NEW YORK — Selling clothes is not the same thing as selling fashion. And selling fashion is not the same thing as being a fashion brand.
The American fashion industry produces more clothes than anyone knows what to do with. It churns out countless perfectly pleasant dresses and wide-legged trousers with matching blazers, plus enough poofy evening dresses to outfit every gala-goer in the known world.
Seventh Avenue produces only a smattering of fashion — the creative wizardry that dazzles the eye even as it leaves you feeling a little bit uncomfortable because it’s something you’ve never seen before, at least not quite in that way. Fashion is invigorating because it has the capacity to change everything: how we think about ourselves, how we think about each other, how we think about our world.
Meanwhile, fashion brands endure.
They are rare monuments to an idea. And even if they evolve into something less exciting than they once were — because we start to take them for granted — their essence remains. They stand for something. They are part of our cultural shorthand.
Fashion Week ended here on Wednesday, leaving this question: Where are the great American fashion brands — the ones that will set the tone for the 21st century? There are a host of smaller companies with energetic entrepreneurs working feverishly to turn their bold ideas into, well, something. These collections are energizing to see, whether they are Proenza Schouler, Eckhaus Latta, Vaquera or Batsheva. They are not yet ready to lead, but they are worth considering.
But first Marc Jacobs.
Jacobs is it, America. He is your fashion representative on the big stage. He is a veteran who can still surprise his audience; he throws curves. He is the New York designer that international editors know they will see — for sure, not maybe. They will go to his show, which serves as the finale of Fashion Week, and then they will hurry to the airport to catch their flights to London for more spring 2020 collections.
Jacobs presented a stubbornly optimistic collection to a small audience in the Park Avenue Armory against a backdrop of nothing at all. The guests were seated on mismatched white metal lawn chairs in a few loosely organized rows toward the rear of the massive main hall. On the far side of the room, the models appeared like tiny colorful birds on the horizon. As Mama Cass belted out her version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the models moved forward en masse — a wall of bright colors, floral patterns and extravagant ruffles. They moved closer and closer like some glorious flock of peacocks. Whoosh! They walked between the chairs and past the audience and out a set of doors. They were gone.
For a moment, guests looked both amused and panicked. Was that it!? This flash of bright light. This fleeting pleasure. What a metaphor that would be — our sweet dreams whizzing past without pause. Gone in three or four blinks of the eye.
But they came back, one by one, for closer inspection: the velvet trousers, the jackets pinstriped with sparkles, the floral petal dresses with glimmering translucence, the graphic black and white combinations. Jacobs isn’t one to offer a lot of backstory in his show notes, but in this case he was particularly detailed. He recalled that his was the last show the night before the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. He had produced a bright, glamorous spectacle. And all these years later, when we need a bright, glamorous spectacle for all sorts of different reasons, he gives us one full of the inspirations and musings that have thrived in his imagination — some for years, some for days. As the song goes: “Sweet dreams, till sunbeams find you. Gotta keep dreaming leave all worries behind you. But in your dreams whatever they be. You gotta make me a promise, promise to me. You’ll dream, dream a little of me.”
But who else? For a long time, American fashion was defined by Calvin, Ralph and Donna. You know them. Everyone does. They aren’t simply designers; they’re cultural icons: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. They built massive public companies with enormous footprints in department stores across the country. But more than that, they defined American fashion. They took the common language of sportswear and gave it personality and life. They made it young and naughty, aspirational and preppy, urbane and sensual.
And now what? Calvin and Donna left their namesake companies long ago, and the luxurious upper echelons of the brands have been shuttered. Ralph is the last man standing. His longevity is a testament to his business savvy, the enduring appeal of his vision and sheer tenacity. But Ralph — don’t we all call him Ralph, this man whose name is in our closet, our bathroom, our bedroom — never sold fashion. He sold us the dream of a particular kind of life.
He’s still selling that, and we can’t resist it. Oh, we complain about the one-percenters and the unfairness of capitalism. And then to show his fall 2019 collection, Ralph creates a temporary art deco club on Wall Street — on Wall Street, for heaven’s sake — and tells his guests to come in black and white evening attire. And not one person went rogue in a pair of black leggings and a white T-shirt — perfect for curling up to binge-watch Netflix.
Of course, the affair was gorgeous, with handsome waiters in white Ralph’s Club jackets pouring champagne and martinis. The cocktail tables were set with signature linens and little corned beef sandwiches, because Ralph is still a kid from the Bronx, and isn’t the juxtaposition of deli food and champagne simply grand?
The collection revolved around the tuxedo, and models nodded and twirled as they strolled between the tables. There were lots of velvet and strict tailoring, and while Ralph is not known for looseness and ease, these clothes seemed stuffier than usual. Fussy.
But no worries. Have more champagne and loosen that bow tie. The entertainment is about to begin. It’s Janelle Monáe in a black and white tuxedo-inspired gown, and she’s crooning Irving Berlin, and the crowd is clapping and swaying as if they’re in some 1930s nightclub, while people watching the video stream are commenting on why the crowd isn’t jumping around like they’re in the VMA mosh pit. Come on, now. That’s so not Ralph.
We have Tom Ford. He makes moguls and megastars look good. He’s the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and he calls Los Angeles home. But his vision of fashion is more international than American. Sorry, it’s true. His is a wardrobe best suited for the walk-in closet of a private jet. It’s beautiful but rootless.
Seventh Avenue needs fashion brands that serve as tentpoles, companies that hold up the entire industry so that other smaller companies can be seen and can grow. At Proenza Schouler, there’s so much fearless experimentation. There’s so much that makes you lean forward and sparks a desire to know more. Designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez are worth rooting for.
They are creating bold silhouettes: jackets with broad shoulders and angular lines, trousers that swoop around the waist and drape over the hips, dresses that are like two inverted triangles stitched together. It doesn’t all work — but a lot of it does. They stand for artful daring.
Fashion is becoming more diverse and inclusive, runway shows are more complex productions reflecting personal identity and social issues, and more people have access to better designed clothes. All of this is good. But all of this is diffuse. These invigorating shifts are happening at smaller brands such as Batsheva, which cheekily addressed the debate about the meaning of its modest dresses with a show at New York University Law School that was narrated by academic treatises rather than music. Eckhaus Latta and Vaquera celebrate a sort of do-it-yourself style, but their spring collections were more polished and less eccentric than is typical, which makes the clothes more palatable to wear but a bit less exciting to see. Disheveled kookiness was their calling card.
The days when it was possible to build a billion-dollar fashion company from the ground up probably ended with Michael Kors in the late 1990s. And that’s fine. We all may be better off without behemoths financed through the sale of accessories, fragrances and licenses. Big is not necessarily better.
But fashion still needs brands that tell a story, excite the imagination … and dress people. Not everyone and not all the time. But sometimes and some of us. And in a way that amplifies American fashion to the world.
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