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 — Of the many runway signifiers in the fashion world, one of the most popular is that of the greasy-haired model. It’s a look that immediately endows a collection with a certain degree of cool.
The models typically wear a scowl and stomp their way down the catwalk and towards a bank of photographers. Perhaps their eyes are rimmed in smudged black liner. Sometimes, makeup artists have even artfully created the illusion of under-eye circles — suggesting that the young women haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a few days. The hair, however, is always the same. It doesn’t so much hang as it does clump. The models’ locks are thick with various pomades to give them an oily, sweaty, dirty texture. You can practically smell the stink of stale cigarette smoke wafting off the models as they walk by.
The cliche works. It immediately telegraphs the message that the accompanying clothes are subversive; they are on a mission to upend tradition. They are dangerous and edgy and provocative. Bathing is too bourgeois for these counter-culture denizens.
The designer Alexander Wang used that styling trick to sell his fall 2015 collection — a heavy-metal homage starring monotone black patchwork dresses dotted with metal studs, trousers and jackets outlined in the same hardware, and metallic outerwear that called to mind some sort of end-of-days, primordial space creature.
Wang’s dirty girls happened to walk the runway Saturday evening, just a few hours before the polished models of Joseph Altuzarra took the spotlight. It’s difficult not to compare these two designers who are both part of the millennial generation and who launched their brands within three years of each other in the mid 2000s. Yet they define the notion of cool — that sense of personal ease, public swagger and individuality — in such divergent ways.
Wang presented his collection in a warehouse at the tip of Manhattan, his guests wedged into a long, narrow windowless rectangular box and his front row seeded with celebrities such as Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, et al.
His styling, setting and show choreography characterize his customer as someone who is forever seeking the center of the action, always trying to get past that last velvet rope to the innermost VIP sanctuary.
In contrast, Altuzarra’s work calls to mind someone who sees such a pursuit as an unwinnable shell game. In Wang’s fashion universe, celebrity is valuable currency and hipness is everything. In Altuzarra’s interpretation, celebrity is overrated and hipsters are exhausting.
Both of them represent the times.
Altuzarra presented his collection at Spring Studios, a downtown production space with vast windows that allowed the lights of the city to serve as a dynamic backdrop. He tailored his collection from menswear fabrics such as houndstooth and wool flannel, but included feminine touches such as scalloped hemlines. He cut skirts and trousers from delicate lace; he tucked high-necked lace blouses under leather jackets and fur trimmed blazers. He mixed devoré velvet with lace and topped it all with wool felt.
Altuzarra was inspired by 18th century dandies and Truman Capote’s society swans. Menswear, frilly femininity, tailoring and gentle dressmaking all converge in this collection. While the lace boots and booties called to mind bordellos and Wild West bar mistresses, everything above the knee was an impressive blending of disparate elements. The whole was more intriguing than each individual component.
The collection was not sober or humorless. Despite the serious fabrics, the cuts were flirtatious and the models — their hair neatly pulled back and away from their face — walked with a determination that spoke of confidence.
For Wang, the choice of greasy styling was not a diversion. This was not the case of a designer timid about his fashion and hoping to elevate it with hair and makeup gimmicks. In fact, Wang had reworked the configuration of his runway so that his audience was practically nose to hemline with his clothes. He wanted folks to see the work, the skill, the technique.
The clothes had intriguing lines, bold proportions and a confident use of light and shadow to create mystery. One could imagine some of these clothes worn by a woman with a more polished sense of style. Perhaps she’d pull her hair into a neat bun. She could be the sort who wears a bold stroke of expensive red lipstick as a personal signature. Maybe she even regularly showers.
But the hair stamped the intent of the collection as otherwise. In combination with Wang’s almost all-black palette, the result was a menacing, almost bullying undertone as the models glowered by. He captured the angry disaffection of youthful rockers. And when the hair turned stringy and stiff, forming an unmoving curtain across the face, the presentation hinted at insecurity, self-preservation and fear.
Neither of these collections is more contemporary or relevant than the other. They both speak to the tensions, desires and contradictions in the culture. Wang produces clothes aimed at the hipster — that not-easily-impressed, always-ahead-of-the-curve, much-revered creature and those who aspire to that ideal, if not that moniker. It speaks to our darker side, our restlessness and frustrations.
Altuzarra speaks to our fatigue from dancing on the edge. There is comfort in the youthful beauty of his clothes. As they quietly contemplate such sophisticated questions as where masculinity and femininity converge (or diverge), they are reminders that being able to consider such heady issues is a luxury and privilege.
Altuzarra offers a way of dressing that embraces the social contract. Comb your hair. Shower. Your presence should improve the landscape, not be a blight upon it. Yet, his clothes still have personality, gumption and strength.
We need both of these collections. Wang’s offers a way to rebel. Altuzarra reminds us that it is just as cool not to do so.