Robin Givhan: The fashion world grows up, at least for a season

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; E24

In the fashion industry, looking forward to fall is the equivalent of looking back. Six months ago, when designers in New York and Europe unveiled their fall 2010 collections, it was hard to be enthusiastic about the prospect of another season of bundling up. Shoppers were worn down from a winter of blizzards, blizzards and . . . really, seriously, another blizzard? Folks were dreaming of beaches and bikinis; was anyone but the most devoted fashion aficionados really paying attention to joyful talk of cashmere and wool?

One hopes so. Because designers, in their role as aesthetic soothsayers, wisely foresaw a need for clothes with a more sophisticated and polished sensibility. So calming, so mature, so very Washington. They believed consumers were hungry for styles created with grown-ups as their inspiration -- not rock star wannabees, over-indulged teenagers or even social-climbing philanthropists.

If the suddenly serene and sophisticated clothes come as a pleasant surprise, the industry's accompanying cultural shift is even more astounding . . . and gratifying. Diversity, in permutations from race to weight, has been seriously addressed.

It's too soon to know whether the industry will continue on this path of righteousness and goodwill. Or if it will backtrack to its cliched, parochial ways. The spring 2011 collections have just begun to roll out in New York. It may be that all of this progress will be wholly negated. So let's enjoy this moment -- this fashion limbo between the past and the future -- while we can.

A handful of collections epitomized the shift in aesthetics for fall. Designer Miuccia Prada delivered a collection that emphasized a narrow waist, a full bust and noticeable hips. To underscore her point -- that the hourglass figure is worth celebrating -- she used Victoria's Secret models in her Milan show. She chose these women because, unlike her boyishly shaped runway regulars, they have built a career on their curves.

Prada wasn't interested in a va-va-va-voom figure in the manner of a pinup. Her point of view was more subtle and more refined. The idea wasn't to exaggerate or to titillate. Instead, she quietly encouraged runway watchers to take a moment, stop stressing about their figures -- stop going hungry -- and just enjoy looking womanly.

A complimentary message came from designers Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein and Phoebe Philo at CĂ©line. Their collections were clean and spare. Philo cut white shirts with tiny Peter Pan collars and easy dresses with a dropped waist. Costa's highlights included a collarless black coat, a sheath in dueling textures of black fabric and a suit jacket with balloon sleeves. Only a supremely confident woman would be drawn to these garments, in part because they make no promises about dazzling an audience on her behalf or helping her create an alter ego. This woman can mesmerize on her own and her ego is just fine. These clothes aren't camouflage or armor. They are merely beautiful frocks stitched out of luxurious fabrics. And that is more than enough to recommend them.

Even if a woman has no intention of spending thousands of dollars to buff up her wardrobe, fall offers a message relevant to the most frugal shopper: Do not be swayed by ostentatious flourishes. Do not be misled into believing that fashion can work magic. This is a season of wardrobe realism.

That cool pragmatism and rationality comes through in the industry's wider embrace. Designers had been wrestling with the issue of diversity for years. And many of them were recently called out by some of the industry's most high-profile members -- model Naomi Campbell, Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani, activist Bethann Hardison -- for their homogeneously white runways. For fall, models of color had a more pronounced presence on the catwalks in New York and in Europe.

As the baby boomers age, the great glut of fashion customers are now deep into their 40s and 50s. And it has become impossible for designers to ignore the numbers of Hollywood starlets -- those most-valued red carpet regulars -- who have settled into their 40s. Women such as Demi Moore are still wearing runway samples and delighting in youthful trends. So it only made sense that older women were part of the mix at the Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs shows. Older models have made special appearances before -- designers like nothing better than a gimmick or a shocking flourish. But this felt different because the mannequins were not meant to be the stars of the show. They weren't used as distractions. They were just another variation on tall, striking womanhood.

And finally, society's anger over twig-thin models, many of whom were dangerously skinny, stopped falling on deaf ears. After successful models spoke up about the pressure to remain sickly thin, and editors began to express their distaste for using such fragile-looking creatures, the numbers of models who look wan and ill has noticeably declined.

Plus-size women are making their fashion desires known. It would be a stretch to say Seventh Avenue has become enamored of full-figured customers. That's simply not the case. There has not been a rush of high-end labels looking to expand into sizes 14, 16 or 18. But a more womanly shape is in vogue for fall -- and not just at Prada. Instead of creating clothes that look their best on a tomboyish, adolescent figure, designers have taken on the challenge of creating clothes that must navigate hips and breasts.

For fall, designers, so used to leading the way in defining beauty and desirability, became followers. This time, the aesthetics followed the social shifts, the mainstream demands and the watchdog protests. The result is an industry that -- for the moment -- looks smart, sophisticated and self-assured. Designers finally realized that while it might take more effort to woo a woman than it does to placate a girl, the accompanying success is far more satisfying.

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