In Hip's Tight Grip

One quirk of Marc Jacobs's show: shoes that looked too small for the models' feet.
One quirk of Marc Jacobs's show: shoes that looked too small for the models' feet. (Maria Valentino - Ftwp)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

NEW YORK, Sept. 12 The hip kids, the ones who always seem to know what the next new thing is going to be -- and have it before anyone else does -- are overrated.

The fashion industry needs designers who will supply a steady stream of fresh ideas, propelling it down new paths. But there is a difference between innovation and creativity, and merely being hip. Hip is an attitude marked by louche self-satisfaction, superiority and exclusivity. It is rarely an expression of bold ideas and challenges. Hip starts out enticing and desirable, but it soon just becomes an aggravation.

Marc Jacobs is a creative designer. He has a reputation for making clothes that are uniquely his own, for sending fashion tumbling forward toward some new aesthetic. But he is also a hip designer. He has a habit of keeping the audience waiting longer than any of his colleagues before starting a show. It seems that the clothes -- or the shoes -- are always arriving late. And so editors, retailers and friends of the house all sit and wait. They complain and whine and express their dismay. But they wait. They do not want to risk missing a hip Jacobs happening.

Hip is cool, but it's rarely pretty.

Creating clothes that can make a woman swoon, make her feel better about herself and inspire others to stand back in admiration is an accomplishment worth celebrating. The industry needs its hip designers to survive. But it needs clothes that are romantic, powerful and restrained to prosper.

Jacobs presented his collection Monday night at the Lexington Avenue Armory. And despite the late start to his show -- it began just after 11 p.m. instead of the scheduled 9 -- it played to an overstuffed house with no shortage of celebrities from Blondie to Sheryl Crow. Inspired by surrealism and with a nod to cubism, his dresses looked purposefully unfinished, the sweaters appeared backward, shoes were constructed so they looked too small for the model's feet and the show ran in reverse. It began with Jacobs's curtain call, which was followed by the finale, then each individual look counting down from 56.

It was a gimmick that underscored the topsy-turvy nature of the collection and the way in which Jacobs deconstructed and then reconstructed the traditional notion of a dress, of beauty, of sex appeal. It is a technique borrowed from designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Gar?ons and Martin Margiela, who present their collections in Paris.

Jacobs brought more humor to this discombobulating technique. And some of the clothes were striking because of their whimsy. But this wasn't an attractive collection and it wasn't especially energizing from an intellectual perspective. The debate over how clothing is constructed and the idea of examining seams and materials from multiple perspectives simultaneously is a long-standing one and Jacobs added little to the conversation. Most disappointing was that Jacobs spent a significant amount of time merely repeating or paraphrasing what designers such as Kawakubo, Margiela and the Dutch team of Viktor & Rolf have already said aesthetically. (Viktor & Rolf once presented a backward show.)

Jacobs's greatest gift is his unique voice, his ability to create clothes that rise out of his interest in popular culture -- from animation to music. This collection seemed to emerge from the pages of other designers' old sketchbooks.

Showing How It's Done

There was nothing intellectually rigorous about designer Oscar de la Renta's collection. All of his dresses had a front and a back. Nothing was upside-down. The show was not drenched in laissez-faire posturing. But the clothes were so terribly, terribly pretty.

De la Renta's Monday afternoon show, in an old Georgian church on Park Avenue, was a mix of sophisticated day clothes in patterns evoking mudcloth and totem poles. Models wore feather-covered cloches. His silk gowns were decorated with a dramatic back bow that looked like something one would find cinching a kimono. It was a collection that spoke of elegance and vigor.

Many designers of de la Renta's generation have become set in their ways, stubborn and unwilling to allow new ideas to inform their work. But de la Renta, 75, surrounds himself with a team of younger designers and, it seems, listens to them. He embraces new ideas while never losing sight of his personal aesthetic and his standards. When he injects ethnic flourishes into his collection, he never allows his clothes to turn into costumes. When he raises a hemline, he never slips into vulgarity. He never looks as if he's trying too hard. His clothes are effortlessly youthful, never matronly. His audience is a testament to his talent: It ranged from the row of mature ladies with bouffant hair, X-ray physiques and an average age clocking in at well past 50, to Victoria Beckham -- Spice Girl, soccer wife, reality show star.

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