It’s been a while since New York was the main character in any costume drama, a while since it starred as anything other than a problem: abandoned, messy, crime-ridden, economically challenged. But as New York Fashion Week began, the city’s designers were telling a different story. One about the city as a place of chaos, movement and dreams.
“I was thinking about the inspiration that New York has given me, and it made me want to explore New York style archetypes, and my own personal New York style archetypes, from when I came to the city for my first job,” Stuart Vevers said in a preview before his lively 10th-anniversary Coach show, held in the heart of Midtown Manhattan at the New York Public Library.
That was back in 1996, he said, and the girls he remembered heading out to dance at the Pyramid Club provided the genetic code for the filmy chiffon slip dresses and shredded striped knits atop leather bras and panties that punctuated his show. Just as the young execs Mr. Vevers recalled “stepping out of their town cars and rejecting power dressing” in favor of slouchy pantsuits brought him to deconstructed oversize trouser suits in moss green and black and sweeping leather trench coats that looked as if they had been put through the wash to soften up the swagger.
They were part of the New York of his mind, a place where people come from elsewhere (Mr. Vevers is British) and find their tribe, which isn’t necessarily defined by geography any more — by uptown or downtown, east or west — but rather by state of mind.
And outfit. The camouflage donned to indicate identity.
That’s why Ralph Lauren’s ode to gilded bohemia in lacy denim, jewel-tone harem pants, lamé and fringe — a whole lot of fringe — was also entirely city-centric. Not because it was shown in a cavernous warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but because that warehouse had been dressed up to look like Mr. Lauren’s ranch in Colorado. And what is more New York than dreaming of escape from the grind and dressing for the fantasy in a way that really makes sense only in the stage set of imagination?
Or that makes as much sense as throwing open the faux rough-wood doors at the end of the runway once the show has ended to invite the audience, which included Jennifer Lopez and Diane Keaton, in for an “intimate experience” of a dinner that, the show notes stated, would “also be made available to consumers worldwide through a livestream on Ralph Lauren’s global social media platforms.” Talk about having your Double RL steak and eating it too. As an idea, though, that’s also very New York.
As is invading the environs of the establishment. So there was the D.I.Y. army of Eckhaus Latta, in its oily, touchable jeans, fuzzy knits and patchworks of transparent organza playing show and tell with the body as the models rode up and down the escalators of Rockefeller Center, the monument built by “one of the families that define American capitalism,” as Mike Eckhaus put it after the show, because in that tension there is provocation — and fun.
And here was the gang at Collina Strada layered up in Hillary Taymour’s turbulent mix of billowing 18th-century florals, quilted corsets, plaid boxer shorts and old tees, stomping around a rooftop farm in Brooklyn with hands clenched and rictus grins, like a group of furious prom queens, only to swivel back around, shoulders slumped by the weight of the world (and climate change). Hope and fury collaged together under a pair of power shoulders, made for the millennial activism crowd.
Those who, Ms. Taymour said backstage, “need to be able to sit down at dinner but also have a lot of work to do” on the change-making front.
Work being the engine of New York. Those who need calm amid the cacophony, though, can opt for the serene adulting of Fforme, where Paul Helbers, in his first runway show, offered easy trousers swishing under two-in-one tunics that could be zipped and unzipped at the side to transform into dresses, and little black shirts with caped shoulders that could be pulled forward to drape around the neck like a built-in vest, engineered for efficiency.
The importance of shedding excess baggage — decluttering — the better to accommodate a crowded life is also what powered a terrific Proenza Schouler show. Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough have finally stopped overcomplicating their work and focused on the essentials: a great jacket in duck-egg blue over low-slung trousers with a leather bag belted on the side (the better to carry a coffee cup); a strapless cerulean blue column dress that ties in the back and can be customized at will; layers of cloudy prints in weightless materials. All of it cut just a little off-center so it slouches on the body like a shrug.
These are clothes for art school kids who suddenly find themselves encroaching on middle age with big jobs and families and without a lot of time to fuss over what to put on. It’s not hard to recognize the type, even if it was also possible to recognize a fair amount of Helmut Lang in the lines. (Lang is in the air.) Designers always take inspiration from history and one another. This is a problem only when the “borrowing” or “homaging” or whatever you want to call it is so unabashed that it looks more like straight-on copying from a peer as opposed to a progenitor, as it did this season at Khaite.
It was impossible to see the battering-ram shoulders of the leather jackets and trenches on Catherine Holstein’s runway, the bell-sleeved tops over skinny black leather jeans and the shirred black bodycon dresses and not think of Saint Laurent from last season; it was impossible to see the wafty white tank dresses and not see the Row.
Fast-fashion giants are famous for lifting styles pretty much directly from the catwalks and reproducing them, but Ms. Holstein has much higher aims. Last year she won the Council of Fashion Designers of America award as women’s wear designer of the year. Her show was held in the echoing environs of the Park Avenue Armory, the site once synonymous with Marc Jacobs. She has deep-pocketed backers and a growing customer base. She ought to try harder for originality.
Although come to think of it, the imitation game has a place in New York too.