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Different Strokes At New York Fashion Week

With fashion week in a state of flux, American designers showed their collections with unclear purpose and mixed results.
The Marc Jacobs Autumn 2017 runway show screengrab | Source: MarcJacobs.com
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — The balance of power among the various parties who make up fashion week's target audience is changing all over the world, but especially in America, where commercial considerations often take precedence over creative.

Alexander Wang's show on Saturday night epitomised fashion week's new world order. There were no seats, no interviews, really no special accommodations at all made for the media and other industry insiders who trekked up to an abandoned theatre in Harlem to see the designer's latest effort. If you can call it effort. The collection — at its best, an ode to DKNY in its heyday — lacked new ideas.

And yet, for a brand like Alexander Wang, where the customer is queen, does any of it really matter? Some may see Wang's show as evidence of the designer turning his back on a fashion industry that has supported him from the beginning. But then again, it's just business. The important thing was that the '"see now, buy now" denim shorts — worn by Bella Hadid in an Instagram post that earned more than 470,000 likes — have already sold out.

As the Fashion Month shake up continues, what is becoming increasingly clear is that the role of the press in the success of a brand is changing. For self-assigned fashion outsiders like Kanye West, or still-nascent talents like Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia of Monse and Oscar de la Renta, the approval of the industry and the feedback from editors and critics genuinely matters. But for someone like Wang or Tommy Hilfiger or even Michael Kors — who somehow manages to please all parties — fashion shows are increasingly direct-to-consumer media spectacles.

For those looking for more than marketing this week, Raf Simons' balancing act at the newly configured Calvin Klein is a good case study. Since Simons took the reins as chief creative officer, the brand has unveiled elements of its new positioning on Instagram. However, his men's and women's runway show last Friday provided plenty of fodder for industry insiders so desperately seeking something directional from the American fashion scene.

Simons, with his cowboy boots, sewing-circle patchwork quilts and colour-blocked ranch shirts, painted a picture of America through outsider eyes. But drafting in international talent is an approach that seems to be gaining traction these days, considering the number of established American fashion businesses now being ably led by non-American designers.

There's Englishman Stuart Vevers at Coach, Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders at Diane von Furstenberg and Kim and Garcia — who are Korean-Canadian and Dominican, respectively — at Oscar de la Renta. There's also the fast-rising Joseph Altuzarra, who was raised in Paris by a Chinese-American mother and a French-Basque father.

The emotional weight of the past few weeks did seem to drain many designers of inspiration.

There are, to be sure, plenty of Americans showing in New York, including the Allentown, Pennsylvania-born Thom Browne, who doesn't get enough credit for the commercial power of his brand. "I do like people to see that I'm an American designer," he told BoF's Tim Blanks this week after yet another hit show, where he presented both a fantastical button-fringed blazer and a practical bouclé skirt tailored like a pair of men's trousers. "I'm proud to be showing here. But I do hope people see there's more than preppy — that I'm more international than strictly American."

Of course, America is a country of immigrants and the country's fashion industry reflects that. In turn, a heartening number of designers made political statements on the runway, rallying in one way or another against the nativist policies of US president Trump. (The Row’s Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen perhaps did it best by embroidering delicate words of resistance on their perfect white shirting.)

The emotional weight of the past few weeks did seem to drain many designers of inspiration, however, and some of the most promising stuff came from newly emerging labels such as Pyer Moss (with its wide-set double-breasted blazers designed in homage to Kerby Jean-Raymond's father) and Vaquera (whose commentary on commercialism included a dress designed in the likeness of a Tiffany jewelry sack).

Stalwart Marc Jacobs pulled through, too, with a completely stripped back production from the show — no set, no music, no photography, just blinged-out models stomping the rough wooden floor of the Park Avenue armory. Cynics might say that with his business "in the red," according to LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault, the company decided to cut back its typically lavish fashion week budget. Indeed, when showgoers stepped outside the Armory afterwards, an extravaganza of music, models and photographers brought fashion into the streets, creating a spectacle on a leaner budget. It's like he was sitting this round out while fashion week tries to find its feet. Smart move.

Overall, this certainly wasn’t a New York Fashion Week for the history books. Perhaps the biggest takeaway of all was just how crowded the American fashion scene seems to be. Forget about the crowded calendar for a minute and consider the clutter of underperforming brands delivering neither creative jolt nor blockbuster sales.

For what is arguably the most casual country in the world, there was an awful lot of expensive evening-wear on the catwalk this week. For houses like Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, this reflects their DNA and they should certainly continue to honor it. But looking around the market, it's difficult to imagine that all these brands will survive. It's telling that struggling department store Neiman Marcus, known for outfitting the social set for gala season, has begun building Rent the Runway shop-in-shops in its stores.

Jason Wu sees the writing on the wall. "People are dressing down," he said backstage before his show. In an era when the very existence of Fashion Week is being questioned, designers need to prove their purpose like never before.

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