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Robin Givhan on Fashion Week Spring 2009

Clockwise from center: Zac Posen served up retro-'80s silhouettes; Calvin Klein's palette was charcoal and dove gray; Phillip Lim opted for sequined glamour; Alexander Wang offered studded flair; and sumptuous cashmere and fur dominated Michael Kors's collection.
Clockwise from center: Zac Posen served up retro-'80s silhouettes; Calvin Klein's palette was charcoal and dove gray; Phillip Lim opted for sequined glamour; Alexander Wang offered studded flair; and sumptuous cashmere and fur dominated Michael Kors's collection. (Photos By Maria Valentino For The Washington Post)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

NEW YORK, Feb. 20

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The standards of success and contentment have been greatly lowered since the last time the fashion establishment gathered here for the seasonal unveiling of really expensive clothes. When one offered that most mundane greeting -- Hi, how are you? -- around midtown's Bryant Park this week, no small number of well-dressed folks who six months ago indulged in existential angst over a pair of shoes, now respond with a simple word: employed.

That alone is reason enough to rejoice. But it's not enough of an excuse to shop.

The decline in our consumer culture has caused a significant amount of stress in the fashion industry, and that, in turn, has caused it to cleave in two. There are designers who respond to the dire state of the financial system by doing some of their best or most creative work. The crisis serves as a challenge, daring them to make themselves more relevant and irresistible to consumers than ever. But another group of designers seems to be cracking under the pressure. Their indulgences appear even more narcissistic and out-of-touch than ever.

Designers such as Derek Lam and the two sisters behind the Rodarte label showed collections that were articulate and clear, and in the case of Rodarte, more refined than in the past. Lam's collection was grown-up and sexy, a fact underscored by the jazz soundtrack that accompanied his Tuesday show. His jersey dresses hugged the body and honored its curves, and his coats, trimmed in fur, struck the perfect tone between opulence and luxury.

Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte continue to create clothes that are more intricate art projects than workaday garments. (It's no coincidence that they presented their collection in a Chelsea gallery space.) But the fall collection of marble-printed fabric and leather dresses moved them closer to balancing their flights of fantasy with the mundane reality that a dress ought not be something more suitable for framing than wearing to a dinner party.

But no designer was more direct in his mission to reassure customers and to move the merchandise than Ralph Lauren. He made no bones about presenting a collection Friday morning that looked like 100 previous Ralph Lauren collections -- this time in ivory. It was horsy and glamorous, East Coast tweed meets Western patchwork and shearling. The models wore watches from his new timepiece collection, and they walked with an outstretched arm to make sure folks could see them. Then the designer swaggered out in fringed leather pants and a tweed vest to take his bows. If anyone remained confused about what Lauren was selling, the only other thing the designer could have done to make his point would have been to physically whack people over the head with his perfectly aged work boots.

Designers like Lauren know precisely what it is that they want to say. And they just get on with it.

Designers such as Michael Kors, Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein, Vera Wang, Narciso Rodriguez and the duo behind the Proenza Schouler label worked hard to provide consumers with a sense of optimism during these roundly depressing times. In some cases, they eased off the aesthetic experimentation and focused on the silhouettes and construction techniques that first aroused passion among shoppers. In other instances, they simply realized that editing and restraint are more important to the success of a collection than all the beads, rhinestones and sequins in the world.

At the Calvin Klein show on Thursday, Costa underscored his interest in texture and proportion with a collection that relied on a color palette that was almost solely charcoal and dove gray. His fabrics looked weighted to the eye and his kimono sleeves and jagged hemlines added to the effect of heft. But the design was mostly spare, the intricate seams made one want to move closer and the clothes had a sense of intimacy that was both reassuring and calming.

Wang presented her collection Thursday in her new SoHo store with its white walls and bare floor. Her collection was inspired by Peggy Guggenheim and her life in Venice, and it featured the deep and moody colors that one might find in that sinking city. Wang combined luxurious fabrics like velvet with neoprene -- the stuff of wet suits. The results were balloon-shaped skirts with both structure and volume, paired with sequined tank tops and paperweight cardigans.


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