NEW YORK – The American fashion industry is desperate to find fresh grist for its mill.
The gatekeepers of Seventh Avenue are declaring half-baked ideas ready for consumption. They're elevating fleeting passions to the status of lifestyle brands. They're allowing a thrill for unorthodox or jarring aesthetics to impede thoughtful consideration about technical skill and clarity of message.
At Gypsy Sport, designer Rio Uribe covered women's nipples with sea shells and called it sustainable fashion. Designer Telfar Clemens showed Budweiser T-shirts and jeans with giant chunks of fabric hacked away, an idea that has become something of a signature. At Vaquera, there were hoodies and prom dresses and ripped-up T-shirts. And, well, they were just that. Nothing more.
Sure, some of the ideas are delightfully kooky. They are meaningful to particular cadres of people. But all too often, the clothes are not well-made, and the ideas are only a millimeter deep. The industry is casting these emerging designers as creative wonders and prize-winning iconoclasts, but many of their ideas still need time to marinate.
Fashion is hungry for the next generation of designers who can captivate consumers and build lasting businesses – designers who can keep the industry not only viable but also essential and exciting in the coming years.
In the course of that search, the industry has a responsibility to consider designers and points-of-view that have ostensibly been overlooked for decades. Whether it's designers of color or those who are celebrating marginalized communities, these once-muffled voices speak to an audience the fashion industry can no longer afford to ignore. Seventh Avenue needs every ounce of creative juice it can get. Who will write the next chapter after streetwear? Who will make sure the fashion ecosystem has a healthy diversity? There's hope with brands such as Monse and Mansur Gavriel and, after his first formal presentations, Christopher John Rogers.
But if the spring 2019 collections have revealed anything in their mostly tepid, drowsy offerings, it's that finding a way forward is not going to be easy or fast. Developing one's voice in fashion is, except in rare cases, a process that takes time and patience. And transforming an impassioned message into well-fitting clothes is harder still. It can take a decade before a fashion business becomes viable, under the best of circumstances. Now there's well-meaning pressure to make success happen in a flash.
Consider the decade-long, tumultuous journey of Marc Jacobs or the bankruptcy that once derailed Michael Kors. Today, Jacobs is a reliable source of creative energy. And Kors is a billion-dollar business.
Jacobs kept his audience waiting for 90 minutes Wednesday evening in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory because not all of the clothes had yet arrived. With no music, the only noise was the quiet murmuring of guests resigned to sticking it out like a group of hungry diners in line at a five-star restaurant that refuses to take reservations.
When his show finally started, the lead model appeared in a pale yellow slip dress with her hair, a buttery shade, teased into a bouffant. The collection was a delight, not because every look was game-changing but because it told a story about a fully fleshed-out alternative to so much of what dominates the market right now. There was nothing dark or easy or athletic in the mix. It was pastel-hued, spit-shined, gussied-up glory.
His big shoulders, giant floral embellishments, sparkly trousers and stylized hair speak to an era of dressing up, trying hard and caring about looking great. Comfort, for better or worse, was something engaged in at home.
Kors, a financial behemoth whose mass-market handbags dangle from the wrists and shoulders of myriad working women, hews to his sunny, happy, beachy vision of life. The artist Christina Zimpel crafted the childlike, colorful backdrop paintings for his show, which unfolded in a glass-walled building perched on the edge of a pier near South Street Seaport. Beyond the windows, the sky was gray and foggy. Inside, Kors' runway was bursting with color and sparkle: head-to-toe shimmering aqua brocade, hot-pink crochet dresses with matching hats covered in tiny petals, dresses and short boots emblazoned with chaotic prints, flared trousers like something out of an Austin Powers movie. Retro upon retro upon retro.
The designers whose work has been most vivid and alive have also tended to be those who look backwards to what now seems like less stressful times or they have looked outside of the U.S., referencing their bucket-list destinations or postcards from other globetrotters. Prabal Gurung brought the color and craftsmanship from indigenous villages in Nepal to his runway, which featured models from more than 35 different countries. At Oscar de la Renta, Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia referenced Spain and the ease of an island paradise. And Tory Burch was inspired by her parents' travels: “Every summer they boarded a steamer ship and spent six week sailing from Italy and Greece to Morocco and Spain.”
In determining what it means to be an American designer they are looking everywhere but to America itself, right now, as it is, IRL.
Those designers who are most focused on the messy, street-level view of the culture have created, as one might expect, collections that are imperfect, aggressive – a little bit unsightly. Labels such as Vaquera, Eckhaus Latta and Telfar have reached varying levels of accomplishment. Eckhaus Latta has been embraced by the art world and is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Telfar Clemens won the CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2017. And the three-person collective known as Vaquera is a finalist this year.
The CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund launched in 2003 as a way to help emerging designers succeed in the fashion business. The judges have made it their business to try and predict the future. Along the way, it has awarded support to brands such as Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang, Public School and Altuzarra. Even its list of runners-up has some impressive names on it, such as Thom Browne, Tabitha Simmons and Philip Lim. But over time, the Fashion Fund has had to compile another and another and another list of ten finalists. It often looks as though the fund is elevating brands before the designers have even figured out how to stitch proper darts and what it means to the shape of a bodice when you make the decision to eschew them.
Vaquera, for example, has remained consistent in its vision of celebrating eccentrics and non-conformists, misfits and odd ducks. But over the course of multiple seasons, the clothes haven't gotten better. They still look poorly constructed. For a narrative, they continue to rely on street casting to find quirky models to speed-walk awkwardly through some grimy location, which, if you're positioning yourself as outside the fashion system isn't especially adventurous. Gawky models running through some seedy noodle joint is the hipster technique du jour.
Eckhaus Latta excels at ugly fashion, the sort of clothing that seems off and unappealing but is rooted in realism and the idea of casting an artist's eye on the mundane. For their spring collection, Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta invited guests to Brooklyn to a sprawling loft space where a group of children and toddlers created the show's soundtrack by pounding on buckets, clanging cowbells and screaming at the top of their lungs. One tried not to hate the children for what the adults instructed them to do.
But in many ways the play-date orchestra was a metaphor for the clothes: natural, uninhibited and with interesting potential.
Fashion is trapped between two competing dynamics. On one side there are brands such Vaquera and Telfar, who aim to take fashion consumers into a new head space, open their mind and push them out of their comfort zone. On the other side are designers such as Jonathan Simkhai who are giving women another option for pretty, pretty clothes.
Challenging the status quo is the far more difficult choice. Sometimes, after much consideration, there's no choice but to take a leap of faith. But as fashion looks uneasily into the future, it's hard to know whether rule-breaking designers are pushing the industry towards the light or sending it tumbling into the abyss.