Social consciousness can prove complicated. So let’s forget that the humble plastic bag, the kind dispensed by bodegas and delis by the millions as a schlepping satchel for the innocuous essentials of everyday life, is being targeted as an environmental hazard.
Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne see a different resonance in that bag, which informed their impressive spring collection. Backstage before their show, Chow said the bag is emblematic of those used by the small businesses that service, and are run by, members of immigrant communities. The designers used a pink variant of the bag for their invitation on which they printed an oval smiley face, the words “come again,” and the notice of venue: Canal Arcade at “Five Points,” part of what is now Chinatown. This was a place which, through the 19th century, served as an epicenter for diverse groups of immigrants, while gaining notoriety as what historian Tyler Anbinder called in part of the title of his book on Five Points, “the world’s most notorious slum.”
The transparent plastic motif and the “come again” became purposeful design ruses for Chow and Maxwell’s collection, the former as see-through handbags, hoodies and other clothing items, the latter as signage which, Osborne noted, carries tiered meanings, as heartfelt welcome — “please come back!” — and for chiding disappointing behavior — Come again? “If you’ve done something wrong,” Chow offered, “you’ve got to try it again. You’ve got to redo it.” He added that that message is “directed outwards.”
Thus, the Public School guys renewed their belief in the runway as opinion platform. It’s a tricky catwalk strut to negotiate, and they did so beautifully, their message resonating as neither pedantic nor trite. That’s because they didn’t overstate the obvious, their double entendre “come again” more sophisticated than the barrage of deep-thoughts messaging that swept last season’s collections. Am I really going to become a better person — braver, kinder, more enlightened, more open-minded — because a hat or shirt tells me so? Probably not, but I might want to consider the possibilities inherent in “come again.”
Nor do Osborne and Chow understate the fashion. They’re designers; their job is to produce good-looking, interesting clothes. That they can do so while appealing to our better natures and referencing up-from-the-bootstrap utilitarian tropes — all the better.
Thus, there were bold laundry-bag plaids, transparent anoraks, denim workwear and comfortable hoodies and track pants. Many silhouettes were amply cut, and pieces from the men’s wear collaboration with Jordan were integrated into the lineup, worn by women. Yet these designers know their way around a sexy look, too, whether cheeky shorts, an off-beat, off-the-shoulder top and drawstring bubble skirt combo or skinny black-and-green ribbed knits, slit for strategic shows of skin. Elevated streetwear rooted in an elevated sense of social responsibility. Plastic bag-inspired, perhaps. But hardly disposable, on either count.