Themes of wanderlust and cultism defined a spring 2019 season at New York Fashion Week, which was best when it let loose in the department of pure creation, says Vogue fashion critic Anders Christian Madsen.
After the exodus of brands from the New York Fashion Week schedule in recent seasons, it was ironic that this week’s major theme should be wanderlust. It doesn’t exactly encourage designers to stay put. But with the return of Rodarte and Proenza Schouler – who had gone all haute couture and fancy in Paris last year – the American fashion capital had less to worry about this season. Rodarte happened to be the best show experience I had in New York. For everything that went against it – torrential rain, an outdoor cemetery venue that couldn’t be changed – it was the warmest and most authentic display of emotion in a fashion week that often felt a little cold. Kate and Laura Mulleavy are the romantic fairy tale exception to the streamlined wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am mentality that often reigns here. Spirits remained high as the horror-enthused sisters’ elegiac procession of Tim Burton-esque brides ceremoniously strode through the rain. It was worth getting wet for, and at least where I was sitting, guests were all smiles.
“It gave us what we like: atmosphere!” Kate Mulleawy told me after the show, which forewent all commercial sense in favor of beautiful and haunting ballgowns. “You just get to a certain point when you realize who you are as a designer,” Kate explained. “Going to Paris and doing a show there was an important turning point to understand where our hand is, and now it’s on our own terms. We do what we want. And I’m not interested in anything else. These are the clothes I make. Before, we’d almost be apologetic for it because people want things to be something that they’re not, but now I’m like, this is what I do. And it just has to be that.” Marc Jacobs subscribes to a similar disposition. I had to leave his very delayed show before it started not to miss my flight back to London, but the runway pictures spoke a thousand words: ruffles worthy of Commedia dell’Arte and cascading flounces on gowns made for fashion theatre. Exuberant high dressmaking for an American platform.
On that same note, I enjoyed Wes Gordon’s first solo turn on the Carolina Herrera catwalk. “Herrera should be that rainbow in your wardrobe when you get dressed in the morning, in these bleak days, in this bleak world we live in. It’s okay for it to be a show of seven minutes of just Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin and bright, happy colors,” he told me after the show, a New York socialite spectacular of jaunty flamenco dresses adorned in a wealth of puff sleeves and dramatic flounces. What fun. What struck me most in New York was how the American designers have stopped talking about President Trump. Tory Burch, Anna Sui, Michael Kors, Escada’s Niall Sloan, and Oscar de la Renta‘s Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim all based their collections on escapist sentiments, from prompted optimism to the theme of wanderlust that kept popping up throughout the week. It was hard not to read some of these ethnically eclectic inspirations as a statement on multiculturalism, yet nobody name-dropped their country’s inglorious travel-banning leader.
You kind of don’t want to ask, either, for fear of being cliched. Perhaps we’ve reached a point of saturation with Trump in fashion where he’s so omnipresent in our thoughts and actions that the last thing we want to do is actually say his name out loud. “What does everyone dream of globally? They dream of turquoise water, of beautiful sand, of a blue sky, and optimism,” Kors told me before his typically upbeat show mixing rainbows of colors and electrically clashing patterns in metallic floral jacquards and embellishment, fringed floral-printed leather jackets and bags, and all the tropical island references and ‘MK Beach Club’ logos an escapist mind could day dream of. “Quite frankly, the world is full of such negativity. Maybe I’m Polly Anna, maybe I’m Mary Poppins, but this is sort of my fashion Xanax. That’s what I think this is all about: optimism, romance, joy,” Kors said. “We wouldn’t see the success of Crazy Rich Asians if people weren’t craving romance, glamour, and escapism.”
At Coach, Stuart Vevers found inspiration in the reclusive communities of Santa Fe, touching upon that idea of upping and leaving it all but also on themes of cultism and voluntary isolation. “They’re not sure where they are. Have they landed on an alien planet? Are they hiding from something in the mountains? However they got here, they’re scavenging a bit of American culture, a bit of heir-looming,” Vevers told me of the show, which continued his fling with dystopian prairie-ism. I had a similar feeling at Eckhaus Latta; a sense of having walked into an esoteric community I wasn’t part of. Here, a band of real-life children infernally banged away on plastic bins with claves as Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta’s decidedly woke creations roamed the Bushwick garage penthouse to which we had trekked. There’s no doubt where this millennial duo’s political sympathies lie, but there were those who voiced their political minds in a more vocal manner. Jeremy Scott wore a T-shirt that read “Tell your senator no on Kavanaugh,” a reference to the senate hearings that must have been playing on CNN in everyone’s hotel rooms this week, to determine if the conservative nominee should get a place in the Supreme Court.
At Calvin Klein, the normally so outspoken Raf Simons didn’t get too vocal on the messages behind his inspirations, Jaws and The Graduate, which informed a collection of wet suits and mortarboards. “There were things on my mind I cannot speak about, because these days it’s very complicated,” Simons said. “Things that happened, and things that happened to America. It relates to politics but it’s also people’s private world because it relates to the choices they make.” If that Jaws reference was anything to go by – “dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum” shark attack theme in tow – his collection had everything to do with lurking political danger. But politics and corporate-owned fashion don’t like to mix, at least not on the record. Ralph Lauren didn’t have to talk politics. The guest list for his 50th anniversary show in the Bethesda Terrace tunnel in Central Park did that for him, rolling out an impressive declaration of love from anti-Trump power players such as Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, and Robert de Niro. (Mr Lauren’s son is of course married to Lauren Bush Lauren, the daughter of President George W. Bush, a Republican of a different school than the current man in office.)
Lauren’s show was a triumphant display of cultural inclusivity, especially in the Polo segment where ambiguous couplings of people of all races and ages proved that Polo is one of the strongest brands ever created. (And one that holds much nostalgic value for those of us who spent our childhoods wearing it and still regard it as the only go-to uniform for downtime.) “What I know for sure is what is real, is what lasts, and we are here because you have lasted,” Oprah Winfrey told the designer legend in her speech at the dinner after the show. “You care about the things that matter: family, home, integrity, freedom,” she gushed, before Mr Lauren took to the microphone. “I’m not so glamorous at home, you know,” he smiled. “I walk around in a ripped robe and old towels. But I’ve been very lucky. I like working. I like to dream. I don’t dream this big,” he gestured at the many dining tables lined up around the Bethesda Fountain, “but it makes me look very big tonight.”