Marina Moscone RTW Spring 2021

Impactful, but lacking the emotion of real life.

Abbreviated as New York Fashion Week was, major retailers appreciated the optimism, innovation and diversified approaches that designers exercised to get their collections, and in some cases messages, across. But the spring-summer season was indisputably like no other, and that left some executives wanting more — especially the buzz and excitement of seeing collections in person.

While the full regalia officially closed Wednesday with Tom Ford’s finale film, many buyers and executives took second, third and multiple looks at their favorite collections by rewatching designers’ films, all without ever leaving their living rooms. Livestreaming may have left those based in international time zones a little weary, but in doing so, they avoided airports, airplanes and mandatory quarantines.

While millions are still working remotely due to pandemic precautions, this season’s NYFW reach extended well beyond the usual fashion crowd. Many consumers caught every last turn. Some designers like Victor Glemaud, Tanya Taylor and Studio 189’s Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah used NYFW:BTS talks to relay messages of voter registration, racial equality and social justice.

As one of the few designers to stage a live runway show, Jason Wu received high marks for his rooftop effort from retailers, as well as praise for his relaxed sportswear looks. Having a catwalk bordered with swaying, sky-high greenery offered a balm to all those WFHers. (And exemplified one of the season’s trends: nature’s restorative qualities.) Ulla Johnson’s origami-inspired film and Khaite’s Catherine Holstein spring styles also garnered high marks.

Khaite RTW Spring 2021

Khaite, spring 2021.  Courtesy of Khaite

However sunny-side up some retailers were in their recaps, there was no denying that this season was lacking. Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior vice president and fashion director Roopal Patel said, “This was not New York Fashion Week. It was an evolution of it, to be able to stay connected to American fashion and American designers. The mood was somber. New York Fashion Week is such a special moment and the only way to have that moment is to experience the buzz, the energy, the people. The design magic was very missed this season. Not everyone showed.”

“Overall, it did not feel like fashion week,” said Divya Mathur, the chief merchant for specialty store chain Intermix. Like many executives from the U.S. and abroad, she did not have any in-person appointments. In this age of safety-first, why risk anything? Zoom-ready buyers need not fret.

The abundance of no-shows, quite literally, include marquee designers like Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Tory Burch, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Prabal Gurung, who opted out of this installment of NYFW shows in favor of another time and another place. Not to be forgotten, Herrera’s creative director Wes Gordon made his presence known via a conversational film with the company’s namesake.

Commending the CFDA for launching Runway 360 and the efforts of designers who participated, Patel said, “What touched me most and what I found most intriguing was the authenticity of those designers who opened up and allowed us to experience their feelings and emotions as they created their collections.”

Patel’s highlights included the Carolina Herrera film, Marina Moscone’s video of her artistically and diligently crafted collection, Khaite’s exploration of a different narrative, and an “incredibly artistic“ one at that, and Wu’s Tulum-inspired, personable, effortless clothing.

She cited key trends as knit dresses and sweaters, cozy styles, oversize blazers and effortless shirts, full skirts, Zoom-friendly blouses, ensemble dressing, denim, punchy prints, crochet and fringe.

Bloomingdale’s women’s ready-to-wear fashion director Arielle Siboni said the fact that the shows were virtual actually turned out to be an advantage. “On the positive side, some designers created in-depth video presentations, and it was great to see their inspiration and process behind the collection. It is also a huge plus to be able to rewatch the shows. Also, they largely ran on time as opposed to physical fashion shows. The only real negative for me was not getting to seeing the product in-person, or to feel the energy of a show and camaraderie of fashion week,” she said.

Citing the importance of cutouts and bra tops, she said other key trends were the emphasis on craft — lace and crochet in particular — and knit dressing. “In the market, we are seeing a lot of gingham, poplin and elastic-waist bottoms. Tailoring is still prominent, though silhouettes are still a little looser to accommodate a move toward comfort in our current climate,” Siboni said.

Jason Wu, Ulla Johnson and Christopher Esber were a few of her favorites, with Bevza being one to watch.

Ulla Johnson RTW Spring 2021

Ulla Johnson, spring 2021.  Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

While not discounting the ongoing pandemic, Siboni said the general mood of the season is “optimistic and positive. There are a lot of bright colors and nature-inspired collections which was driven by designers’ time spent out of the city. But I loved Ulla Johnson’s show, ‘Love Letter to New York,’ which included the city as a star of the show. It was an inspiring reminder that, though it is virtual and smaller, fashion week, like New York, is here to stay.”

Marissa Galante Frank, fashion director of accessories and beauty at Bloomingdale’s, also found plenty to like at the New York shows. “In accessories, there is a mix of practicality with bold, fun statements. In footwear, there is a need for comfort: chunky sandals, platforms, thong sandals. Oversize totes that hold everything, wide brim hats that are fashion and provide sun protection.” But it’s jewelry where she saw “true fashion expression,” she added, “because the function is to simply adorn and express yourself. The statement earrings at Ulla Johnson were beautiful. And the eclectic pearl and beaded jewelry at Jason Wu transports you immediately to vacation. And, of course, face masks.”

Jason Wu RTW Spring 2021

Jason Wu, spring 2021  Masato Onoda/WWD

Turning to the men’s collections, Justin Berkowitz, men’s fashion director at Bloomingdale’s, pointed to the “concept of seasonless dressing — delivering products that continue to fit customers’ needs, as one of the big answers to lifestyle changes due to the pandemic. So for spring, a big focus on transitional items like outerwear, knits and jackets that can move into warmer weather. And timeless pieces that feel less seasonal, and more lasting,” he said.

He pointed to the “clear color palette of neutrals and warmer tones of khaki, brown, orange and burgundy,” and pieces that reference workwear along with modern minimalism “that feels right for the times. And lastly, we saw interesting interpretations of checks and stripes. Both are perennials for spring, but have been modernized through a change in silhouette, and styling that feels more interesting and less traditional.”

Berkowitz said emerging and independent men’s brands shined during the week (although those were mainly the ones showing) and pointed to David Hart “who presented a thoughtful approach in a video and sketch format that was both forward-thinking and an ode to New York” as a standout. APotts’ “sophisticated concepts in shape and color palettes through a lens of genderless dressing,” along with Maxhosa’s “complex, vivid knits based on Xhosa beadwork patterns” were also among his favorites. And while not on the official calendar, he said Angelo Urrutia’s 4SDesigns “are the epitome of cool. And Billy Reid showed an incredibly strong collection with a focus on a simple color palette, easy textures, and seasonless design.”

Billy Reid RTW Spring 2021

Billy Reid, spring 2021.  Courtesy of Billy Reid


He, too, found the season uplifting. “As the artist Peter Halley said in his video presentation with designer David Hart, the one thing we can expect in life is change. We have all had more time to reflect the past several months and it’s given us an opportunity to focus on what we can do differently. That was a mood that carried through many collections.”

Sam Lobban, senior vice president of designer and new concepts at Nordstrom said, “I think there is a strong sense of both optimism and realism in the NYFW collections we’ve seen, as well as within the New York market. From the super fun and playful Collina Strada collection, the edgier plays on femininity from designers such as Sandy Liang and Peter Do, to the excellent Khaite collection, which felt empowering, elevated and beautiful all at the same time.”

He added, “Whilst not technically part of NYFW, I also love Angelo Urrutia’s new men’s line 4SDesigns, which showed this week, as both a personal homage to his background as well as a very thoughtful and creative take on easy-to-wear, great product for guys who want something more considered.”

Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation for Bergdorf Goodman, applauded the CFDA and the designers for “adapting so effectively” to the new reality. “They’ve harnessed technology remarkably and creatively. One of the extras of all the virtual and live shows, presentations and films is how democratic and far-reaching it is. They can be seen globally by anyone interested, including all potential clients. Another great upside is the ability to view numerous smaller, emerging brands which we physically might not have been able to in the past.”

But Fargo said she missed the “energy, community and tactile [nature] of a real-time experience, versus the more one-dimensional experience of virtual. I’m hoping that the future is an amalgam of both.”

She said the appointments that “resonated the most were those where the designer spoke to us virtually and talked us through their ideas and the collection like Proenza Schouler and Joseph Altuzarra.” She also singled out Jason Wu “for his safely staged and beautifully directed” live presentation and Ulla Johnson “for the meaningful and symbolic show invite choreographed wonderfully to her virtual show. And Tom Ford’s exuberant, fantasmic collection jumped off the digital screens and ended the official calendar on a fashion high.”

Tom Ford Men's Spring 2021

Tom Ford, men’s spring 2021.  Courtesy of Tom Ford

That being said, Fargo said that numerous key New York designers decided to “reset their markets and delivery schedules,” and will show their collections “more intimately” later in the month. So the season is not “a complete picture yet,” she said.

But trends have emerged anyway, she said, “like all of the reference to the restorative quality of nature as a jumping-off point of inspiration, hence all the neutral earthbound colors played back to sun yellows and sky-blue accents, responsibly sourced poplins, and botanical prints.” There was also an overriding sense of “ease, calmness, softness, casual essence. The vibe is decidedly relaxed and peaceful versus overly dressed up and too fussed. Comfort and versatility rule. Flats, slides and slippers are the footwear of choice. Knit dressing is more important than ever. There’s a very marked and welcome increase in diversity in most presentations to shout out.”

Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director for Bergdorf’s and its sister company, Neiman Marcus, said NYFW’s first, mostly digital, platform “was a real exploration of ideas as much as it was about clothing. The virtual medium seemed to really inspire many designers to think expansively, inclusively, examining personal, thoughtful interpretations of race, gender, culture, and community. Many of the collections were thought-provoking, if not overwhelmingly commercial [with some notable exceptions] but that didn’t diminish the impact and importance of what we saw.”

As a result, he said this season was “the most refreshingly diverse NYFW in memory on many accounts, from casting to creators, cultures represented and explored, gender identities that were fluid and organic and open for personal interpretation. Clothing seemed to be used as a means of connection and I found that incredibly inspiring.”

Although he found some collections very promising, he admitted that he missed the “magic, the connection, the inspiration that comes along with attending in-person shows. The ideas gleaned, the conversations that lead to discoveries, the anecdotal, unexpected moments that move us in an important direction just aren’t experienced in a purely virtual fashion world.”

Pask singled out several collections with “uplifting, vibrant color on display” including “the brilliant knits at Maxhosa Africa; Ka Wa Key’s watercolor hues; the bold bands of color throughout the debut collection from Richfresh, and David Hart’s compelling collaboration with artist Peter Halley, which led to wonderful sketches (rather than samples) of vivid, graphic looks that will be made to order at customers’ requests. This ingenuity and willingness to explore alternative ways to share a collection, especially given the supply chain and fiscal challenges due to the pandemic, were inventive and often fascinating.”

MaxHosa Africa RTW Spring 2021

Maxhosa Africa, spring 2021.  Courtesy of MaxHosa Africa

Willie Norris x Outlier also presented images of looks rather than actual physical pieces in its “Ideas for Spring Collection,” he said. He also liked Colleen Allen’s computer-animated debut collection featuring human shifters wearing her futuristic gear in a barren cityscape, which he called “mesmerizing and memorable.”

Other brands chose to show their collection cinematically including Kenneth Nicholson and Carter Young as well as Davidson Petit-Frère who “wrote and wardrobed a chic, fully realized action-pic short featuring his sharp, modern take on Neapolitan tailoring using eye-catching, vivid original fabrics that will have us wanting to get dressed up when we can gather together again. Tom Ford, who closed out NYFW, presented a sexy floral fantasy, filled with mood-enhancing, vibrant prints, color and fluid shapes that had me looking forward to a brighter spring and a (hopefully) very changed landscape.”

Laure Hériard Dubreuil, founder and creative director of The Webster, said that while she misses “the vibrant and energetic feeling that flows throughout New York during fashion week, we are so impressed with how the brands and designers have embraced new ways to show their collections this year. We loved the digital presentations that Khaite and Maisie Wilen hosted — both captured their brand DNA in a strong way, while also offering us this new era experience. Another standout for us was Proenza Schouler’s presentation that was personally guided by Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez]. It was amazing to hear their words and see the collection and their inspiration for it come to life. It was so special and inclusive-feeling.”

Although there were more collections to see this season, the overall mood is one of “realness and thoughtfulness,” she said, pointing to “a new level of attention to detail, refreshed staples, and reimagined best-selling silhouettes, with a real focus on the construction and quality of each piece.”

As a result, Dubreuil said The Webster will maintain its budget for spring 2021 to support existing vendors while seeking out new brands “to add to our curation. The Webster will always be dedicated to offering our clients the ultimate creative curation each season with favorites and newness.”

Intermix’s Mathur said, “While some of the shows like Ulla Johnson were staged beautifully, albeit virtual, it was hard to have the emotional reaction that comes with attending a show live. Nothing can replace getting to see the looks up close, as so many of the intricate details of the fabric, technique, styling, and accessories unfortunately get lost through the screen. There are certainly elements of virtual shows that are a welcome relief, like not having to zip all over town trying to get to a show on time, but on the whole, a big piece of how we curate our assortment at Intermix depends on the gut reaction we have at a show.”

Mathur said what really caught her eye included “the color palette at Jonathan Simkhai, the chicest “Zoom top” in a cut out crepe from Proenza Schouler, and the fun and accessible optimism of Staud…The whole market has embraced the need for casual and versatile clothes as a response to so many people working remotely and socializing on a smaller scale. Knitwear has been an overarching trend as designers have been walking away from very structured looks and instead leaning into easy head-to-toe knit dressing that can easily go from ‘sofa to street.’” 

Budgets, Mathur added, were flat this season.

Moda Operandi’s buying and fashion director Lisa Aiken stuck with digital appointments though her team did a few in-person “when both the brand and buyer felt it was safe…Designers have been challenged to be more creative than ever in presenting their collections, and this week we saw an array of films, livestreams and look books. The most poignant moment was undoubtedly Ulla Johnson’s fashion film, which captured not only her thoughtful craftsmanship, but the enduring spirit of New York City, which was prominently displayed in the backdrop. It was perfect.

“There are positives to going digital,” Aiken added. “For one, it gives designers the freedom to show even their most commercial pieces in a compelling way that isn’t tethered to a runway experience. Additionally, they can use film to home in on special details or present an item that may not translate in a live show. That said, I don’t believe we are anywhere close to finding a format that replaces the traditional runway show or presentation, as the lack of hype and social excitement over fashion week leads to a significant delta in marketing exposure and engagement, but change is the foundation of this industry.”

Among Aiken’s favorite shows: Khaite for “blending expertly crafted staple pieces and a strong fashion factor with a particular ease that isn’t easy to achieve; whether an engineered knit bodysuit or a romantically puff-sleeved mini dress.”

She also cited Rodarte’s more relaxed collection “that didn’t lose any of the emotion or fashion fantasy they’re known for”; Ulla Johnson for being “at her best” with her particular niche for soft bohemia with an emphasis on craft, a beautiful, powdery color palette and playful silhouettes; Bevza and Christopher Esber as part of a new breed of modern minimalist designers exploring the sexier side of the Nineties aesthetic, and Proenza Schouler and Altuzarra, who gave previews of “exceptionally strong” collections that will be shown in early October.

Bevza RTW Spring 2021

Bevza, spring 2021.  Courtesy of Bevza

Aiken said designers aren’t abandoning the fantasy of runway fashion altogether, they recognize that purchasing will be far more emotional, and that clients are looking for comfort and ease that is flexible, whatever the future may hold. Designers are also emphasizing handicraft for a sense of longevity, natural fabrics including cotton and linen, sensuality that plays out in interesting necklines, subtle skin reveals and ultra-feminine silhouettes, and knitwear as a key transitional category. “The cardigan in every iteration is fast becoming a hero piece.”

Mytheresa’s fashion buying director Tiffany Hsu did not have any in-person appointments this week. Based in the U.K., traveling to the U.S. would have been too challenging, she said.

New York’s virtual-heavy week presented other speed bumps as well as progress. Hsu said, “Not being on-the-ground this season, the time difference made it a little hard for me to follow all the livestreams. From what I could see from the images, some brands made a real theatrical impression,” she said.

Her standout collections included Khaite, Rodarte, Peter Do and Tomo Koizumi. As for the leading trends and overall mood, Hsu said, “It seems quite opulent and happy at the same time. There were a lot of evening looks shown, as well as big sleeves and ruffles. It’s very much of an outdoor-ish positive energy.”

Sam Kershaw, buying director for Mr Porter, also weighed in: “As we’ve navigated buying the majority of this season digitally, we successfully accomplished our spring ‘21 buy from most of our New York brands earlier this summer. While nothing compares to ordering a seasonal collection in-person, I’m appreciative of the great lengths that the designers, brands and retailers have taken in the interim.”

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