The Reformers

Egalitarian fashion? Designers in New York have had enough of it.

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Egalitarian fashion? Designers in New York have had enough of it. They’re taking pains with their spring collections to celebrate a more demonstrative kind of fashion — the kind with a capital “F,” if you will, perhaps hopeful that the time gap from first look to total market saturation will lengthen in the process.

“I’m so tired of everyone looking as if they’ve just come from the beach,” says Marc Jacobs. “It’s like wearing jodphurs when you don’t ride — every girl dressing in a bare little top over a miniskirt. I think this is a moment for fashion, and fashion isn’t what’s in the street right now. I think fashion right now takes a little more work.”

And according to some, perhaps a little more coverage. Michael Kors finds himself on a particular mission. “Let’s get rid of the ho in fashion,’ he says. “The Video Music Awards were the final burning of Rome.”

Given all the attention of Jacobs’ sober stunner last fall, and all of the ongoing minimalist musings, one might have anticipated a totally austere spring. But such has not been the case in the early going, as many designers feel loathe to leave behind all those girlish feminine frocks that have so dominated the warm weather style scape for so long. Yet the big guns acknowledge the need to move beyond such generic merch once and for all. At the same time, they note the difficulty in meshing the seemingly antithetical notions simple and special. Thus, some are using dichotomy to describe their collections. Vera Wang said she was inspired by “the severe formality and femininity of ‘Deadwood'” mixed with the “the whimsy and charm of Henri Matisse.” Kors, too, cites the need for austerity, since he says a lot of women will hesitate to go all the way. “Women have too much charm in their lives to give it all up.”

From the early going here, it’s obvious that many of his colleagues agree, and have sought to deliver both elements. Oscar de la Renta did so with considerable ease, combining elements from his old Oscar de la Cha-Cha days with a hefty dose of restraint. Without question, fashion’s most debonair practitioner still has an ample supply of frills left in him — not to mention embroideries, appliqués and other sorts of embellishment; for him, “special” clothes are not a trend, but something his customer has always wanted and deserves to find, season after season.

This story first appeared in the September 13, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

This collection offered a wealth of such clothes styled with no small degree of daring — below-the-knee skirts and those flat shoes de la Renta took a fancy to last season, delivering the occasional twinge of editorial frumpiness. But no matter, because the clothes looked terrific, and what client worth her AmEx doesn’t have the perfect tailor for those essential tweaks?

In the last several seasons, Oscar has proven himself nothing if not pliable (thus his ability to expand his fan base on the young side without alienating his core customer). Here, the news came less in overt courtship of the young set than in deft manipulations of all of his favorite motifs, delivered in an island-y palette of earth tones and brights. There were suits galore, sportif sweaters and dresses with ample curvature, some of which were embellished to the hilt. Others, however, did indeed turn a minimal sensibility into something special: the tweed dress with a dramatically plunging neckline and bow detail; the black-and-white coat, spectacular in its floral austerity; the killer brown pantsuit with its notice-me boxy jacket. Of course, for those women for whom plain is not an option, Oscar got ruffled indeed, to varying degrees, including a little modern marvel of a beige denim skirt shown with a green embroidered sweater.

And who wants restraint at night? Not Oscar’s ladies, who will be stepping out in any number of delights — frills, frou, lace, tiers, flowers, spangles, and a seductively ruffled evening suit. After all, Oscar’s not into nocturnal sobriety.

Carolina Herrera, too, sought to deliver distinctive clothes with a chic, unfussy attitude. “I wanted to make every dress an important one,” she said. “There are so many clothes out there, that each piece must be really special.” Herrera took her inspiration from the pre-Twenties Weiner Werkstatte, particularly the work of Dagobert Peche. But rather than veer toward costumery, she focused on details, sometimes exaggerating them in a focal point in, for example, a pineapple motif exploded into a single, giant image.

The result was a collection filled with clothes that as a whole felt too decorative at times, but taken individually, contribute a lovely authority to New York’s new mood. She achieved this by keeping her shapes relatively simple despite quite complicated cuts, and letting prints and embellishments deliver the interest. A witty radish print worked delightfully for sweaters and silks; huge black- and brown-rimmed blossoms made a modernist graphic on an evening slip, while high drama and high chic met in a lean pink kimono. When she went more obviously simple, she still added a flourish, flirtatiously ruched sleeves on cotton and silk shirts or colorful riffs on tennis sweaters.

Many of Herrera’s most artful strokes came after dark. Some worked beautifully, others she rendered with too heavy a hand. And one, a ruffled hourglass in pink and brown degrade seemed to have an identify crisis all its own: Am I the dress of an artiste or a diva?

As masstige erodes the shores of prestige, Proenza Schouler‘s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez also decided to tackle the issue. “Industrialization has created sameness in fashion brands today,” Hernandez said before his show. “But that’s not what designer clothes should be.” Their answer? Exquisite clothes, rich with handworked details that harken back to a time before mass production reigned supreme. But if that statement sounds like an invitation to go down Retro Road or Bohemian Boulevard, you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Instead, the collection felt fabulously fresh, fitting well into the clean, stripped-down movement that appears to be afoot this season. That said, there was still a real romanticism to these clothes. But even such crafty tidbits as passementerie, appliqué, embroidery and braided trim can have a sense of purity when rendered tone-on-tone in a muted and serene palette: ivory, silver and a whole host of grays, from dove to charcoal.

Coats — a definite strong point — provided choices: a collarless version that hung straight on the body outlined in a quilted print, another nipped high on the waist in gray linen with princess sleeves and a delightful black embroidery or yet another beauty, an ivory trench with a braided trim. Gone were the wide, mannish trousers, slim gowns and minidresses of last season. Instead, silhouettes revolved around a higher waist slightly puffed and often accentuated by razored pleats or a hem length on skirts and dresses that covered the knees and even fell midcalf. Pants, when they appeared, showed up as leggings under coats or in slim cigarette form. But this wasn’t a collection about pants. It was about softness and an ultrachic take on femininity. It was also about a major step forward for these two talented designers.

Days before his show, Tuleh‘s Bryan Bradley also noted the importance of the special factor. In his case, however, its relevance is rooted in more than a desire to shape up the general fashion scenery. Bradley has meddled deliberately with Tuleh’s identity for the last two seasons, moving from social soiree frocks clear to the moodiest reach of the new sobriety. The collection he showed on Sunday did not line up neatly in either camp, but offered a pastiche that ebbed and flowed between overt artsiness and a less esoteric point of view, through to a lovely rendering of fall’s dark path.

Either way, Bradley delivered the goods, along with a number of mini themes — gorgeous thick lace for day, high-minded paint-splattered and webby gowns; luxed up tennis sweaters; a showcase of his fledgling shoe collection. Yet the real theme was individuality. At times Bradley manipulated the common into the highly specific, something as bourgeois as a round sweater and skirt turned memorable courtesy of a huge floral decoration. Conversely, jeweled fancy pants looked approachable enough to find a market beyond Liza Minnelli. And he once or twice surprised his audience with pieces once unthinkable in his collection, namely a pair of mannish three-piece suits. Nevertheless, the eclecticism usually stopped short of confusion, and offered an interesting snapshot on the evolution of a designer identity.

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