For Fall '08: Fresh Faces, Crisp Ideas

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

NEW YORK One of the unique aspects of the American fashion industry is its willingness to welcome new designers into its ranks. As the fall 2008 runway presentations came to a close over the weekend, designers such as Derek Lam, Zac Posen and Rodarte's Laura and Kate Mulleavy presented their collections. Some of them were more focused than others, some were ambitious to a fault. But all of them received the serious attention that new designers simply don't receive in cities such as Milan and Paris.

Here, a bolt of fabric, a wisp of an idea and a few skinny friends to sulk down a runway are essentially the cost of entering -- but certainly not succeeding in -- the fashion business. That can make for a frenetic week of hundreds of shows. But it also means that something special and wonderful could be hiding just around the corner in an unheated fifth-floor walk-up.

But Seventh Avenue is struggling with the old houses, the ones such as Bill Blass and Calvin Klein, where the founders are long gone and the collections have lost their way and are losing their buzz and soon, their customers. With so much talent in the industry, why has it been so hard to make these collections dazzling?

Only a few seasons ago, the design team from Rodarte was part of the pack of unknowns. They came to New York from California with their designs in a bag and the idea that they'd show them to someone with influence. The industry trade journal Women's Wear Daily gave them a look. And now they are the hot new thing.

The designers continue to focus on knits and on the labor-intensive handwork that has distinguished their clothes. But for fall, the collection seemed more fully conceived, grounded and focused. One could imagine their spiderweb cardigans out in the real world and not just in the cloistered realm of a photo shoot. The party dresses, with the iridescence of a butterfly wing, were more restrained. The designers seemed more intent on creating an extraordinary collection -- in which a dress sells for the mind-boggling sum of $7,000 or more -- rather than meeting some sort of rhetorical challenge. It was as though the designers stopped trying quite so hard to prove themselves and relaxed enough to simply show what they can do.

Derek Lam has been the beneficiary of counsel from financial guru Domenico de Sole, who helped mastermind the renaissance of Gucci. A year-long formal mentorship -- the result of winning a fashion industry competition -- became a long-term informal one to help Lam expand his business. On Wednesday evening he presented a collection of layered dresses, riding jackets over long skirts, velvet tunics over wool trousers, tweed jackets and lush furs. He evoked romance without the usual cliches of fragile ruffles.

New designers are taken seriously in New York, sometimes long before they should be. Their shows are attended by retailers in search of something surprising, editors looking for a story line and even museum curators keeping track of the cultural zeitgeist. Posen has become something of a rock star in the industry although he has yet to celebrate his 30th birthday. In some ways he is a bit like Icarus, suffering from overconfidence and flying too high.

Posen is a talented tailor and dressmaker, but his collection for fall was an odd mix of Minnie Mouse cartoonishness, hoop skirts and only occasional glimpses of the rigorous construction that is his strength. Dresses echoed tuxedo shirts, with their bib fronts encrusted with spangles. The models wore two little puffballs atop their heads -- flourishes that seemed plucked from roller skates circa 1980. The collection celebrated Posen's technical skill, but highlighted his failure to differentiate between challenging a woman's aesthetic sensibility and indulging in a game of double dare.

While the American fashion industry has an embarrassment of promising new talent, there's also a strong group of mid-career designers who are at the top of their game.

Narciso Rodriguez is a master sculptor with his lean double-faced cashmere coats, peekaboo dresses and metallic embroidered ones. And Michael Kors, of "Project Runway" fame, knows how to weave an American fantasy of martini-drinking, roadster-driving glamour. Why yes, Michael, who doesn't need an olive mink stole to toss over a yellow tweed jacket? We believe! We believe!

But arguably the most influential designer of that 40-something generation is Marc Jacobs, whose runway show closed fashion week. While the band Sonic Youth performed onstage, models marched out against a black-and-white video of an industrial landscape in which smoke and steam spewed from chimneys. For spring, Jacobs pulled garments apart, leaving dresses unfinished and skirts without backs. For fall, the collection is hyper-polished and tailored.

Coats have glorious portrait collars or are cut in bold cocoon shapes with draped backs. His pants have full legs that narrow at the ankle; his waffle-weave knits in sober shades of oatmeal are flecked with SweeTart colors. The collection is simple and sedate. Gone was all the transparency that he showed for spring, the intellectual folderol and the record-setting tardiness. (The 7 p.m. show began by 7:20 p.m., which in fashion time is practically early; people were still running to their seats when the lights went down.)

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