What other global industry is so frightfully insecure about its place, not just in the culture but in the economy?
Of course, fashion matters — otherwise we would all be hemp-wearing drones shuffling about in a world drained of color, tactile pleasures and self-expression. But there is no doubt that fashion is grappling with a delivery system that’s quickly becoming obsolete and a level of consumption that is grotesque and unsustainable. The recent announcement by Macy’s that it was closing 125 stores, about one-fifth of its total, could not have surprised anyone who wandered through one of the company’s department stores over the recent holidays. The experience was painfully depressing — from the lean customer service to the downright ugly merchandise. There was little to recommend an in-store experience.
But there’s good reason to consider the work of a designer such as Rachel Comey, who isn’t aiming to dress the entire universe and who isn’t trying to cater to those cutthroat bargain hunters who believe an entire wardrobe should be theirs for a buck and some change. She isn’t creating fashion with sweeping gestures and outré silhouettes that spark lots of hoots and hollers but not much else.
She offers a quiet and thoughtful assessment of the ways in which fashion can have deep personal — and public — resonance. Fashion alone, some dress hanging on a rack, is mindless frippery. But when a garment shares space with the breadth of a woman’s avocations — when it can provide desperately needed warmth during a winter march for equal justice, when it can be a loving gift from one friend to another in a moment of emotional need, when it serves as a visual keepsake of a momentous day — well then, fashion matters, sometimes more than words.
In a presentation at the restaurant, Comey showed her fall 2020 collection — with its nubby coats and sweaters, sparkly embellishments and sophisticated tailoring — on an eclectic mix of women: tall and dignified, some brimming with beautifully aged elegance, others swaggering with youth. These clothes could be worn anywhere — business meeting, fancy luncheon, cocktails — but Comey went out of her way to make the point that these garments notably could be worn in situations when women are emphatically making themselves known as cultural brokers, political powerhouses and dizzyingly high achievers.
Comey’s message began with a story — not one told by Comey but by Casey Legler, the restaurant’s manager, an artist and a former Olympian and model. (She was the first woman signed to the men’s division of Ford Models.) Legler’s wife, Siri May, is a human rights activist who wore one of Comey’s dresses, with its unabashed evocation of traditional femininity, to the United Nations during a debate on women, peace and security. The dress spoke symbolically of the importance of women having autonomy over their own bodies, their own lives, and their future.
Lourdes Rivera, an executive with the Center for Reproductive Rights, told a story, too. She was dressed in Comey’s dark trousers and ivory shirt when she encouraged the dinner guests to stand before the Supreme Court in support of abortion rights. Comey makes protest clothes; she makes clothes for making one’s personal agency clear.
Comey creates fashion that serves as a point of connection between girlfriends, as a source of delight for women. Aminatou Sow, the co-host of the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” recalled her introduction to Comey’s work when a friend gave her a gift of earrings. The pleasures of women shouldn’t be undervalued or maligned.
Comey’s confab was a fine start to a week during which the American fashion industry feels adrift, not just because of outside forces but because of internal ones as well. Tom Ford, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, opted to show his collection in Los Angeles on Saturday instead of in New York. He wanted to be closer to the Oscars action this weekend, which is to say, he wanted to celebrate fashion as entertainment rather than fashion as, well, clothes. Tommy Hilfiger has moved his show to London. Ralph Lauren, Pyer Moss and other brands have ditched the fashion calendar here.
But other designers carry on, not out of duty but desire. As Christian Siriano noted backstage Thursday evening before presenting a collection inspired by the film “Birds of Prey,” producing a fashion show isn’t a burden; it’s a reward. “I like the fantasy world of it,” he said. “If I didn’t have this, I don’t think I could get up every day and deal with the business side of fashion — because it’s a challenge.”
But then, most anything that truly matters is really, really hard.