It’s always oddly fascinating watching NYFW through the filter of E! Channel and taxi cab updates. “What’s been exciting you?” asks the presenter on Daily Pop. “Well… Jared Leto!” replies the chirpy correspondent, ensconced inside a glass box at NYFW’s main Washington Street show space. Designers move over. Jared Leto is THE happening. That sounds like jest but as pointed out by Vanessa Friedman, New York Fashion Week was in danger of becoming overtaken by celebrity and razz-ma-tazz – namely Rihanna with her Fenty domination of fashion week, in lieu of the departure of key designers to show in Paris. “From fashion to fashertainment,” is how Friedman summed it up.
But hasn’t it always been thus? The aforementioned taxi cab ads that drop the words “fashion week” like it’s Super Bowl Sunday (in contrast, if you wandered around Central London during LFW, you’d be hard pressed to know it’s going on). The celebrity appearances that top the tabloids. The after parties that invariably seem to overshadow what’s going on at the shows themselves. The absence of NYFW’s noughties gen bright young things (Rodarte, Proenza, Altuzarra etc) what did transpire this season was a Battle of the Nights. Night shows have always been extra buzzy in New York. The paps are out en force, the hordes of people itching to sneak their way in or grab a celebrity snap and the security guards bark near-expletive-filled orders at you should you anger them.
And so my week began in midtown, moments away from Times Square, which I haven’t physically been to in years. The lights seemed brighter – probably because I had just stepped off of a flight from London. And just outside Calvin Klein’s headquarters, where their show took place, an American marching band was pounding away. They weren’t planted there by Raf Simons and CK, even though it would have been fitting as a tribute to Simons’ debut collection for the American house. With the din of snare drums outside, Sterling Ruby’s installation Sophomore, hanging from the ceiling – a forest of massacred pom poms dripping in murky collegiate colours with axes hanging off them – seemed all the more compelling.
The press notes got me excited and the reality more than lived up to the words. The interplay between the American dream and its horrors – both real and imagined by cinema’s auteurs – is such a rich contrast to mine. Lesser designers would fall too deep into the clichés. Give Simons and his partner in crime Pieter Mulier cheerleaders and cowboys, proms and the prairie and they deftly avoid the pitfalls. I didn’t get to see their debut at Calvin Klein last season but I’ve been thinking about the way an outsider like Simons – as in an non-American – is able to explore and articulate their feelings around the country’s identity. And particularly at this point in time, a divided America is for better or for worse, fertile ground for Simons to base his first epoch of shows for Calvin Klein upon.
His vision riffed off of likely culprits – Stephen King, David Lynch, the Coen brothers as well as utilising more direct tie-ups with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Hence the screen prints of Warhol photographs of Sandra Brant and Dennis Hopper as well as knives stabbing their way onto plaid suiting. The deliberately slicked textures of tar-streaked leather, rain mac nylon and fetishistic rubber (stamped with made in Ohio) romped their way into Hitchock heroine sihouettes. Carrie’s blood red dominated, as did murky shades of orange, green and tan. And those pom poms – so representative of quintessential American perkiness and perfection – are rendered limp in their deconstruction into hip charms and sculptural dresses. As though they’ve been trampled on by a less-than-perfect protagonist. “Fashion tries to hide the horror and embrace only beauty,” says Simons in the press notes. “But they’re both a part of life. This collection is a celebration of American life.” Simons’ exploration of American life will apparently carry on under Calvin Klein 205W39NYC – the runway component of the much larger empire, and as an opener to NYFW, becomes its crucial lynchpin, getting under the skin of mere surface. Even the hilarity of Melania Trump trussed up in Simons’ debut collection (presumably bought) can’t diminish the pertinent probing that he and Mulier are doing at this very American brand.
From a superpower’s soul-searching to something far more personal, Opening Ceremony’s dance play Changers, directed by Spike Jonze and choreographed by Ryan Heffington (of Sia’s Chandelier fame) was also memorable. Mia Wasakowski’s and Lakeith Stanfield danced their way through a young love that was always going to end up with one party outgrowing the other. You don’t often think get to think about the clothes that you sob and slob in when you’ve had heartbreak, or when you’re wearing something smarter to put on a brave front. Changers was genuinely touching in that respect and something that oddly stayed with me through the week. Probably because of a build up of sentiment over leaving Nico behind for a whole week.
As a result of Opening Ceremony’s dance-off, I didn’t make it to Fenty. Which brings me onto a curious competition between the high-octane shows that set out to create bombast and hype. On the previous night, Philipp Plein was clashing it out with Alexander Wang. You had to choose one or the other. I chose the latter. Plein’s extravaganza boasted performances from Nicki Minaj and Dita von Teese at the Hammerstein Ballroom. But instead I chose to stand behind a barrier in Bushwick and pump myself up for Alexander Wang’s #WangFest. I felt distinctly old waiting for the show to roll in, thinking back to the days when many a Erin Wasson-clones would stalk his shows and how “rad” everything he did was. When the clothes finally did appear, falling from the #WangFest bus, it felt like Wang was also trying to hark back to those heady times.
The problem is that the “downtown cool” choices have multiplied since he made his mark and was crowned New York’s fashion darling. The dilemma then is, do the clothes grow up along with that girl or does he pander to the gen Z girls of today. It’s a conundrum that you wondered about especially when the following evening, Rihanna revved up Fenty. Literally. Like I said, I didn’t actually get to physically see it. After Opening Ceremony’s young love dream, the trek uptown proved difficult. If Tinashe was being turned away, I sure as hell wasn’t getting in. But judging by social media reactions and reviews, Rihanna had won the buzz crown. Double whammying it with the launch of Fenty Beauty helped. Wang’s Harley gang versus motocross bikers jumping in the air over big pink sand dunes? Party gal neutrals versus surf and biker spliced into neon? Ironically, surf and motocross are territories that Wang has waded into before. But Rihanna rolling in on a motorcycle, spawning many a regram/GIF, is hard to beat.
On Monday night, outside the former Pearl River Mart store, a queue stretched along Broadway around the block. A whiff of weed permeated the show space. This was a “fashun” throng as opposed to a “celeb” throng. They were here to witness the return of Helmut Lang in a special Seen by Shayne Oliver show. There have of course been Helmut Lang shows under previous creative directors since the label came under Andrew Rosen’s ownership but this one actually felt like something of a true revival, coming from a knowing place. Archives reissued under re-edition. Campaign imagery once again created by contemporary artists. And a deft acknowledgement that since everyone references/rips off Helmut Lang, why not invite different designers every season or so, to pay homage to the man that created the cornerstones of urban uniforms. That’s down to Isabella Burley, editor-in-chief of Dazed and now editor-in-residence at Helmut Lang. It’s an interesting title and thus a fascinating way to reinvigorate a brand. She’s not designing but orchestrating every aspect of Helmut Lang’s turnaround. Oliver’s visceral take on Lang’s kinky bent will only be one part of a much bigger picture. But what a potent beginning! Deconstructed bras barely covering the chest tempered with sashaying tailoring and then a dose of slink in sheeny shiny eveningwear playing out to Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing. Some grumbled about the lack of subtlety in comparison to what Lang did. We live in unsubtle times, which calls for a forthright vision and that’s what we got at this revival. It filled an energy vacuum that has been hanging over NYFW this week .
And to end the week? Silence. No soundtrack at all until an opera-backed finale walk accompanying a 56-strong flock, decked out in the most luridly patterned and coloured of turbaned, layered, glam-sports ensembles. No set either. And even Jacobs. Some people will read that as lazy. But those archives are exceedingly rich. And they don’t bend to current ubiquitous vogue for those Insta-girl trends – off-the-shoulder shirting, strategically placed ruffles and masked minimalism. And that’s a glorious thing to behold.. How can garish florals, pseudo-Pucci prints on parkas and bum bags appeal to the masses? It can’t. And that’s a good thing. At the very least, Jacobs’ owns his own taste. Personally speaking, the vibe of Verushka in late sixties Diana Vreeland-edited Vogues mixed with Millets’ camping gear is absolutely fine by me. It also goes without saying that I’m first to sign up for Stephen Jones’s part Little Edie Beale, part Carmen Miranda and part North African head wraps.
There were different battles played out across NYFW but as predicted before I even landed in New York, those that bookended the week owned the week, not with strategically articulated theatrics or excessively loud volume (like I said, that American marching band was purely incidental) but with what they had to say in the clothes. Not surprising then that Simons was present at Marc Jacobs’ show as a mark of mutual appreciation. They hugged each other and then Jacobs left without saying anything. Nuff’ said.