The nod to emergency services’ uniforms in Raf Simons’s collection for Calvin Klein could have been a metaphor for New York Fashion Week in its entirety. In CPR, the traditional ABC rule is Airway. Breathing, Chest compressions, and unfortunately, for Fall 18 the task of loosening up her clothing and resuscitating the victim was performed again by a passing stranger. Confronted by a fashion week in distress, with New Yorkers pretending not to notice, the Belgian is preserving the American Dream.
As Bruce Weber’s portfolio of all-American adventure evaporates like mist from the Long Island surf, and the velvet rope that linked the fashion industry to Hollywood smolders, and buzzier labels like Delpozo, Altuzarra, Thom Browne, Rodarte, Proenza Schouler and Tome flee to European fashion weeks, the city is left with a club of distinguished colonels polishing their medals and waxing nostalgic about the old days to the music of Cole Porter. At her final show Caroline Herrera was clapped out––to use a corporate term when an employee leaves a company––by a parade of crisp white shirts on the runway, collars popped.
In a globally-thriving luxury market the big American brands appear risk-averse and meek. The costume of capitalism––pea coats and polo shirts, insignia, crests, logos, and loafers––has been revisited in Coney Island Circus Sideshow-style by Gucci or clinically observed through a normcore filter by Vetements while American houses remain occupied with taking themselves terribly seriously. New York proudly ushers in the fashion month as a buttoned-up, pomaded Poindexter in business casual. It disavows newness in favor of classics based on hollow tradition and corporate-corroborated data. The irony of Simons presenting his acclaimed Calvin Klein show in the former American Stock Exchange Building on floors strewn with popcorn is cutting.
While tumbleweed blows through Donna Karan, and Michael Kors trots out Melania Trump clones, and Robin Givhan of the Washington Post comments of Ralph Lauren, “One sometimes wonders if the design studios at Ralph Lauren are hermetically sealed. Do the windows open? Can any fresh air get in?” we are left hoping that CEO Steven Kolb, and key members of the CFDA, have been summoned around a conference table, and are at least discussing a pacemaker.
Recent successful designer placements have shown that hired creative talent doesn’t need to demonstrate a close affinity with an established house to successfully continue its legacy for a new generation. Should a house like Donna Karan languish because there can never be a second Ms Karan? Riccardo Tisci had little in common with Hubert de Givenchy but it didn’t stop him reinventing his house for the millennial. Pre-Klein, Simons had already facilitated Dior’s successful rebound after the house’s expulsion of predecessor John Galliano. Yves Saint Laurent’s soigné, urbane wildchild would not even have bought her drugs from Hedi Slimane’s grungey skulking wasted groupie but sales catapulted during Slimane’s four year tenure. Flamboyant showman John Galliano couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to the reclusive artiste Martin Margiela but his manipulation of the maison’s manifesto over the last three years has been respectfully irreverent which, according to the Business of Fashion, has led to double-digit growth.
Renzo Russo, the brains behind the Galliano/Margiela merger, said of Maison Margiela, ‘It’s a niche brand. I want to have product with real passion, not become the biggest brand in the world.’ BoF goes on to reveal that Renzo “doesn’t anticipate that it will more than double in size from its current position (160 million dollars versus 5 billion dollars in revenue for a mega brand like Chanel).” Placing passion before profit, now that’s bullish thinking. Perhaps the struggling American houses must begin to accept that a creative director’s viewpoint should not be reduced to how well he understands your dna or how tenderly he will handle the archive. He’ll pick it up as he goes along, free from micromanaging, and he should be granted permission to kill your darlings in order to allow a new dialogue to open up around the brand. The result will be an authentic response to a house’s story rather than a memorized but forgettable soundbite.
Bringing in a creative from outside the culture of the brand, rather than being a recipe for disaster, can be a life-giving force. It’s cultural appropriation done right. The outsider can revisit history, plucking and discarding and reassembling its codes in the most unexpected ways. Simons received criticism for the surprising decision to place the Kardashians in his ad campaign for Calvin Klein underwear, but it was January’s most viewed ad on Youtube with 15.4 million views which, if it translates to sales, affords him the space to continue his artist collaborations and subversive vision of modern America so appreciated on the runway.
Simons described the meaning behind his Calvin Klein collection as “an allegory for a meeting of old worlds and new worlds” which summarizes what’s missing on the NYFW runways. This generation gap between the glorious past and an uncertain future is echoed in Robin Givhan’s comment about the Ralph Lauren collection being “all legacy and tradition and not an ounce of fun.” So, adjusting the figures, could fun be figured in? One wonders what would happen if free agent Riccardo Tisci was drafted in to Donna Karan. What would a less cliché version of woman-friendly dressing look like at Diane von Furstenberg––could we entice Simone Rocha? How about lining up in the wings British wunderkind Matty Bovan for when Anna Sui retires her velvet and sequins? Instead of Gigi Hadid for Tommy Hilfiger. let’s try a real designer, say, Juun J, and see what he would concoct whisking together stateside staples of denim, streetwear and logos? Craig Green’s military-sharp tailoring and bold geometrics could be defibrillator paddles on the chest of the flatlining Michael Kors…Beeeeep beeeeeep, “Clear!”
New York Fashion Week, you’re fading fast. It’s time to call for emergency back up.
Photos from Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren via Catwalkpictures
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
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