New York Fashion Week: New York - but not so new

Last week, spring 2015 sprung on the Big Apple’s catwalks, as designers showed their wares for the coming season. The key trend? A lack of anything really innovative

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Quantity versus quality. That’s an issue that feels relevant in fashion today, with the current focus on fast fashion from high street through to pre-collection. It also feels relevant coming from New York, a fashion week with a schedule that at first glance seems rammed, but upon closer inspection, like a mirage, fades away to practically nothing.

Nothing of note, in any case. Clocking in at nine days, New York is only rivalled by Paris when it comes to sheer heft, but the city’s fashion direction is really defined by a handful of designers. Despite the name, there wasn’t that much in New York this spring/summer 2015 season that really registered as “new”. Instead, what we often saw was a composite of tried-and-tested crowd pleasers, and maybe a few novel ideas filched from the back catalogues of other designers.

That approach – hoodwinking press and buyers with the illusion of novelty, like the man behind the curtain making believe he was the great and all-powerful Oz – is endemic across the industry as a whole. Nevertheless, there’s something about New York that throws it into sharper relief.

Take Victoria Beckham’s show, liberal as it was in its borrowing of stylist tropes culled from past collections by Celine and Jil Sander. Beckham, however, has made no qualms about the fact that she isn’t a trained designer: instead, she acts as an editing eye, more like a magazine stylist – or an especially canny shopper. She and her team (because they deserve a hefty dose of credit as the power behind the throne) are adept at nailing what feels right in a particular moment. Sometimes, of course, what feels right is a moment another designer nailed not that long ago. It looks fine second time around. The bags were good. And it’ll sell.

 

Sales are often seen as the key motivating factor in the New York fashion scene. That’s not to say that Milanese, Parisian and London designers don’t shift product. They do, but America was built on a history of mass manufacture, rather than the handmade ethos that still informs the European capitals via the haute couture, alta moda and Savile Row. Maybe that conditions American designers into thinking about their labels as true businesses – young New York designers throw about the word  “brand” with wild abandon, in a manner that their French or British counterparts shy away from (young Milanese designers are virtually non-existent, but that’s a discussion for another time, and a different city).

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Kendall Jenner walks the runway at the Diane Von Furstenberg fashion show during New York Fashion Week

There’s no designer younger and more branded than Alexander Wang: he founded his label aged 21 in 2005, off the back of a few knitted sweaters. It’s now valued, conservatively, at £20m and Wang is a fashion-week fixture. Wang slots into the Victoria Beckham camp when it comes to design, although he doubtless won’t appreciate the comparison. Nevertheless, his collections aren’t groundbreaking. Rather, they’re artful bricolage, fusing existing fashion references, tricky, techy textiles, odd accessories and ever-shifting ideas of cool.

Bricolage sounds cool, but is actually just French for “tinkering”, which is exactly what Wang does. After a few seasons of duds (silly fur mittens, tired logo-mania, last season’s ugly utility), this collection got the mix down.  Sexed-up, stripped-back sportswear, in neon-flushed fabrics with plenty of Aertex, rubberised treatments and fake function. It wasn’t original in the slightest, but it had enough energy to sweep you along. Quite a few New York designers get by on that, by pumping up the energy around their clothes rather than translating said energy into the garments themselves. It can frequently lead to a zinging, post-show high followed by a crash when you actually see the stuff out of context.

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Spring/summer 2015 looks by Jason Wu

You sometimes get that with Thom Browne, so complex and convoluted are the catwalk mise en scènes within which he places his clothing. This season, models paraded lavishly embroidered tailoring, feather-pricked cardigan suits and sequinned PVC on a freshly-mown lawn, to a spoken-word soundtrack waffling on about a bunch of sisters and what they wore. The story was written by Browne himself, the voice was Diane Keaton.

Apparently, the six sisters are a cross between the Beale sisters of Grey Gardens (taste levels) and the Rockerfellers of Park Avenue (cash levels – Browne’s plainest suits come in at around two grand). It was an uplifting distraction, and the energy came not from a thumping soundtrack or styling gimmicks, but from the clothes themselves – however untenable they may be for real women’s real lives.

There was a sense of reality to what Lazaro Hernandez and Jack Mccollough offered at Proenza Schouler. “It’s really about American sportswear, and this idea of ‘normal’,” said Hernandez before a show that was anything but. Their “normal” included leather vests plaited to resemble houndstooth, nylon thread crocheted into openwork dresses, and perforated blouses and skirts in leather so tissue-fine it ended up looking like nylon. “It’s dumb,” they said “It’s the clothes we all wear every day.” Meaning clothes that weren’t clever-clever or trying too hard, and that the work in, say, an argyle dress composed of 144 pattern pieces and executed without fit seams, couldn’t be immediately read in a two-dimensional image but had to be experienced in the flesh.

There was a touch of the dumb to Jason Wu’s show, too. The good kind of dumb – the dumb glamour of a bugle-beaded evening gown with the easiness of aT-shirt, or a billowing silk-jersey dress with a Grecian simplicity. They felt easy, really ready to wear – as opposed to so many of the resoundingly difficult clothes dubbed that way. The final say from New York fashion week comes from Marc Jacobs. This season, he, too, seemed fixated on the notion of real – or perhaps, hyper-real. His audience listened, via headphones on each seat, to piped-in background noise from a middle-American house, while a distinctly Koonsian reworking of one, 10,000sq ft of shocking pink, sat in the middle of his catwalk.

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A model presents a creation by Jason Wu Spring/Summer 2015 collection during New York Fashion Week

Those bore no relation to the clothes, riffs on army surplus in satin punctuated with cartoonish holes and peppered with buckshot spherical embroidery, in plump, doll-like shapes. Barbie meets Action Man – maybe the pink, centre-stage shack was her dream house? Beats me. Whatever the rationale, neither clothes nor show looked like anything else this week. Which was precisely the point. Marc Jacobs keeps his eye on what other designers are doing. It’s not to copy them, or even to check if they copy him, but out of a perverse contrariness, a wish to buck the status quo.

If other designers do gingham and sugary-sweet bridesmaid pastels, you can bet Jacobs will show polka dots and sludgy fatigues. Regardless of taste, or even relevance, you have to applaud Jacobs for at least showing us something consistently, contrarily new, in a New York that desperately needs it.

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