At Fashion Week, spring 2012 collections showcase movement

September 13, 2011

Square, chunky Bauhaus art doesn’t prompt visions of gracefulness. Especially when it comes to garments: The dance costumes designed by Bauhaus painter-choreographer Os­kar Schlemmer were geometrical and bulky, concerning shape more than dynamics. But with a spring 2012 collection inspired by the German modernist movement, fashion designer Carolina Herrera has successfully channeled the bold energy of the 1930s art. Interpreted in chiffon and crepe de Chine, Bauhaus finally swings.

Herrera is the consummate pro in a business that banks on new looks. You won’t find the avant-garde on her Lincoln Center runway, but her take on retro graphics and vintage colors blends vitality with grace. In the relentless human traffic jam that is Fashion Week, Herrera’s show was a reminder of an overlooked aspect of fine design: movement. Clothes that move well liberate the body and attract the eye.

A black silk organza gown covered with triangular cutouts had so much dimension it resembled a living sculpture. Yet unlike Schlemmer, Herrera works fluidity into the equation, and her geometry dances. Her daywear also contrasted textures: A silk dress whose hem fluttered just below the knee was charming in a red-and-white sparrow print; its hard-edged patent leather belt kept the look from being too sweet. And everywhere, lots of oxygen: In A-line skirts as well as red-carpet gowns, a skillful mix of air and fabric created rhythmic play with every step.

Backstage after the show, Herrera said she was drawn by the “simplicity and modernity of the lines” in Bauhaus art. The colors in her collection sprang from the deep tones of Bakelite bracelets of the era, the jade greens, straw-yellows and rich reds.

Designing clothes that move well stems from her view of femininity, she said. “A woman likes to feel like we’re not a structure.” Herrera described a box in the air with her hands. “Not a blazer, very square.” Besides, she added, “you move better when you’re wearing something that moves well. That’s what I was thinking when I made the Renee dress” — the stunning beaded, backless gown that Renee Zellweger wore to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala in May. Perhaps the actress was ordering up another in her backstage visit with Her­rera after Monday’s runway show, before donning oversize shades, flashing smiles to the crush of cameras and sweeping away.

Easy getaways were not only the privilege of celebrities, however. The breeziness of Herrera’s collection was echoed on other runways, and it’s good news — we’ll be moving easier when these clothes hit the stores. Who knows? Maybe a great wave of self-empowerment will take over. Think Katharine Hepburn and the authoritative swing of her high-waisted, wide-leg trousers.

Or go back to French designer Paul Poiret in the early 1900s, the original bra burner — before there were bras. His fashions — T-shaped gowns, Greco-Roman and kimono-inspired dresses — celebrated the uncorseted woman in her natural grace. Decades later, Halston picked up on Poiret’s loose simplicity, and its echoes are in the air here. The vibe was felt at Tommy Hilfiger’s Sunday night show, when his linear color-blocked silk kaftans soared at full sail down the catwalk.

Vintage inspiration

In the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel on Sunday, Thakoon looked to be in agreement. Come spring, body-hugging knits and skinny jeans may well be swept aside by the chemises and full skirts he showed there.

A lilting Indian raga set the tone for his Americana-meets-Maharaja fantasy, with the models striding under the crystal chandeliers in cowboy hats and high-heeled boots. It was a little bit country, a little bit Pucci, as we were to see in ’70s shirtdresses, in cotton poplin or silk linen, and bright pink paisley prints.

Full shorts swished beneath a silk twill peplum shell. Flaring dresses with nipped waists called to mind sophisticated bobby-soxers. One pale green sheath was so light against a model’s skin it seemed to lap her back as she moved. Wearing minimally constructed shapes, the models walked with a more natural gait than you usually see on the runway — which proved that Tha­koon’s fantasy isn’t so out of reach. One can be physically transformed by bold hues and a good cut.

“Life has become so casual,” said Mark Badgely, whose Badgely Mischka spring collection featured more curves than a water slide and just as much fluidity. When a woman puts on one of these gowns, he said, “she is inspired to carry herself differently than when running around in a jeans and T-shirt.”

Badgely and his partner, James Mischka, know more than a little about movement. Their gowns are made for walking — so many of them trail along Hollywood’s red carpets.

“There’s nothing more important, we think, than movement on a gown,” Badgely said before the pair’s Tuesday show. “We cut a lot of bias, we cut a lot of fishtail. We like a long, lean silhouette with a chiseled rib cage, and then the dress just falls from there.”

Like Herrera, they turned to the fine-art world for inspiration. An eye for the curves and spheres of Italian futurist sculptors of the early 20th century, such as Umberto Boccioni, led to “building in a lot of shape and movement into dresses even when they’re stagnant,” Mischka said. “They look like they’re moving even when they’re not.”

But vintage glamour is, as always, paramount. “We always try to go back to the Golden Age of Hollywood in overall appearance,” Mischka said. The bright yellows, pinks and oranges of the gowns and the more casual Mark + James line came from the fraught passions and saturated technicolor of Douglas Sirk’s mid-century films, “Written on the Wind” and “All That Heaven Allows.”

A magenta gazar dress featured sumptuous folds fanning out at the waist that flapped like moth wings with each step. For this traffic-stopper, a gentle hip sway is the only accessory you’ll need. Especially glorious were the tulle tops over chiffon pants, cotton-candy light, and just as bright.

A sense of drama

Clothes that move well carry a sense of drama. The palpable charge in Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3 line of sportswear for Adidas didn’t only come from the driving music or celebrity factor (Samuel L. Jackson and Orlando Magic center Michael Pitt in the front row). There was a rough grandeur to the billowing black coats and oversize shirtdresses, drawing on punkish streetwear in honor of the coming summer Olympics in London.

But even the detached cool so typical of Y-3 had its ethereal side. Some of the clothes seemed to barely touch their wearers. Over plaid shorts and a cropped top, one model wore a suggestion of a ball gown in transparent tulle, as if a ghost from another era were hovering about her. Here were clothes that were hardly ordinary, but looked supremely livable.

Donna Karan’s collection emphasized stretchy moves on several levels, even in her choice of venue: the dance studios of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet on West 26th Street in Chelsea. Taking up the dancer theme, Karan took her bow in a skin-tight tank top and leggings. Not every woman can bare the body with Karan’s aplomb, nor could everyone wear her form-fitting spring collection: cotton bustiers with a vaguely bondage look, zip-up sleeveless turtlenecks like dive suits — even the oversize spiky necklaces brought scuba diving to mind; some looked like coral reefs. Nothing got between these models and their Karans.

But when the weather gets warm again, will tight be cool? Sheiks and sailboats know the importance of capturing a breeze. So does Vera Wang, whose transparent spring collection looked like it would float away if not anchored by the models’ towering knife-point heels. Angels on top, ninjas below, they skimmed by in textured gauze and sheer chiffon, trailing organza trains as light as opium smoke. A few of the color combinations looked drug-induced, acid dreams in neon brights mixed with quiet earth tones.

The perfect fit

Understatement was the story in menswear, but in his show at Exit Art on 10th Avenue, top-tier designer Michael Bastian displayed definite ideas about fabric, cut and motion, and how a suit should feel when a man puts it on.

“American men have been, in the past 20 years, wearing clothes that were too big for them,” Bastian said in an interview before the show. “There was too much movement of the wrong kind.” A higher armhole in a jacket can be more comfortable, reducing bagginess so “every time you move around you’re not dragging the whole thing with you. . . . You just need a centimeter or two between the jacket and the body, so that what you see is what’s inside, it’s not a lot of fabric.”

Indeed, what you noticed in Bastian’s show was the models’ ease of motion rather than the independent life of the clothes. Drawstring shorts evoked relaxed chic, as did unbuttoned Western shirts. Model Missy Rayder’s moves garnered special notice as she sauntered down the runway in Bastian’s carpenter jeans and a plaid shirt open to her navel . . . with nothing underneath. Did I hear cheers?

The liberation movement on the runways was even felt on the plaza outside the Metropolitan Opera House on Tuesday morning, where beautifully coiffed young women modeling Vivienne Tam and Li Ning’s collaboration on bright-hued yoga togs sat on mats and got their prana going.

“Feel the power of your belly,” instructor Rodney Yee urged. “Exhale!”

It’s good to know there will be room to breathe in the coming spring.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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