Robin Givhan on Fashion: Spring 2010 Looks From Cinderella-Story Designers

First lady Michelle Obama helped catapult designers like Jason Wu and Thakoon Panichgul to fame.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 15

Most average people have some understanding of the enormous price that often is paid for sudden celebrity. Those who are unfamiliar with fame's costs have only to flip through the glossy pages of Sports Illustrated or tune into an episode of "E! True Hollywood Story," for a tutorial on all that can go wrong when a relatively unknown person is thrust into the national spotlight and showered with adulation. But it's a rare Cinderella story when someone in the realm of fashion breaks free of the workaday world of frocks and rockets to national prominence.

For a handful of designers such as Jason Wu and Thakoon Panichgul, the first lady was the spark that lit the fuse. She has worn their work on some of her memorable public occasions. Most notably, of course, she chose Wu's white, glitter-dusted one-shoulder gown for the inaugural balls. Other designers, such as Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the sisters who created Rodarte, have gotten a modest flush of attention thanks to the first lady. But the bulk of their fast acclaim has come from the fashion industry itself, which has lavished the young sisters with praise and attention thanks to several promising early collections and a compelling back story that had them arriving in Manhattan from California with a lot of optimism, a handful of dresses and no real understanding of how the business worked. Other designers, like Zac Posen, attracted the spotlight because of a single fateful collection and a host of fortuitous connections.

For all of them, the hurdles they ultimately face have little to do with succumbing to the typical Hollywood trilogy of reckless nightlife, booze and a to-do list of illegal substances. For fashion designers, their challenges are less likely to send them to rehab -- although some have certainly wound up there -- and more likely to plummet them into bankruptcy.

The minefield they must navigate is filled with such unglamorous challenges as meeting production demands, following up with on-time deliveries and not letting head-spinning critical acclaim lead them to believe that their every flight of fantasy is pure genius and should be stitched up and sent down a runway.

It can be hard to resist the lure of rapid growth. And it takes the combined discipline of a marathoner and a contestant on NBC's "Biggest Loser" to rein in one's own creative impulses when everyone is yelling go, go, go. But as the spring 2010 collections are unveiled here, there have been ample opportunities to see the benefits of taking it slow and, upon occasion, just saying no.

It was Coco Chanel who once said, "Elegance is refusal." She might have added, "Restraint is creativity's muse."

Zac Posen is the closest thing the fashion industry has recently had to an overnight star. He studied his craft, put on a modest show and the next thing anyone knew he was calling Sean Combs an investor, staging elaborate productions and running out of seats for all the celebrities who wanted to come.

The results were collections that were often overwrought and overdone.

But the work that he showed Monday morning was his best -- ever. It exuded the charm, wit and exuberance for which he is famous. And it showed off his technical skill in a manner that was more about a mature confidence than bragging. The collection focused on seamed dresses in sherbet shades, fluid halter gowns bursting with floral prints and slinky evening dresses adorned with candylike paillettes that simply made one smile.

Posen directed his models to strut down his pink shag runway with authority and a pleasant demeanor, and to really show off the clothes with a twirl or a snap of the hip. The showmanship was a nod to the old-school ways of fashion, when models didn't just wear the clothes but also made an effort to sell them -- a smart move in this economy.

This was not one of Posen's usual evening extravaganzas with heaving throngs of guests and groupies. There was no elaborate set. Instead, the morning show was a frugal and focused event, and it served the designer well. And it proved that sometimes, what a creative wunderkind needs is not more freedom, but more constraints.

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