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At NYFW, Different Faces of Female Empowerment

The resurgence of feminist spirit in society — the so-called 'fourth wave' — was evident at DVF, Karen Walker and Zero Maria Cornejo.
Diane Von Furstenberg Autumn/Winter 2016 Presentation | Source: Courtesy DVF/
  • Tim Blanks

NEW YORK, United States — Logic would seem to dictate that female designers are best equipped to anticipate what women want from fashion. With this thought in mind, it was instructive to look for the common ground between the offerings of three very different women designers over the past few days in New York: Belgian-born Diane von Furstenberg, New Zealander Karen Walker, and Chilean native Maria Cornejo.

The result was simple and unsurprising. The resurgence of feminist spirit in society — the so-called 'fourth wave' — has touched the fashion industry. Female empowerment is its obvious impetus, same as it ever was. But fashion offers the opportunity to paint different faces on empowerment. “If you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt” were the words of wisdom painted along the wall of a corridor in von Furstenberg’s Chelsea headquarters, the venue for Sunday’s presentation.

She was formed in the work-hard/play-harder crucible of the 1970s, and her most convincing collections draw on that time in her life, where fashion was a functional adjunct to the pursuit of pleasure. Hence, her most enduring success: the simple, sexy wrap dress.

Its timelessness was highlighted by the full-length version sported by Karlie Kloss. Pavé-ed in gold sequins, it was disco glamour incarnate and, as the designer joined Kloss and friends in dancing to "We Are Family," she must surely have tracked back to the blissfully wasted nights on the floor at Studio 54, the notorious neon moon with a spoon hanging in the artificial sky above her head.

Diane von Furstenberg Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:

Taking the collection off the catwalk and bringing it all back home to HQ was a smart move on DVF’s part. It’s attitude she’s selling, the more attitude the better. The disco scenario was one of five vignettes scattered across two floors. One featured models popping in and out of doors like vedettes in a Feydeau farce. In another more work-place-y situation, it looked like the girls were trying to destroy documents, a frisson of Watergate to add to the 1970s mood that was summoned up by wide-legged pants, tiny little graphic knits, a button-through suede skirt paired with a shearling coat, a trumpet-sleeved dress with tiered pleats, pert little bippity-boppity hats and fur stoles.

It was no effort at all to imagine Diane and friends like Loulou de la Falaise and Nona Summers whizzing round London in the early 1970s in similar looks. What brought them up to date, according to new creative director Michael Ward, was a change in proportion, elongating the neck, lengthening the skirt, easing up where ease was needed, tightening when it was tight that was necessary. That certainly put new life in old looks.

Karen Walker did something similar, taking inspiration from the extremely functional garb of famed photographer Berenice Abbott — “Her own personal style didn’t change for 80 years,” Walker marvelled — then adding accents of her own prosaic glamour. The first look set the tone: utilitarian dungarees worn over a gold lurex mock turtle.

Later in her career, Abbott took to industrial photography. From that, Walker extemporized an "electro-magnetic" print in slightly delic shades of red and purple, which she made into a lace for belted shifts. The simple silhouette was a reminder that she's always been partial to a marriage of the fashionable and the functional. Or, as the shownotes described Abbott's personal style, "a mix of no fuss utility with a good amount of joie de vivre."

The same mix shaped the sunglasses — now Walker’s most internationally successful category — which came glamorously oversized, but also with a slight hint of protective industrial eyewear.

Karen Walker Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:

“Feminism’s always part of what I do,” said Walker. The independent spirit of her clothes and her business could possibly be attributed in part to her roots in New Zealand, where self-sufficiency comes with the territory, but the way she has slowly, steadily expanded her design repertoire has also been a masterclass in complete control. Now it’s a real pleasure to see Walker mature. The stars of this collection were a couple of utterly elegant overcoats, one, in rich rust-toned shearling, a sure winner. Elegance born of experience.

Experience has taught Maria Cornejo a fiercer lesson. There was a militant mood in her latest collection, which reflected her impatience with the way she sees the fashion industry going.

“I want to slow it all down. That’s why I showed back to front, with the finale first.” She said she’d done this so anyone in a hurry could up and leave after a few minutes, feeling they’d seen everything they needed to see.”

Zero Maria Cornejo Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:

Cornejo was surely being mildly sarcastic with that statement of intent, because anyone who left after that “finale” would obviously have missed a more meaningful opportunity to engage with her warrior women. At least that’s what they felt like, marching by in their flat suede boots. Iceland and Berlin were geographical points of reference claimed by Cornejo — a shearling tunic said one, a slinky one-shouldered top and skirt in black charmeuse spoke to the other — but there were distinct notes of lady samurai too, in black leather gilets and enveloping kimono-like wraps. Cornejo’s textures are always enthralling. A parka in brushed mohair, a dress in puckered crepe both had an artisanal Japanese flair.

What stood out was the unadorned power of the clothes themselves. Come to think of it, Walker significantly eschewed decoration too. And von Furstenberg’s clothes have never really been about accessories either. The empowered woman needs none. She speaks for herself — with a little help from her clothes.

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