Hard Times, For Fall

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

NEW YORK, Feb. 5 -- Fans of "Project Runway" might recognize Victorya Hong's name: Until about two weeks ago, she was a contender on the Bravo reality show. Hong was voted out of the design competition because of an uninspired use of denim. But in what must be a speed record for taking advantage of one's 15 minutes of fame, Hong mounted her own runway show here Friday night.

Her collection was inspired by the classic tuxedo and included sleeveless jackets cinched at the waist with a cummerbund-style belt. There was plenty to commend: a nice fit, wearable silhouettes and a tasteful aesthetic. But as one of more than two dozen collections presented on that day alone, there was nothing that stood out. The clothing wasn't even a match for the amusement of D-list voyeurism. Hey, isn't that the elfin Christian Siriano, "Project Runway" co-star, sitting along the runway and getting a big thank-you in the show notes?

There's rarely a good time to get into the fashion business. But as Seventh Avenue unveils its fall 2008 collections this week, these are particularly challenging times. The combined impediments of stiff competition, market saturation, a devalued dollar and a bleak economy mean not only that it's difficult to entice shoppers into opening up their wallets, but that it's also significantly harder for designers even to get their merchandise into stores. Retailers have become more discerning about what they will hang on their racks.

They are looking to be moved, to be excited. Luxury continues to sell. Uniqueness is an advantage. But ultimately, when the economy turns sour, "emotion" -- that wholly illogical, inexplicable motivator -- makes the sale.

"It's got to be emotion," says Saks Fifth Avenue's Michael Fink, who oversees the specialty store's women's collections. "A lot of that luxury product leaves me cold. It's not 'anti-style.' That's not the right word, but it becomes eternally classic and that appeals to a very small percentage of the population."

For designers, emotion can be defined in a multitude of ways. Hong tried to make hay of the strange sense of intimacy that comes from reality show fame. At Herv¿ L¿ger and Halston, designers are exploiting nostalgia for a lost moment in popular culture. And others are simply trying to create clothes that are so exquisite, so beautiful, they can't be ignored.

"If it costs a zillion dollars, I have to passionately, deeply love it. But I'll buy it if I'm passionate about it," says Nancy Pearlstein, owner of Relish in Georgetown. "Will I buy as much? Probably not."

Proenza Schouler, Band of Outsiders, Rag & Bone

Designers Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler entice their customers with short dresses with extravagant collars in lush jewel tones. They create the trompe l'oeil effect of double sleeves on dresses and jackets. They even offer sequined trousers that wrap around the hips like a sari.

Not everything dazzles the eyes in the Proenza Schouler collection, which was shown Monday night, but the effort is both evident and admirable. The designers practically tap dance, juggle and somersault in hopes of catching the customers' attention.

They are among fashion's hardest-working entertainers. And they correctly believe clothes that fail to make a woman smile are a hard sell. Most of the clothes that have come down the runways in New York barely keep a person awake. The vast majority of collections are the equivalent of small talk, pleasant but not especially interesting. There has been so much numbing mediocrity on the runway over the past few days that it all blurs into a pile of wide-leg trousers, tweed jackets, skinny gray pants with matching little blazers and full skirts -- many of them with crinolines. One is left with the sad, existential question: Why bother?

The designers from Band of Outsiders and Rag & Bone have made a name for themselves by blurring the line between menswear and women's. At Band of Outsiders, the look has its roots in an Ivy League aesthetic with toggle coats, rumpled button-down shirts, corduroys and tweedy tradition. At Rag & Bone, the aesthetic has more rock-and-roll undertones with skinny trousers, lots of black and hints of androgyny. But for a customer who wants to buy a single pair of pants, not much distinguishes the two brands.

Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera

The blahs are not limited to newer labels. Oscar de la Renta's collection is weighed down by too many awkward jackets and heavy tweeds that give it a matronly sensibility. One of the most striking pieces is a red and black tweed skirt suit splashed with paillettes to make it twinkle. It's easy to imagine dozens of the cautious ladies of federal Washington turning up at holiday parties in that boxy little suit. And that's fine. But there is something terribly wrong with a collection when the most flattering observation is: That'll be really popular on Capitol Hill!

Carolina Herrera's collection spoke of hunting lodges with models wearing a great deal of tweed and gowns festooned with four-foot feathers that floated off the derriere. The entire collection was devoid of the refined femininity for which Herrera is known. And watching the designer take her bows wearing her customary pencil skirt and crisp white blouse, it was hard to imagine that she would ever subject herself to a russet-colored dress trailing a wagging feather, making its wearer look like an excited golden retriever.

None of the women's collections presented so far have succeeded in overwhelming the senses, in leaving an observer breathless with desire. There have been only a few tantalizing moments. Tracy Reese's prints make the eyes light up, particularly her coat in an impressionistic mix of lapis blue and violet. Sari Gueron serves up sweetness with gently gathered party dresses draped over crinolines. Thakoon Panichgul's plaid shirt dress that looks as though it was stitched out of fine tulle is a enticing surprise. Doori Chung captures your attention with her architectural dresses in shades of charcoal gray and deep green adorned with jet crystals. There's something inherently rich and intoxicating about a garment that is splashed judiciously with beads or crystals. It gets noticed, and on a sales floor, that is half the battle.

Herve Leger, Halston

Two brands are betting on the pull of nostalgia to win customers. Entrepreneur Max Azria of the BCBG contemporary brand purchased the French fashion house Hervé Léger in 1998. The label popularized bandage dresses, which are made from strips of elastic fabric and hold the body in a girdle-like grip, thus emphasizing the wearer's womanly assets. In the 1980s, the dresses were the uniform of sexpot actresses and Amazonian supermodels. They were ushered out by a wave of minimalism, soft femininity and a more languid expression of sex appeal.

But with the interest in vintage fashion, no trend is safe from a resurgence. The bandage dresses are back on the red carpet and worn by tabloid favorites such as Victoria Beckham. Azria is looking to take advantage of the moment. In front of an audience filled with starlets in their designer bandages -- their bosoms trussed up in crisscrossing strips of elastic -- Azria presented his new vision for Hervé Léger, which looks an awful lot like the old vision but with applique and embroidery. Freeze-dried fashion reconstituted with money and chutzpah.

A similar problem plagues Halston, where another in a long line of designers -- Randolph Duke, Kevan Hall, Craig Natiello, Bradley Bayou, etc. -- is attempting to revive the house known for easy jersey dresses and its connection to Studio 54, drugs and famous clients such as Liza Minnelli. This time, Marco Zanini is the designer and film mogul Harvey Weinstein is the financier.

The show on Monday had all the right ingredients except one. Jersey dresses, check. Cashmere turtlenecks and pants, check. Minnelli in the audience, check. But no excitement. The Halston legacy no longer is defined by a design sensibility but rather a moment in popular culture. The easy style of dressing has been commercialized by everyone from Calvin Klein to Eileen Fisher. And Studio 54 has become a punch line on "Ugly Betty."

Patrik Ervell, Thom Browne, Z Zegna

So far, menswear designers have delivered the most powerful emotional wallops. At Patrik Ervell, it was hard not to be drawn to the designer's gold metallic jackets and, in particular, a cardigan studded with gold paillettes, which he matched with a pair of beat-up Levi's. Some of the models at Ervell's show looked to be 12 years old, and one wondered whether the designer scheduled his show for Saturday afternoon so his models wouldn't be arrested for truancy. For a long time, women have had to endure designers who used adolescents as stand-ins for women; now men are getting the same treatment.

The more boyish the clothes -- skinny pants, cropped jackets, wrinkled button-down shirts that look as though they've been pulled from under a bunk bed -- the greater the tendency to show them on models with the physique of a child. If designers are going for an emotional response, this practice might soon start to elicit disgust.

The practice of using stickpin boys started in collections such as those from Italian designer Miuccia Prada, where all the troubling model trends seem to begin now. But designer Thom Browne, with his shrunken suit silhouette, has also been an influence.

Browne's collection for fall, which he showed Monday, was inspired by the circus and he used that theme to underscore the eccentric playfulness and naughtiness of his work. Browne doesn't believe creativity in menswear has to be relegated to novelty buttons, purple pimp suits or such an overload of effeminate flourishes that a man might as well be dressed in drag. Drag is fine if that's what a man is striving for, but no man should be played the fool and wind up as an accidental drag queen.

Browne takes Old World traditions -- knickers, capes, bowler hats, high-waist trousers -- and mixes them with his own quirky sensibility. It's FDR and JFK conjoined with P.T. Barnum. The result is a charcoal gray overcoat that buttons up the back from the hem to the shoulders -- a traditional back vent taken to extremes. A standard navy blazer with gold buttons gets red, white and blue corset lacing down the back. Short capes lined in fur are cropped just below the shoulders. The subtle argyle pattern of a pair of socks finds its way onto whole suits.

Browne's work is flamboyant, yet deeply conservative. It also exudes passion. It boils over with his unflappable belief that men -- at least a critical mass of them -- will come around to his way of thinking. Most will surely respond with vehement dislike, but at least Browne is articulating a coherent argument. He is not merely engaging in fashion minstrelsy of the sort practiced by Z Zegna, where men were put in purple satin shirts and big mountain-goat overcoats that made them look like pimps in Alaska. Emotional response to Z Zegna? Dismay.

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