NEW YORK — Although designers have been sometimes accused of mining the depths of bygone eras for fashion inspirations a little too much, there is often a more literal connection to modern times than might first meet the eye.
During two unrelated panel discussions the past few days, four prominent designers addressed the nostalgic themes of their recent collections and how, in each case, they were directly related to something happening in the world at the moment they set out to sketch a collection. At a conversation with Zac Posen, Behnaz Sarafpour and Peter Som organized by the New York Times as part of its annual Arts & Leisure Weekend on Saturday, the designers discussed how their personal reactions to the 2001 terrorist attacks and the ensuing war in Iraq played a role in the conception of their collections around that time.
Then on Monday, as part of a panel focused on the role of vintage influences in contemporary fashion, Anna Sui analyzed her fall 1999 collection and its inspiration by Finnish textiles popularized by Marimekko in the 1960s and how it related directly to a heightened interest in Scandinavian furniture designs at the time.
In both cases, the designers were peppered with questions from audience members, in some cases with the implications of a conspiracy as to why the creative process seemed to rely on the recycling of past ideas. The best response to that question — though the argument goes back to Ecclesiastes — came from Posen as he described the concept of a “cultural collective of ideas,” from which all designers and artists pull their inspiration.
“As designers, we are experiencing the same things, responding to what is happening in the world or a film or also in relation to the economy and politics,” he said, noting that the feminine mood that was common to many designers’ spring collections can be traced to a reaction to world events. “With the environment we’ve been in, people want to escape. They do not want to be thinking about war.”
Som also described his approach to the spring collection, presented in September and conceived last summer, when the economic outlook was bleaker, and “the world was not a great place.”
“As a counterpoint to that, I started thinking of fashion as a way to escape,” Som said. “It was a way to step outside yourself for a bit, to be somebody different for a while.”
Similarly, Sarafpour said so many designers took a more optimistic approach to their designs because “It’s part of our job to inspire people.”
While designers can react in emotional terms to such events, turning as a group to happier eras and encapsulating the trends of those decades into a season’s worth of nostalgia, there are also more individual instincts that can lead a designer into references to the past.
Sui described how during her weekly visits to flea markets, she noticed everyone was looking at Scandinavian furniture, glasses and antiques, “à la Wallpaper magazine.” Speaking at a panel organized by Scandinavia House in connection with the Bard Graduate Center’s ongoing exhibition on Marimekko, Sui discussed the role of vintage with Marimekko designer Kristina Isola, vintage retailer Tiffany Dubin and Valerie Steele, curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Marimekko textiles played an important role in Sui’s fall 1999 collection, when she imagined what the inhabitants of a Wallpaper world would want to wear, the first thing that came to mind was a profile on Marimekko that appeared in Life magazine in 1966. Similarly, she had recently moved into a new apartment where her neighbor was Murray Lerner, a documentary filmmaker whose 1967 release “Festival” had followed the performances of Donovan, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival.
“What I was really trying to capture was the same joy and optimism I initially felt when I was looking at these patterns and images,” said Sui, pointing to examples of graphic black-and-white woven plaids that picked up on an early Marimekko print or smock dresses that directly referenced the company’s designs. But the incorporation of these references was paired with a modern interpretation, adding rhinestones to turn the smock into an evening dress.
“Fashion is a reflection of something going on at a given time,” Sui said. “It’s not something that anyone invents. You need to be with the times. What makes a collection modern is when you use elements of nostalgia along with contemporary ideas. It’s the combination of these things and not just one.”
That nostalgia has to make sense for the times, she said, adding that her personal theory as to why so many designers have focused on the Sixties in recent collections is that they are going back to periods of their own childhoods. “There’s comfort in the past, because we know the past,” she said. “But we don’t know the future.”