Fashion Designers Buoyed by Michelle Obama
Cinderella Stories Prove That the Show Still Fits

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.

The designers of Rodarte could use a few constraints. They could use an austerity plan. They need clarity. They need less of everything. Mostly, they need to wean themselves off their steady diet of horror stories -- maybe throw a romantic-comedy into the mix. Attend a screening of "The Sound of Music." Step into the light, ladies!

The Mulleavy sisters have, more than once, professed their love for horror movies and for the past several seasons, this has been evident in their collections. In the collection they showed Tuesday afternoon in the part of the Chelsea gallery district that abuts the Hudson River, there was black cheesecloth, claw-shaped buckles, burned silk and linen, and several references to bird skin that left one thinking "taxidermy" rather than fashion.

The clothes, displayed amid faux fog, were a continuation of the designers' emphasis on collage, in which a panoply of fabrics and textures are weaved together in a seemingly haphazard but organically compelling way. The clothes are not so much pretty as they are captivating.

For that iconoclastic approach, the designers have been cheered. And rightfully so. But their spring collection, with its shades of brown, red and black, as well as the tribal references tattooed down the models arms, was indulgent and depressing. It did not offer women clothes -- not in any meaningful way. The only pieces that one could imagine making it from the runway onto the street were snug black jeans with silver zippers; and they did little to really convey the depth of the designers' talent. Everything else was a dazzling display of technique -- put to no functional end. One wouldn't want them to tamp down their artfulness to lowest-common-denominator pablum. But remembering that they are designing for women would make their work truly remarkable.

No designer besides Jason Wu has been given greater opportunity to go mad, to have a full-on, narcissistic, Britney-esque meltdown. He has held up nicely.

When he showed his fall collection in February, not even a month after the hoopla of inauguration, he was still a rather shell-shocked young designer. That runway show was in a narrow, nondescript gallery space on the far west side of the city where guests found themselves dodging the traffic barreling toward the Lincoln Tunnel. The room was packed, and the show's organization a little overwhelmed. The clothes were pretty, but they didn't necessarily speak with dazzling confidence. Really, this was the inaugural designer? A few days after the show, Wu noted that he'd added a handful of retail accounts to his small roster. He was expanding cautiously. He was saying no.

A lot has changed in six months. Wu showed his spring 2010 collection Friday afternoon in a series of ornate connecting salons at the St. Regis Hotel, which is nestled between Fifth and Madison avenues in the heart of this city's swankiest district. If guests had to dodge anything, it was limos, paparazzi and overzealous bellmen intent on spinning the revolving door so you -- dear pampered guest -- don't have to.

The collection, which made a perfunctory nod to daywear with a few light tweed jackets and trousers in pale hues, moved swiftly to cocktails and party time. Despite the deeply troubled economy, Wu remains boldly optimistic about the liveliness of the spring social season.

For evening, Wu favored a single silhouette: a fitted, strapless bodice topping a thigh-skimming bubble skirt. He often draped the dress with a sash of fabric stitched into rosettes or pleated or otherwise adorned. The dresses were beautifully crafted; they were a resounding celebration of female beauty. Wu is, after all, a designer who seeks to satisfy that simplest female desire: to look pretty.

If there was a single gnawing concern, it was that these dresses were so short. And while hemlines inevitably fall as they make their way from the runway to the retailer, these dresses really need to be short. That's what gives them their youthful and flirtatious spirit. But that's what also makes them look a bit like prom dresses -- really, really, really expensive and sophisticated prom dresses. The kind that might be worn by the preternaturally jaded students of "NYC Prep." The collection needed just a dash more languid sophistication to take the edge off the sweetness.

But that will, no doubt, come. Everything else has: the retailers, the editors, the celebrities, the business consultants -- and slowly, the customers. And unlike Connie Fails and Michael Faircloth -- who each had a flash of celebrity after designing inaugural gowns for Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, respectively -- Wu might be able to maintain this exhilarating altitude and fly even higher.

Of all of the designers who have benefited from the Michelle Obama publicity bandwagon, Wu might be benefiting the most and bearing up the best. Thakoon Panichgul, whose clothes have been worn on multiple occasions by the first lady, presented a collection Monday afternoon filled with free-spirited prints but a fuzzy point of view. There were black dresses and jackets trimmed in fine silver chain. Others were intricately pleated like something out of classic Greek statuary. There were sleek fitted pants and draped trousers. And while there were several enticing dresses, there didn't seem to be a self-assured voice explaining why a customer should buy them.

Designer Maria Cornejo, who has created some of the tailored pieces worn by Obama, has always been a confident designer working outside the limelight. She is more of a sculptor who works in textiles than a fashion designer playing dress-up. She is concerned with space, volume and geometry.

Her black-and-white squiggle-printed skirts drape loosely like a deflated balloon. Her white asymmetrical poncho top is cut so that it seems in danger of slipping from the model's shoulder; but it is a teasing, empty threat.

Cornejo's newfound fame might be more beneficial to the broader culture than it is for her. Customers are not crowding her West Village shop. But her work teaches us something about the way in which femininity and sex appeal can be perceived -- covered up, comfortable, coolly intellectual -- and asks us to incorporate soft lines, gentle drapes and easy trousers into our notion of power, professionalism and politics.

Diane von Furstenberg just might have been fashion's first overnight sensation. She was thrust into the spotlight and onto the cover of Newsweek magazine in the 1970s thanks to the popularity of her simple, but sexy, jersey wrap dress. The company fell into decline in the 1980s. In the late '90s, she resurrected it, building a leaner business with a laser focus on women: their desires, insecurities and power.

In an industry beaten down by the economy, von Furstenberg says, she's doing just fine. The collection she showed Sunday evening is an example of why. It was filled with richly patterned dresses that hung from the shoulders by the barest spaghetti straps. Beaded tank dresses dipped low on the sides. Everything was light and floated on the breeze as the models walked. But von Furstenberg tucked T-shirts and cotton tank tops under many of these airy dresses, giving women a reassuring tutorial on how the frocks can be worn even if they are averse to revealing too much skin. When her tank dresses dipped low, they were paired with chiffon slips to cover all evidence of a bra.

A single dress launched von Furstenberg's business. Restraint and empathy have allowed it to thrive.

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