Afavorite fashion aphorism has it that the designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons invented "black." The year was 1981 and she had just debuted a distinctively avant-garde, monochromatic collection in Paris. Given the fashion industry's ability to engage in a breathtaking degree of hyperbole -- the word "revolutionary" has been applied to nail polish -- one would be forgiven for assuming that the industry meant the designer actually invented the color.
Instead, Kawakubo is credited with transforming black into an aesthetic philosophy of minimalism, intellectualism and refusal. Kawakubo infused black with her thoughtful musings on the nature of attire, the oppressiveness of the fashion machine and its stratification of society. By the time Kawakubo had her way with it, black was heavy with meaning.
For the last few years, though, black has been in remission. Even Kawakubo took a break. A boldly colored, feminine, Bohemian sensibility has dominated the runways, leading to a summer filled with Gypsy skirts, layers of colorful tank tops and Chinese slippers in every imaginable hue.
For fall, however, black has made an auspicious return -- not just the color, but much of the attendant attitude.
Kawakubo relied heavily on black in a fall collection ostensibly inspired by weddings. The cornerstone of the collection is a white bridal gown that is twisted and tugged until it is an oddly misshapen garment displaying a charming, scrappy character. The collection builds as the white gown combines chaotically with elements of a black tuxedo. Slowly the incongruous pieces transform into graceful black dresses with melancholy ruffles and a mood that wobbles between celebratory and mournful, masculine and feminine.
Designers have embraced black as more than just another color in which to knit a cashmere turtleneck. Miuccia Prada and Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa use it to underscore the silhouette of a garment and give it a detached sophistication. When Prada presented her fall collection in Milan, the first garment to appear on her dramatically lit runway was a simple, spare black dress. It represented a significant about-face, as Prada had led the way in bejeweling decolletage, plackets, waistbands and hemlines. The dress served to clear the visual palate. This was the start of a new chapter in fashion. Cleaner, leaner, but no less rich.
After a long, blinding period during which designing had become a euphemism for bedazzling sweaters and coats, the fashion industry has become more attuned to the way in which garments are constructed rather than decorated. They are fixated on the volume in a skirt, the sharp angle of a shoulder, the face-framing importance of a neckline.
It is always risky trying to identify the social or cultural forces that swing fashion in a new direction. Sometimes, the only explanation is boredom. Glitter saturation certainly played a key role in pushing the industry toward such a stark palette. Was there any more room in the world for another beaded sweater? Another sequin-splashed handbag picked up from an eager street vendor?
But the shift may also have come as a subtle response to the proliferation of celebrity-branded collections. These fall clothes emphasize skills such as tailoring and draping, making it more difficult for just anyone to haul off and claim to be a designer. (Hear that Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson, Justin Timberlake, et al.?) If all one has is a bolt of black cloth from which to create a garment, the accomplished designer is easily distinguished from the dabbler.
It is tempting to say that these clothes are for grown-ups rather than girls, that they exude maturity because they are black, and often, more structured. But all women have their moods. These clothes don't deny the need to be frivolous, the desire to be lighthearted or the pleasure of a well-placed frill. But every so often, something in the air just says it's time to sober up.