NEW YORK — America does not like to ponder its dark side. It likes red, white and blue kitsch, swaggering cowboys, moonlit cityscapes and “amber waves of grain.”
So when the fashion industry looks at what America means, designers focus on an idealized narrative centered on a bright and shiny city, the open embrace of the American Dream and bootstrap capitalism that works for all. The most successful designers who broker in Americana tell our cultural story through kind eyes. They see this country the way in which its citizens wish it to be seen.
Deviate from the uplifting tale, and you’re courting trouble.
Ralph Lauren is our aspiration fulfilled. Tommy Hilfiger, who will present his work in Paris next month, is the joyful racial mosaic and youthful vigor. Michael Kors, who presented his fall 2019 collection Wednesday morning, is this city’s raucous, wild abandon — its disco fantasies. And Coach, which mounted its runway show Tuesday evening, is a celebration of determination and feisty spirit.
These are billion-dollar brands in no small measure because they are selling us a view of our best selves. They tell us a story that we delight in hearing — not necessarily one that we need to hear. They play to the heart, not the head.
Coach Creative Director Stuart Vevers, a British transplant, has spent time road-tripping around the country. He has reveled in its expansiveness, and he offers up a mass-appeal, judiciously edgy, all-American version of sportswear with references to lumberjack coats, needlepoint heirlooms, Western denim, hippie leather and breezy prairie dresses.
Coach is part of the larger corporation Tapestry, which describes itself as “a global house of brands powered by optimism, innovation, and inclusivity.” Optimism. The most recent earnings report shows a 2 percent uptick in net sales at Coach compared with last year. As an outsider exploring America, Vevers highlights his adopted country’s charms, and people have bought into his rosy storytelling.
Few designers exude as much optimism as Kors. He weaves a world of ski trips and beach vacations, cocktail parties and sophisticated galas. His fall collection recalled the heydays of Studio 54 and disco, when dancing was both invigorating sport and sweaty foreplay. His runway was set amid the black-draped walls of Cipriani Wall Street, and enormous disco balls and chandeliers glowed from the ceiling. He riffed on the work of designers who epitomized that long-ago era, from the sleek cashmere sportswear of Halston to the colorful slink of Stephen Burrows to the cuddly warmth of a Norma Kamali sleeping-bag coat.
His models wore patchwork leather maxi coats, one-shoulder dance dresses, sparkly dance shoes, fluffy marabou stoles and gold fringe party dresses. There were even dresses and T-shirts emblazoned with the famous disco’s logo.
The soundtrack of a Kors show is assembled to roust even the most fatigued editor from their malaise. The songs are not obscure or wry. They are pure pop, pure singalong. “Everybody dance, clap your hands, clap your hands …” They practically bully you into smiling. The penultimate runway moment featured model Patti Hansen strutting through the crowd in an iridescent pantsuit, her long blonde hair expertly tousled and that face — it’s still the one that graced a million magazines.
The finale was the big reveal: a metallic gold stage with Barry Manilow — in orange jacket and black trousers — performing “Copacabana” as the models assembled around him in a makeshift stage show. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, and you wanted some sort of fizzy sweet liquor concoction because that’s where Barry, gold tinsel and oversize disco balls send one’s brain.
There were plenty of downsides to the 1970s — drugs, oil crisis, Vietnam War — but there’s no room for that at Disco Kors. There’s plenty of downside to the communities that straddle Route 66, but that would get in the way of the postcard sentiment embraced by Coach. The downside is a nuisance.
A lot of designers ponder what this country means to them. The acceptable answer to that question, the most profitable answer, is that America is full of joy and light. But the most interesting and nuanced — and honest — assessment is darker, rockier and more complicated. Belgian-born Raf Simons, formerly of Calvin Klein, struggled with America’s embrace and rejection of immigration. Kerby Jean-Raymond, who once presented a collection inspired by his Haitian-immigrant father, regularly explores how this country’s dark historical relationship with African Americans affects every American today.
Jean-Raymond’s pointed assessments put people off. They hurt his business even as they rallied his supporters and nudged the fashion industry as a whole into a conversation about its own mistakes and shortcomings. Simons’s melancholy American story — one full of anxiety and doubt — was praised by critics as bold and enlightening but decried by his corporate bosses as overwrought fashion that didn’t connect with customers — even though customers weren’t given much of a chance to digest the complicated message that Simons was delivering. He departed the brand late last year.
America does better with a wide-angle view of itself — with an aesthetic drive-by. With a cinematic montage. The close-ups — the ones that show the cracks and blemishes — are simply too uncomfortable.
Earlier in New York Fashion Week: