Category Archives: Review

Courrèges, 1993

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Courrèges by Jean Charles de Castelbajac, 1993

The called him “The New Hermes,” a reference to his uncanny abilities in leather and exquisite construction. But he was maybe a bit too irreverent, too deliberately immature, for that moniker to stick.

Jean Charles de Castelbajac emerged in Paris in the late ’70s alongside an angst-ridden generation of designers who were ready to redefine the future of fashion with everything pret-a-porter could muster. Kenzo, Montana, Mugler, Rykiel and, eventually, Gaultier; while they all entertained a certain amount of humor that was, at that time, unbecoming of French fashion, it was and his particular joie de vivre that was especially infectious. Becoming a poster boy for inventive French fashion in ’80s, it was in the early the ’90s that he caught the eye of Space Age legend André Courrèges who appointed the Castelbajac to carry on his legacy.

The collaboration was short-lived, lasting only two seasons. But it highlights a rather under discussed facet of the Courrèges mythology. In the wake of the Space Age Courrèges shifted gears. His interest in futurism and space-inspired clothing was never purely formal, for him it was a means to optimism, to progress and, most importantly, to a better way of life. As the ’70s came around he applied his futurist ethos to sportswear, presaging the athleisure trend fashion is currently undergoing. It suited his specific philosophy on life and living: active, healthy, celebratory and fun. FYI, when Christophe Lemaire did Lacoste, it was this idea of sport and that guided his direction for the brand.

For Castelbajac, in the midst of minimalism in the early ’90s, it was an interesting exercise that gave way to inventive, witty, and ebullient clothing. And it’s currently of note not because of its relationship to the recent revival of the house of Courrèges  by designers Sébastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant, but actually because of the collection shown the just the day before by Simon Porte Jacquemus.

In recent seasons the punchy (not to mention extremely crushable) young designer has become Paris’s new enfant terrible. Unapologetically French, playfully precocious, and fearless in his use of abstracted form, he favors the same bright gestures and visual hyperbole that was a signature of Castelbajac while his brand philosophy, which espouses confident living and a childlike openness to new experiences, is not dissimilar from Courrèges. In many ways he has picked up were Castelbajac left off in 1994.

The collection he showed for Spring Spring/Summer 2016 was as tender as it was violent, a youthful rebellion against the tyranny of mature appropriateness. It seemed to outline esoteric attitudes of dress for pretty young things, simultaneously sexualizing and dismissing their bodies. It was pop and perky, seductive and quirky, and while it only looked on to the future, it did make one think of the past: a time when fashion could inspire emotion, when clothes could make you feel something beyond consumerist pangs of desire. It was a collection of the future, surely, but it managed to take you back. Back to a very a good place.

Note on DKNY

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The brand was founded at a time when fashion itself was a bit more more matter-of-fact. The consumer was uninitiated, ignorant of the nuances of a neurotic industry, free from of the black hole of self-awareness and hum of ennui that contemporary fashion now seems to be desperately trying to escape. In the early ’90s all you needed was a beautiful cable sweater with modern proportions and equally well-dressed family and friends to achieve your sartorial ambition. It was simpler times.

DKNY is not a list of codes like fake pearls and cap toe shoes but rather an attitude about modern living, specifically a modern urban living. It could wander into the historicist tangents Ralph Lauren often gets lost in or it could go as stark (but not as bleak) as Calvin Klein. Either directions worked provided they serviced a certain understanding of city life.

Throughout the ’90s DKNY dominated the market appealing to a younger, urban-oriented consumer who, though not shopping designer collections, could afford to spend a bit more to buy a nicely done jacket, in black crepe for the town, in tweed for the country. Or perhaps pick up an inventively cut but wholly appropriate black dress, prime for a gallery opening or a good day at the office. Throughout the ‘90s, not unlike the television show Friends which seemed to validate the urban lifestyle DKNY sold, it reigned supreme.

In the early 2000s things took a turn for the worse. Perhaps, as minimalism started to go out of fashion, they had diluted the brand beyond what its conceptual and material integrity could uphold (shitty licensing is a bitch). Maybe it was Sex in The City garishness taking over the fantasies of impressionable young women. Maybe it was Zara eating their lunch. And you can never underestimate the wildly destructive combo of lazy creative management and conservative business. It was most likely a combination of all these things. By 2007 the brand was on the express track towards irrelevance. It still made great product, but it was falling into the garmento traps that have often spelled doom for many American fashion brands. DKNY had become dowdy and mind-numbingly bland, a slave to its unflattering licensees and to a customer who didn’t know enough to know to move on. Rumors of LVMH’s imminent shedding of the dead weight ran rampant and each season anticipated the dread announcement that the brand would finally be sold off to a PVH or Kellwood and take its place in fashion hell.

But then around 2011 there was a change. A good one. While the marketing was still questionable (neon lights 4eva) the collections improved and even managed to surprise in a few instances.

A collaboration with Opening Ceremony was the tipping point. Acknowledging their ’90s heritage without shame revealed what their old values meant to a new generation. Spurred by the endorsement of vintage king supreme Brian Procell and aided by OC’s Jacky Tang’s good judgment, DKNY looked on course for a proper revival. It was a move in the right direction when they cast Juliana Huxtable to walk in their fall 2013 fashion show, even if the fashion message missed the mark. It showed that not only were they were capable of taking risks but were able to choose the right ones to take. Enter Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow.

Osborne and Chow are the founders of Public School and the new creative directors of DKNY (replacing the brand’s founding designer and industry legend Jane Chung). It was a doubt-inducing decision. Though known for their urban sensibilities, the designers don’t always have enough good ideas for one collection a season let alone two. Their first effort for DKNY, shown just this past NYFW, sadly confirmed those doubts. They opted for a strict, minimal interpretation of the brand, a shortsighted look back at its heyday during the late ‘90s. It read more like a poor man’s Jil Sander (Navy). They misused and abused white shirting, bullying it into forms and styles no woman wants to wear. They attached pleated flaps, in striped suiting (a nod to the schoolgirl archetype which is in fact a pillar of the house), aimlessly to almost anything they could without any consideration of what they might actually accomplish (often nothing). There were oversized jackets which weren’t new, wrapped skirts which didn’t work, and archival photo prints on mesh that literally lacerated the brand’s history. It was all styled to be mannish and was set against a soundtrack that echoed words about men and victory and womanhood. It was not their victory to be had.

No, it was not a good effort. And it doesn’t mean Osborne and Chow won’t manage one next time, but it would serve them to realize that DKNY is not about any obvious effort or strenuous concept, or hackneyed cliché of a strong, modern, independent woman (blah blah blah). It’s about ease and sensuality, a potent honesty about life in New York City today. If they can manage just an ounce of verisimilitude, along with a relevant opinion about city dressing, they might get that much closer to the DKNY of yesteryear that was once so incredibly important.

Adam Lippes SS 2016: Quiet Clothes That Sing

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Adam Lippes knows luxury. He learned it as the right hand to the late Oscar de la Renta and it is literally threaded throughout the hand-sewn finishings of his demi-couture clothes (which he is obliged to sell at ready-to-wear prices). But if in the past his collections have veered towards precious, or even haughty, Lippes has remedied that this season with an appeasement to womanly comforts that are as liberating as they are indulgent. It is the justly outcome when you take on sultry songstress Nina Simone and austere artist Agnes Martin as inspiration. Seemingly disparate, the two women share an utterly modern point-of-view and a resilient but quiet strength. Lippes has harnessed these qualities and has transmuted then into the rarest form of luxury in our modern day: humility.

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It was the the righteous contradiction of humble luxury that erupted into one of Lippes’s best collections ever. Taking cues from the the monastic simplicity of Martin’s artist dress as well as Simone’s own sumptuous, though inconspicuously so, style, he presented a collection of quiet clothes that sang. They were quiet in their shapes: easy and unassuming, shapes that a woman could easily slip on, flatter her, and give her no further fuss as she goes about her day. And they sang in the details: the hand-stitched silk grossgrain placket on the back of a cotton tunic, stitched just so as to ensure the neck lays perfectly. They sang in the the multitudes of finely pleated cotton, cut in a peasant shape, as luxurious as any pastoral costume worn by Marie Antoinette on her faux farm. The height of modesty came in a bleached denim apron dress with an inventive and aesthetically delightful tie in the back. Its hem was bound, turned up and blind stitched by hand. It was nearly sinful in its decadent ease.

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This season spoke to an emerging feminist philosophy which Lippes has made clear in his shoes for the collection. Flat sandals, designed for Manolo Blahnik, were ornamented with ruffled flounce and marked a new direction for his footwear and a significant shift in his design methodology “If you can’t wear it with flats,” Lippes stubbornly and endearingly declared, “we aren’t making it.”

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But a Lippes collection is never whole without the flexing of his couture muscle. A jumpsuit, overlaid with a knotted silk cording came from a reference to Simone’s penchant for macramé. Uniform in appearance, not one of its perfectly formed squares are alike; each are subtlety altered in size and angle, through a process painstakingly executed by skilled hands, as to move flawlessly over the curves of a woman’s body. The reward of such intricate and time-consuming effort, not to mention cost, is perfection. The notes for the collection featured a quote by Agnes Martin: “Simplicity is never simple. It’s the hardest thing to achieve” and Lippes proved he knows this better than anyone else.

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Nina Simone, 1965

Trademark SS 2016: Lauren Bacall Circa 1946

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You can’t help but think of a young Lauren Bacall clad in Carolyn Schnurer, captured by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, lounging in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar circa 1946. It’s not a bad thought.

Theirs is a vintage-oriented gaze that curiously looks back to a time of absolute modernism. Since launching Trademark in 2013, sisters Luisa and Pookie Burch have championed a lost American aesthetic, reprising the pragmatic sensibilities and precocious wit of the ‘40s era designers whom they appear to be enamored with. There’s Carolyn, of course, but also Bonnie Cashin, Tom Brigance, Clarepotter and most certainly Claire McCardell.

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It was a time when American optimism saw its most ingenious designers looking to the realities of everyday life, as well the everyday realities found in life around the globe. They used this keen vantage to enhance their own foundations in sportswear and turn the practical into the remarkable and their American allure of ease outstripped any tediously constructed thing the French could manage.

The effect the sisters have today is not dissimilar. Amidst the whir of fashion brands that currently occupy too much space on the market, Trademark’s wholly realized and immaculately detailed vision of sophisticated simplicity resonates. Strongly.

It’s not design for the sake of a trend, or worse, entertainment, or worse still: not-knowing-better. It’s design intended to charm the wearer, to give her the humble satisfaction that only a wrapped sash of an A-line textured cotton skirt can bestow. It’s the indulgently naïve placement of pom-poms along a superbly considered knit sweater, it’s a trouser that whips about your shins as you saunter. It’s the confidence of sculpted metal adorning the ear.

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The clothes, simultaneously proper and primal, evoke a sense of longing. Perhaps it is Luisa and Pookie’s own thirst for eras past. Perhaps it’s the romance of a triumphant and intelligent modern America. You can’t help but ponder what appeasements to contemporary life they might offer and what hidden away glamour they may unlock. These clothes tease and taunt you with a world long past and, in their breathtakingly casual splendor, what might be today.

NYFW SS 2015: Eckhaus Latta

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In the three years Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta have been showing under the combined might of Eckhaus Latta they’ve developed a signature look rooted in offbeat textiles, a highly sophisticated use of color, and heavily deconstructed forms. Their post-Margiela/Kawakubo play on clothes has often made for some enticing if not erotic ideas on dress that seem pretty on point for these modern times. But deconstructing garments as a means to design is tricky and suffers as many perils as it does innovations. In the past the fruits of their experiments have not always bore and could be distracting on occasion. So it was exciting to see Eckhaus Latta switch gears and construct garments rather than “take them apart.”

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The show opened with a series of terribly captivating pieces made in a stiff light blue denim, each as sensational as the one before. There was a wide-leg pant with flared fins that collapsed down the side seams into architectural flounces. Though rigid they looked amazing in movement. There was a fantastic coat, vaguely reminiscent in cut of Issey Miyake and in make of old Castelbajac (when they called him the “New Hermes”). It was quite covetable. There was possibly the best piece in the collection; an apron dress constructed as a series of denim flaps that hung like curtains around the body. The curtains collapse and enclose you swaying gently to your step. It was sublime, I think I clutched my chest and deeply exhaled as it walked by. In fact, I held back gasps of marvel as that story played out and the collection turned its eye towards crisp white shirting expressed as a collarless white tunic, a rather perfect skirt with beautiful button closures at the waist, and a less identifiable caftan/jalabiyah with an interesting vent detail across the width of the garment below the abdomen. In succession they were quite powerful and heralded a breakthrough for the designers who have never realized such well-articulated and polished form.

You would almost think with all of Eckhaus Latta’s experiments in taking things a part that they have also learned through that process a great deal on how to put them together. They’ve come to it on their own terms with their own prerogatives and interests. Just as they have deconstructed fashion their reconstruction is critical and astute. They experiment and they question and they have rethought materials and the sewing of garments in a compelling way. It is overt construction, used not to foster any familiar ideas of a garment but to push more challenging and abstract forms into our comfort zone. These are not designers who will slap a princess seam and a bow on a shift dress and send it down the runway.

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The clothes did segue back to some of their more familiar rustic themes which was focused on knits but also featured denim, this time dyed and softened. It was more in line with the sympathetic side they are known for though the knits did not have quite the same deliberate hand as the wovens from before. Engineering knit is a whole other science but it could be interesting to see how their newfound ideas on overt construction might apply. I suppose there is plenty of time for that come fall.

You can’t help but feel upbeat and perky after seeing Eckhaus Latta’s clothes. With their daring and courage they exude an infectious optimism, a trait I hope they never lose. It’s pretty rare that new designers with such sure visions and bold talent come along but between Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, and Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver, it looks like New York’s downtown renaissance has some fashion megastars in the making.

NYFW SS 2015: Creatures of Comfort

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It’s always tricky when retailers launch their own wholesale label. They have to set their line apart from what they already stock while still embodying the experience of the whole store. It can go wrong for many number of reasons but often it’s because retailers treat the label like floor filler to plug the holes of their merchandising scheme and not as a separate and proper business that calls for proper clothes. When it goes right, which it surely did for Creatures of Comfort, you get an accurate synthesis of a retailer’s identity into a collection and, more importantly, a studied and developed offering of wardrobe solutions. They are retailers after all and you’d hope that any store with such a distinct point-of-view would have a strong and empowering idea of their patrons. And if they are doing their job correctly they should have a pretty good insight on what his or her deepest needs and dreams are. And if they have a handle on that they should probably cut to the chase and make the clothes direct. It must be said that the clothes at Creatures of Comfort were more than proper.

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Who is the Creatures of Comfort woman? I suppose that cliché question is the first abstract to be addressed when looking at a runway interpretation of a retailer’s vision. The store gives you a strong idea but the new collection is far more expansive and precise. I had a hunch from the first look on the runway; a madras shirtdress with a wrap detail in the skirt. My mind immediately went to Claire McCardell (as it would) but it wasn’t until the second look, a silk tank and matching wide pleated pant, that I started to realize the bigger story. As the collection revealed itself it formed into a pretty persuasive proposition on world dress. The CoC woman is not quite a citizen of the world, but as a piece of prose provided in the show notes titled “A Wild Way Awhile” claims, she is “beyond cartographic delineation.”

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I know the mere mention of “world dress” can send you into a Pier 1 Imports nightmare but fend it off and hold on. Consider something like Japanese dress, not the orientalist affectation of a cherry blossom kimono or a geisha, but rather its radical power to deconstruct and reconstruct fashion as designers like Miyake, Yamamoto, and Kawakubo did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then consider South Asian, Southeast Asian and all the vastness of African dress and you get the idea. As Western fashion exhausts itself through endless self-referencing, world dress provides a wellspring of solutions derived by other ways of life, some now extinct. That alternatives to modernized and Westernized life should be so appealing at this point in time is anybody’s guess. In the ‘50s American sportswear designers constantly referenced world dress, particularly costumes of Japan and Southeast Asia and they came up with, what was in their context and time, some pretty radical ideas. They were based on economy. Why have the extra cost and labor of buttons? Just tie it. Why bother with the resource-gobbling construction of traditional dressmaking and tailoring? Just wrap it. These designers sourced a great number of innovations from across the globe and adapted them for the Western mode which simultaneously critically reassessed the shifting paradigms of modern dress.

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It was great go see Creatures of Comfort’s Jade Lai wrestle with the same ideas with her interpretation landing somewhere between McCardell and Issey Miyake’s Plantation with a good dose of British New Romanatics ala Westwood and Galliano mixed in. But my personal references aside, it actually read as a collection full of new classics. A skort with an extra-long wrapped panel was both a utilitarian and aesthetic adaptation of Southeast Asian wrap skirts keenly realized for urban life in New York. A long stripped linen car coat, sampled in a few covetable fabrications, seemed just as easy and necessary. There was a range of knit vests, skirts, and dresses that had ease and polish, particularly a knit dress with a placket running down the center back (it made for a memorable exit). And there was a major call for loose pajama dressing– novel today as fashion but obvious for its comfort and grace throughout the rest of the world. The collection shifted between familiar and foreign, always effortless and casual but highly refined with moments of splendor. It did not suggest a different world but perhaps a whole new one. It’s a pretty inviting one Lai has made for her and her customer which now exists well beyond the confines of her stores in L.A. and New York. “This is where I’m meant to be, she thinks” reads the ending to the prose, “where I’ll be for a while.” I can’t blame her and I don’t think many women will be able to, either.

Images by Shawn Brackbill courtesy of Creatures of Comfort.

NYFW SS 2015: Adam Lippes

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The thing about Adam Lippes’s clothes, what makes them so striking to behold and what look book images cannot show you, are the details. Working in unison with his appropriately classic but deceptively modern shapes, they are a whisper of opulent restraint. No heavy-handed embellishment. No unruly color. And (thank the stars) no prints (they would sully the clothes). For Lippes elegance is, as Chanel said, refusal. What he decides to leave in the garment, what makes the cut so-to-speak, is so perfectly conceived, balanced, and finished that the entire garment emanates a perversely urgent feeling of desire.

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One piece that illustrates this best is a simple silk crepe T in alabaster pink. It’s perhaps the most basic piece in all the collection, not anything especially new, yet, the proportion of the stitching along the hem and neckline was so cleverly spaced as to activate an even more flattering proportion with the slope of the sleeve and the width of neck that it could make almost any woman, be she slim or thick, beautiful or homely, young or old immediately look brighter, prettier, shapelier and possibly even smarter once worn. The fabric was so luxuriously lush, the bottom and sleeve hems were so perfectly finished and the cherry on top, the piece de resistance, was the buttonless henley-style placket with a single fringed silk tie looped through the top buttonhole. Lippes makes the mundane so magnificent. What else is luxury good for?

Another moment of micro drama was a row of hook and eye closures set in silk grossgrain on the side vent of a black sweater knit. It is, to the undiscerning eye, a nothing piece. But so beautifully knitted with the finest yarn, so smartly trimmed with the most classic notions, the whole garment is elevated beyond its ordinary functions. Its presence so striking I imagine one could wear it in lieu of an evening dress and very likely be the best dressed of the night. However, Lippes’s actual thoughts for evening are a just as potent. There was a white silk racerback floor length gown with a fringed tassel hanging from one shoulder strap. It had pockets (yes, pockets!) and the most wonderful detail yet: a single French seam running down the complete length of the center back. Is it a construction line he beautified? Is it purely decorative? I didn’t ask and I didn’t care. God was in the details and it was divine.

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All the fringe came from inspiration taken from Moroccan textiles, namely carpets. And though this theme was iterated throughout the collection rather tastefully it had its most inventive realization in what was surely the masterwork of the entire collection: a silk tank dress bordered along its low waist by a floor length curtain of plisse silk. Yards upon yards of hand pleated fabric on such a simple silhouette, in most other designer’s hands this would be an abomination with the overwrought manipulated fabric destroying the natural ease and modernity of the base structure. But done by Lippes it is a quiet affair no more bulky or assuming than a slip, that is until the dress is in movement and all the layers of silk release and expand into a glorious flutter worthy of a bird of paradise. I could watch that dress in slow motion with a Philip Glass soundtrack and be very content for a while.

Lippes’s clothes are beautiful and immaculate. His hand loomed silk jacquards, his hand tailored jackets, his plisse gowns; they are the epitome of modern luxury but they are precious almost to a fault. His clothes are so fine that while it is easy to imagine any woman wearing them it was more difficult this time around to see her living in them. Lippes has a hand for luxury and leisure, one that will make this collection a sure hit, but it would have been nice to see clothes that might be improved with a bit of dirt and grime, something sturdier that wouldn’t be so out of place on a subway car. Perhaps I am asking too much, but I’d like to a see a woman dressed by Lippes for all of life’s occasions and I’m sure he would, too.

NYFW SS 2015: Siki Im

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Siki Im is as much a storyteller as he is a designer. His collections are narratives, sometimes autobiographical, always personal, and often laden with modern metaphors. These narratives can be complicated, so much so that Im provided a reference guide which this season included William Gibson, Jean Baudrillard and Disney’s WALL-E. The intrigue began well before the clothes came out.

Printed in the show notes was a thesis on the implications of technology on human interaction and its effect on fashion. With advanced developments in personal computers, robotics and artificial intelligence, human interaction has theoretically become utterly avoidable. Through isolation, humanity risks being reduced to a mere concept, a “rational idealism.” But humanity is not rational, it is “idiosyncratic,” and the idea of human interaction disappearing altogether is, as Im says, “irrealizable.” Clothes, worn on the body, are rooted in human emotion and ultimately fashion “appraises” technology, giving it value rather than bending to its presence, “fashion lives beyond technology not within.” And so clothes become an increasingly important expression of our humanity.

It’s a potent thesis not just for its philosophical and psychological implication but for the simple fact that it made for some pretty amazing clothes.

 

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What is modern dress in this technological age? Im addressed it by turning to his personal experience and took inspiration from the 1985 anime show Robotech. For those unfamiliar, Robotech was a Japanese sci-fi show about manned giant humanoid robots called Mecha which are used to fight an alien invasion. The show is especially known for its extremely intricate and stylized animation design which enjoys a huge international fan base of admirers who build their own 3-D model Mechas, often with a level of detail fit for an Industrial Light & Magic production. Im translated these robotic forms, essentially fantasy concepts for human body extensions, into garments.

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Showcasing his virtuous talent in cut and construction, he reverse engineered these bold designs into their fundamental geometry and applied them with Vionnet-like cunning to cloth. His translation is extraordinary. Im avoided any retro-futurist clichés like body armor or neoprene and the end result was a series of subtle and sensuous shapes built in linen, cotton and silk. His expert engineering is masked by the graceful ease of sumptuous, fluid and tactile fabric. It’s just the fix you’d need against the dispassionate machine.

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Last season Im was inspired by the German Krautrock music movement and this season he further indulged the relaxed line of the ‘70s. Elongated soft jackets in stripe and seersucker, “neoteric” medieval tunics, loose flowing pants in cotton voile and gossamer silk; it was a softer side of Im never seen before. The collection was styled into the archetypal dandy, not unlike Quentin Crisp circa 1979 if he were dressed by Armani. Mixed in were streetwear memes which Im has touched on many times before. Both pastoral and aggressive, hyper masculine yet feminine, the contradictions presented as Im’s propositions on volume and soft dressing danced between these two archetypes was stirring. And if all the philosophizing grew too heavy, bursts of tie dye and fuchsia interrupted any overt seriousness. As the boys marched down the runway, as their pants poured over their legs with the rhythm and flow of a whirling dervish, and as the heavy electronic track boomed overhead, this season’s story turned out to be a page-turner.

In the end Im’s narrative set up a powerful metaphor: that advanced robotic technology could be transmuted into an immensely humanistic expression. The designer is breaking down our stagnant ideas on futurist dress and imbuing them with a truth and a reality that is so breathtakingly gorgeous. Perhaps more than a storyteller Im is a poet. And beyond that he’s a world class talent.

NYFW SS 15: Hood By Air

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Photography by Walter Pearce, all rights reserved.

Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver is in a precarious position. He has won the attention of international fashion’s governing cabal. He has built a thriving business of logo branded knits. His clothes are worn by some of the music world’s most influential celebrities. And he has single handedly written a new chapter in the long history of American fashion. But that cabal of fashion businessmen and editors have their attentions split thin, the youths who buy his clothes in droves are fickle, the celebrities even more so, and his aesthetic, so ubiquitous, grows increasingly familiar. The pressures for him to expand his business and scope while still remaining true to his core values are mounting.  It’s an exciting but challenging time, but I think he’s more than up for it.

In his first showing since winning the LVMH runner up prize Oliver returned to many of his go-to tropes. Present were the Jean Paul Gaultier and Helmut Lang-isms that have so heavily informed the HBA codes. Present were his ingenious riffs on urban dress and gender identity. And more than present were the wild theatrics that have made his shows such a hot ticket (there was, to many audience member’s delight, a big dog on the runway). But what was most curious was what felt like an earnest and committed exploration of women’s dress.

Oliver has toyed with the idea in the past either directly or indirectly through his ongoing critical re-contextualizing of masculinity and sexual norms. And though he has shown his clothes on women before, the feeling this time was less Aaliyah in an oversized jersey (as good as she looked) and more Le Smoking by Yves Saint Laurent. The looser, body-averse silhouettes Oliver has sourced from urban/black/hip hop dress, and has deconstructed and reconstructed throughout his career, proved electric when applied to the female form, which Oliver ceded more to its conventional ideal than ever before. Already Oliver has mastered the manipulation of gender appropriateness (with a special knack for reallocating the feminine flourish of freeing fabric to men’s clothes). On a man it was machismo subverted. On a woman the effect is a bit harder to describe.

It unfolds in waves. At first you can’t be sure if the clothes were actually conceived for a woman or if it was a mere styling and casting choice.  But then you realize that categories like “womenswear” or “menswear” mean nothing for a designer who is fluent in the mechanics of both and has engaged each with deft maneuvering and visual wit for years. And then you realize Oliver may have always been a keen womenswear designer, even if he was dressing men. And then there is the hushed glee that overcomes you as you consider his new audience and you entertain the thought of a Vogue socialite dressed to the nines in a Hood by Air ensemble with pumps by Manolo. Manifest Destiny. Let’s see where Oliver’s breadth can go.

The emphasis on womenswear highlighted an overall sophistication in the collection. The shapes were more succinct and concise and there was a more concerned line through all the straps, and wraps, and zips, and cut outs. But, while most of the forms Oliver was playing with were beautifully composed not all were totally finessed. The snaking of form around the body with woven fabric is a dastardly affair. Perfected by old school couturieres like Maggy Rouf and Augustabernard and handled consistently with great effect by few (Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood and Haider Ackermann come to mind), it’s something Oliver will have to learn and develop. And he will. He is a technician, a tinkerer, it is simply a matter of time. The foundation is firm, his will is strong, and his voice is so righteously clear.

NYFW SS 15: Chadwick Bell

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Chadwick Bell is an anathema to his generation. The designer, reared in the ’90s, does not indulge the spectacle and hype so many of his peers have succumb to. A protege of the stalwart Carolina Herrera and the master Ralph Rucci, he is well-versed in the subtleties of excellence and decorum. For the clothes he designs, a quiet approach works best. They need no loud distractions.

Stepping into his studio space at Union Square West, which for that morning had been transformed into a salon, you immediately understood the sophistication and extent of his calm. The whole room, awash in beige and accented with southwestern flora, like Georgia O’Keefe by way of Calvin Klein circa 1984, set an intoxicating mood as the morning light poured in and drenched the intimate group of onlookers. His audience was telling, there was Bethann Hardison and fellow veteran supermodel Karen Bjornson (dressed in a tan suit by the designer). Sitting across the way was F.I.T.’s Patricia Mears. To say these women know clothes is an understatement. They have intimately known some of the best clothes designed in the last 40 years. Their eye is discerning, their taste impeccable. True connoisseurs, these are the women Chadwick calls friends and customers.

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As the solemn but soulful sounds of Cat Power played the first model stepped out from behind the curtain, a vision of wrapped off-white silk crepe. Austere but sensual, highly refined but languid, it set the tone for the collection which was an exercise in pure form. The fabrics Bell uses are delectable: double satin, double wool crepe, triple georgette — each controlled with immense precision. Abstracted and unfettered, Bell let their natural beauty shine through, a restraint which belies master technique in dressmaking and cutting. So reductive, the clothes had an ethnic undertone bringing to mind the ancient shapes of Africa and the Middle East, filtered through a wholly modern vocabulary. The effect of a paneled wool crepe skirt, a series of flaps whipping about the legs, was particularly convincing.

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This season marked a turn for Bell who sought to “build a foundation.”  At a time when “basics” have become a buzzword he beautifully illustrated just how magnificently nuanced a basic can be. Extolling a classical line yet aggressively searching for a future, whether conscious or not, Bell has arrived at the building blocks of a new modern wardrobe. Speaking to the designer after the presentation he almost seemed giddy in explaining that he essentially showed the same look repeatedly throughout the presentation, a continuous variation on a theme. With clothes like these I suppose one look is all you really need.

images courtesy of Chadwick Bell