A Sept. 12 Style article on the New York fashion shows said that Project Alabama made no mention of Hurricane Katrina at its runway show. Company spokesmen say they distributed material at the show advertising a sale in which a portion of the proceeds would be donated to benefit hurricane victims. (Published 9/28/2005)
The sight of designer Kenneth Cole taking his runway bows dressed in a Red Cross T-shirt went a long way to take some of the sting out of the start of the spring 2006 fashion show season. Fashion is a billion-dollar business that helps fuel the economy, but its biannual ritual of splashy presentations, cocktail parties, celebrity-ogling and straight-faced conversations about the importance of bubble skirts and belts troubles the soul when so many residents of the Gulf Coast are suffering.
It is a daunting challenge to reconcile sharp-jawed models in suits that will sell for $2,000 with thousands of displaced souls who've lost everything except the flimsy shirts on their backs. Perhaps it is egregious even to try.
Still, it was fortunate that Cole's show officially marked the start of spring 2006, as he can always be relied upon to put fashion into perspective. Over the years, Cole has made a tradition out of opening his shows with a wry video vignette poking fun at fashion victims, the editors filled with hot air and the colorful hangers-on.
Friday morning, with the aid of comedian Whoopi Goldberg playing the role of a belligerent style offender arrested by the fashion police, Cole made the industry laugh at its own inflated self-importance. His video also pointed out the pervasiveness of hunger, not only in the aftermath of Katrina, but on a daily basis around the world. It noted that the participants in the show had donated a percentage of their fees to hurricane relief, a sum that Kenneth Cole Productions would match. It was not so much a moment of corporate bragging as a sign of leadership: Cole's immediate response to the damage wreaked by Katrina was laudable. And in some respects, he had gotten the fashion industry off the hook.
This is the second time designers have had to consider how their shows could and should go on at a time when the country -- that is, their customers -- are in no mood to consider hemlines and "it" bags. On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the industry struggled to find the right note of sobriety while carrying on with the business of marketing and selling clothes. For the first two years after the attacks, few designers were even willing to mount a show on 9/11. Now, whenever the runway shows fall on that somber anniversary, an American flag hangs in Bryant Park, says Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth, the organization that produces Fashion Week in New York. This season, she says, the flag is bigger than ever.
In the weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the fashion industry created "Fashion for America" T-shirts, with sales benefiting the Twin Towers Fund. Now another T-shirt is in the works -- "Fashion Bridges the Gulf" -- to benefit victims of Katrina.
On the runway, however, it is difficult to blend fashion with grief, and few other designers have acknowledged the news of disaster. At the Project Alabama runway presentation Saturday, for example, no reference was made to the catastrophe even though the company bases its aesthetic and marketing strategy on its connection to the traditions of Alabama's rural home seamstresses.
Stephen Burrows was the rare designer who on Saturday slipped fliers into goody bags encouraging his guests to make donations to a hurricane relief fund in Jackson, Miss. And on Sunday, Tracy Reese noted that her collection, inspired by southern sultriness, had become an inadvertent tribute to New Orleans. And Diane von Furstenberg matched the cost of her show with a donation to Habitat for Humanity.
The menswear designer Tomer Gendler did not make a specific reference to the hurricane in his show Friday, but he noted that his palette for spring -- mostly black and gray -- was "primarily influenced by the morose climate of the world today." That would seem to encompass all the bad news from the Gulf Coast to Iraq to Darfur.
Gendler is one of several new names gaining a measure of notoriety here. He is one of 10 designers selected to show their work in Bryant Park in a space sponsored by UPS. Gendler displays an almost obsessive fascination with trousers, experimenting with length, piping, odd tabs and curious buttons. Sometimes his fussing pays off with intriguing details such as contrasting belt loops. But unfortunately he also likes to hem his trousers high on the leg -- about mid-calf -- so that a gentleman can reveal his dress socks. The aesthetic does little for a man's appeal to either sex, as it leaves him looking as though he should be sitting on a midday park bench, nodding off as he flings breadcrumbs at the pigeons.
Happily, among the menswear designers who have presented their collections so far, only Gendler, who showed his collection Friday afternoon, seems to be in such a morose mood. Who needs fashion to turn all dark and depressing right now? Perry Ellis and Tommy Hilfiger both celebrated major anniversaries with their spring collections. Duckie Brown and Keenan Duffty showed off their sense of subversive humor. John Varvatos experimented with faded and worn clothes that often looked as if they had been washed in a river and beaten against a rock. Everybody seemed enamored with fedoras and bowlers. And John Bartlett was celebrating being back on the runway after seeing his business falter and close time and again.
Overall, there was far too much merely serviceable menswear on the runways here. No one needs more of that. Department stores already overflow with mundane sportswear from mass manufacturers, private labels and musicians looking to capitalize on their rapping and crooning success. Too much menswear is distinguished by marketing rather than cut, fabric or surprising little details that make a guy feel that his two-button suit is a little different and a little more special than the two-button suit of the guy in the next cookie-cutter office.
The difference between Kenneth Cole menswear and that created by Jerry Kaye, the creative director of Perry Ellis, has more to do with geography than silhouettes or details. Cole likes a palette of dark tones and rich colors, the sort of shades that look right in an imagined city where the air has both an aroma and its own murky hue. His colors look right against a sterile backdrop of concrete or limestone or granite. Kaye, for the company's 25th-anniversary collection, makes cantaloupe-color trench coats and sky blue suede car coats. They seem to be the costumes of some idyllic suburbia where the grass is as green and perfect as artificial turf and all of the children are towheads in gingham.
Yet the shapes are the same. Slim trousers; jackets cut close to the body. Earthy knitwear is vaguely translucent but not so much so that it starts to take on the look of something that might be worn by a Chelsea boy with his Dennis the Menace haircut, significant muscles and pocket purebred on a designer leash.
Hilfiger celebrated his label's 20th anniversary Friday night with an extensive video montage highlighting the company's fresh-faced American sensibility, as well as its symbiotic relationship with rock stars and rappers. It was followed by a runway presentation that featured 100 looks -- on men and women -- more than one can digest without turning resentful.
While it would be easy to lambaste Hilfiger for such a bombastic, chest-thumping display of corporate hubris, one must acknowledge that there are few companies with such mass appeal that have embraced ethnic and cultural diversity as part of a brand image. He has incorporated popular culture into his marketing and design philosophy in an easy, seamless manner.
The brand is at its best when it takes preppy classics -- tennis sweaters, rugby shirts, clam diggers, Ivy League blazers -- and re-imagines them in quirky color combinations, oversize silhouettes or with some oddball detail that transforms them from the legacy of the Roman-numeral rich into cultural grist to which anyone can lay claim. While Ralph Lauren -- with whom he is often compared -- aimed to re-create the world of those who trace their roots to the Mayflower landing, Hilfiger mocked it, toyed with it and injected it with humor.
His lobster-embroidered trousers and strawberry-color clam diggers with their frayed hems stir a chuckle. His plaid jackets and Crayola-bright sweaters suggest that everyone is in on the same joke -- we're all playing at being part of the Buffy and Trey party. But instead of a soundtrack of Nassoons and Whiffenpoofs, Hilfiger over the years has slipped in a dance mix of Lenny Kravitz, Britney Spears and Coolio.
But Hilfiger goes overboard. His self-congratulatory video was twice as long as it should have been to make its point about the company's legacy without belaboring it. And of the 100 looks paraded down the runway, 99 of them seemed to involve a form of plaid. After a while, a smart re-appropriation starts to look like insecurity.
Varvatos's collection overflowed with confidence. The designer is certain of his ability to cut a modern suit that appeals to a man who gets a little fretful about turning himself over to a fashion industry that he suspects is trying to make him look like a fool or a fop. Maybe even both. And maybe he's right to be paranoid.
Varvatos knows how to reassure a gentleman that he will look masculine and just sexy enough. He will look professional when necessary, and if his colleagues notice his clothes it will only be to say how well dressed he is. Varvatos gave a nod to that reputation with a perfect ivory suit. It was not so white that a man need worry that he looks as if he should be clanging a bell and doling out Bomb Pops. The pants were cut close but they don't demand the emaciated, C-shaped physique popularized by rock stars, designer Hedi Slimane and stoners. Varvatos's clothes accommodate muscle-bound men the likes of L.L. Cool J, who was sitting in the audience with his wrist weighted down by a thick cuff of diamonds that threatened to cause solar-eclipse blindness if the light bounced off it just so. To be safe, it was advisable to poke a tiny hole in the program notes and view the sparkling star cautiously, indirectly but not for long periods of time.
Varvatos also took a risk by emphasizing wrinkled and faded trousers and jackets, their hems frayed and threads hanging. A designer has to walk a fine line when dabbling in purposefully damaged attire. How much is a man willing to pay for a blazer that looks as if it was mistakenly put through the wash before he decides he could get the same effect by grabbing a jacket from his own closet, investing in a box of Tide and the time required for a Maytag to spin its way through three or four wash cycles?
Varvatos often executes a fine balancing act, as with a shirt jacket in a mattress-ticking stripe. But he often pushes too far, creating clothes that just look old and beaten, without the necessary artfulness.
Bartlett also likes his clothes wrinkled. Banish the iron, John and John seem to agree. Bartlett teased his audience by first sending out models in perfectly tailored two-button suits. (Overall, two buttons is currently the preferred count.) The jackets had double vents and the pants were hemmed to create only the subtlest break. But much of Bartlett's collection centered on options for a man when he does not need or want to be perfectly turned out and tailored.
His best options were his just-rolled-out-of-bed trousers worn with purple socks and Birkenstocks. It may be that Bartlett aims to do for the earthy comfort shoe what he did for banal Hush Puppies -- turn them into a symbol of high-fashion aptitude.
Bartlett also dabbled in satin safari jackets and crystal-encrusted cummerbunds. The use of Swarovski crystals comes, in large part, from that company's role as a sponsor of his show. He has used crystals in the past on ties and formal garments, but for spring, the execution seemed forced and a case of a debt to a sponsor getting in the way of effortless design.
The work of Steven Cox and Daniel Silver at Duckie Brown always elicits a chuckle even as it makes one raise an eyebrow over the commercial wisdom of a white blazer festooned with giant red polka dots. They give a nod to Tim Burton's Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and they unleash their own affection for Peter Pan consumers who may find some merit in trousers with the droopy crotch of a pair of pajamas. The two created a collection filled with impish charm and naughty asides held together with well-executed tailoring.
With the distinctive scent of rosemary, lavender and all the other plant essences that go into a bottle of Aveda shampoo scenting the air, the designer Keenan Duffty presented his collection on Saturday in the downtown Aveda Advanced Academy. Surely the show's hairstylists emptied the store of pomades and waxes to sculpt the models' hair into aerodynamic pompadours and Afro-hawks.
Duffty orchestrated a full-on assault of Disney with T-shirts silk-screened with mouse-eared skulls and sweaters, and T-shirts that declare, "Destroy" Mickey or "Destroy" Disney World. Duffty has a sense of humor that is at turns cynical or progressive, political or just arch. As one model made his exit, the back of his breezy dress shirt identified him as "guardian of the nation's morals." His graffiti-printed shirttails flapped his sarcastic goodbye. And a seersucker jacket bore a makeshift Union Jack pieced together from strips of torn shirting.
In this season's swirl of slim trousers, delicate knits and stand-alone vests, no one begrudges a company the right to celebrate its longevity. One has nothing but respect for a designer willing to challenge himself or for a designer who has the tenacity to regain his balance after significant setbacks. But at this moment, the greatest praise is reserved for those, like Cole, who see that the power of the runway extends to its capacity to deliver an urgent plea to help those in need. And if there is anything about fashion itself -- the shirts and ties, jackets and trousers -- that feels relevant, right and timely, that is its ability to make folks smile and, for just an instant, forget.