Tommy Hilfiger brings a preppy end to Bryant Park runway shows

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

NEW YORK -- An era ended here when designer Tommy Hilfiger took his bows Thursday night in front of a packed house. His show, with its revved up preppy sensibility and its front row judiciously sprinkled with celebrities such as Rosario Dawson, was the final runway presentation under the tents in midtown's Bryant Park. The fashion circus is packing up and next season will set down in its new home at Lincoln Center.

But for 17 years, the bulk of this city's catwalk theatrics unfolded here. This was where a group of disparate designers who had been showing their collections in cramped and sometimes decrepit showrooms all over town -- like a motley group of P.T. Barnums -- transformed into an organized industry that attracted everyone from pop stars and Oscar winners to former first lady Laura Bush.

Supermodels swiveled down the runways here, as did waifs and the recent crop of spindly Eastern European teenagers who sparked public protests about unhealthy beauty standards. A new generation of designers debuted in Bryant Park and an entire network of sponsorship developed to help them pay for their shows here.

The presentations went on despite snowstorms and hurricane warnings. They were brought to a halt on Sept. 11, 2001, but they were up and running five months later.

Finally, the New York-based fashion industry outgrew the tents. In recent years, they had become the backdrop for charity shows, oddball commercial branding (Kohler toilets were once a sponsor) and reality TV series such as "Project Runway" and most recently, "Kell on Earth." Designers looking to exude an aura of exclusivity or hipster cool took to presenting their collections in their own space or in the galleries located in Chelsea on the far west side of the city.

The arrival of reality television, the cool-kid defections and the sense that the tents were too expensive an option for fledgling designers were the surest signs that Bryant Park had come to represent the mainstream American fashion industry. And the industry was ambivalent about that development. Seventh Avenue might want a broad consumer base, receptive to everything from perfume to evening gowns, but no one wants to be considered a middle-of-the-road brand. On the final day of the fall 2010 runway shows, some of the largest American companies presented their collections; the big guys like going last. Almost all of them shunned Bryant Park.

Except Hilfiger. His collection proved that it's possible to be mass as well as creative, to be accessible but also surprising. Designer Peter Som consulted on this collection, and it was infused with his uptown but playful sophistication. There were thigh-skimming kilts with paper-bag waists, a cherry-red pea coat cropped just above the waist, duck boots propped up on four-inch heels. The collection walked a fine line, indeed, it walked a Spirograph of fine lines. The style was preppy but not staid. It was joyful but not childish. It was cozy but not smothering.

Reed Krakoff collection

These were all lessons that Reed Krakoff, who had once worked for Hilfiger might want to take to heart. Krakoff has become a wealthy man as creative director for Coach, where he has masterfully developed a leather goods company that hits the pricing sweet spot between $1,500 designer bags and $100 mass market ones. Under his aesthetic guidance, Coach has developed into a $3.2 billion company. On Wednesday evening, he presented a luxury ready-to-wear collection, a division of Coach, that bears his name. It has the same whispers of American sportswear innovator Bonnie Cashin and classic preppy style that have been the foundation of Coach. But what Krakoff's heavy cabin coats, baggy trousers and awkwardly cut leather skirts reveal is that simplicity is not easy. It requires a keen eye for proportion and an astute feel for fabric that may take some time to develop in a designer who has been immersed in accessories.

There was nothing terribly wrong with Krakoff's collection, but in a mature fashion industry in which companies such as J. Crew and Ann Taylor can offer as much style as any designer label -- a reality that Krakoff, himself, has exploited at Coach -- the onus lands on high-priced labels to not just get things right. They must be as close as humanely possible to perfect.

The collection that Francisco Costa showed for Calvin Klein achieved just that. This wasn't one of Costa's more experimental seasons. He was not trying to work magic with geometry, as in the past when he was a wizard who made squares and rectangles of fabric hang elegantly around the curves of the female form. Instead, exaggerated seams, softly molded shoulders and subtle asymmetrical hemlines defined this collection.

His palette was austere -- shades of gray and ivory, mostly -- and his fabrics boasted a sheen that reflected the light and gave the models a refined glow. The clothes were not gimmicky. They looked incredibly simple, but that was pure misdirection. Simplicity is never quite so captivating.

Bryant Park, by consolidating so many of the runway shows, set the American fashion industry on a trajectory toward growth and maturity. It gained a critical mass and became more centralized. But if any designer's growth -- in terms of dollars and mythology -- has outpaced that of the industry as a whole, it's Ralph Lauren's. It's been more than a decade since he showed a collection in Bryant Park. Lauren deserted the tents for his wood-paneled Madison Avenue showroom and then for SoHo, where the welcoming floral arrangements in his foyer cost almost as much as a Smart Car. His swagger and influence make the tents seem small and quaint. After all, Lauren once presented his collection in the terraced gardens of New York's Central Park.

Isaac Mizrahi's collection

Designer, talk show host, lounge singer and bon vivant Isaac Mizrahi could only conjure up a Central Park set -- a mere facsimile of the real deal -- for his Thursday afternoon Bryant Park show. He offered an upbeat collection of glamorous sportswear with sequined cable-knit sweaters, glittering parkas and dresses with an abstract skyline print. One could almost hear Mizrahi's effusive hyperbole -- It's fabulous, right? -- as the models strolled the runway. For the record: Yes, Isaac. It is, indeed, fab.

But back to the Lauren, who's name resonates beyond the insular world of fashion insiders. His sensibility is pure Mayflower Americana. He practically saved "The Star-Spangled Banner," committing more than $10 million for its restoration. But the collection he showed Thursday morning was a curious confluence of "Princess Bride" meets Stevie Nicks. There was a purple-velvet tunic with Elizabethan sleeves, cropped tweed jackets with puffy leg-of-mutton arms and long, flowing floral dresses. When the collection focused on sharply tailored garments such as the olive tweed coats it spoke confidently in the Lauren vernacular. But when it strayed into garments that had the feel of costume, one longed for Lauren to return to his roots, get in touch with real people and go back to the classic style that put him on the path to building his $5 billion brand.

In the past 17 years, American fashion companies such as Polo Ralph Lauren have expanded globally and gone public. They have transformed from mom-and-pop companies into corporations that must answer to stockholders. All of that growth could lead to a dilution of creativity. But along the way, the industry has nurtured young designers and helped them come into their own.

Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, the designers behind Proenza Schouler, exemplify how Seventh Avenue has sought to build its future. They have been helped along by editors, business mentors and financial prizes. They presented their collection Wednesday evening in a small art space in Chelsea. They created high-waisted, rubber-printed jeans in conjunction with J Brand denim. They also mixed in jacquard mini-skirts, layered knits and wool coats inspired by varsity jackets. The collection wasn't perfect. Some of the bubble-hem skirts looked like prom attire -- albeit in a very well-to-do school district. But it was filled with creativity, surprises and daring. And as the fashion industry prepares to move into its new home at Lincoln Center and begin a new era, those ingredients will be invaluable.

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