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WWD Collections issue 11/19/2012

No one is more aware of Jason Wu’s reputation as baby-faced outfitter of young ladies—uptown types who like bows and buttons—than Wu himself. This is a man who moonlights as a designer of doll clothes and famously dressed Michelle Obama in a deb-worthy white gown for her husband’s first presidential inauguration. So it was with great pleasure that Wu integrated a twist into his plotline for spring, working up a tastefully kinky collection inspired by Helmut Newton. He presented leather, lace, harnesses and Carolyn Murphy, who opened the show with a jolt of vintage Nineties supermodel sex.

This story first appeared in the November 19, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I love the idea of changing the perception this season,” says Wu. “Sometimes it’s those who seem the most unlikely who may be the naughtiest when you’re not looking.”

Those who have followed Wu’s swift rise know he’s wise to the game; he is aware of the worth of a sound bite and a little shock value. But this collection was not about cheap thrills. “I have my lady customer, but there are plenty of girls who want sexier clothes from me, and maybe a new customer,” he says. “It’s an interesting way to extend my appeal.”

Does the world really need more sexy clothes?

The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes. Just look at Anthony Vaccarello, the Paris-based newcomer, who, one year after winning the Andam Award for his flashy, fleshy designs, has earned major editorial and retail attention. For the unveiling of its redesign last March, Harper’s Bazaar had Terry Richardson shoot cover girl Gwyneth Paltrow in a Vaccarello dress that offered strategic coverage to very little of her taught, Tracy Anderson-toned bod. In May, Anja Rubik wore a similarly revealing Vaccarello dress to the Met Ball, her right leg exposed right up to the top of her hip bone, and it was again in Vaccarello’s spring finale look. Bergdorf Goodman, Jeffrey and Maxfield picked up the designer’s line this season, and though he says he tried to develop more jackets and daywear for spring, inevitably, “The most successful pieces are always the dresses—for example, the last look: Anja in the long dress with the legs.”

Questioning the ongoing appeal of the genre is as pointless as questioning what the average man finds attractive about Kate Upton, the jiggly swimsuit model who, it stands to note, has pulled herself up by her string bikini straps to the upper echelons of fashion. She now has multiple Vogue editorials in her book. If that is emblematic of a hypersexual, yet chic, charge in the air, it makes sense that the sexy vibe permeated the spring runways of houses such as Balenciaga, Versace, Marc Jacobs, Nina Ricci, Vera Wang, Versace and Calvin Klein, many of which are known to be among fashion’s most provocative, although not necessarily in that way (with the exception of Versace, of course).

“It’s probably the most sensual collection I’ve done for Balenciaga,” Nicolas Ghesquière said a few days before his spring show, which would be his last, and one of his most celebrated, for the house. “It’s dramatic compared to what I usually do, with a lot of skin and legs, too.” He was talking about the Spanish-inspired skirts, long and lean with slits to thigh’s peak that opened into undulating, techy ruffles. That flash of skin was echoed on the midriff, exposed by a cropped top—boxy and directional in cut but a cropped top, nonetheless. The raw sense of seduction was striking, surprising even, not because Ghesquière has been monastic in his designs (although there were the nunlike, archive-inspired hats of last spring) but because he devoted so much of his tenure at Balenciaga to exploring futuristic interpretations of the house couture volumes. He is also obsessed with fabric development that often takes stiff, geometric shape.

Stoking the sexual appetite was obviously the intended effect for spring, yet Ghesquière nearly balks at the word sexy.

“To provoke desire is the most important thing,” he says, noting that short hemlines and fitted silhouettes have often been part of his vision, an accessible part, relatively speaking. “What we notice in the store—it’s true, when there is a real sensuality and sexiness about it, they go for it.”

That should come as a surprise to no one, least of all retailers. “There’s always a market for sexy,” says Holli Rogers, fashion director of Net-a-porter.

How to define what’s sexy is open to interpretation. “It doesn’t always involve a lot of skin,” says Rogers. “Valentino dresses are sweet and sexy, Dolce & Gabbana are figure-flattering and sexy. They both definitely have their place, and a lot has to do with body type and personal style. There is overt sexiness and implied sexiness.” In the former camp, Rogers named Hervé Léger and Pucci as top performers in the ultra-body-conscious sector, while Victoria Beckham, Antonio Berardi and Roland Mouret have extremely loyal customers because of their fit.

Overt or implied, sexy clothes are about the body. Last spring Net-a-porter dubbed Stella McCartney’s curvy, color-blocked illusion dress, worn by body types from Kate Winslet to Kris Jenner, “The Miracle Dress” because, says Rogers, “It literally had an hourglass shape on it and women loved it. Dresses that give the illusion of an exceptional figure, hiding flaws we all have, do exceedingly well.”

Demand for a sexy look, whether lean or curvy, can put fairly rigid parameters on designers. Look at the red carpet, a veritable beaching ground for a sea of generic mermaid dresses. Does it frustrate or compromise the creative process? Depends on whom you ask.

From the get-go, L’Wren Scott has traded savvily on a strict, whippet-thin shape. “As a woman, I always like to celebrate the female form,” she says. “From the roots of the brand, we’ve always been about the silhouette. We always like to focus on the waistline and accentuate our female attributes.” Clothes have the ability to empower, create confidence and attraction. As Scott said while accepting her Fashion Oracle award at last month’s Fashion Group International Night of Stars gala, “As fashion oracle, one must look into the future…there is one thing I can predict—that a man only understands fashion if it has a waistline.”

This raises the question of whether women buy and dress for themselves, for other women or for men. Scott says women dress for themselves, “and being a woman, I dress to feel comfortable and confident.” She also says that the biggest compliment she ever received from a customer was that her husband asked her on their first date when she was wearing a Scott dress, and asked her to marry him when she was wearing another Scott design.

If the implication is that the broad swath of women out there want their clothes served hot, where does that leave houses for which sex is not dinner-table conversation? Though some are willing to sex up (and, one could argue, down) their aesthetics for the red carpet, the real creatives won’t compromise their runways. Yet this season, a number of brands managed to find new, often artful, ways to get at sexy. “What do you do to be relevant?” asks Manuel Puig, vice chairman of Puig, parent of the Nina Ricci collection. “Ricci has a certain identity. Ricci is not a rock ’n’ roll brand. We are not a porn brand. Still, there is a sense of sensuality.”

Yet he adds that it’s important to  address the realities of the market; the key is to remain focused on the DNA and not go too far. “Sexy and rock are two trends that help growth. Look at Valentino,” he says, citing it for upping the sizzle factor without compromising its identity.

In an effort to capture some of that mojo, Peter Copping, Nina Ricci’s creative director, infused the line’s French prettiness with a little London punk for spring—the girls knew how to party, their frocks trimmed with zippers and fishnet. “There are harnesses, but finished with grosgrain, which is very Nina Ricci,” he says.

Puig’s point is a simple and bankable one. “When you think of ad campaigns and what we do, Calvin has always been a synonym for sexy,” says Francisco Costa. True enough, yet Costa’s tenure at Calvin Klein Collection has been marked by a fascination with architectural forms that don’t always adhere to classic notions of sex appeal. But the past two seasons have seen Costa take a softer tone. He uses the words “erotic” and “pinup” to describe the look of his spring collection, which gracefully treads the line between arty and alluring, with emphasis on the waist and bust.

“I realize our customer relates to the clothes when there is substantial women’s shape to it, when it’s deliberately feminine,” he says. “In the past, when there was more of a concept going through the collection, I think the woman was not negated, but sometimes the clothes lacked that femininity of that shape. We’re rediscovering it. It’s fundamental, it’s important to the business.”

Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler reveal that since they started running the numbers on their own store on Madison Avenue, fitted dresses sell three to one.

“Some things are like our babies, they aren’t necessarily a commercial shape; it makes us sad when they don’t sell,” says McCollough. “But it’s just part of the game.” Conversely, they want to keep “our girls” happy, and note that the growth of the commercial collections, including the pre-collections, has allowed for even more aggressive runway experimentation.

Whether obviously sexy clothes come naturally is another story. “It’s hard for me. I cannot tell a lie,” says Vera Wang. She took a considered approach to the spring collection’s slimmed-down, sheer look. Wang tends toward layers and avant-garde cuts, but this was simplified, beginning with a fitted jacket over a womanly, full skirt and ending with a lean, sheer, embroidered column gown with a V-neck. “I hope I found my own translation of [sexy], because it is important. And I’m not just talking Hollywood. I’m talking life. I’m talking my daughters, even.”

Whereas many designers, such as Hernandez and McCollough, leave the classically sexy stuff—known as “understandable” in fashion parlance—in the showroom, Wang used her spring show to make a statement, proof that she knows how to do sexy clothes. As she puts it, “Back at the ranch, there are other things I’m more known for—the more loose, relaxed, draped work tops—but not on the runway.”

Nor is Marc Jacobs known for sending girls down the runway in clothes that set the average dude’s pulse racing, and he could not care less. Jacobs has long professed that “clothes aren’t sexy, people are sexy.” Still, his spring collection pulsed with the power of raw suggestion. Lingerie and bare skin peeked out beneath striped jackets. One model wore a Mickey Mouse T-shirt cropped so short, it barely covered her breasts. Meanwhile, on the bottom was a skirt slung so low, it highlighted her hipbones, jutting out like daggers. For the finale, some of the long dresses were cut in clingy jersey, while others were graphically sequined with pleated skirts that opened to reveal sheer panels running from waist to floor. It was easy to imagine Jacobs’ friend Sofia Coppola in one of these looks. “I think Sofia’s supersexy,” says Jacobs. “I’m not sure Donald Trump would.”