Fashion Week: Spring 2012 Collections Defined by a Sense of Passion

Today’s best collections are increasingly set apart not by the styles they contain, but by the passion they exhibit.

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As the spring 2012 shows wrapped up in New York, designer Marc Jacobs called into question all the vivid colors, cacophonous prints, and aggressively chipper collections that had been presented earlier in the week. As the curtain parted on his melancholy stage set, his models sat posed on a wooden stage—circular lights glowing in the background—like they had been caught mid-rehearsal in a 1920s-era dance hall. As the music revved, the models marched out briskly with a confident stride, as if there was no time to waste. Creativity is something whimsical and fleeting, their rush seemed to suggest. Blink and you might miss it.

One by one the young models stepped from the tableau vivant to march down the stage and back up again. They wore pointy metallic pumps with slender straps cutting across the top of the foot. The dresses were as ethereal as the wing of a moth—cellophane frocks softly tinted with color or opaque sheaths fringed in translucent tabs of organza. Tinsel bedecked ‘do rags covered their hair. And they carried little bucket-shaped purses reminiscent of a horse’s feedbag.

When Jacobs appeared on stage to take his bows, he was dressed like a latter-day dance master in tight black leggings and a black T-shirt.

It was a surprising presentation, not because one couldn’t imagine a designer finding inspiration in the world of retro musicals, but because the references were oblique and subtle in a season when they have mostly been obvious and heavy-handed. Jacobs’s collection was wholly removed from searing colors, nods to Africa and India, and the sea of techno prints that have dominated the runways for spring. It was a refreshing collection because it went its own way; the designer was unwilling to fall under the spell of fuchsia, cobalt blue, and bright orange. This was a personal passion.

It’s getting ever more difficult to maintain a distinctive voice within the fashion industry. There are so many brands—big and small—competing for attention that the overlap of ideas seems almost inevitable. For example, with a host of young designers all vying to be the next Oscar de la Renta, the man himself went out of his way to make it known that despite his elder-statesman status he still has a youthful, daring spirit. So there he was, showing his pretty evening gowns and embroidered day dresses in a distressed, raw space before an audience that included Justin Timberlake and Nikki Minaj, and to a soundtrack of blaring retro rock. Catch him if you can, young whippersnappers!

So many designers have latched on to the same trends that it has become a kind of intra-industry competition to see who does them best. Blame it on the fabric industry, but a host of designers have embraced computer-generated techno prints that, while never exactly the same, all end up blurring together into an abstract, didn’t-I-see-this-at-Balenciaga-already mush.

Globe-trotting is popular this season. Both Donna Karan and Michael Kors found inspiration in Africa. Karan got caught up in references to mud cloth while Kors was more captivated by animal prints. Designers regularly go off on an Isak Dinesen bender. In every case, one wonders why it is that Africa is always about the animals, the mosquito netting, or a treacherous ride down a creepy-crawly infested river with a hoary steamboat captain. Doesn’t anyone ever spend a bit of time in the cities of that distant continent, perhaps having a nice dinner in Cape Town or visiting a jazz club in Johannesburg? Do they ever visit an art gallery?

The best pieces from Kors’s collection were the ones in which his inspiration was less literal, such as when he was moved by the rich colors of the African landscape: the fiery orange of a sunset, the olive green and golden yellows of the horizon.

Karan, despite her warm and good-hearted global embrace, was too caught up in a spectrum of muddy hues, which, when wrapped around the body as form-fitting jersey dresses, just left one feeling sad rather than reassured.

The designer Thakoon Panichgul also went traveling, although his imagination took him to India. His collection was a raucous mix of colors and embroidery, metallic shorts and jeweled collars. The models’ hair, molded into place and painted in shades of orange and turquoise, added to the kaleidoscope effect. But instead of evoking luxurious joy, the result was labored and self-conscious.

In some ways, though, one would almost rather a designer get caught up in far-flung adventures and safari animals—and have things go awry—than to see no evidence of passion at all.

At Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa was too subtle, too restrained. His dresses in pale peach and delicate beige simply didn’t register. They were like whispers of an idea. Designer Ralph Lauren presented a collection of sophisticated white suits, silky dresses with a delicate floral watercolor print, and evening gowns beaded in silver and richly embroidered. It was a lovely collection and yet it seemed devoid of joy and enthusiasm. His ideas for spring were all familiar tropes—so much so that the collection seemed perfunctory rather than impassioned.

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Familiarity doesn’t always have to be so bloodless. Designer Ralph Rucci regularly returns to his intricately tailored, soft-shoulder jackets with their spiraling cut-outs and to his beloved “infanta” gowns with their grand and austere trains. But Rucci seems to be on an endless, nearly obsessive quest to create a perfectly wrought jacket—a garment so light as to be nearly weightless, so finely tailored that it creates the illusion of utterly balanced proportions, so beautiful that it stirs the soul. That quest is inspiring.

This season’s inclusion of minimalist evening gowns hiding an underskirt—a tube—of glittering sequins left the audience rumbling with surprise and admiration. His sequined catsuit strutting beneath a bubble coat dusted with feathers had the audience applauding with approval.

In comparison, Lauren seemed to be striving for clothes that were so familiar as to be templates. His clothes seem less a personal pursuit of perfection and more of an astute understanding of brand management.

To be fair, branding is no easy feat and there are a host of designers who struggle to find their voice and then make that voice instantly recognizable to consumers. Reed Krakoff, the accomplished designer of Coach, is grasping in search of his own voice now that he has a signature label. Who is he really, after so many years completely devoted to Coach? His collection for spring was polished and stylish, but it was anonymous. It was dotted with a host of modern style flourishes, from apron skirts to abstract prints. But it was generically pleasant, not exceptional. Not passionate.

In contrast, another relative newcomer is L’Wren Scott, whose sleek sheath dresses, slithering gowns, form-fitting cigarette skirts, and generously embroidered cardigans announce her point-of-view instantly. It’s clear what Scott stands for: a kind of lean, slightly vintage, always glamorous and extremely polished sensibility. Her collection for spring, shown as always over lunch, underscored that point of view with a black sequin skirt with tuxedo stripes, sheer blouses with bell sleeves, and a silver metallic evening gown with a red poppy print.

At a time when a big brand such as J. Crew can come to Lincoln Center and successfully mount a presentation, or when the readily accessible, modern country club style of Tory Burch can draw applause on the runway, fashion’s most stubborn iconoclasts should be cheered for making a case for passion over practicality.

Narciso Rodriguez offered one of his most accomplished and captivating collections, this one filled with graceful dresses that slithered and swirled around the body in bold strokes of color. His shapes were easy and less structured, but his signature discipline and reserve remained. He used color judiciously, as well as prints, so that they never overwhelmed the model or overshadowed the silhouette.

At Proenza Schouler, designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez created a dizzying blend of raffia skirts, eel-skin shorts, gorgeously patterned knits, and puzzle-like dresses and tops that seemed to fold, button and zip in myriad mysterious ways. Shown in an expansive warehouse, carpeted in ginger-colored shag, the collection evoked everything from Polynesian tiki campiness to California cool as viewed from the confines of a 1970s rec room. It was a delightful dance, partnering the exotic with kitsch.

And Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy turned to the work of Vincent van Gogh for their inspiration, with references to the artist’s sunflower paintings and to Starry Night. The prints, often digitized or realized through embroidery, gave their collection a romantic and fanciful feeling. The clothes’ shapes, so often intentionally awkward or self-consciously stilted, evoked a homespun quality. The Mulleavys’ passion can be measured in sweet imperfection and labored originality.

The convergence of so many disparate brands on a single Fashion Week schedule speaks to the way in which the industry has become democratized. No matter one’s budget, everyone has an opportunity to consume a bit of high design. Creativity and originality can come at any price point. Fashion long ago stopped trickling down from an atelier on high.

As good design becomes more accessible to a wider range of people, however, fashion finds new ways to become ever more exclusive, rarified, and separate. The defining variable may ultimately be that elusive notion of passion. On its way to becoming more accessible, more mass, fashion also has become a cooler, more controlled and logical pursuit. It has lost some of its ungainly enthusiasm, its sloppy joy, its achingly self-conscious hipster attitude. That may be why so many designers have rebelled against Lincoln Center—the industry’s new home for fashion week.

The series of theaters housed under a tent are designed to blend into the august surroundings, which include the American Ballet Theater and the Metropolitan Opera. Run by IMG, the space is efficient, slick, and decidedly corporate with its displays of sponsor logos, from Mercedes-Benz to Fiber One 90-calorie snack bars.

But a host of designers refuse to show there, from big names such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Donna Karan, to smaller houses such as Proenza Schouler and Thakoon. Instead, they present their collections in production studios, art galleries, and hotel ballrooms. The settings are not nearly as efficient. Sometimes, they seem downright rickety.

But they always churn up the sense that something unexpected might happen, that everything is not under perfect, hermetically sealed control. That, just maybe, magic might erupt. Magic, of course, is rare. But the mere possibility of it helps keep the all-important passion alive.