New York’s catwalks don’t always inspire, but a few strong shows make up for

New York catwalks tend to opt for safety over passion. But this autumn, standout shows from a few established names have made it a week to remember, says Alexander Fury
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New York has a tough deal when it comes to fashion weeks: it has to go first. Which means its designers frequently scramble, blindly, for ideas to anchor their clothes to, worried that if they back the wrong horse, they'll lose everything. That can lead to a paucity of innovation, to safe bets, to a sense that designers are looking over their shoulders and picking over other people's ideas to try and fit in, rather than stand out. We've seen lots of drippy slips this spring/summer 2016 week: smalls, ironically, have been the big story, with fluttery bias-cut lingerie looks at Alexander Wang and Givenchy, Rodarte and Victoria Beckham. They're really too flimsy to hang a season on, though, and so we feel a bit like we've been treading water in New York, waiting for the season to begin.

I'm still not sure the city has actually helped nail what the season will be about – maybe that will crystallise in London. Or maybe this season will be a non-starter, and we'll have to see how the cards fall after Paris in two weeks. That seems like a long way away. The best in New York, however, was very good indeed. They didn't go far in reconciling the defining statements of the still-unfolding season. They didn't have to. What New York's leaders instead focused on was defining their sense of self, of what they stand for as individual designers.

Maybe it's capitalism at play – why care about the collective interest when you can promote the individual? I'm not sure if it makes for a stronger society, but it works economically, and creatively. And that coupling is what fashion is all about. Look at Oscar de la Renta and Proenza Schouler. They both did ruffles, tiered flounces, had a vague Spanish theme evoked through knotted black ribbon, intricately worked broderie anglaise, Toreador embroideries and strident colour. And yet…

And yet, their shows – New York's twin poles of excellence – could not have been more different. Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza were, oddly, talking about peeling bananas backstage before the show; were we to expect a Warhol-inspired collection, maybe, like that Velvet Underground cover? Very New York. But once proceedings began, it deftly explained their tugged-apart tailoring slipping off the body, and those jabots of cloth circling a bared shoulder. This show had a dynamic quality: neither prissed-up flamenco dancer pre-pasodoble, nor savaged matador post-bullfight. It was something in-between; which is where the action lies. In meat-and-potato terms, there was great openwork embroidery like confetti scattered over cotton, ping-pong-ball passementerie braid, low metallic heeled shoes – easy to trudge on. Plenty to see, plenty to buy.

Peter Copping's Oscar de la Renta show was prissy: fastened to the throat, knotted and flounced and puffed and trailing fabric bustles and trains. It was joyous, a big, fat, rich explosion of colour and decoration, like cream squirting out of a patisserie as you chomp into it – except De la Renta ladies would never do that, of course. You got the feeling that Copping had been storing this one up, longing to unleash – which is always fun to sense, because designers tend to get off on delayed reaction, saving their best until next. That can leave you feeling deflated, unless handled very well. Here, Copping treated us to a rerun of the best of his Nina Ricci designs (great daywear, pretty little cardigans, a deft hand with light embroidery), a bunch of Oscar-worthy evening dresses inspired by the house founder's youthful exploits in Madrid, and a load of Christian Lacroix. Copping trained with him, in the grand couture tradition, in Paris, which makes so much more remarkable the fact that this show, with its French and Spanish feel, staged by a Nottinghamshire man, for a label founded by a designer born in the Dominican Republic – was quintessential American Upper East Side chic. The Waspiest of all Wasps. It was what American fashion should try to be: utterly convincing. I suspect many meeker souls will emulate it next season.

Stuart Vevers' Coach gave us another point of view entirely – the wide, open spaces of America, the wide, open brief of Americana. And a wide range of product. Coach thinks about what it does as product; it's a leader in the accessible luxury stakes. But, the creative director Stuart Vevers stated beforehand, "accessible isn't just about price." These clothes will be accessible by that definition – their bags retail for a few hundred rather than several thousand, the clothes are similarly priced. They're also aesthetically accessible.

Vevers' references tend to be cinematic. He lives in New York but grew up in Doncaster, hence the Badlands scrub catwalk, the rooting-tooting Even Cowgirls Get the Blues heeled boots in tooled leather, the Little House on the Prairie floral dresses. There was also the nuance of Vevers' British roots – his humour, a love of the "off" in colour or clashing print, a few intarsia sweaters with desert scenes or dinosaurs. It was Dolly Parton meets early Princess Diana, the Sloane Ranger goes to the Wild West.

That isn't an exhaustive list – there are almost 350 fashion collections presented on the New York stage, and we haven't begun to mention the rest of the good (an unexpectedly strong show by Thakoon, a return to femininity at Jason Wu); the bad (Altuzarra was a dud, Kanye West's Yeezy show failed to excite beyond its guestlist, Givenchy should have delivered more); and the ugly (Diane von Fürstenberg). But New York's strength this season didn't lie in numbers. It lay in designers convinced, finally, of what they wanted to say, and determined to shout it above the competition. New York fashion found its voice for spring 2016. Like many Americans, it was loud, its accent was strong. µ

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