In Hip's Tight Grip
Marc Jacobs Relied on Gimmicks, but de la Renta Delivered on Elegance

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.

Carolina Herrera has a similar capacity to bridge generations and to make a convincing argument that if a designer can make a woman look beautiful, that is more than enough. In the collection she showed Monday morning, there was a captivating mix of colors, textures and embellishments layered one atop the other to give her fabrics a rich, three-dimensional quality.

While de la Renta and Herrera romanced their audiences, other designers wooed them with whispers and subtle gestures. Designers such as Narciso Rodriguez and Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa bring soothing restraint to their work. For spring, Rodriguez created clothes that bear his signature architectural sensibility but with embellishments such as jet beading, bold colors such as purple and yam, and a greater sense of ease -- except, of course, for his lean, aerodynamic trousers and jackets with tiny peplums.

Costa's collection was the equivalent of a sexy whisper. His austere ivory trousers are slim as leggings and complemented by long blazers that lengthen the body. (But the unforgiving fabrics and close fit mean that a woman might want to have the full compliment of Spanx undergarments at her disposal.)

Costa's white silk dresses have the faintest gray shadings, as if a sketch artist gently scribbled across one side. His jersey dresses with their double panels have a sensuous drape. (But they also have a tendency to flap open, revealing thigh, thong and other unmentionables.) A simple T-shirt dress in mint-green silk catches the eye because it is unfettered by elaborate seams or crystal flourishes. As with much of the collection, its strength was in the purity of the design.

Yeohlee Teng's collection, inspired by mission architecture in the Southwest, celebrated the spectrum of grays from dove to charcoal. Her satin skirts with their curving lines formed a sculptural cocoon around the body. And her juxtaposition of translucent organza with opaque silks evoked the mesmerizing beauty of shadows on the open landscape.

Designers Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan make clothes that evoke power. Kors celebrates glamour and luxury and the power of the athlete, albeit one such as Maria Sharapova, who attended the show and who happily wears sequins on the tennis court. Kors's collection was inspired by tennis, boating, swimming and living the good life. Von Furstenberg focuses on the power of female sensuality with body-caressing jersey dresses and boldly printed swirling ones. And Karan prefers to focus on women as urban warriors. For spring, however, her collection had the feel of an urban princess with embroidered dresses, fitted bodices and full skirts. It was a pretty collection, but many of the dresses would seem to be more comfortable in a garden setting than surrounded by the city's concrete and steel.

Zac Posen is a romantic, a power junkie and a hipster. What he often lacks, however, is restraint. But this collection was inspired by Pilgrims, Amish, Mennonites and Shakers. Restraint was positively mandatory. Posen was at his best with his day wear, with collage dresses in shades of tan and ivory and his flirtatious white ruffled party dresses that expressed a sweet exuberance.

The collections ended with a small luncheon presentation by stylist-turned-designer L'Wren Scott. In an art gallery on the edges of Chelsea, she presented a modestly sized collection for a woman who likes her clothes lean and sexy: Think Ellen Barkin, who regularly wears Scott's clothes and attended the small show.

There were tight, skinny jeans, rock star T-shirts and long, slim-fitting dusters. For cocktails, there was a tight-fitting pencil skirt with ruffles peeking from beneath a back slit and another tight teal pencil skirt topped with a sequin-embellished cardigan. For evening, there was a tight strapless gown with a modest train of blue ombre tulle. There were also tight -- well, surely you get the picture. The clothes were tight. But they were sophisticated, pretty and sexy. They also happened to be hip.

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