After the first runway presentation of her sportswear collection L.A.M.B. on Friday night, the singer Gwen Stefani charged out to take her bows like a victorious prizefighter. There was nothing bashful about her celebratory strut. And there was no humility as she mouthed the words to her song "Hollaback Girl," which was blasting on the soundtrack.
She lingered contentedly in front of a phalanx of photographers. And the crowd -- stocked full of fans, no small number of them bearing press credentials -- screamed in delight. It was a far cry from the typical audience response, which is polite, congratulatory, rushed and punctuated by desperate glances toward the exit.
As Stefani turned to head backstage, she glanced to her right and smiled at Ashanti and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (or whatever moniker he's going by these days). Then her eye was caught by her husband, musician Gavin Rossdale, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. In a split second Stefani made a calculated decision, leaned down -- for a moment it looked like an elaborate curtsy -- and planted a big "thank you" smooch on Wintour's cheek. Her husband had to wait his turn.
Fashion, as it has always been defined, has come to an end.
Stefani is only one in a mob of singers and rappers who have used fashion to extend their brands. L.A.M.B. is one of the few collections that have received significant praise from retailers, not because it is exceptionally good but because it is surprisingly not bad. Indeed, Stefani had a bestseller with a lace-printed raincoat priced at about $365. L.A.M.B. has a point of view, retailers say. It is not a pure vanity project. And to be fair, Stefani is one of the few celebrities who had a personal style long before settling into the comforts of high-priced stylists and free clothes. She is her brand's muse, but Zaldy Goco designs it.
The show set was anchored by hot rods that bounced around on hydraulics -- the car geek's way of publicly grabbing at his manhood -- as two gangster boys reclined, all smug and cool in the driver's seats. The collection reflects Stefani's aesthetic with its references to tough girls, Orange County and Rastafarians. And of course, there was exuberant use of her L.A.M.B. logo in its Gothic script. The logo (love, angel, music, baby) dates back to Stefani's collaboration with LeSportsac in 2003, a deal that essentially was the creative catalyst for the current business.
Sony sponsored this show, and it made the most of the media moment. Before the presentation began, the cars were covered with dropcloths embossed with PSP, references to Sony's PlayStation Portable. And several models walked the runway clutching the gadget. Stefani used the show's soundtrack to give the audience a tease of some of her new music. And after the extravaganza, one guest offered an instant review: "The music was really good." But what about the clothes? Fair to middling.
The path the fashion industry is heading down is populated by corporate marketing teams looking to advertise gadgets, not clothes. It is overrun with celebrities working to increase their fame even as they complain about their lost privacy. The aisles of shows are clogged with five-foot-wide lunkheaded security guards belonging to tabloid darlings and devils; they are such slow-moving behemoths that the only danger they could succeed in blocking would be the sun.
This is the downhill road to cultural hell, and the fashion industry is moving along it at a fast clip. In some respects it has no choice. It is being pushed along by consumer demand, lowbrow tastes, society's obsession with celebrity, and the rising costs of doing business. Fashion has already ceded significant aesthetic authority to pop stars and actresses. Every day it loses more clout as other outsiders looking to burnish their image and attract new customers attach themselves to fashion.
At the Zac Posen show on Thursday night, as guests began plowing through the goody bags left on their chairs, those in the front row pulled out leather driving gloves designed by Posen for Jaguar. Others had no such gift. One could not help but wonder whether Posen and the folks at Jaguar had been absent that day in kindergarten when one learns the first rule of good manners: If you don't have enough for the entire class, don't bring any at all.
Posen designed the gloves to promote the automaker's new XK sports coupe. In return, Jaguar agreed to donate $160 of the gloves' $350 retail price to charity. "Their heart was in the right place," said a Jaguar spokeswoman.
It is not uncommon for show sponsors -- and designers -- to be selective about who gets what at these shows. After all, the fashion industry resembles nothing more closely than a junior high cafeteria filled with cool kids, mean girls and outcasts. But this was bad manners, elitism, tackiness and, most of all, another example of the ways in which outsiders are using -- and abusing -- fashion as a means to an end: greater fame, prestige or more money. The clothes have become an increasingly minor point in the whole process.
The heart almost aches as one watches presentations such as the ones from Chado Ralph Rucci and Calvin Klein. There is so much poetry in these clothes, so much emotion. Famous names, glittery audiences and loud soundtracks do not prop up these shows. They are celebrations of technique, expressiveness and desire.
Ralph Rucci showed his collection of spring ready-to-wear and fall 2005-2006 couture just before the L.A.M.B. show. As each model appeared on his runway, one could almost feel the joy and the anguish that went into the designs. Rucci considers every detail of his work, from the placement of a seam to the way in which an inset of chiffon in a blazer will curve around the shoulder blades. The side slit of a black evening gown opens to reveal an inner layer of fabric striped with the colors of a spice rack.
Rucci's clothes are not engaged in trends; they are far too expensive to be considered a seasonal purchase. They are meant to endure, to be timeless. As one looks at a simple tomato red shift, the eye is delighted by soft folds in the skirt and sharp seams whipping around the bodice.
One senses that Posen would like his clothes to convey a similar attention to detail, the grand gesture and effusive display of technique. But inherent in the work of any inspiring designer is the importance of restraint. Posen has yet to incorporate that in his clothes. Every inch of fabric in a day dress has been attended to with a dart, a pleat, a ruffle, something. Posen dazzles the eye with all of his tricks. He is like a magician playing a shell game or engaged in misdirection. Why is he so fearful of allowing the eye to linger in one place?
Posen has an exuberant sense of color on display in a halter dress in a rainbow geometric print. And when he keeps his own enthusiasm in check, his dresses suggest a sweaty, girlish naughtiness, as with a green-and-gold lame tunic that slips easily off the shoulders. Posen also soothed the eye when he paired his more elaborately tailored jackets with jeans -- a technique that also allowed one to better see the youthful energy in his work.
If Posen's line appears to have all the breathless, arm-flailing, free-form bravado of Def Jam poetry, then the Calvin Klein collection, designed by Francisco Costa, was like a modern sonnet.
Costa presented the line Thursday evening and, like most every other designer, opened his show with a white dress. But while others emphasized simplicity or girlishness, Costa's dress, with its airy layers and patterns of white circles, was more like a free-floating abstract painting. His palette was dominated by pale shades of gray, taupe and ivory -- only given more evocative names such as cameo, rain, smoke and whisper. He offered a knit cardigan of such fine yarns that the sweater was almost translucent. The cable effect was continued in the crisscrossing lines of organza that ran along the hemline.
Costa's work was not all in quiet, pale shades. He often interrupted the reverie with fern green or violet. His dresses were filled with surprising details, virtually hidden beneath layers as thin as parchment. They revealed themselves only when one was close enough to hear a whisper. The collection bore the best signatures of the Calvin Klein brand: the sense of ease, of simplicity, of modernity, elegance and sensuality. But one could hear Costa's voice as well. There were references to volume and artfulness and just enough intellectualism to suggest that the wearer is not simply another pretty face.
Costa's work is the exemplar of the aesthetic for spring, which is an emphasis on dresses and skirts. Derek Lam showed almost all dresses and skirts -- and only a few pairs of knee-length shorts. Donna Karan emphasized dresses. Anna Sui's entire collection could be summed up as breezy print dresses. Tracy Reese celebrated the sultriness of the South with dresses composed of tiers of lace as finely filigreed as spun sugar. Carmen Marc Valvo paired his cocktail dresses with belts or scarves crafted from Tahitian pearls and 18-karat gold. Oscar de la Renta offered tailored day dresses decorated with flowers composed of naif wooden beads. And when Ralph Lauren wasn't enamored with fitted jackets and flamboyantly ruffled blouses, he focused on French-blue striped dresses and skirts, vintage linen dresses and a singularly striking white halter dress embroidered in gold ribbon.
Karan's exquisite collection was a reminder that few designers relate to the female body in the way she can. She doesn't hold it in awe, nor does she see the curve of the hips as little more than a hindrance to the smooth fluidity of a garment. Karan's dresses work with a woman's figure. If a dress and the body it covers could engage in a dialogue, on Karan's runway Friday afternoon they would have been in the midst of a lively give-and-take. Translucent chiffon surrounded the hips, swinging outward with their every sway. The hem curved inward, creating a sensual cocoon around the body. Other dresses were cinched tight in front but fell loose and free in the back, thanks to a belt slipped between the waist and the waterfall of fabric covering the back.
Karan manages to make the models look sensual and powerful. They reveal cleavage and leg and the lower back, and yet they never look as though they have been manhandled, stripped or left uncomfortably uncovered.
These shows are not meant to be a competition, but with so many designers focusing on the same narrow niche, it is hard not to compare choices and their ultimate execution. It also takes some stamina not to get bored with the prospect of so much similarity in the coming season. The woman who wears trousers will be such a renegade.
So if there was any reason that one couldn't get too terribly excited about Lam's collection on Friday evening it was because the week had been filled with the same sorts of charming, sentimental frocks. By the time Lam showed his work -- the last day of shows here -- one had grown numb to the effects of lighthearted charm. His ivory dress with its irregular tiers of crisp pleats in tulle, organza and gauze was quite pretty and underscored Lam's talent. Really, though, it was just another nice white dress among the zillions.
No more, please. Finished. Full. Couldn't take in one more thing. But then out came his devore velvet dresses, particularly one in a raspberry pink. It made one think, wow, that Lam is good. And in a season overstuffed with airy frocks, maybe there was room for just one more.