Over the course of nine days in New York, there have been more than 280 fashion shows and presentations for the fall 2012 season. And that total does not include designers who opted for guerilla unveilings far from the formal tents at Lincoln Center or the world of Chelsea galleries. These renegade runway events weren’t on any official calendar and were announced by Paperless Post, Facebook, or whispered recommendations.
That is a lot of clothing available for viewing, and the average consumer—the wise soul who finds a day at the mall less than appealing—might assume, with so much fashion bursting from hotel ballrooms, empty lofts, and temporary theaters, that eventually the audiences would start to thin. Surely interest eventually wanes and some unknown frock maker ends up showing his collection in front of a few friends and family and a lot of empty seats? But no. From the first day to Thursday, the final day of shows, the chairs and benches were always full.
Who are all these people? They are longtime editors, garment-district denizens, loyal customers, and the breathless fanatics who through their fast-finger tweeting, giddy exhalations of awe, and trying-a-little-too-hard costuming keep the fashion industry not only alive, but energized.
It does not matter whether the show is produced by a major brand such as Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein, a cult favorite like L’Wren Scott, an unheralded veteran such as Laura Smalls, or a curious little label called 4 Corners of a Circle, helmed by Natsuko Kanno, that debuted on the runway Tuesday. If there is anything that New York’s Fashion Week teaches, it is that in the face of economic woe, political infighting, and a vast array of mass-market commodity apparel, the lust for inventive clothing, for the promise of the new, gives no sign of fading. People still believe in the persuasive magic of an industry that promises transformation.
As the list of shows has grown ever more unwieldy, however, the old notion that a season can be summed up with a top-10 list of trends has long been obsolete. Any such bullet-point assessment could never be objective. The designers themselves are in disagreement. It would merely be one person’s, one magazine’s, view of which notions might speak to their followers. And now that everyone is a blogger, everyone has her own personal top-10 list.
The contradictions are dizzying. For fall, Marc Jacobs showed full skirts, and Proenza Schouler favored an oversize silhouette. But Victoria Beckham likes a sheath so perfectly fitted that you might as well brace yourself for a diet based solely on refusal. Scott likes a slim silhouette, too, but with a rather vintage flair. And because she showed her collection over a delightful lunch of a baked potato with sour cream and caviar, one assumes that she cuts with enough generosity to allow her fans a small degree of sustenance.
Donna Karan is obsessed with pinstripes, gray flannel, fedoras, and fascinators. And no, I don’t understand the tiny-hat fascination any more than you do. Next fall, if you start rubbing your eyes because you think you see a yeti on the streets of Aspen, Colo., or Jackson Hole, Wyo., do not fear. It’s probably just someone wearing one of Michael Kors’s giant fox-fur coats or Peter Som’s fur peacoats. Other designers, such as Joseph Altuzarra, prefer a sleeker shearling.
For fall, a woman who likes to dress with an edge could choose Alexander Wang and embrace this season’s more polished take on his signature style, which could best be described as having been inspired by a morning-after walk of shame. Ah, but for fall, no need to hang your head low as you skulk home in the bright morning sun in the same clothes you went out in the previous evening. Hold your head up high. His oxblood cardigan, in lacquered wool, is splendid, and so are his waxed-suede pants.
Some trousers for fall are wide, and others are narrow. But both silhouettes look equally modern and sophisticated. That cannot be said of the cropped pants Lauren put on his runway. He called them jodhpurs, but they looked more like the sort of knickers that turn up on the golf course when players are trying to be ironic or retro—or when they just can’t stop their inner golf geek from running amok.
And there’s a rainbow of color on the runway, but Seventh Avenue has not lost its passion for black.
So is there any common thread that defines a garment as fresh, new, and enticing for fall 2012? Look to the fabric.
Virtually every designer whose work made one lean in to get a better view manipulated fabric. Like so many other aspects of our lives, fashion’s greatest source of forward change lies in technology, the way in which familiar fabrics can be laminated, distressed, embroidered, plasticized, elasticized, and otherwise made to trick the eye or completely confound it.
For a designer such as Doo-Ri Chung, fabric manipulation is second nature. Her trademark is her sensual draping, learned at the side of the celebrated Geoffrey Beene. For fall, layers of jersey draped and slithered in ways that were both sophisticated and sensual.
The gentle tops were paired with neoprene trousers; dresses were made more engaging thanks to the precision of laser-cut details.
Sometimes the fabric surprises were subtle, as when Behnaz Sarafpour found a new use for milliner’s horsehair by using it to trim the hem of a dress. Her clothes were feminine and elegant, but jolted with space-age modernity thanks to sculptural fabrics and surprising gilding.
Nicole Miller’s Jimi Hendrix bohemian style was saved from looking 1960s thanks to digital prints on fabrics such as velvet and tweed. And Maria Cornejo played with the aesthetic possibilities in manipulating iPhone photographs onto fabric.
A bit of laminated wool or a pixilated digital image, however, won’t impress for long if there isn’t an eye for proportion and fit to support them. At Calvin Klein, designer Francisco Costa offered a collection that was familiar in its sculptural aspects. He excels at minimalist dresses that acknowledge the bust and skim the hips. But where this collection stands out is with its curious textures that from a few feet away look like a kind of raked and roughed-up wool, but up close are knotted embroidery. What are the possibilities of this technical trickery? Show us more, Francisco.
That’s what being a fine designer is all about: surprise, desire, beauty.
These challenging fabrics force the eye to recalibrate. All of a sudden an admiring gaze is turned to things that are rough or lumpy; things that look like plastic, which appear to be stiff and unyielding. The work of designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler overstimulate the eye, and yet it still leaves us wanting more. Their silhouettes for fall are oversize and so exaggerated that models were practically swallowed by wide-leg trousers and origami tops that were large enough to hold two of these rarified gazelles who walk the runway. Then they offer up lacquered knits and lace, woven leather, woven and lacquered leather. They play so many aesthetic games that when faced with plain old black cotton, it’s impossible not to wonder, is that rubber?
This is where technology is truly benefiting designers—not with the live streaming of fashion shows and the digital show invitations and fast-track bar codes for seating, although all those things make life on Seventh Avenue more convenient. But the real innovations in our dress come from the fabrics that are available—and the ones that are possible if someone just has the nerve to imagine them.
That’s why the best look on Lauren’s entire runway had nothing to do with the stuffy windowpane-plaid trousers and jackets, the little black dresses, or the suit strutted out with a walking stick and top hat. It was a violet one-shoulder satin gown that slithered down the model’s perfect body like liquid metal. There wasn’t anything fancy about the dress, and there was nothing tricky about the fabric. But it projected a sense of modernity in the way it reflected the light and looked so effortless.
It’s “ease” that has always made Karan’s clothes look so perfectly right-now, even though she has never strayed far from her beloved cashmere and jersey—such traditional fabrics. But her fall collection was not sensual and seductive in its embrace of female power. It was structured and tailored and stuffed. The comfort of stretch wool and jersey were lost in the starched silhouettes. Some of the suits might take a woman from daytime into night—but it would be a night of working dinners and twilight boardroom huddles, not an evening of champagne and pleasure.
Rest assured, there is still room in fashion for pure fabrics, for cashmere that isn’t lacquered, for silk that isn’t printed to look like a tapestry. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen celebrate that kind of paired-down luxury. And they do it with sophistication and wild indulgence. How cold does it have to be to justify one of their mink dresses?
But for all of their attention to Old World details and artisan factories, the collection speaks to the times with its simplicity, with the suggestion that even under the burden of all that expensive finery, a woman can style sprint on a dime, talk apps, debate Mountain Lion—the operating system, not the big cat—and feel young.
Indeed, no one embodies knowing youthfulness more than Oscar de la Renta, the éminence grise of American fashion. At his runway presentation he paired a modest tweed dress with a trompe l’oeil tweed goose-down vest and a pair of Beats by Oscar de la Renta headphones. They resided comfortably alongside Chantilly lace, silk faille, and his contented clients of a certain age.
For de la Renta, the rare designer who manages to exude both confident cool and self-aware wisdom, high-tech fabrics would just be an embarrassment of riches.