Best of the decade: fashion

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, December 27, 2009

The most significant news in the fashion industry once had to do with hemlines and silhouettes. Old-guard fashion editors proclaimed Christian Dior's 1947 "Bar suit" emblematic of a "New Look" and the designer ended up on the cover of Time magazine for transforming the way women dressed. When fashion made a profound aesthetic shift in the 1980s and the 1990s with consumers embracing ostentation -- logos, designer handbags and $200 jeans -- the news was mostly greeted as a sign of our moral decline.

The most recent fashion changes have been related to business and Hollywood. Wall Street and a clutch of starlets had more influence on Seventh Avenue than color forecasters.

In the early 2000s, every designer wanted to be bought by a giant corporation -- LVMH Mo√ęt Hennessy Louis Vuitton or Gucci Group -- and for a while it looked as though they would be. Frocks became the treasure of takeover wars. By the middle of the decade, celebrities were leaping into the fashion field, lured by its glamorous facade and the promise of fast and easy money.

By 2009, however, the champagne had gone flat. Consumers were disaffected; designers were teetering on the brink of disaster; specialty stores were in dire straits; and J. Crew -- with its modest, egalitarian aspirations -- was the industry's new darling.

The best moments

2000: When Jennifer Lopez wore a plunging, emerald green Versace evening gown to the Grammys, she proved the fashion industry could energize a career with one provocative dress.

1998-2004: HBO's "Sex and the City" transformed a generation of young women into cosmo-sipping, Ugg-boot-wearing, Manolo Blahnik-coveting romantics. If series star Sarah Jessica Parker was their goddess, then the show's stylist Patricia Field was their patron saint.

2004: The Patrick Kelly retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was a rare look at the 1980s fashion and cultural contributions of the Mississippi-born, Paris-based, African American designer. Before the BMA exhibit, his women's collections, with their references to golliwogs and Aunt Jemima, their Southern traditionalism and giant buttons, had been relegated to fashion's footnotes.

2004: "Project Runway" -- a reality show that rewards talent -- debuted on Bravo. It gave mainstream viewers a peek at the creative pressures on designers and introduced the delightful Tim Gunn, a master at delivering tough love to the style-challenged.

2006: "The Devil Wears Prada" turned a revenge fantasy first novel into an irresistible fashion parable. In a scene created just for the film, star Meryl Streep explains the importance of the fashion industry in a brilliant monologue on cerulean blue.

2007: Hillary Clinton showed a hint of cleavage on the Senate floor. Despite all the Sturm und Drang churned up by feminists and pundits when her low neckline was pointed out, the congressional fashion moment was an encouraging convergence of power, femininity and sexuality.

2008: The Balenciaga fall '08 collection, with its mix of little black dresses and Chinese tapestry prints on latex, was a masterly foray into fashion's future while respecting its past.

2008: The spring '09 Lanvin collection, which employed flowing silk, inside-out seams and silhouettes that gently caress the body, proved that the best fashion is both respectful and empowering of women.

2009: The Queen of Soul nearly stole the show at the presidential inauguration with her magnificent gray flannel cloche with a Brobdingnagian bow. Aretha Franklin's chapeau made a statement about the historic inauguration: For many, it was a moment of redemption, hope and renewal. Only a glorious church hat would do the day justice.

The worst

2009: Paparazzi magnet Lindsay Lohan is appointed artistic adviser at Emanuel Ungaro. The wholly cynical publicity stunt was the nadir in the fashion industry's symbiotic relationship with celebrity and the pursuit of the fast buck. The Ungaro show was a disaster of the highest order, an affront to earnest fashion students, an insult to women. Common sense was sacrificed in the misguided belief that any attention is good attention and every dollar earned is a dollar deserved.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company