Fashion designers only occasionally tread outside the realm of clothes as pure commodity. When they do, the results are often a muddled, self-conscious message.
But already, only a few days into this city’s fashion week, designers are playing against type.
Tisci took on perhaps the greatest challenge. He brought his Givenchy collection from Paris to New York and presented it just after sunset on Friday, September 11. Every fall, fashion week — those gluttonous days of creativity and beauty, consumerism and ostentation — straddles September 11 and all the dark memories of 2001. Some designers remain tactfully silent on the terrorist attack, respectfully separating the business of fashion from the emotions of 9/11. Others have quietly acknowledged the day with a simple sentence added at the end of their program notes.
But this year, fashion — by intent and by happenstance — spoke directly to the inescapable timing. Over the weekend, the Council of Fashion Designers of America will offer a small, private tour of the of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. At Pyer Moss, the designer Kerby Jean-Raymond delivered on his promise to address race and police aggression in a dynamic runway presentation.
And at Givenchy, Tisci presented a collection that was darkly ruminative, aesthetically beautiful and gently moving.
Guests began to gather hours before the start of the widely anticipated show. In bringing his show from Paris to New York, Tisci opened it to members of the public who were able to win tickets through a lottery.
The setting was at New York’s Pier 26, which juts out into the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan. It lies in the shadows of the 9-11 Memorial where its tribute in light began to beam across the sky after sunset. In the quiet of Pier 26, there is the sense of stepping outside the whir and congestion of the city. There is calm on the water, and there was a hush over the crowd.
The show was art-directed by Marina Abramovic, who created a deconstructed world out of reclaimed wood and recycled metal. Music poured across the landscape in honor of six different cultures and religions: spiritual chants, Hebrew melodies, Ave Maria.
Performers in black trousers and white shirts stood atop platforms where they acted out a kind of silent poetry. Some stood amid thin trees and reached out to the branches for support. Another actor stood under a steady stream of water. A man and woman moved gracefully from passionate embrace to loving touch. A young man walked in slow motion through the assembled crowd — his exaggerated gait mostly unnoticed as people chatted and viewed their surroundings through the lens of their iPhone cameras.
Of all of these vignettes, the most powerful was, perhaps, the one that was the least noticed. The “slow-walking” — Abramovic remarked in the show notes — was a reminder “to be present.” Why is that so difficult?
The decision to open the show to the general public made business sense. Fashion, after all, has become an industry of entertainment and social dialogue. But it was also essential for this presentation. The show was about the way in which fashion can be a reflection of all of us: diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, opinions and beliefs. The goal for the show was lofty: “this event that we are creating together is about forgiveness, inclusivity, new life, hope and above all, love.”
That’s a lot to ask of a pile of frocks.
The clothes were beautiful and worn by a diverse range of models. Tisci riffed on the classic tuxedo with its menswear roots, traditions and formality. He loosened it with feminine touches of lace. And he crafted dresses of fine, sometimes evocatively torn lace that called to mind the delicacy and intimacy of lingerie. He put men on the runway with slicked-back hair and perfectly tailored, spare suits. And there were glamorous evening gowns, as well, with pearl beading, extravagant feathers and flowing trains.
He elaborated on the face jewelry that captivated his audience during his fall 2015 collection. For spring, there were glittering masks and rows of studs rimming the ears.
The technique was exquisite — a true teaching moment for the many young fashion students in the audience. But more important than the clothes themselves, Tisci’s Friday evening show was an example of an opportunity embraced. Tisci used the reach of the runway to tell a story in which the clothes served as part of a thoughtful dialogue.
There was nothing overly emotional about his show. He chose a setting that, based on its proximity to the 9/11 Memorial, underscored his message. Geography was powerful. He also worked with an artist — Abramovic — who could shape his message with elegance and simplicity.
Tisci didn’t ignore the obvious. He didn’t pretend that fashion has no place in the cultural dialogue. He spoke up.
Jean-Raymond thrust himself into an important social conversation, as well. He chose the raw discussion about stereotypes and prejudices and how they can be deadly.
His spring show blended a film about race and police aggression with a live presentation of street-inspired luxury that was punctuated with jarring graphics.
Jean-Raymond interviewed family members of those killed by police officers, members of the fashion industry and journalists — including this one. The interviews, filmed in black and white, were interspersed with graphic scenes of violence from news reports. The audio, cranked up to a distorting volume, came on like an aural assault.
The designer, known for his menswear, introduced a women’s collection that was lean and authoritative and devoid of those feminine flourishes that are so often connected to weakness and vulnerability.
The models moved in military formation around the spotlit room in long white coats, slim trousers with color-blocked details, graffiti-scarred jackets and work boots tipped in blood red and inscribed with the phrase, “I can’t breathe” and “I give my life to live free.”
It’s a fine line between commenting on social events and exploiting them in a commercial endeavor. This is the tension with which the fashion industry struggles — unfairly. Musicians, visual artists and filmmakers are given the space to grapple with social issues even as they answer to the marketplace. Consumers expect them to take on serious concerns.
Designers — particularly those in New York, where fashion is assumed to be notably accessible and commercial — often do so at their peril. Perhaps that is because fashion is deemed superficial. Or perhaps because it’s viewed as too disposable. Films go into vaults, art into museums and music into halls of fame. Most fashion is worn for a few seasons and off-loaded into the recycling bin or, worse, some landfill.
Changing that is worth the effort and risk.