Robin Givhan, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, is covering New York Fashion Week. Follow along as she makes her way from runway to runway. Read her stories on Style Blog and follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.
NEW YORK — At half past the appointed hour for the unveiling of Kanye West’s collaboration with Adidas Original, the crowd of non-celebrity guests was still standing in a cramped hallway in a downtown warehouse along West Street waiting for the doors to open. It was the kind of dawdling that puts a fashion audience in a bad mood as they envision their tightly choreographed schedules of back-to-back appointments collapse.
The organizers of the Perry Ellis show — in the unfortunate position of having to follow a superstar musician and sensing that he might keep to his own Yeezy clock — had dispatched mini-buses to whisk guests uptown to the brand’s more sedate venue. They sat on the street idling.
People expected hubris from West. And he did not disappoint. Indeed, when guests were finally seated and various Kardashians, including wife Kim, were settled in alongside Rihanna and Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Diddy and more, West rattled off a manifesto of sorts in introducing the collection.
“People just write negative things,” West began. They ask: “Why’s he still trying?”
And then he answered that rhetorical question: “I want to create something better for you,” he declared. “We have been limited. There’s a lack of creativity in every field because people are afraid.” West promised to jar the eyes with a fashion revelation and delight the ear with a sonic explosion.
Fear no more, dear bored and deprived shoppers. Yeezy Season 1 has dawned. It is a collection of men’s and women’s athletic-leisure wear and footwear that was created in a mostly sobering, muddy palette that called to mind a dystopian world. The men’s clothes were far more interesting than the women’s because they did not rely on beige body stockings that at times made the female models look like nearly naked Barbie dolls. The men mostly wore oversized, deconstructed sweaters, sweatshirts and sweatpants and the occasional pullover jacket. Everything was juiced up with styling tricks such as stocking caps, moody lighting and choreography that had the models lined up and advancing towards the bank of photographers like an army of cyborgs. Each row stepped forward to the imploring wail of a single musical note. And then, they moved en masse for a final pass to dire-sounding, bone-rattling bass.
The collection had a decidedly urban, gritty edge to it and the colors were sophisticated. The ankle-high boot/sneaker hybrids were not nearly as interesting as the quilted t-shirts and multi-layered sweats. The collection had a point of view and a definitive attitude. But as a whole, it did not fill fashion’s creativity void — something that does, in fact, exist — which West so ham-handedly described and so brazenly implied he would correct.
The fashion industry is struggling to move forward and find new ways of dressing, more diverse definitions of femininity and masculinity, a renewed energy for experimentation. Menswear is answering these questions and solving these riddles more successfully than the women’s side of the business. West should know that. Design houses such as Public School have made a career out of pushing those boundaries.
But there are also those big commercial entities, such as Perry Ellis and Hickey Freeman, that are having a challenging time fighting paralysis — fearful that experimentation could disrupt a lucrative set of licensing deals or antagonize a reliable customer.
But West was wrong in his generalization that fashion struggles to find a creative spirit out of fear. It’s simply a hard puzzle for for fashion to work out. It is incredibly difficult to bring a new point of view to the runway and ultimately to store racks and the closets of consumers. Designing is a matter of aesthetics, engineering, personality and magic. A designer’s creativity has to be worn. It has to carry a man through the day, helping him to navigate his work life. It has to bring him comfort during his down time.
West offered a satisfactory version of a current movement in menswear — the elevation of athletic wear into something that can move confidently beyond the gym or the basketball court. But he didn’t offer a new way of thinking about sportswear. He didn’t challenge the gender divide. He didn’t dazzle the eye.
But just because he did not succeed at the lofty goals he set for himself, just because some elements of his collection failed, that doesn’t mean he should stop trying. Every attempt is an education.
Newer labels may possess a certain loud bravado and swagger, but older ones — those that often take a more considered and cautious approach to a collection and its customers — can quietly up-end the status quo.
There’s arguably no more of an established menswear brand in New York than Ralph Lauren. For fall 2015, his luxury Purple Label engages in quiet experimentation that speaks powerfully to the ways in which menswear is changing. Notably, the brand has incorporated more functional athletic wear into this rarified arm of the Ralph Lauren empire. A matte leather puffer jacket — the epitome of a workhorse garment made over into a refined piece of outerwear fit for a dinner out at a formal restaurant. Ralph Lauren even tries to broaden the category of men’s black tie offerings by adding formal “coveralls” to the mix, inspired by historical photographs of Winston Churchill. They are beautifully made, pleated and belted. They look foreign and fey and curious. But they are undeniably elegant.
Steven Cox and Daniel Silver of Duckie Brown decided that stripping away excess ideas, barriers and crutches was the best way to push their creativity forward. They removed the wall separating the backstage area from the audience. The designers surrendered their mystery — that sense that they are a couple of wizards of Oz hiding behind a curtain manipulating us all.
It wasn’t just an opportunity for the guests to watch what typically unfolds in the shadows; it was also a chance for the designers to watch their audience. To see the faint smiles, the whispering and Instagramming. To connect.
The clothes were spare: draped trousers in black, silk shirts and chiffon ones in white and taupe and even a dusty rose. Coats and jackets lost their lapels. Everything was crafted with an eye towards intimacy and honesty. And in a world where everyone wears a game face — fully made-up and camera ready, 24 hours a day — anything that even nudges towards unscripted and real is a kind of bravery.
There have been menswear labels such as J. Lindeberg and Chapter that have found inspiration in science fiction, space exploration and a fascination with the unknown. J. Lindeberg’s Jessy Heuvelink describes his patterns as referencing the surface of Mars and fabrics’ whose textures called to mind a similar aesthetic. His collection of men’s sportswear is all shadowy shades, tight British tailoring and bursts of metallic silver. He sees fashion as a kind of second skin, a personal environment that protects, inspires and defines us.
And Devin Carlson, creative director of Chapter, showed his California-based brand in New York for the first time Wednesday evening. He was captivated by the fading away of NASA funding, the mystery of science fiction and the world of punk rockers. Many of the asymmetrical elements in his clothes, he says, come from astronaut uniforms, which were designed for function and with little regard to aesthetics. Pockets and closures were simply placed where they needed to be.
The common thread with these designers is an attention to logic and practicality and the way both are essential to the definition of luxury. That hybrid is what menswear should be. (And womenswear too, for that matter.) At Ralph Lauren, younger men — both in the U.S. and in Europe — are drawn to the brand’s Purple Label in part because it has streamlined its silhouettes to better connect with contemporary tastes, but without forgoing the kind of old world practicality around which the brand has built an entire world. Being willing to focus, staying true to a niche that invigorates some and rebuffs others is a kind of creative risk.
Alan Eckstein, one of the partners in Timo Weiland, noted that it makes no sense for his brand to “to make an oxford shirt. Uniqlo makes a great oxford for $29.99.” Timo Weiland is more interested in the eccentric crewneck . Todd Snyder offers up his take on sweatpants, which are cut narrow so that their silhouette is tidy and even a bit tailored. He makes cargo pants out of jersey — merging two of menswears most stalwart standbys into something that is not purely military inspired and not just for a gym rat.
There is no fear here. These designers are willing to be creative. But they’re doing it the hard way. They’re attempting to be innovative within a limited framework: the daily construct of the average (well-to-do) man’s life.
Yes, West was right. Creativity is hard to come by in the fashion industry — perhaps harder than in almost any other creative field. Because when something daring and mesmerizing bubbles up in fashion, it can’t just be framed and hung on a wall, it isn’t just the soundtrack to your life; it is the coccoon in which you live, it’s your calling card. Fear isn’t the hurdle facing fashion. The human body is.