The collections are a month-long orgy of intense stimuli—a dizzying amalgamation of sights, sounds and, sometimes, triggers on other senses (cue the pleas for industry-wide air conditioning) occurring on the runway and off, the results of countless individual episodes that all play into the shared experience of those who go to the shows.
This story first appeared in the November 11, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The sights dominate. Once upon a time these were concentrated on the runway, with the key viewing the clothes and the models (remember the runway reign of the Supers?). Then came the celebrity invasion, and eyes and cameras turned to the front row to capture which actor/musician/athlete/reality star was sitting next to which actor/musician/athlete/reality star type. More recently, the dressed-to-be-seen, shot and posted set arrived. Some among them have turned getting dressed into an income-generating activity, while others are in fact traditional professionals who enjoy walking the glorious fashion walk performing the more mundane tasks pertinent to their employment. Wafting in and out: the protesters, yesterday’s PETA people replaced by today’s breast-baring feminists.
It’s all gripping, hyper-kinetic and exhausting. For many of us, the ancillary-turned-basic mayhem at first amuses but eventually hits the scale somewhere between irritating and infuriating. And yet, with a little distance, what resonates season after season are the genuine fashion issues and news. Those deserve a closer look.
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Everyone knows New York is a mess. A giant, hideous, predatory mess that feeds on itself and the frayed nerves of attendees, each season more crowded, more packed, more frenetic, less user-friendly than the season before, with no one in control. Or so it feels to those slogging all over the island of Manhattan (thank God that no one has yet dared breach the border sanctity of tunnel and bridge). Complaints are as ubiquitous as floaty dresses. In the midst of it all, the overall fashion return seems light.
I spoke with someone recently who called me out on my own wailing about New York—that it is the aforementioned mess—versus WWD’s reviews of individual shows. If New York is such a nightmare, why do we not register the situation with harsher reviews of more collections? I’d never before been challenged in exactly that logic-class “if A then B” manner, and welcomed the chance to clarify my own point of view. Ultimately, I stand by my overall position that New York needs an overhaul and by WWD’s approach to reviewing collections. New York has some objectively bad shows—in raw numbers more than a few. But the real dogs comprise only a small percentage of the whole. Most shows are fine and feature appealing clothes, many with actual or potential commercial viability. And the industry here is home to pockets of incredible talent. Aside from the tenured American masters, the generation of newcomers that broke through first with the Proenza boys and now includes, among others, Joseph Altuzarra, Alexander Wang, Jason Wu, The Row ladies and the Creatures of the Wind guys has reshaped the global fashion landscape. It’s the aggregate that’s the problem: far too many (who can argue that four shows an hour are three too many?) producing in total too little genuine fashion news. That reality is exacerbated by the “week’s” structure, or lack thereof. IMG’s blatant commercialism is embarrassingly tacky; Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week is about as chic as the Vegas Strip. But then, IMG is looking to cash out, so every sponsorship and, along with it, every lipstick handout, every free makeup application, every massage and charging portal feed the bottom line. Heck, if it all gets too much for you, step to the left for a brewski on Beck’s Sapphire. On the up side, no one’s ever had to be rescued from a jammed elevator at Lincoln Center, as happened at one of those many edgy off-calendar venues. Then there’s the CFDA. The CFDA cannot prevent the not-ready-for-prime-set from showing, but it could and should give more than lip service to serious guidelines regarding readiness to show and how best to do so within an overloaded calendar.
The other cities don’t escape scrutiny. With so much excitement from London, should the British Fashion Council try harder for a more professional presentation? Is Milan finally ready to get behind new talent for the long haul?
These are all major issues within which the centrality of pure fashion can get lost. Which leads to the most wonderful aspect of every season: that the true fashion import always manages to break through the fray.
The biggest news of the season was Marc Jacobs’ departure from Louis Vuitton after 16 spectacular years. He punctuated the run with a remarkable Vuitton show dedicated, he said, to women who have influenced him, and inspired by all the glorious superficial things he loves about Paris. Jacobs’ confirmed departure set everyone talking—would Nicolas Ghesquière take over, as long rumored? How will his very different aesthetic impact Vuitton’s continuing global reach? The story moved officially to its next chapter several weeks later with confirmation of Ghesquière’s appointment.
Jacobs’ was not the season’s only high-profile departure. Little more than a month after showing the third collection of her third tenure at the house she founded, Jil Sander revealed that she was again leaving, this time for personal reasons. This news prompted speculation over what’s next for Jil Sander, the brand. Can it flourish—or even survive—through another abrupt creative change?
Other shows had focused our attention on matters that ranged from pure fashion to broad cultural issues. On the pure fashion level, Phoebe Philo, closely monitored by trend aficionados, digressed from her minimalist ways with bold artisanal brushstrokes. At Lanvin, Alber Elbaz took something that could have looked cheaper than cheap—endless shine, shown nine ways to Sunday—and made it high chic. Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa celebrated his 10th anniversary at the creative helm with a daring fusion of street attitude and artisanal fabric work. And no one cared that Riccardo Tisci’s high-minded cross-cultural car-crash motif at Givenchy was hard to follow because the clothes rocked. At Sonia Rykiel, Geraldo da Conceição made a lyrical debut while musing modern on Deauville, but delivering it with otherworldly calm. Ralph Lauren dared to go the different-drummer route with a Carnaby Street romp. Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo offered an explosive treatise on shape and structure, along with the audacious, by now oft-quoted proclamation that “the only way to make something new was to start without the intention of making clothes.” Talk about fodder for a closer look; many of us (shameless acolytes that we are) were agog at this most recent rendering of the she-god’s mastery, though the occasional cynic didn’t buy into the grandiose non-fashion fashion statement.
What is beauty? By enlisting powerful collegiate step team dancers to perform, Rick Owens dared viewers to examine their own narrow stereotypes of beauty—particularly the typical, whisper-delicate runway variety. One sensed Thom Browne wanting to explore the issue as well, but in the end, his exquisitely executed, overwrought creations—shown under the creepy canopy of headless plaster bodies suspended from the ceiling—played as more medium than message.
The season also provided examination of the fashion-art connection prompted by two of the industry’s greatest talents-cum-provocateurs. Karl Lagerfeld’s gallery extravaganza at Chanel began as a satire on designers desperate to be artists and artists desperate for a slice of fashion fame and bounty. It turned into a tour de force featuring 75 mostly large-scale works (Chanel-loving collectors were salivating), each one conceptualized by the man himself. These served as backdrop for Lagerfeld’s high-texture, high-impact, high-style clothes.
Then there was Prada. Inspired by Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists, Miuccia Prada commissioned several contemporary artists to transform the show space with portraits, each depicting “an active, strong woman.” She was so taken with the results that she transposed some of the imagery onto the clothes in a big, brash, flamboyant display. Prada’s intention was not the creation of wearable art, but the employment of artful posturing to make a political statement, homage to a New Age power woman. “You need to be fighting,” she said. “It’s a debate about women; it’s a political discourse.” Yet she made clear that such proselytizing would not trump her primary mission. “I speak,” she said, “with my rules as a professional designer.” Political discourse through a fashion lens. May the talks go on!