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A New Generation of Americans in Paris

Emily Bode, Sander Lak and Spencer Phipps are among the handful of American designers showing in Paris this month. One way or another, they arrive on the Paris catwalk garlanded with expectation, Tim Blanks writes.
Bode Menswear Spring Summer 2020 show | Source: Getty
By
  • Tim Blanks
BoF PROFESSIONAL

PARIS, FranceTom Ford has said that one of his aims as the new chairman of the CFDA is to promote American fashion internationally. Inklings of a beachhead were established last week, with Atlanta native Emily Bode debuting her men's collection in Paris, and New York transplant Sander Lak (Dutch by birth) also showing his first full men's collection for his label Sies Marjan. Californian Spencer Phipps presented his third lot of men's looks. Next Sunday, Ralph Rucci, who, in 2002, was the first American designer in more than 60 years to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale to show haute couture, will debut his new RR331. A day later, Texan Daniel Roseberry takes the reins at Schiaparelli.

That handful of "first's" or "new's" in Paris is a striking coincidence, given the prevailing international wisdom that American fashion on its own turf is in something of a doldrums. For Bode and Lak, showing in Paris means the same thing as it did for Proenza Schouler, Rodarte and Joseph Altuzarra a few years ago (only Altuzarra is still showing there). It opens up new horizons for them. Spencer Phipps has already been exploring those opportunities. All three have drawn the spotlight. Lak was nominated for Best Womenswear Designer in this year's CFDA Awards, Bode got a nod for Best Emerging Designer (she won). She and Phipps are both nominees for the 2019 LVMH Prize. Before all that, Phipps and Lak both worked for Dries Van Noten in Antwerp. (In fact, Phipps took over Lak's job when he moved to New York.) And Bode and Phipps are also fine old family names that resound through American history. He insists there's nothing in his own background to suggest any connection to an illustrious past, but she has made her family history the wellspring of her collections.

For Bode and Lak, showing in Paris means the same thing as it did for Proenza Schouler, Rodarte and Joseph Altuzarra a few years ago: it opens up new horizons for them.

One way or another, they arrived on the Paris catwalk garlanded with expectation, Bode most of all. She had never put her clothes on a catwalk before. No pressure, then. “I’ve not been able to do it in the way I wanted to,” she said. True, how could she mass-produce the preciousness that has been her trademark? Well, she’s found a way. For instance, that 1920’s curtain she bought in Paris two years ago has been reproduced in sateen by a US mill. So now, with half her wholesale accounts in Europe, there was a nugget of commercial sense in pitching her tent in Paris.

The circus analogy is deliberate. In the early 1900s, the Cincinnati-based Bode Wagon Company, owned and operated by Emily’s Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle Albert (this family tree is cast in stone all the way back to the Mayflower!), was commissioned to make circus wagons for Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers. They’re now corralled in the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, which is where she did the R&D for her collection.

Yes, there were hints of the circus, in the vivid silk stripes cut from jockey silks, in some hand-painted Chinoiserie that would have impressed audiences a century ago with its exoticism, and, Bode said, in the ballet flats worn by the models, because there was an interaction between the circus and the ballet in those days. There was also an intriguing 19th century health-and-fitness subtext (I think I saw a schoolboy shot-putting on a passing hoodie). And there were, of course, the folk art handicraft references that give Bode's work its particular personality, like the traditional patchworks, or the outfit made up of stitched-together horse ribbons. Pieces you feel might have been unearthed from a trunk in the attic of an eccentric who combined taste, charm, quirk and obsession in one hoard-worthy package. Again, she can now scale these up for production. But that didn't change the fact that they need to be looked at and handled and turned this way and that, like the peculiar and precious things they are. It was a shame the funereal pace of her show did Bode's clothes no favours. Sitting listening to bird song or passing trains (both featured on her soundtrack) made you think of the other artful ways you could be introduced to her collection. Rather than expanding her vocabulary, the catwalk cliché limited her.

Spencer Phipps hasn’t ever shown in his home country, but his collection was infused with the notion of frontier spirit. He mentioned Richard Prince’s cowboy art, and Richard Avedon’s series “In the American West.” It made me think of Alec Soth’s photos as well – men living at the limit, off the grid, survivalists, essentialists. Phipps is an ardent rock-climber. He collaborated with French alpine brand Millet on outerwear. When all around you are losing their extremities to frostbite, Millet shoes will help you keep your toes. That was Phipps’s thought for the day. The functionality of the collection reflected his faith in the word “purpose.” The hiking jacket, the sleeping bag coat, the chaps (over shorts, just like he wore them in riding school) were useful. Phipps included a suit, because that too has utility.

But that wasn’t the whole story. You don’t work for Dries Van Noten for years without coming away with a sense of the opportunities for otherness in menswear. Here, it could be found in the hippy-trippiness of geological strata turned into patterns, in the prints based on crystals (and the real crystals suspended round necks), even in the Deadhead slouch of the models. A sci-fi graphic of the swirling cosmos was Phipps’s reminder of humankind’s insignificance in the face of nature’s beauty. Through his business’s practices, he is fully committed to sustaining that beauty for as long as there are rocks for him to climb.

If Phipps promoted an unquestioning masculinity in his collection, Sies Marjan’s Sander Lak was all about questions: “what masculinity is, what sex means.” I’m not sure I heard an answer, though he did accentuate sensuality. The first look was a union suit, unbuttoned to reveal a T-shirt with a deep scoop of a neckline. The collar-bone went on assert itself as Lak’s favourite body part. Waists tied rather than tucked were the new motif. Jackets were cinched tight. There was boyishness in the cropped pants, and suggestiveness in a coat seemingly worn with nothing underneath.

Languor is a Lak signature. He reaffirmed that with the bias-cut women’s looks he showed. But his other calling card has always been colour, and here the palette was a disappointment. He said he’d wanted “to let the colour do the talking.” Unfortunately, it kept its voice down, when a little volume would really have lifted proceedings.

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