Every season, before he sends a single model down the runway, designer Kenneth Cole shows a tongue-in-cheek video that mocks the fashion industry for its obsession with frocks, status and frivolity.
In the past, there has been a hint of pretentiousness to these videos, which have suggested that the fashion industry is overwhelmed by the sort of uninformed dingbats who can't identify a photo of Vice President Cheney but have no trouble picking out the knucklehead that Britney Spears was married to for five minutes. Rest assured, at the mention of the recent Republican convention and the hundreds of thousands of protesters who flooded the streets here, there are industry folks who eye one blankly, as if they were being lectured on the beauty of differential equations.
But on Wednesday, when Cole opened fashion week here with his spring 2005 presentation, his video urging viewers to vote seemed not so much pretentious as desperately earnest. This year, the fashion industry has been dabbling in politics in more public ways than ever before. It is the rare designer who has not churned out some sort of politically minded T-shirt urging folks to vote for a specific candidate or simply to go to the polls. And the most ubiquitous accessory at the shows so far is not the jeweled brooch but the "Love Is Everywhere" buttons handed out by the Human Rights Campaign, the gay advocacy group.
Cole followed up his wry video -- which ended with the tagline "November 2 is not a dress rehearsal" -- with a collection of spring sportswear for men and women that was dominated by white corset tanks and seamed sheaths reminiscent of the aesthetic of Narciso Rodriguez. Cole favored mid-calf skirts that sat, somewhat awkwardly, just below a woman's waist, and lightweight trench coats that billowed out as male models moved with a breezy stride.
Even as the models marched along the catwalk, the political message did not falter. The soundtrack hummed with lines such as "Make love not war. Let's kiss not fight. Try to do what's right." The audience arrived to see the clothes, but in these politically polarized times, the drumbeat of civic responsibility drowned out any aesthetic considerations. Do not weep for the lack of attention to the clothes. Falling somewhere between mediocre and nice, the frocks were best left unscrutinized. But to Cole's credit, he was pounding out a bigger message that was clear, precise and eloquent.
The inherent danger when the fashion industry tries to incorporate weighty thought into a construct of lace, sequins and chiffon is that everything can suffer. Serious issues appear to be trivialized. And the clothes turn out ponderous and ugly. Tara Subkoff, the designer behind the label Imitation of Christ, best known for remodeled vintage clothing, tried to balance her desire to say something substantial about patriotism, war and civil liberties with the demand to create clothes that people -- at least a handful -- will want to wear.
Subkoff set her show under the tents in Bryant Park and hung four American flags from the scaffolding. Her backdrop was constructed of enlarged photographs of the creased faces of adults and the curious faces of children looking out from bleak Middle Eastern landscapes. To start the show, a little girl recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Then men walked onto a shadowy runway to the sounds of a piano and a live singer's mournful warbling. The men were dressed in shades of khaki and camouflage green. Their faces were barely visible in the darkness. They were little more than apparitions, ghostly soldiers.
When the lights came up, women walked out dressed in white cotton tank tops and rompers with a black barbed-wire print wrapping around the torso. In the context created by Subkoff, one could not help but think of prisoners of war, the people being held in Guantanamo, the debate over civil liberties. By the time female models emerged wearing silky dresses roughly adorned with silver sequins, one was considering the metallic glint of shrapnel, the fragility of human life and the worrisome fact that one would soon be staring at a button and trying to elicit some profound meaning from it. Bullet? Chad?
That, of course, was the problem with the collection. The clothes -- and the gladiator sandals created in conjunction with EasySpirit -- were overwhelmed by scattershot references, indecipherable opinions and both thoughtful and ludicrous threads. Are the faces staring out from the backdrop victims of war? Or are they just old people standing peacefully in the desert? Is that singer supposed to be that depressing? Or is he just bad? Is that a George W. Bush impersonator across the runway or just a middle-aged man in a charcoal suit and red tie?
Subkoff exhausted her audience with her version of graduate student cocktail banter. With so much high-minded symbolism, one almost didn't notice that she offered a few fashion gems, such as several silky tunic dresses with braid trim and a glamorous, silver starburst pleated poncho. But with the singer now sampling the Lord's Prayer, who wants to applaud a frock?