Emerging designers are gleefully subverting traditional notions of office attire — but with a surprising degree of restraint.
Vaquera, Snow Xue Gao, Strateas.Carlucci, Palmer Harding and Ji Oh are among labels offering intriguing, modernized takes on working fashions for fall. Their offbeat shirts, hybridized constructions and some literal twists on tailoring are refreshingly approachable and play to the polished side of experimentation. Consider it digestible — and wearable — eccentricity.
In recent years, underground labels were disrupting the New York fashion scene with off-kilter, homespun clothing with an anti-corporate attitude. Their presence prompted the fashion team at WWD to shortlist Gauntlett Cheng, LRS Studio and Vaquera as the new wave of emerging talent here, generating excitement with their penchant for deconstruction, crafty reconstruction and an overall DIY-spirit. Their disregard for conformity made them inherently cool.
Today, the design collective of Vaquera consisting of Patric DiCaprio, Bryn Taubensee, David Moses and Claire Sully is distancing itself from that initial underground reputation in favor of a balanced approach to design. “We want to show that we can still do stuff that has a lot of energy but it’s also really viable,” Taubensee noted after the fall show.
“Reinvention is part of our design ethos,” Moses added. “The Vaquera promise is that we will deliver something new each season. This is in a way a reaction to the industry’s desire to categorize designers and put us in a box.” Fall’s mix of polish and daring included blazers ripped short and shirts with patchwork constructions and raised collars.
For Snow Xue Gao, who staged her first solo show for fall, and Strateas.Carlucci designers Peter Strateas and Mario-Luca Carlucci, reinvention and provocation are second nature.
“Deconstructed draping is always the thing I’ll keep doing,” Gao says of her aesthetic that blends Eighties American suiting and Asian qipao dressing. Her latest collection featured reversed blazers and others physically twisted into tops and dresses. “Women don’t want to wear suiting that feels like a uniform,” she continued. “They want something that’s formal but also fashionable.”
“The core elements of tailoring and toying with masculine-feminine still remain,” Strateas and Carlucci noted of their brand ethos. “We are exploring more hybridized garments, which is something we began from the very first season and revisiting.” Their latest collection of reimagined and refined wardrobe staples, hinged on spliced and fused shirting and tailoring, demonstrated the brand’s developing maturity.
Even with reinvention at the heart of these emerging brands, maintaining a balance of the conceptual with commercial viability is no easy task. Take, for instance, Oh and Palmer Harding designers Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding, who found their niche by way of subversive shirting as a foil to corporate uniformity.
Both brands aim to take their customers from the boardroom to dinner with comfortable and professional designs that are also a bit offbeat.
“The first key to this balance is comfort and ease,” Palmer and Harding noted. “For us this means focusing on the silhouette by applying innovative pattern cutting to a traditional garment. Secondly it’s about ensuring there is enough excitement in the detailing without it becoming too busy that it distracts. Most of all it is about considering who and where our woman will be wearing this garment.”
“As we like to say in the studio, we design for 11 a.m. on a Tuesday,” they continued in a joint reply to emailed questions. “It’s a pretty average day with quite regular tasks, but we have taken those situational wardrobe necessities and applied exciting directional design elements to the garments. The idea of needing to change clothes to be situation-appropriate doesn’t seem so modern any more.”
Oh agreed. “Sometimes I make something conceptual, and yes, it might not be commercial that it’s literally for everyone,” she said. “But if they are going to spend a certain amount of money, they do want some kind of uniqueness.”
Retailers are taking notice.
“It’s clear that reworked suiting in general is a huge trend right now and not necessarily just for office or workwear — it’s fresh and welcome,” said Carol Song, fashion director at Opening Ceremony. “A lot of brands are experimenting with a fresh concept of workwear with backward jackets, multiple shirts stitched together and exaggerated silhouettes.”
“Everything was going back to that tailored suit,” agreed Marvin Revells, buyer for 3NY boutique, which stocks unusual statement pieces from up-and-coming brands. “You see a lot of people play with the idea of a blazer or a slack or a whole set, but doing different things like cutouts in suits. You can play with structure and formality — tailored in front with lapels and then the back will be sweat material.”
Asked why they think emerging brands are reworking traditional notions of office attire, buyers cited multiple factors.
“Talk about saturation: I think the streetwear industry had become so big and so un-tailored, a lot of casual,” Revells said. “People just went back to what can we do with smart tailoring. The new suiting isn’t even for work, it’s for every day. I don’t think people like to think about what to wear per se. It’s easy.”
For Lisa Bühler, founder of e-commerce site Lisa Says Gah, and Lisa Bush, owner of Mona Moore boutique in Venice, Calif., it’s all about claiming female empowerment.
“As women take control of the office, the wardrobe rules are reshaped,” Bühler said. “The need to dress as women in their way is taking power, which means the suit gets a makeover and rules are bent for comfort and confidence. We see our women-boss clients wearing more color and dressing in sets that have a suit feel but overall feels fresh.”
Bush agreed: “Values are changing and people want self-expression and fluidity. They don’t want to have to conform. Millennials are insisting on it. Reworking these clothes is a literal way of breaking these expectations down and undoing them. It’s related to ideas of gender and sexuality. It’s part of becoming a more free culture. I think that what’s acceptable to wear in a work environment will only continue to expand. Eventually there will be no such thing as ‘work clothes.'”