Essay: 'Oh, and there were clothes.'

by Katharine K. Zarrella on 15 October 2019

New York based journalist Katharine K. Zarrella explored S/S 20's need for spectacle and how in some cases, it's a blessing but for others it's a curse.

New York based journalist Katharine K. Zarrella explored S/S 20's need for spectacle and how in some cases, it's a blessing but for others it's a curse.

Tommy Hilfiger x Zendaya S/S 20 from Nowfashion.

'Oh, and there were clothes.'

That’s how one of my New York Fashion Week seat-mates described the S/S 20 Tommy Hilfiger spectacle, a collaborative effort with Zendaya which, held at the Apollo Theater, was one part auto show, one part concert. Her quip sums up what NYFW has become in the Internet Age: A grab for Insta-attention in which clothes play but a supporting role. Ask any show-goer to list the most-buzzed-about moments from New York and you’ll get answers like Rihanna taking the stage at Fenty; Tom Ford showing underground in the gritty Bowery subway station; Janelle Monae serenading guests at Ralph Lauren; the casting at Chromat; the gospel choir at Pyer Moss; etc. Ask what the week’s clothes looked like and the recall is decidedly hazier. At least, mine is.

Fashion isn’t just about clothes—especially today. More than any other city, New York’s runways have become a platform for change, activism, and inclusivity. A new energy has been injected into NYFW this season, with designers addressing important issues from race and feminism to size and sustainability. Sometimes, NYFW’s spectacles were successful vehicles used to amplify a particular message. But while fashion isn’t exclusively about clothes, they’re still a pretty important quotient, and New York’s designers are struggling to back up their big ideas or lavish performances with great garments.

Shalom Harlow, Alexander McQueen S/S 99 'No 13'

There’s nothing wrong with a fashion spectacle—the very notion is integral to our industry’s allure. In 1984, Manfred Thierry Mugler staged a 350-look anniversary show for an audience of over 6,000 people. The late Alexander McQueen employed fire and robots on his runways. Jean-Paul Gaultier enlisted Madonna to walk his show bare-breasted in 1992. And, you know, there was Karl Lagerfeld’s entire tenure at Chanel (rocket ships, glaciers, supermarkets, oh my!). The difference is that, with few exceptions, those clothes and accessories could stand on their own. You remembered Chanel’s novelty handbag or Madonna’s topless, pinstriped look. Achieving that takes proper mentorship, lots of experience, and even more money. Save the big brands who enlisted pop star performances as gimmicks, that’s not the reality in New York. And designers on the rise would do well to put their time and funds into the development of their product rather than production.

Zac Posen, who’s been presenting his collection via films, photoshoots, and private appointment since 2017, knows a little something about that. 'The impact of how you can communicate on social media versus doing a runway show is quite extraordinary,' the designer explained during a studio visit. 'I love runway shows. I love the theatrics, but it’s a different time and the purpose of [shows] has really shifted, especially in ready-to-wear. I will do runway when I can perfect it and do it at the level I think it deserves.' Posen designed his S/S 20 collection while working on a project for the New York City Ballet, and naturally, the references cascaded over. To showcase his frothy, prima-ballerina-worthy tulle gowns and sculptural separates, he tapped Winnie Harlow to wear the collection for an animated shoot in photographer Steven Sebring’s 360-degree photo studio. The resulting films did the dramatic garments more justice than a trip down the runway ever could. Plus, those videos look great on Instagram.

'For all its joyful, colourful flourishes, the Marc Jacobs show sparked a sadness.'

Victor Glemaud, too, is taking a smart path, sending strong messages through his clothes and imagery while keeping his presentations small. This season, the industry vet, who launched his eponymous knitwear line in 2015, drew inspiration from the work of Stephen Burrows who, in the 70s, became one of the first modern American fashion designers to gain acclaim on the international stage (he showed alongside Oscar de la Renta and Halston at the Battle of Versailles in 1973). Not only did Glemaud reference Burrows’ vivacious work, but he corresponded with the icon to gain a deeper understanding of his celebratory designs. At his Spring Studio’s presentation, Glemaud’s supremely wearable collection was hung on racks for guests to peruse. More notably, his colour-blocked, body-con dresses and sweet shorts and cardigans were shown in outsized photographs on model Maria Borges, who was shot for the lookbook by artist and activist Richie Shazam.

Area is another notable New York brand—and it’s pushing fashion with a capital F. Designers Piotrek Panszczyk and Beckett Fogg offered a fusion of dream and reality, showing crystal-encrusted, pannier-esque contraptions atop covetable shirting, deftly tailored suiting, and blossoming evening options. Their collection was all about decadence, positivity, and personal identity. No doubt, after six years of sartorial soul searching, these designers have found theirs.

Area S/S 20 from Nowfashion.

Gabriella Hearst, too, deserves props for merging her commitment to sustainability with impeccably made garments that will fly off the shelves. Hearst—who, like other standout NYFW brands Rentrayage and CDLM, often works with deadstock fabrics—collaborated with production company Bureau Betak and international advisory consultancy EcoAct to reduce the overall carbon footprint of her show. The collection itself, filled with breezy summer dresses, louche suiting, and tactile handwork, was cool, quiet, and one of the week’s best.

Closing NYFW (as he always does) was Marc Jacobs, who sent an army of eccentrically clad models marching and dancing through a nearly empty Park Avenue Armory. With homages to fashion icons like Yves Saint Laurent, Anita Pallenberg, and Karl Lagerfeld, the collection was a stroll through the most vibrant moments of modern fashion history. It was intended to be a celebration—Jacobs came out skipping in platform heels at the end—and it was. It was also one of the most delectable lineups of the week, and certainly the most fantasy-filled. But for all its joyful, colourful flourishes, it sparked a sadness. The show seemed to say, 'This is what fashion used to be—and you all missed out.' New York is moving forward ideologically—and it’s about time. But the ever-escalating focus on Insta-fodder, buzz, and being the next, fleeting big thing has pushed design into the dust. Thus, Marc Jacobs’ nostalgia brought a pang of sorrow, however sweet.


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