NEW YORK — It was a good thing that the past was on the menu at New York University’s fashion seminar held Friday and Saturday, because several participants seemed to have a problem with the present.
Designers, journalists and fashion historians presented varying viewpoints on the significance of recurring themes of vintage styles in modern design during the program, “The Presence of the Past: Reuse, Revival and Renewal in Fashion.” Staged at the New York Academy of Medicine on 103rd Street, the audience consisted mainly of curators of university and small museum fashion collections from around the country. Valerie Steele, curator at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, discussed the corset, the Met’s Harold Koda talked about Greco-Roman revivals and François Lesage talked about a career that has spanned the tenures of the original Christian Dior to John Galliano at Christian Dior.
While there was a lot of nostalgia on stage, there was also a distinct sense that the audience was looking for validation of its own frustrations with modern fashion.
After discussing the heritage of the Bill Blass collection, designer Lars Nilsson said he was caught off guard when someone asked whether Blass still published the patterns of its designs with Butterick and Vogue. Chado designer Ralph Rucci worked the room into a frenzy, drawing wild applause for scolding those trend-driven designers who show looks to please the editorial community, and then again when he scoffed at the notion of using synthetic fibers in his designs. Another woman told Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, that the only fashion editorials she can relate to are Neiman’s The Book and Oprah.
“It’s hard to be enthusiastic when you’re not presented with real clothes, but a show,” she said. “This is a call to arms to the industry. Let’s get real. When a customer opens a magazine and sees this,” Kaner said, pointing to a slide of a Gaultier creation, “she thinks, ‘There’s nothing out there for me,’ and that’s it. It’s very hard to get her back into the store.”
Kaner recalled John Galliano’s color-saturated spring collection, for which the models were covered in powdered dyes, that several guests in the audience were nearly asphyxiated or sent running to the toilets to rinse their contact lenses by the ensuing clouds of dust. When she later went to his showroom, Kaner discovered only three or four pieces from the runway show there, with the rest replaced by a remarkably wearable collection.
“He should show three or four pieces like that,” she said. “Get it out of your system and move on. Designers are not considering who has the money to buy these clothes. They’re trying to titillate the fashion editors. There’s got to be somewhere between what they call news and excitement and what we call real business.”
Rucci, who confirmed he will show again at the haute couture in January, had his own gripes with the fashion press, specifically over what he perceives to be a slight toward designers who are more restrained than outré. And don’t even think about misusing the word couture.
“One need not in fashion be trend driven or have a concept of fashion that must be changed every season,” Rucci said. “What we work with is evolution. My work tends to be calm and cool, but editors don’t particularly like the concept of elegance and grace. I wish grace didn’t have a connotation of a certain age in this industry.”
The scholarly audience sighed in appreciation, with many women sizing up the white lattice work jacket worn by Lisa Koenigsberg, director of Programs in the Arts at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and asking Rucci where his clothes were sold. Yet, the real hero’s welcome was reserved for the elusive Mary McFadden, who arrived on Saturday morning to deliver an address entitled “Icons and Images of the Ancient World: Sources of a Personal Fashion Odyssey.”
McFadden approached the dias with the confidence of a professor and introduced her revelations with the delivery of a lithe poet.
“The leitmotif that passes through my life has been the adornment of a woman and of a man,” McFadden said. “Ancient symbols, icons of nature and Celtic borders, symbols of lands and sandstone epitaphs, classical Greek sculptures carved marble as if it were wind-swept cloth. This is my ideal of beauty.”
With that, McFadden set off on a 5,000-year voyage through art history, showing slide after slide of Elgin marbles, a Cypriatic priestess, a female figure from the Temple of Ishtar at Mesopotamia wearing a sheepskin skirt, cat and dog mummies from Egypt, Byzantine iconography, Elizabeth Rex wearing a pearl necklace, a 16th-century Japanese warrior figure, the feather dresses of Hawaiian kings, the Temple of the Moon in Yemen, the great forts of Zimbabwe and the gold spirit houses of Tibet.
She showed her own National Geographic quality photographs of junks sailing the Yantze river, the sails of which inspired quilted looks within her own collection, then to Holland, where endless fields of flowers influenced her palette, and more from Mongolia, Tunisia, South Africa, Greece, Thailand and Korea. There was even a polyester-backed crepe from Australia, which, she said, “lasts for 300 years — it has none of the problems Ralph mentioned earlier.”
“I have a couple of places I still want to go,” McFadden told the audience. “I want to go to Argentina and then to the Muldives, and then Zanzibar again for the festival of music, which is fabulous.”
And for those who expected only to hear about the past, McFadden, who closed her signature ready-to-wear company this fall amid a storm of controversy, said after the conference that she’s working out the details of launching a new collection.