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Country and Community Examined at New York Fashion Week

Telfar, Rachel Comey and Maryam Nassir Zadeh used their collections to make a statement on human connection.
Rachel Comey, Telfar and Maryam Nassir Zadeh | Source: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images, Mitchell Sams, Indigital
By
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — For those who thought fashion week would lack a real showman this season, Telfar Clemens proved he knows how to raise the stakes.

The former CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner took over Irving Plaza concert hall on Thursday night for one of his elaborate and evocative musical performances. But this time he cast his unisex retro basics-with-a-twist on a blues and country stage that had much to say about the past and present state of the nation.

Framed by a giant American flag with the centre ripped out, the show began with playwright Jeremy O. Harris' rhythmic monologue about belonging and identity, repeating the word “country,” the title of the show, again and again. Then, he and the models that followed him — many/all of them black, and wearing the designer's denim flares and tops, deconstructed graphic hoodies, cropped knits and leather chaps — walked, one by one, to the edge of the stage and fell into the crowd in which they were gently submerged.

This catwalk as crowd surf was powerful. Body politic, anyone? Indeed, there was a sense of political protest to Harris’ monologue, the show and the musical performances that followed from Oyinda, Butch Dawson, Na-Kel Smith and Ho99o9. But ultimately, the human runway Telfar created was about community as much as rebellion.

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Community is an overused word in fashion, and one that, as Telfar Clemens points out in his show notes — has replaced "urban" as a euphemism for black culture. But nevertheless, the presentation was an ode to the community that has surrounded and supported the designer for a long time.

Rachel Comey is another New York designer thinking about the ways her work can engender human connection. When she started planning her return to New York Fashion Week — after a three-season break during which she presented in Los Angeles — she toyed with the idea of hosting a dinner where guests would be required to bring someone three generations away from them in age.

It seemed a lot to ask of people, so she scrapped it for a traditional runway show, but the impulse reflects how much the designer values the friendships she’s formed in recent years with women decades older than her.

“I’m getting tired of everything being so divisive,” she said before her presentation this week. “Our memories are so short.”

Comey’s appreciation for the wisdom that comes with age was the spirit that lifted her Autumn 2019 collection, shown Wednesday afternoon at the Marlborough Gallery. Comey started her brand 17 years ago and, still independent, it has gained a strong and growing following for its comfortable, playful clothing for serious women.

This season, Comey brought back a busy comic-book illustrated print from years ago, here in a linen dress; she’s also started manufacturing shoes in Italy for the first time, allowing her to try her hand at lighter leathers, more sophisticated trimmings. She said it was a sign of the brand maturing.

Comey’s casting was as diverse and surprising as it has been in the past, but here the older models, in particular, stood out because they wore some of the best pieces, like a bright green zebra print shearling, paired with a tinsel-y vinyl sequin skirt.

She was thinking about the intensity of September and October, when school starts again and “all the art shows are opening,” and creating pieces that would help her woman feel like “I got this,” she explained. The best bits were colourful and textured, like the baby blue quilted pants made from water bottles and sparkly vinyl sequin top that closed the show. She thought about closing with evening wear, but this was more her speed. That kind of instinct separates her from the pack.

Thursday afternoon, another crowd of effortlessly cool industry folk came out to see the latest from Maryam Nassir Zadeh, the designer and owner of her namesake brand and trend-setting Lower East Side boutique. She took over a storage space for a furniture importer, so many guests had their own ornate chairs. It was an intimate setting with live music from Lizzi Bougatsos and Brian Degraw.

The show notes began with the words, “a phase that is not yet finished,” a reminder that many of the elements Nassir Zadeh introduced last season — spandex leggings, wide low belts — were back again.

While her collections often feel distinct from what other designers are thinking about, this time she picked up the Americana spirit that's been floating around over the last few seasons. But she did it her way — almost ironic, almost tacky. See the voluminous leather vests, jacket and pullover, the fringed and beaded college sweatshirt, the many animal print belts and boots — all mixed and matched on the runway. They worked better than the bright psychedelic printed tights, leotards and blouses towards the end of the show, though a tie-die lace-trimmed puffer jacket was delightful.

Nassir Zadeh is very good at making the retro-inspired gaudy glamour of her collections feel extremely cool and unattainable. That approach imbues her popular footwear, too, like the wide, tall animal print boots shown here. An easy way to buy into her fantasy world.

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