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At New York Fashion Week: Finding beautiful balance between Nicki Minaj and incremental change

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 06: A model walks the runway at the Alexander Wang fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring 2015 at Pier 94 on September 6, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Peter Michael Dills/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Beyond the obvious benefits of a strong fashion industry – revenue, jobs, infrastructure – the greatest contribution of fashion is its ability to capture history in a single poetic gesture. A wrinkled and sweaty shirt can speak to a night of debauchery that ends in joyful exhaustion, a particularly faded jacket can represent comfort and languid weekend mornings, a beige suit worn by the president can unnerve a nation. Fashion at its best exudes an attitude – sometimes romantic, sometimes full of fury and aggression. Fashion’s powerful vocabulary is why so many far-flung products and causes – from weather forecasting apps and bottled water to initiatives for saving the elephants and rebranding Lady Gaga – have hitched themselves to the industry.

With a single well-placed seam, fashion can tell us something about who we are at any given point in history. The merits of fashion, particularly in this global marketplace, are in what it is able to convey about the individual wearing it, the culture that produced it and the world in which it is sold. It does this most eloquently when creativity can flourish. And over the weekend, at New York Fashion Week, it did.

Every stitch in a Ralph Rucci garment was a call for civility and calm. The very rarity of craftsmanship like Rucci’s is indicative of how rare tranquility itself has become.

Rucci presented his collection in his light filled, white atelier where the work tables and sewing machines have been pushed to the side to make room for rows of little white benches. The music is eclectic but soothing. The staff that worked on these exquisite frocks hovered nearby – proud. On one of the hottest days of the summer, the room was chilled to the temperature of a bottle of champagne on ice.

Rucci’s work is not based on a constant turnover of shapes and ideas. Many of his silhouettes remain virtually the same from one season to the next. He loves a skirt that falls just below the knee and that grazes the hips. He likes jackets that have a narrow standing collar and that are cut away from the body. He adores a regal “infanta” gown with its sweeping train. Rucci is intrigued by technique, by what it is possible to do with fabric, with lace, with embroidery. That sort of design temperament requires patience and an ability to delight in incremental change.

Rucci’s spring collection was filled with experiments in texture and transparency, the tension between good taste and tawdriness. A floor-length satin skirt in an abstract chocolate print is worn with a transparent chiffon shirt and an embroidered bra. An ivory pantsuit looks utterly simple until the model turns away to reveal a tiny keyhole opening in the jacket’s back seam just below the nape of the neck – a wink to an incorrigible voyeur.

At the other end of the spectrum, designer Alexander Wang’s collections exude frenetic energy – a gulping down of life’s daily stimuli. Watching one of his shows is a bit like mainlining the Internet. He presents his work in a cavernous warehouse where industrial walls shake from the bass of his booming soundtrack and waves of heat rolling in from the street make everyone glisten. Nicki Minaj, Miguel and Rihanna sit in the front row keeping the crowd happily gawking until show time.

When the first model hits the runway, she’s moving briskly – high energy, rush, the world awaits! There were rubberized dresses that looked like they were stitched from flattened out tire treads and jackets bore a crackled print reminiscent of a sunbaked dirt road. Bright pools of red, blue and yellow swirled around the torso in the form of delicate pleating that created a molded bodice topping a more fluid skirt. High-waist black trousers were matched with jackets cut from thick mesh. The fluidity of simple gowns was interrupted by insets of mesh. And neon colored mini-dresses lit up the black runway.

The colors popped like the bright lights of Times Square, the black was as inky as a starless sky and the elaborate pleating and shirring that swirled around the body created the illusion of constant motion. The clothes were like an electrical jolt to the system. This is what fashion can do.

For Prabal Gurung, clothes are memory and reverie. They are a way of sharing both his past and his present and reminding his audience of life beyond the Hudson River, beyond the Eastern Time Zone, beyond our borders, beyond the western world. Raised in Nepal, Gurung was inspired by the Himalayan Mountains, rhododendron bushes, fiery skies and the humbling sweep of nature. His white jackets and blouses with their flowing hems, ornate texture and airiness were like clouds. His prints called to mind mountain ranges and the sporty embellishments – such as mountaineering-style harnesses and references to carabiners – spoke of Everest, danger and audacity.

His dresses, in three-dimensional nature prints – are adorned with feathers and crystals. His slim trousers are slashed with zippers – like luxurious trekking pants. There is an air of the exotic in Gurung’s collection – it reflects a place not over-run by sameness, a place that still surprises.

There is nothing exotic about Joseph Altuzarra’s work. It is a rousing argument for the here and now – for life in a bustling city and for nature experienced in well-tended gardens. Altuzarra recently noted that the woman he most wanted to dress was Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. The designer is clearly rooted in the dynamic present.

Altuzarra’s show notes said that the classic films “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Barry Lyndon” inspired him. That translated into “the idea of a sinister and undone prettiness and romance, ill-fated and doomed.” But there was little that seemed particularly sinister about the gingham skirts and blazers, the pearl embroidered tulle dresses, the slim black trousers or the crisp Berber textiles crafted into swing coats trimmed with leather. Instead, the clothes were admirable because they did not seem to reference a precedent.

Rucci’s work demands, perhaps, more patience – and money – than most can muster. Wang’s feverish energy can overwhelm. And Gurung’s flights of fancy can sometimes travel too far from the pragmatic. But at Altuzarra, the leather vests and dresses woven out of leather titillated the eye while the romantic dresses with their ribbon closures soothed it. The tailoring was sharp but the fabric was whimsical. The trousers were sleek but the coats were crafted with beautiful imperfections.

Altuzarra did not make a statement solely about power. He didn’t obsess about sweet romance. Instead, he made a strong and welcome argument for that most elusive goal; balance – for “leaning in,” and also sitting back.