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Little New in New York

The dichotomy between surprising shows and boring clothes explains the conundrum of contemporary fashion in New York and elsewhere, says BoF columnist Angelo Flaccavento.
Marc Jacobs S/S 2015 | Source:
  • Angelo Flaccavento

NEW YORK, United States — It's a sign of the times that one of the truly memorable moments of the New York Fashion Week that just ended did not actually include any clothing. Olivier Saillard's performance, Models Never Talk, co-presented by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) as part of FIAF's Crossing the Line festival, conjured up plenty of garments, but not a single one was physically on display. "We are in a moment that's very bizarre in fashion: there are too many clothes," the fashion curator and director of the Musée Galliera in Paris told The New York Times. Indeed, Saillard avoided adding anything to the Spring/Summer 2015 conversation: only memories and atmosphere. It felt refreshing.

The performance, staged at Milk Studios, featured a cast of mythical models — mannequins as they used to be called back in the day — including Monsieur Saint Laurent's favourite, Amalia, and Franco Moschino's muse, Violeta, clad in nothing but black leotards and black stiletto pumps. In a feast of theatrical voguing and minimal storytelling, the muses, now grown-up women perfectly at ease in their imperfect bodies, mimicked and described vintage dresses designed by Madame Grès, Jean Paul Gaultier and Rei Kawakubo, to name a few. They used gestures and words in place of needle, thread and cloth. It was magical, evocative and blatantly depicted the differences between French fashion culture, commonly known as la mode — elitist and distant, but oh so magical — and the American approach to fashion — pragmatic and factual; at times a tad prosaic. Or, maybe, it was a juxtaposition of fashion's past and its present, no nostalgia needed.

Indeed, there are too many clothes in fashion today and just a few of them truly worth displaying on a catwalk. The New York collections made this clear, but the problem actually affects the fashion system at large. 'Fauxunerism,' or faux-consumerism — the way fashion is increasingly consumed today; virtually and visually — requires clothes in bulk, propelled into the collective imagination at the highest possible speed. Yet bulk rarely rhymes with quality.

Clothes are everywhere. But their lifespan is now shorter than ever. In New York, which kickstarts 'fashion month,' it is certainly not quality that is lacking, nor well-rounded execution. It's the vision that is sometimes missing. The label of "commercial" has long been bestowed unto American fashion. But too often commerce carries with it a sense of déjà vu: designers keep following well-travelled paths in order to keep their businesses going and avoid innovation to reiterate the status quo in the belief that what has sold once will continue to sell. Well, it might, but it might not. And reiteration, in the long run, is alienating. Appropriation of work by other designers is another aspect of this age of endless sampling and post-production as a way of thinking.

It might sound blasé on the side of this writer — and maybe having been around for quite a while in fashion-land makes it harder and harder to be surprised, amused, seduced, even irritated by a collection. Instead, what you feel is frustration. The long, faithful wait for an epiphany is rarely fulfilled.

Commerce is the essence of fashion, but commerce cannot be a shortcut to invention. The main purpose of this whole industry is to dress real people, not to stage theatrical plays, that's for sure. Yet, the whole point should be to create something new and wearable.

In New York, there was plenty of wearable, but new? Well, that was an uncommon sight, unless one focuses on the usual suspects, notably Proenza Schouler, Altuzarra, Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein. They are all designers capable of twisting subtly — even boldly, when needed — that core sportswear element that is the true essence of American pragmatism. Marc Jacobs went bonkers on utility, while Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler, albeit eyeing too closely Nicolas Ghesquière's best work for Balenciaga, scored high marks for weaving innovation into surfaces and fabrics while keeping their designs as streamlined as possible. Alexander Wang, another Ghesquière admirer, moved more or less along the same tracks, but his work typically lacks restraint, coming across as a frontal attack to the senses.

One way or another, this is contemporary fashion design at its best: as far as possible from the oomph of astute communication, as well as devoid of those styling tricks that elsewhere — see Marc by Marc Jacobs — are sometimes at risk of overshadowing design or passing as a cover up for a lack of ideas. It was not the case for Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley, of course, even though their Comme-des-Garçons-goes-to-the-rave number would have greatly benefitted from a lighter hand.

Fashion today can rarely shock with the electric thrill of the new; the rhythm is too fast, the volume of consumption too huge. However, it can still innovate. It has to — our lives move fast and another cinched waist or 1950s reference, of which there were plenty, is completely out of the question. Incorporating technology into clothing is surely an interesting area for exploration and we are not just talking about those all-important 'wearables,' which surfaced in a charmingly fetishised way at Diesel Black Gold. We are talking about challenging, new man-made fabrications that enhance the experience of wearing a dress and living in it, without turning into the nth sporty or tech-y mess.

Yet, save for a few designers, it seems that true innovation, integral to the garments and not just a surprising visual blast, is not high on fashion's agenda, maybe because it requires time and application, or maybe because it is not easy to detect. Better to put on a bunch of theatrical tricks and turn the fashion show idea around, an approach which was prominently on display in New York, in particular in the case of the one-act play devised in collaboration between Opening Ceremony and Spike Jonze. It was surprising and everybody loved it because it was the pinnacle of cool, but the clothes, no doubt, went somehow missing.

This dichotomy between surprising shows and, well, boring clothes, in the end, explains the conundrum of contemporary fashion, American or otherwise. Fashion seems stuck between the need to surprise using a new array of communications tools and the urge to deliver novelty at the fastest possible pace. Slowing down might be a solution, but that would be a hard route, which will hardly find followers. Finding a new way to present fashion while also creating contemporary fashion worth being presented differently might solve the riddle, or just create a new one. For sure, it is time to move on. Fewer shows will help. And fewer clothes, too. Otherwise, you know, the next performance might be titled Designers Have Nothing to Say.

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