The Thom Browne set / Dan & Corina

The bottom line is at the base of everything – when even the insanity evoked by Thom Browne’s inky-hued widow’s weeds had a commercial viability

Thanks to the odd shifting of fashion weeks backwards and forwards, New York’s opening gambit of the autumn/winter 2015 season coincided with not one, but three major events of the outside world: the NBA All-Star weekend, Presidents’ Day, and the Chinese New Year.

Fashion doesn’t care so much about dead statesmen, or basketball (Tommy Hilfiger co-opted a few of the jerseys for his show, but that was about it). But the Chinese thing had resonance – and not just in the fireworks that rang out over the west side highway, just before the Narciso Rodriguez show and after Peter Copping’s debut collection for Oscar de la Renta. On the purely commercial level, plenty of brands have created special ranges for this traditional gift-giving bonanza, tailored for luxury-goods consumers who have become the world’s most important. Fendi is one example: an offering in lucky scarlet took pride of place in its revamped Madison Avenue boutique for its grand reopening.

 

This Chinese New Year rings in the year of the sheep (or goat, or ram – the same Chinese ideogram denotes them all). Which is appropriate for fashion, as so many are content to sheepishly follow rather than set the standard. That’s not unique to New York’s bunch of designer labels, but it’s an accusation that was often overwhelmingly levelled at them. One of the reasons New York leapfrogged Europe to establish itself as the first fashion capital in the four-city circuit was to allay accusations of plagiarism in the late Nineties. It also makes good business sense to get in there early and try to bogart a chunk of the buying budget. The bottom line is at the base of everything there – when even the insanity evoked by Thom Browne’s inky-hued widow’s weeds, meandering forlornly around a Victorian operating theatre in polished oak, had a commercial viability. Indeed, there was a preponderance of black in New York. It sells well (albeit not online) and reflects the hue of New York designers’ bank accounts.

The most interesting sheep in any flock are also the black ones. There are a few in New York – Browne, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who design under the Proenza Schouler label, and Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte. Those designers’ work stands out amongst the tightly knit pack, fairly consistently. Sometimes, it even resonates on the world stage. You couldn’t count Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta or Jason Wu amongst them – none of them is a black sheep – but there’s something about the strength of their number, and of the consistency of their message of slick luxury daywear and artfully embellished evening gowns, that gives them a global gravitas too, as a collective force to be reckoned with. The others are the rebels, these are the establishment – and what is a rebel without an establishment to butt up against?

That doesn’t mean their clothes are old, or old-fashioned. Wu is new to the flock, in his early thirties, but the clothes he designs for his own name and the German-based Hugo Boss have a sophisticated language that belies his years. He used to get knotted up in flounces and ruffles, but today his clothes are slick, luxurious and desirable. Peter Copping’s first season at de la Renta was assured, if safe, and very much in the same vein, albeit with added bows. They’re continuing a grand old tradition – Copping of the labels’ founder, Wu of generations of American society women. And Ralph Lauren is… well, Ralph Lauren.

That’s the odd thing about New York fashion. It’s often perceived as homogenised, but there’s plenty going on and lots to see. Not as much as the almost 300 shows staged each New York Fashion Week would have you believe – as a number like that suggests, most are dross. But, amongst such a swathe of shows, there’s plenty of variety. Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra show within hours of each other, but Wang’s clodhopper boots teamed with the goth schtick of a teenage Wednesday Addams couldn’t be further from the slitty, slutty lacy stuff Altuzarra showed. Neither was great, but they were certainly different.

There were also differences of opinion, which usually means a week has been strong, or at least that designers themselves were opinionated. While I appreciated what Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s Rodarte collection did – consolidating a new message, which has shifted gear away from their earlier ethereal cobbledy-kook collages of semi-transparent textile and cobwebby mohair tatters in favour of something harder, sexier and more modern – others thought it looked tacky and poorly made (which I thought was, at least in part, the point). I vacillated between love and hate for Proenza Schouler’s show, flaps of fabric whirring like helicopter blades around their models’ thighs, and sequined sheaths chewed open with great rifts, like flesh flayed off the body. A British fashion editor told me she hadn’t attended Thom Browne’s show because it was “whimsical”. She followed that up with an expletive, relating to the appendages of sheep which are sometimes considered a delicacy.

Then we come to Marc Jacobs. He isn’t a black sheep – he’s the hound; barking loudest, leading the flock. His autumn/winter show was an ode to opulence, embellished to the hilt, an ode to the legendary American Vogue editrix Diana Vreeland. Her apartment, chintzed in scarlet by decorator Billy Baldwin to Vreeland’s brief of “a garden in hell”, inspired the show’s backdrop. And rather than Vreeland’s own garb, it was her personality, and the ex cathedra mood of her tenure at Vogue, that inspired Jacobs’ sequins and leopard and Pepé Le Pew skunk-fur stoles.

I was reminded, by Jacobs’ show, of a Vreeland aside: “You gotta have style… It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody. I’m not talking about lots of clothes.” This collection had plenty of style. And amongst the lots of clothes in New York, it stood out. It led the flock, presumably to extravagant pastures new come spring 2016.

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