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.
They are virtually alone in their willingness to titillate.
As New York fashion week ramps up with designers presenting their fall 2015 collections, only Cushnie and Ochs have played to that part of the brain that remains a bit reptilian — running on instinct, desire and pure visceral urges. They offered clothes that allow a woman to release her inner sex symbol. Their dresses possessed the louche sensibility of the 1970s, when seductive, liquid jersey was all the rage. And there were other, more sculptural, dresses that gave the viewer glimpses of flesh in all the right places.
Still, this was not an effortless collection. Some of the pieces looked cautiously worked and awkwardly manipulated in order to ensure that nothing popped out, nothing malfunctioned. As a whole, the collection, while enticing, felt as though it was not roaring at full creative throttle. It could have been sexier. The designers certainly have the skill and the temperament to make a woman look smoking hot.
But sex doesn’t have much of a home on Seventh Avenue. There is sensuality and body consciousness, dominatrix power-dressing and good old-fashioned sluttiness — and don’t let political correctness make anyone pretend they don’t know what that means. But rare is the runway that addresses sexiness as something that speaks to primal urges, to a lust for the human form.
Design houses in Europe, such as Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, are able to capture those emotions in a single garment. At Cushnie et Ochs, sexiness is about a tight body and the confidence to show it off. These designers do not intellectualize sexiness, turning it into something that requires deep thought and a muscular imagination. Thinking about these clothes is not the point. Slithering out of them — to the great appreciation of another — is what they’re all about.
The big three American design houses do not engage in the flesh. Ralph Lauren offers a kind of clench-jawed sex appeal that must be loosened with a glass of champagne or perhaps a shot of Scotch from a crystal tumbler. At Calvin Klein, its mass-market underwear sales are based on sexual innuendo. But farther up the company’s fashion chain, a brainier reserve dominates. The collection is defined by asceticism. And Donna Karan is more intrigued by sensuality — that sense of personal pleasure derived from the caress of cashmere or velvet against the skin. Her clothes are not about a shared experience. Her models wrap themselves in their own embrace.
So is it any wonder that the generation of male and female designers who have followed are loathe to sex things up? They want to give women comfortable clothes, and clothes that are professionally empowering. And bravo for having those admirable goals. But the result is that sometimes their collections can be rather prim. They are so careful not to turn a voyeuristic eye on the female form that women are often cast as best friend, muse, goddess and Mona Lisa. They approach a woman’s sex appeal with trepidation, as if unleashing it might give them more than they quite know what to do with. Their work is polite; it is not vital.
The designer Wes Gordon presented a beautiful, rigorous and poetic collection Friday morning. His best pieces were those that were drawn from a minimalist philosophy: pale gray skirts that fell to the lower calf but swished around the legs thanks to multiple slits, a sleek tank dress with a gray woolen bodice and a shimmering skirt of champagne-colored satin and knit skirts that clung teasingly to the tush. One could make out the line of a long leg, a shadow of a breast and the subtle movement of swaying hips. It was an elegant and refined collection that drew from American fashion’s classic vocabulary but was assembled in a way that spoke to Gordon’s unique perspective. One could say that it was a collection that drew from his head and his heart.
But where is the heat of passion?
Why is this so uncommon in American fashion? As Valentine’s Day roses are delivered, as moviegoers revisit the titillation of “50 Shades of Gray,” where is the fashion that compels not just an admiring glance but a lingering desire? In a country that has a history of being more flummoxed by sex in popular culture than by violence, perhaps this is why there’s so little heat on the runways.
Jason Wu has been exploring female strength these past seasons. He likes long, lean skirts and sharply tailored jackets. And this season, coats and dresses were adorned with pelts of fur — an effect that often had the models looking like huntresses who had tossed their defeated prey over their shoulder. Wu’s women are too busy for sex.
Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters, who design Creatures of the Wind, made the aesthetic decision to address a woman’s sense of whimsy and fantasy. From the beginning, they crafted a vision of fashion fairies and maidens. The designers now seem to be struggling to translate what began as a wondrously eccentric, artisanal point-of-view into something that is commercial. This season, there were charming moments, most notably a series of pale peach, fluttering dresses with a metallic abstract print that exuded freedom. But the sensuality is missing. After all, even nymphs had sex lives.
There is a strain of womenswear that traffics in girly femininity — that uncomfortable transition period explored by Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” At Giovanna Randall’s Honor, models wore princess dresses and seemed too young and unsophisticated to wrestle with the complicated subject of sex. The vamping models in Adam Selman’s show huddled around a set constructed of old chain-link fences littered with crushed to-go cups, cigarette butts and soda cans. With their hair done up in ratty beehives, the models were dressed in tight skinny trousers, cropped cardigans and short pleated skirts. They had the look of ’60s fast girls — the sort who ran with the drag-racing bad boys. They played at being sexy, but it was all an act of bravado.
New York also celebrates the quintessential “cool” girl. She’s the sort who follows indie bands, has complicated self-imposed dietary restrictions, lives in a gentrifying neighborhood and avoids brand names at all costs. Cool girls wear Rachel Comey and they look very, very good for doing so because their clothes are full of texture, personality and comfort.
Certainly, they would love the work of Novis designer Jordana Warmflash, who showed her fifth collection Friday evening in a tableau vivant. Warmflash was inspired by artist Henri Matisse’s series of cutouts. The colorful patterns on skirts and her hand-beaded dresses referenced his abstract collages.
Novis stands out for its adventurous mix of textures and for Warmflash’s belief in the invigorating power of color especially during the grim, gray days of winter. Sexy? No. But it’s delightful, pretty and thoughtful.
These designers are all creating clothes that have a personal vision. They think deeply. They analyze. They politicize. Until finally, there’s no room, there’s no energy left, for sexy.