed from his Autumn collection in a show on which he had collaborated with Gigi Hadid, the supermodel who commands 22.8m Instagram followers. All are in store now. As an exercise, it was completely removed from the ambitions of yesteryear fashion: design, newness and ideas. Most of the looks were literally “last season”.
Smaller labels, meanwhile, which rely on wholesale distribution, editorial support and a niche clientele, are going in the opposite direction. Many shows in New York were staged as smaller presentations, with limited visual “assets”, in order to protect their product’s exclusivity. Jonathan Saunders’ debut at Diane von Furstenberg was introduced via a number of one-on-one appointments in which he talked everyone through his new vision for the house. Some of the collection was held back, to be unveiled nearer the time of its arrival in store. The smaller presentation gave the occasion an extra frisson of exclusivity. It helped also that the clothes themselves were worth talking about. Good design doesn’t need a sideshow.
No one knows as yet what will happen to the fashion show in the future. But no question this is a tricky time for the big fashion brands who are having to undertake major housework in order to maintain their profit margins. Coach has been one of the few success stories, finally posting growth figures (rising 2 per cent to $4.15bn) after a two-year rebranding and restructuring plan led by its chief executive Victor Luis and creative director Stuart Vevers. It now has momentum — and some sticky product. Other brands are still playing catch-up. Calvin Klein, who have just employed Dior’s outgoing designer Raf Simons to realign the brand’s divergent labels, didn’t show this season. It will re-emerge next February with a new brand focus and plans to become a $10bn business. Michael Kors is toying with the see-now-buy-now model as it struggles to cap a sales dependence on discounted stock (currently 45 per cent of sales). Ralph Lauren has gone full-throttle for ready-to-buy in the wake of a slump that has seen their profits and sales halve in the last two years.
If the retail landscape is confusing, the creative one is similarly cloudy. As with Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta is undergoing a creative transition as it awaits the arrival of Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia following the departure of its former designer Peter Copping: its mediocre SS17 show had a strictly interim appeal. Meanwhile, a big question mark hangs over DKNY. The company was sold off by LVMH to G-111, the apparel company that manages licences for Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. The future of its LVMH-appointed designers, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, is a little unclear.
Despite the anxieties, however, the season delivered a uniformly positive message and the collections were bright with optimism. Michael Kors had Rufus Wainwright and a live band singing Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” amid a catwalk of sprauncy Tahitian florals and sweaters emblazoned with the word “love”; at Proenza Schouler, the designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez had felt the love via a John Currin painting and they paid homage in a sweater with a huge heart cut-out on the breast. Joseph Altuzarra had taken “Wild at Heart” as his theme and delivered a “cheeky” collection of bra tops, pencil skirts and chiffons all covered in cherry prints and tropical fruit.
Colour was key. At Hugo Boss, Jason Wu took a plunge in David Hockney’s pool series and delivered pretty fine knits in lovely splashy blues and greens. Victoria Beckham also delivered an unreservedly sexy collection of crumpled velvets and saucy little bra tops in sorbet shades.
If bra tops were a thing then so were teeny-tiny little shorts, most no bigger than knickers and seen everywhere from Akris and Alexander Wang to Lacoste and Marc Jacobs. Who would wear something so revealing, I wondered as I gazed upon yet another perfect butt cheek. Turns out everyone, in a New York heatwave, as I discovered on the city’s streets during an uncommonly boiling week. (New Yorkers have such smooth skin and contoured gym bodies it almost makes up for their rather plangent voices.)
No butts — renew that gym membership, as next summer, biceps, triceps, midriffs and glutes will all be given a space to shine. Many of the SS17 collections featured cutaways to better showcase those abdominal muscles, while dresses clung to the body at Prabal Gurung, Proenza Schouler and Boss. At Kors and Rodarte, silhouettes were cinched at the waist with wide belts held snug on unfriendly pre-lunch notches. At a Gabriela Hearst presentation, the designer had used body suits and internal corsetry to better sculpt her long, lean lines. “These dresses are great because they hold you in at the waist — [they] are great for fat days,” she insisted. She’s evidently never seen me on a fat day.
Thank god, then, for the maximal sweeps of layering at The Row, which the Olsen sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley presented in chic uptown headquarters all arranged with Basquiat paintings and exquisite mid-century furniture. The designers didn’t release post-show photography but these flowing tunics, trousers and trenchcoats were a welcome gift for the more wobbly minded.
Theirs was an exquisite show of refined good taste, all served up with branded coffee cups. But sometimes the eye craves something a little cruder. I hoped that Brandon Maxwell, Lady Gaga’s chief stylist and more recently outfitter of First Lady fashion (he designed the ivory gown worn by Michelle Obama for a state dinner in August), might spice things up a bit. His show was a satisfyingly glossy ceremony of uptown glam in khaki, black and white at which Lady Gaga’s knicker-clad bottom was upstaged only by the photographer Steven Klein, who bottle-fed his baby front row.
For sheer, exuberant fun, however, it was left to New York’s great showman Marc Jacobs to show us how it’s done. Staged at the Hammerstein ballroom on a raised set strung with a Yayoi Kusama-style installation of lightbulbs, to the soundtrack of Underworld’s adrenalin-pumped “Born Slippy”, his models appeared like towering Technicolor aliens, bewigged in swirls of pastel dreadlocks and wearing micro-dresses made even shorter-seeming by huge glam-rock platform boots. Jackets and bags were covered in appliquéd rainbows, pills and school-pad doodle illustrations by Julie Verhoeven. A dress with pouffy Victorian sleeves was speckled with a liquorice-allsort print. Another fuchsia chiffon with a swirling collar recalled a Barbara Cartland bed jacket. Part Harajuku girl, part Camden market, the girls, in their shrunken jackets, multicoloured sweatshirts and shiny rainbow metallics were a joy to behold. Design. Ideas. Newness. Reader, I smiled.