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In New York, Are Good Dresses Enough?

The first crop of NYFW shows capitalised on a commercial boom, but lacked new ideas.
New York Fashion Week 2022 looks from Eckhaus Latta, Proenza Schouler and Saint Sintra.
New York Fashion Week 2022 looks from Eckhaus Latta, Proenza Schouler and Saint Sintra. (Courtesy)

For many independent American fashion brands, last year was good for business, with several boasting about revenue increases of 30, 40, even 50 percent from 2019. Demand for knitwear got them through the pandemic, and a dress frenzy lifted them up even further starting in late March 2021, when unit sales of women’s dresses were up 50 percent from 2019, according to research firm NPD.

What does that mean for the runway? While New York Fashion Week always puts commerciality front and centre, there was something downright practical — for the most part — about what’s been shown thus far.

Jason Wu, who saw record sales in the last three quarters of 2021, zoned in on the hip with faux-peplums tied up in bows, an ode to the 1950s, his favourite era. There were plenty of Wu signatures in there — shiny moiré taffeta done up in little cocktail dresses, stiff swiss-dot tulle — as well as some new uses of old techniques, like warp printing, a process where the thread is printed before the garment is woven, giving the resulting pattern a hazy, blurry look. Victor Glemaud, who made a name for himself in knitwear, was also all about the dress, using a ponte jersey for slinky evening wear.

These were nice clothes. Do they need to be more than that?

Never was that question more top of mind than at Proenza Schouler, where Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez sent their glossy collection out into the expanse of the Brant Foundation. The designers spent the last few seasons recalibrating their business with a sincere intention to dress actual women. Expectations, though, are high. Their friend, the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh, was prescient in the show notes she contributed: “We allow ourselves discord. For inspiration.”

What stirred the pot? People want everything from them: new ideas, but also clear accessibility. It’s an almost-impossible ask, and it was easy to call this derivative: a corseted waist felt too familiar, as did some of the suiting. And yet, there are no new ideas in fashion, only new interpretations. Perhaps they should be judged not on whether the proposition is entirely new, but whether they made it entirely their own. In that, they were more successful, from their take on the glove shoe, almost suctioned onto the foot, to the mid-century polish of a sculptural gold brooch, pinned strategically on the collar of a black hoodie that had been tucked elegantly into a blazer.

Ulla Johnson is a designer whose aesthetic is so strong, she’s able to mingle with the ideas of the day while maintaining a solid grip on her own thing. She gets that there will always be demand for a pretty floral dress, as long as it’s rendered with relevance. (This season, that meant swirling peacock prints and metallic threads, with the oft-peplum-ed, fulsome shapes.) Johnson’s business was on fire long before the pandemic, and the seemingly endless category launches, most lately denim and eyewear — not to mention the gaggles of women wearing her wares in the audience — indicates things are still on the up. As she continues to build her world, it would feel modern to see people who better reflect her customer base on the runway, where her casting never deviates from the traditional.

Dresses may be back with a vengeance, but knits continue to dominate. Two knitwear-first designers, retail mainstay Lauren Manoogian and still-new Henry Zankov, have taken the medium from category to concept. Manoogian, who’s been in business for about a decade, manages to drape her lofty sweater dresses and cardigans into wearable, layerable sculptures: it’s no wonder her pieces serve as wardrobe foundations for so many. Zankov is bringing depth to the novelty sweater. Neither should be ignored.

At Khaite, 40 percent of the business is the designer Catherine Holstein’s hourglass knits, reflecting how she dresses in her daily life. “I aspire to look like a ‘90s-era Gap model,” she said. On the runway, though, she’s sharper, Matrix-y, with oversize leather going up against moulded cocktail dresses and plunging sweetheart necklines. Holstein’s real talent is in product design. Each piece — from the curved heel almost hidden away on the back of a pair of sandals to the thigh-grazing motorcycle jacket — has a purpose.

Sintra Martins, who showed her first Saint Sintra collection last fall, has ambitions to build a brand that marries pure creativity with solid sales. This season, she presented 14 looks that ranged from the utterly wearable — like an icy blue satin dress with a train that curled into a tail — to the almost-conceptual, closing with a wedding gown tiered with tubes of white oxford cloth.

“I came into fashion knowing that it’s a commercial venture — it was in school that I learned that there was an art to it as well,” said the recent Parsons graduate. “Ultimately, it’s my goal to make pieces that are simultaneously commercially viable and artistic and beautiful.”

Shayne Oliver, the designer behind Hood by Air, has divorced creativity from the commercial, separating his runway meditations from the selling of HBA. “Coming back into HBA, I noticed there was a lot of expectation, for instance, with being commercial and giving people what they want and then people also wanting that drama, the heat, you know what I mean?” he recently told BoF. “The idea of concentrating on two of those things and being a small brand is very challenging.”

On Friday night at The Shed, a cultural venue near Hudson Yards, models wearing his new namesake collection walked chaotically through the crowd in clownishly elongated, white, pointy boots and shoulders scrunched up so intensely that they cleared the tip of their skulls by at least a foot. The presentation may have been called “Headless,” but what’s exciting about Oliver is that his designs can feel like they offer a peek inside his brain. That makes him worthy of the attention.

You can see inside Elena Velez’s brain, too: like many of her young peers, she loves to research. An obsession is the industrial midwest, so she finds herself using materials like sailcloth and parachute nylon on ripped-bodice gowns, painting her models’ forearms in sooty black paint to resemble elbow-length gloves, and tacking little chunks of cement onto heels, as an acknowledgement of the work of her mother — a ship captain — and others.

Was it too literal? At times, but it did feel new-ish — and it’s fascinating to see these young designers work out their histories on the stage. Dauphinette’s Olivia Cheng did a beautiful job of preserving childhood memories, electroplating Ginko leaves — which remind her of a soup her mother made growing up in the suburbs of Chicago — and then stringing them onto a halter top.

Of course, designers often fail to fully realise an idea. But when they’re able to, the effect can permeate far beyond the confines of one runway. I was reminded of that on Saturday night, as Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta celebrated their 10th anniversary in the crumbling remains of the old Essex Street Market. Once pegged as the next big thing, they remain watchable: the coarse hand on many of the knits looks sophisticated now that the clothes are cut in a confident, sexier way. But it’s their approach to casting that has influenced the industry more than anything else they’ve done. Today’s casts are often diverse not only in terms of race, but also age, body shape and gender expression. Their version was never a marketing stunt, and it’s because of them that it’s now an expectation, not an exception.

Additional reporting by Robert Cordero.

Further Reading

As spending patterns shift, a new generation of mid-market American labels are thriving by offering value-conscious products with a point of view. Can they scale like the titans that came before them?

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