By Jean E. Palmieri
with contributions from Rosemary Feitelberg
 on February 18, 2021
3.1 Phillip Lim RTW Fall 2021

Whoever would think that cramped seating, trying to scramble through Manhattan gridlock and late-starting fashion shows would seem so appealing?

Nearly a year after the pandemic seized the fashion industry’s day-to-day operations and those of the rest of the world, retailers agreed about the efficiency of virtual shows, but they still yearn for in-person ones.

Although major players like Michael Kors, Thom Browne, Marc Jacobs, Pyer Moss, Tory Burch, Ralph Lauren, Christopher John Rogers, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta and Tommy Hilfiger were not part of New York Fashion Week’s latest lineup, store executives were energized by the optimistic attitude that rose from those who did show — although most did so virtually (Jason Wu’s general store-inspired, socially distanced show welcomed a compact crowd and showcased food as much as fashion). The digital-heavy roster allowed designers of varying degrees to show off their cinematic skills and also allowed for greater entry to the most important cohort: consumers who actually buy the clothes.

However media-friendly and Instagram-worthy runway shows have become, there is more at play at those events than catching the latest collections. As Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, put it: “It is very hard to capture that abstract magic of an in-person show: the energy, the wonder, the shared experience, the conversations.”

Even so, merchants applauded the New York fashion community for driving forward and finding innovative ways to present their fall collections. The films and videos were captivating in many cases and allowed the clothes to shine in ways that are different from that of a runway. They also enable retailers to take a closer look at fabrics, details and anything else that catches their eye — again and again.

And with many of the larger designers not participating — or pushing back their virtual presentations until later in the season — it allowed smaller and emerging brands a chance to make their mark, retailers said. Among the shows that attracted the most attention were Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Ulla Johnson, The Row, Gabriela Hearst, Casablanca and the men’s brand Stan.

Here, retailers weigh in on the season and their hopes for returning to the front row as soon as possible.

Roopal Patel, senior vice president, fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue

Overall impressions of New York Fashion Week and the virtual shows: This New York Fashion Week feels different from digital fashion weeks of the past because there are fewer virtual shows and more look book presentations. New York Fashion Week pillars Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Altuzarra and Thom Browne will also be showing in March, so this allowed younger designers to emerge this week.

Standout collections: It has been exciting to see new and young designers like Kimberly Goldson present at New York Fashion Week. Other standout collections include Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, Jonathan Simkhai, Zimmermann, Staud, The Row, Ulla Johnson, Gabriela Hearst, Khaite and Veronica Beard.

Backstage at Jason Wu RTW Fall 2021.

Backstage at Jason Wu, fall 2021.  Masato Onoda/WWD

Key trends and overall mood: Seventies-inspired trends have emerged along with military influences including jackets, pants and shearling. Knitwear continues to be a strong, evolving category, with everything from cozy knit dresses, two-piece dressing and knits in bright colors. Outerwear also had a strong presence with quilted coats, puffers and blanket wrap-coats in black checks and plaid among key styles.

On in-person appointments: We are attending all shows virtually and hope to be back in person soon.

On the women’s and men’s and dual-gender shows: It has been fantastic and more efficient to see men’s and women’s collections presented together and to experience a designer’s vision at one moment in time, rather than fragmented across separate fashion weeks. I hope they move forward with dual-gender shows in the future.

Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation, Bergdorf Goodman

Overall impression: The status quo has been upended. “New York Fashion Week“ as a concentrated “week“ of New York collections doesn’t exist in the same way. Designers have been resetting all aspects of their business. In many instances, we are still seeing pre-fall markets merged with fall runway with the intent of maximizing more in-season selling, minimizing design and energy churn, looking for longer sell-throughs. All smart responses to the challenges. Numerous collections, such as Tom Ford and Michael Kors, are yet to be seen, dispersing the traditional window of New York Fashion Week. Designers are doing what makes sense for their businesses versus sticking to old calendars.

Standout collections: In the plus column, it’s unprecedented how many smaller brands we’re able to “cover“ given the virtual aspect of presentations. Brands are able to express themselves in fresh ways and tell their stories to a larger audience perhaps better than in the past. Where it’s challenging is the inability to understand execution, which is key to picking up an untested brand. Designers have had to add “director” and “cinematographer” to their skill sets. Many of the short films have been transporting and superb, such as Studio 189‘s film of their collection shot in their studio in Accra with the seamstresses as the audience and joyful dancing postshow. Phenom storytelling by Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson. Ulla Johnson‘s collection was one of her best and beautifully shot and choreographed at Lincoln Center. A standout all around. FaceTime directly with the designers themselves has been another unique opportunity presented by these times, adding some much needed humanity and contact.

Key trends and overall mood: Thoughtful practices, diversity and sustainability are thankfully becoming increasingly integrated and important to the industry. Everyday luxury or elevated casual modes of dressing are still checking the big box. PSWL and Phillip Lim stood out in this market, strong in their at-ease direction and stand-alone items. The prevailing vibe is down-to-earth and elevated comfort. Fair isle and cable knitwear, homespun plaids, puffy and padded, sportswear riffs, on-the-ground footwear and looser and layered fits stand out.

Budgets: We are prioritizing our spend on a mix of emotional pieces, trend right, and emerging BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] brands this season.

Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus

Overall impression: I must hand it to Erin Hawker and her team at Agentry PR for continuing to spearhead and support New York Men’s Day, now the only defined men’s fashion presence during New York Fashion Week. She has constantly, unwaveringly organized, supported, and executed men’s day for years now and it has persisted because of her and her team’s dedication to maintaining a men’s presence during the show season. For this edition of the virtual New York Men’s Day, they presented inclusive fashion from an array of designers both new and known, diverse, domestic as well as international. It was fresh, uplifting and engaging despite being limited by the confines of a screen.

Standout collections: Tristan Detwiler introduced us to his fellow Bumann Quilters group from California that wore handcrafted, artisanal patchworked garments from his line Stan in a touching filmed homage to the power and need for storytelling. Doni Nahmias, another West Coaster, shared a nostalgic look at how his upbringing has informed his elegant, athletic-inspired sportswear and signature use of silk. Carter Young and Teddy Vonranson shared romantic visions of NYC, filming city dwellers in gear that felt right at home. Aaron Potts chose to feature the voluminous, fluid pieces from his agender A. Potts collection in elegant motion on a dancing group. Craft was on beautiful display in Ka Wa Key’s bold colorful handknit-wear and in designer Shinichiro Ishibashi’s beautiful homage to Japanese textile techniques in his Kuon collection. The Keiser Clark collection featured some great sportswear, and particularly great quilted parkas, with a cool attitude and a music performance that made me wish I was there at the “show.” Hopefully sometime soon.

Kuon RTW Fall 2021

Kuon, fall 2021  Courtesy of Kuon

Key trends and overall mood: We are seeing a very strong season in men’s wear with some great development and some trends that will be very compelling for our Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus customers. There is, of course, a continued focus on relaxed garments and a focus on comfort throughout collections with key items like the jogger-style pant, the versatile shirt jacket, and an overall dominance of terrific knitwear. What is also standing out is a focus on great, uplifting color and vivid prints and patterns in the designer market that will look great on the store floors. We’re also seeing a great deal of craftsmanship and things artisanal in garments that are often one-of-a-kind and sure to be keepsakes. Artful upcycling. Responsible and thoughtful production is also becoming more and more prevalent across brands.

On women’s and men’s and dual-gender shows: Overall, the organized virtual fashion weeks have been doing a good job at presenting collections in an easily navigable way, innovating and adapting more and more each season, and encouraging the creativity of designers. But it is very hard to capture that abstract magic of an in-person show: the energy, the wonder, the shared experience, the conversations. I am looking forward to the day when we can be present, together, again.

Justin Berkowitz, men’s fashion director, Bloomingdale’s

Overall impression: In men’s wear, this fashion week felt like it was more focused on independent and emerging brands than ever. It was very exciting to see the creativity and fresh thinking from these brands.

Standout collections: 4SDesigns and Engineered Garments showed great collections oriented around the outdoors and utilitarian aesthetics. Willy Chavarria presented some wildly unexpected and irreverent shapes that were a breath of fresh air. I also loved Gabriela Hearst and Billy Reid, their more sophisticated takes this season felt easy and polished. Lastly, Studio 189’s use of African dye techniques was especially impressive.

Key trends and overall mood: Outdoor aesthetics and gorpcore are really driving much of the conversation right now, especially as they intersect with streetwear. As seen at 4S and Engineered Garments, takes on technical outerwear, multipocketed jackets or utility vests, plaids overshirts and cargo pants all resonated strongly. The Bloomingdale’s customer is already looking forward to a more refined version of comfort and these trends for fall really deliver.

On in-person appointments: We’ve been focused on virtual appointments.

Arielle Siboni, ready-to-wear fashion director, Bloomingdale’s

Overall impression: After living in loungewear over the past year, it was really nice to see a return to fashion in the shows. Designers recognize that there will still be a need for ease of dress and are focusing on more comfortable fabrications, but I think everyone is excited to embrace fashion again.

Standout collections: 3.1 Phillip Lim, Jonathan Simkhai, Victor Glemaud and ALC all offered a unique and strong approach to knit dressing. Staud and Rag & Bone capitalized on an outdoorsy aesthetic, which was so prevalent in the shows. I loved the tailoring and sophisticated dressing at The Row, and Markarian offered a unique perspective on eveningwear. Ulla Johnson’s video at the NYC Ballet provided a gorgeous backdrop to the romantic and feminine clothes.

Key trends and overall mood: With international travel still on hold, designers have been traveling out west, glamping and exploring more of America — a trend which is evident in the shows. Quilting, Fair Isle, second skin knits and plaid shirt jackets have been key trends we saw from brands like Rag & Bone. Sherpa and knit dressing are mainstays, as designers like Staud and ALC ease us into a semblance of normalcy for fall and with comfortable fabrications. Fun updates in the knit world include thicker cables, fisherman-inspired styles and space dye and marled stitches at Ulla Johnson. Cutouts and ruching abound at Jonathan Simkhai, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Proenza Schouler, adding some playful and flattering features we’ve been craving over the past year. Tailoring and leather sportswear remain important. Houndstooth is the standout print of the season; we are seeing a lot of graphic black-and-white prints, which provide a nice contrast to the neutral color palette we’ve been seeing. And a knit vest is the season’s must-have, providing that cozy feeling in a polished way. I’m already eager to see these items at Bloomingdale’s this fall. I know this balance of comfort and style will be as exciting to Bloomingdale’s customers as it is to me.

Ulla Johnson RTW Fall 2021

Ulla Johnson, fall 2021  Courtesy of Ulla Johnson

Sam Lobban, senior vice president of designer and new concepts, Nordstrom

Overall impression: Overall there was a lot of creativity, in format and presentation as well as product and design. I’ll be honest and say I can’t wait to get back to a point where we are experiencing things in real life again — there’s no getting away from the fact that you have a different connection to clothes, fashion and experience when seeing a show in person. But nonetheless there’s also been some real ingenuity in thinking about how people do connect with ideas through digital mediums.

Standout collections: The Proenza Schouler collection was really strong, and we love where Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez] are taking the brand as it feels perfectly aligned with their customer. We’re big fans of what Collina Strada is doing, and the take on “Animorphs” was brilliant and funny, while the clothes were great, too. We also enjoyed Sandy Liang’s playful femininity. We love Angelo Urrutia’s 4SDesigns and thought this collection — his third under his own label having been at Engineered Garments for a long time — was really strong, especially in his ability to fuse all of his life experiences to create a very special tale of New York. In a very different yet cool homage to New York, we really enjoyed the Tombogo collection. Last but most definitely not least, and technically not part of NYFW, Area’s first couture showing was a real highlight and is the furthest thing from a lockdown sweatsuit.

Sandy Liang RTW Fall 2021

Sandy Liang, fall 2021  Courtesy of Sandy Liang

Key trends and overall mood: We loved the fact that we’re seeing product fueled by emotion, joy and luxury — be it the more fun, fashion-forward takes of some of our younger, more emerging designers or the reinterpretation of luxury and modern minimalism from the more established players who are thinking about their customers’ new way of dressing and responding to fashion.

On in-person appointments: Everything has been and will continue to be virtual for us again this season, but we are most definitely looking forward to the time when we can get back into showrooms and see our partners and their collections in person.

Laure Hériard Dubreuil, founder and creative director, The Webster

Overall impression: A new season is always so reinvigorating. It is inspirational how the brands continue to evolve their unique approach through the lens of creative technology to exhibit their latest collection. However, I do miss the energy that comes with a physical New York Fashion Week; the spirit of seeing a collection for the first time is unparalleled. As always, we love the personal approach that Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez] take when sharing an early view of their collection with us. Even over Zoom, you can feel their amazing creativity and excitement for their collection. We are looking forward to seeing our newly added designer LaQuan Smith’s collection — the first collection carried for spring 2021 at The Webster — and, of course, the always-so-elegant Khaite presentation.

Standout collections: We absolutely loved Casablanca’s first women’s collection. Inspired by the Grand Prix, the collection embodies the ultimate form of escapism, a theme that we connect with to the fullest. The short film instantly transported us and had us wishing for fall to be able to wear every look.

Key trends and overall mood: From what we have seen thus far, we are gravitating toward the pops of electric yellow, warm raisin-colored luxurious knits, as well as the plethora of showstopping outerwear both in voluminous and cheeky cropped silhouettes.

On in-person appointments: No, completely virtual.

Budgets: Our budgets are fortunately up.

Tiffany Hsu, Mytheresa’s fashion buying director 

Overall impression: It was great to see that many designers created fun and exciting new digital formats. But I do hope to see more of the key brands showing again during the next season.

Standout collections: The Row is always one of the standout collections in New York: the tailoring is impeccable and it is perfectly complemented by soft wrapped shapes. Gabriela Hearst and Rodarte are also among my personal favorites.

Key trends and overall mood: There was a really positive and energetic vibe emerging from New York, which is so great to see especially at this point in time.

On in-person appointments: Due to the current situation and travel restrictions in place, our team followed fashion week on-screen and did digital buying appointments. We really hope to be back in New York in person for the next season though.

Divya Mathur, chief merchant, Intermix

Overall impression: The collections really showed that designers are feeling much more optimistic about the fall season, as evidenced by the return to luxe fabrications and a focus on elevated dressing.

Key trends and overall mood: Knitwear continues to dominate, but with an emphasis on novelty details like fringe, intarsia and texture. While they are cozy enough to wear at home, these are styles you will also want to be wearing out. Soft tailoring was a key trend, as designers were thoughtful about how women will be transitioning from their largely relaxed wardrobes to “getting dressed” with items like fluid blazers, silk wide-leg trousers and textural knit sets with an emphasis on skirt separates.

On in-person appointments: Our vendor community has done an incredible job of making the virtual market process seamless. However, there is nothing that can replicate seeing product in person. We were able to do in-person market appointments with a handful of brands, while following all safety protocols of masking and remaining six feet apart.

Budgets: We will be spending more than our second-quarter budgets.