| Robin Givhan, The Washington Post |
NEW YORK – The Park Avenue Armory went pitch black last Wednesday night at precisely six o’clock. The first model appeared in the spotlight – standing dramatically alone in the centre of a glowing circle. She was buttoned into a leopard-print cape that billowed out from her shoulders, softly but grandly. The ruffled collar of her blouse rose up around her neck and her slim trousers were cropped at the ankle.
Another model followed and then another. They wore other versions of this spacious silhouette – an A-shape that appeared in different forms around the body: a skirt, a coat, a minidress, a ruffled gown, a little knit hat topped with a feather. Jacobs’ show was the finale of the fall 2019 runway season here. And it was an elegiac, poetic and beautiful finish.
His presentation – in an intimate setting, with no elaborate set design, no eye-popping floral display, no long-winded show notes – exuded sober dignity. The designer explored the possibilities of volume. He looked forward for new ideas. But the collection also looked familiar. It was an example of a designer using his self-created vocabulary to say something new.
Much of Jacobs’ vocabulary is rooted in his seminal 1993 grunge show. The collection, parts of which were recently re-released, featured luxury henleys, misshapen flannel shirts and vintage-looking floral dresses. That same ability to find beauty in flaws and glamour in the mundane was woven through Jacobs’ fall 2019 collection. Feathered party dresses came in dusty hues of blue and blush. Where there was sparkle and glitter, the silhouettes were kept simple, the fabrics almost sombre. The few jolts of colour were rays of sun or flashes of clear sky breaking through the clouds.
In the midst of the sweeping capes and oversized floral prints came one supremely simple look: a great crew-neck sweater over a black A-line skirt. Unadorned. Plain. There was something strangely elegant about it, perhaps because it dared to be so stripped down in the middle of all of the overblown silhouettes.
The final look was worn by veteran model Christy Turlington, a classic beauty with her wide-set eyes and high cheekbones – her age written delicately across her face. Dressed in shades of plum and midnight tulle and feathers, she was an elegant swan gliding slowly and calmly into the dark.
Can a single collection sum up a season? No. But Jacobs offered a bit of reassurance that this city still has the ability to romance us with its fashion. That collections don’t have to be loud and raucous to mesmerise and excite us. That Generation X (and the Boomer rear guard) has magic even as all eyes are focussed on the Millennials.
What are they up to, this next generation on which the fate of the world rests? The Vaquera collective offered an ode to a family apartment in “a landmark building with Central Park views.” Designer Batsheva Hay continues to produce modest attire with nods to prairie dresses and the little-old-ladies of yore – this time with a modelling assist from veteran Veronica Webb and actress Christina Ricci.
Both of these collections tapped into a desire to reject some aspect of contemporary life. At Vaquera, where models stomped down the runway like toddlers in the throws of a hissy fit, the collection mocked the tasteless grandeur of the moneyed class. Hay rejects the notion that a woman’s sexuality is a centrepiece to her femininity or even her identity.
Hay’s clothes were quirky. Those from Vaquera were aesthetically challenging, which is a polite way of saying they were rather ugly. Ugly, however, is not necessarily bad as a starting point for a conversation about the glorification of the wealthy and our tendency to enable their belief that their money has imbued them with taste and knowledge beyond the precise set of skills that made them rich. Inherited wealth doesn’t mean you have an ounce of business savvy. Being a latte billionaire doesn’t make you an expert on health insurance. And so on.
Fashion is in transition, when one generation starts to make room for the next. It’s happening in politics. It’s happening in other industries. With only a few exceptions, the fashion industry has stopped asking what the veteran design houses will do next; even when they bring in new creative directors, they mostly keep to the same course.
At Oscar de la Renta, designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia ably carried on the founder’s legacy with a collection that was pretty, younger-ish and in keeping with the high society sensibility of the brand. Wes Gordon is having more trouble as the caretaker of Carolina Herrera. His fall collection wobbled between overly precious, searingly bright, shapeless dresses and tuxedo-style trousers and bow-front overcoats that could have benefited from sharper tailoring.
The fashion industry’s biggest players have shaped the identity of American style. But who will define style for the junior high girl when she’s ready to head off to her first full-time job? What brand will she aspire to?
Perhaps she will look to Gabriela Hearst, The Row or Derek Lam, who all a marvelous stylistic code. Hearst offers high luxury and beautiful tailoring, along with a focus on sustainability. To emphasise her environmental concerns, Hearst invited two of the plaintiffs in Juliana v United States – the case brought by 21 young people against the government for violating their right to “a climate system capable of sustaining life”.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the founders of The Row, showed magnificent nipped-waist jackets and high-collar dresses and blouses. Even if their prices make their clothes wholly out of reach for most women, there’s a lot to admire and learn from their streamlined, focused approach to fashion. Philosophically, it can speak to a generation focused on less waste and heirloom values. Women don’t need so many clothes. Every party doesn’t require a new party dress.
Lam works with organic cotton and technical silk, which he describes as “fancy nylon”. He has made a perfect little black leather dress, a white leather dress that has the fluidity of silk, a jacquard trench coat with a convertible hood and blouses that balance prim with sexy.
John Elliott’s work was far more informal than that of many of his colleagues. He wisely recognises that when it comes to casual clothes, gendered preferences particularly blur. Women want the same ease of track pants and hoodies, utility jackets and functional coats as men. They want the same badass clothes and they don’t want them in pink.
There’s been a lot of room this season for smaller companies to breathe. Jonathan Cohen’s splendid floral quilt print was inspired by blankets he brought back from a visit to Mexico City, where his family is from. Victor Glemaud’s knitwear in cheerful rainbow stripes references the “neo-preppy collegiate school spirit” at historically black colleges and universities such as Howard, Morehouse and Spelman. And Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta showed a more polished and focused version of their collection, which was one of the first to emphasise size-inclusive casting and gender fluidity.
The next chapter of American fashion may not be represented by these particular designers, but it will most certainly continue to be defined by luxury, along with sustainability, comfort and inclusivity. Luxury is not simply about making expensive clothing but rather garments that spark desire and joy. Sustainability will not boil down to only pesticides and water usage; it will also be measured by the longevity of a garment’s relevance. No one will want to be stuffed into a sausage-casing, but comfort will also be an expression of personality and self-identify. Not only will people want to be physically at ease in their clothes, they will also want to be psychologically at home.
And finally, fashion cannot survive if it’s not inclusive. Its future does not rest on the shoulders of a size two, white, cis woman residing on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As a global industry, the back offices have to be a reflection of the consumers the brands seek to serve and, in fact, need to serve in order to prosper. – WP-BLOOM