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Dressed to Depress
Shabby Is Chic? Sorry, Ralph Lauren, but It's a Threadbare Idea

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009

NEW YORK -- The cabdriver pulled onto Dominick Street and headed toward Hudson when he was forced to stop by a traffic jam of black Town Cars, gazelles in high heels and peacocks in tweed sport jackets. When he wondered aloud about the cause of such a stir, his passenger informed him that the Ralph Lauren fashion show was about to begin just at the end of the block. The driver nodded in recognition and murmured a few words of awe under his breath: Ralph Lauren, indeed.

It's not often that a cabdriver in this city responds to a traffic jam with an emotion other than annoyance or resignation. And even here in America's fashion capital, there's a long list of designers who have been lionized by editors and retailers but whose names mean nothing to the man on the street. But Lauren is not just any designer; he is an institution. His name and his work resonate far beyond Seventh Avenue because he has taken the myths of America -- those gauzy, sepia-tinted images of cowboys and ranchers, captains of industry and girls next-door -- and transformed them into evening gowns, business suits and blue jeans.

Lauren built a career by brazenly positioning himself as the quintessential interpreter of the American zeitgeist. More than any designer, he has used America's mythology -- our secular religion -- for profit. In doing so, he has displayed a keen understanding of our cultural symbols. He can parse the difference between a pair of blue jeans worn with cowboy boots and those worn with a black leather jacket. He sees the romance in a prairie skirt or a well-worn Native American blanket. He knows what it means in our racially conflicted society to photograph a dark-skinned, athletic black man in his preppiest, old-money brand. And he knows how a bright-eyed blonde feeds our vision of Mayflower blue bloods. And as consumers, we have bought into those symbols and made Lauren an extremely wealthy man.

So it seems fair to say there were layers of meaning and references in the looks that came down his runway Thursday morning, the final day of the spring 2010 fashion shows here. The designer wrote in his show notes that he was inspired by America's resilient spirit. "Hard times seem to sharpen our capacity for idealism and our optimism that tomorrow will be a better day," Lauren said.

Yet it was difficult to see much that was optimistic about the distressed overalls -- part of his less expensive RRL label -- that were on his runway. Or the faded and torn jeans. Or the sequined nightshirt, the silk gown cut to look like overalls, the sequined and shredded jeans, and the floral print dresses that harked back to Laura Ingalls Wilder and exuded history but not luxury.

The result was a collection of curious costumes that might have been pulled from some strange compilation of "Our Town," Kit Kittredge and an MTV docudrama on the Great Depression. The country might be in a recession -- or barely rousting itself from one -- but are there really folks who want to look like subjects of a James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration? "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" should not serve as a style guide. Not now. And certainly not this way.

To be fair to Lauren, designers regularly play fast and loose with history; they regularly find inspiration in unlikely places and transform iconic images in unorthodox, often disturbing, ways. It's not surprising that Lauren would look to laborers for inspiration at a time when the notion of "honest work" -- as opposed to the paper-pushing kind -- has become part of the cultural dialogue. The designer was moved by America's salt-of-the-earth workers. He wanted to celebrate their tenacity and courage -- the fact that they actually manufactured products or grew produce instead of dealing in virtual money.

But what was strutted onto his runway registered as both dismissive and diminishing of those challenging lives. The collection spoke in unkind and uncaring ways -- a point of view directly at odds with a designer known for his empathy and philanthropy. Indeed, the disconnect between the designer and the collection was astounding.

The sight of a freshly scrubbed model sashaying in distressed overalls and glittering evening sandals was akin to watching some indulged young party girl go slumming for the day. It was the kind of ensemble Naomi Campbell might have worn when she was forced to mop floors in jail after an altercation with her housekeeper.

It may be that because joblessness, homelessness, poverty -- modern-day, near-Dust-Bowl-level suffering -- is too real to find any delight in this sort of fashion appropriation. The sadness remains too palpable. Read the news. The lives of middle-class families have abruptly fallen apart, so much so that there are tent cities and squatter camps in some of the most troubled parts of this country. How can it not be an insult to those living in squalor to send a sequined work shirt down the runway?

In an odd juxtaposition, there were also models in three-piece, navy pinstripe suits. They looked like bankers, like those AIG executives with bull's-eyes on their backs. At moments, the Lauren show was like watching the entire financial meltdown unfold as a fashion production. Here are the people who took out bad mortgages and defaulted on them. Here are the bankers who led them astray and brought the economy to its knees. Here is the designer putting a price tag on it all and hoping to reap a handsome profit.

Lauren is known for his keen eye for elegance and good taste. And there was beautiful tailoring in this collection, splendidly light and airy white dresses, too. But they were lost amid the uncomfortable feeling that those who inspired the collection ultimately were not celebrated but were unintentionally taunted.

These have not been the best times for runway fashion -- not from the big, fancy designers who are usually so confident and sure. Oscar de la Renta presented a collection that managed to be both trashy and stodgy. Bodices were uncomfortably transparent. Embroidered coats lacked movement and grace. The models' hair was coiled around their heads in a single, wide braid -- a style that should be avoided unless your name is Yulia Tymoshenko and you happen to be the prime minister of Ukraine.

Marc Jacobs, who so often leaves his audiences breathless in amazement, offered a collection that had its moments of intrigue. He focused on a series of dresses stiff with ruffles and edged in pearls. And one can imagine his extreme silhouettes having an impact on other designers in the future. But there was harshness to his collection that served mostly to tamp down the beauty rather than inject it with a sense of swaggering cool.

Narciso Rodriguez and Donna Karan both had reassuring collections that spoke with clarity and exuberance. Rodriguez made a case for an architectural silhouette that plays peekaboo along the torso and often floats freely through the hips. And Karan let women know that there will be sensual suits in stone-colored neutral come spring, even if she is practically the only designer willing to make them. Michael Kors did not introduce his collection with show notes packed with references to Aspen or Palm Beach. Instead, his collection was a simple, straightforward -- and beautiful -- one filled with sophisticated sheaths, some with single sleeves, some with decorative zippers, others with skin-revealing slits. The pieces were not destined to thrill, but they were wise investments -- the closest thing fashion has to a Warren Buffett mutual fund.

Younger designers were in a more decorative, more playful mood. Doo-Ri Chung's embroidered tulle tops and dresses in a cacophony of pleats and sequins made a compelling case for the philosophy that a pretty dress can bring a woman joy. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler created a collection of sci-fi tailoring that blended strong shades of blue and green with metallic fringe and feathery eyelash adornment. And the L.A.-based label Koi Suwannagate steered clear of the runway but showed a small presentation of hand-crafted dresses of Thai fabrics festooned with hand-painted flowers, custom embroidery and hand-sculpted lotus blossoms. All three labels offered a unique sensibility that stood out in a season that seemed to be struggling to distinguish itself.

Francisco Costa played with volume and geometry in his artful collection for Calvin Klein. And L'Wren Scott celebrated the female form with a collection of sexy, oh-so-very-fitted sheaths. At the end of her lunchtime presentation, her models posed in front of a row of chairs. But they did not sit down; they merely stood smartly, hands oftentimes on hips. One couldn't help but wonder, with those dresses fitted to the last millimeter, with their bellybuttons outlined against the taunt fabric, whether they actually could sit.

With the industry in such turmoil thanks to the economy, it would be welcome news to say that this was a season filled with clothes that will be hard to resist. But that's not the case. It's a season that overflows with joyful clothes: pretty colors, flouncy skirts, flirtatious details. (Anna Sui's collection was practically a homage to happy.) And the designer Phillip Lim offered a collection that was a succinct distillation of a host of trends initiated by labels such as Lanvin, Prada and Rodarte. Lim's wasn't a collection of knock-offs but a profoundly safe reworking of ideas already on the racks. Perhaps Lim will be proved right with his well-priced collection. It may be that it's not the fashion industry's ideas that are sketchy, just the pricing system. Would you buy a pair of trousers with a low-slung crotch if they were a couple hundred dollars instead of $800?

But there was no blockbuster collection from Seventh Avenue this season. It's hard to make lightning strike on command, after all. There was no designer leading the industry in a new direction. No one offered a singular frock that was so irresistible it was seared into the memory. There was no dress or jacket or skirt of the moment. What, pray tell, will magazines put on their must-have lists? Any classic sheath surely would fall under the category of "already-got-it."

Spring 2010 is a season of earnest effort and vigorous hand-wringing. Designers gave customers something to think about, such as the propriety of stealing inspiration from the poor to dress the wealthy. But by the time the last man and woman took their bows, the memory of the clothes had already begun to fade.

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