Designers offer bold visions that are not forced

New York TimesSeptember 18, 2013 

— Most successful designers affirm Cristbal Balenciaga’s late-life statement that fashion is a dog’s life. The hours are brutal.

In August, Oscar de la Renta, 81, flew to California for the annual League to Save Lake Tahoe benefit, something he has done with Saks for the past 20 years. Saks flew him on a private jet. (“For Oscar, we’ll do that,” an executive said.) Still, many younger designers don’t want that much contact with their actual customers.

And then there’s the way in which de la Renta works. It’s family-style around his Manhattan office, which is large but not grand. Recently, he sat at a cluttered table with his stepson-in-law, Alex Bolen, stylist Alex White and Raffaele Ilardo, head of the workroom. Conversation included quality of this year’s tomato crop.

Whoever takes over for de la Renta (one option appears to be John Galliano), he will have to share some of that homey feeling combined with a strong work ethic. Those values, not surprisingly, inform much of de la Renta’s fashion.

Watching Karlie Kloss snake down the runway last week in a navy wool coat with white lapels over a navy cardigan and a wool check pencil skirt, or Joan Smalls in a similar coatdress, I wondered what European editors think of this kind of look. Would they classify it as tastefully old-school? Exclusively American? Or would they see something that is wholeheartedly natural – even when the dress is a ridiculous froth of sorbet pink tulle?

A range of attitudes

There is an enormous range of styles and attitudes in de la Renta’s collection, from Kloss’ lanky vest and checked skirt, to a snooty tweed suit with a white lace collar, to a spree of faille cocktail dresses in birthday-cake pastels, to a naive white cotton crochet dress. And yet, strikingly, there is no sense of role-playing in his clothes, as you often get from the Chanel and Prada runway, say, and from young American designers, whose shows can feel like a pantomime of glamour (or sportiness, etc.).

They have to invest their fashion with something special, which is fine. And like them, de la Renta is also capable of exaggeration. But the difference in his clothes is that it’s achieved with a rare naturalness.

A hedge against change

Narciso Rodriguez’s clothes are also a hedge against too much change, and yet they change all the time, in small, almost imperceptible ways. Take, for instance, his use of bonded and laminated materials. They’re popular, and he avoids the trap of letting the technique bulk up the design. Speckled fabrics are actually bits of bonded silk. Silk jacquards in blurs of shell pink or aqua green echo the idea.

In fact, the technique is of a piece with this beautiful, astute collection. Everything is pared down, as if the woman has places to go. The shorter hemlines and proportions look fresh. There are a few suits, shown with wrap skirts over shorts, but the focus is on a wool shell and skirt. Of course, the luminous colors and fabrics are special, but what really stands out is the precise line of the clothes.

The most common understanding of “home” is a place of refuge, and that was the sense of Proenza Schouler’s ample if sometimes impervious-looking clothes.

In many respects, the collection picks up where they left off last season, with round, feminine shapes and a slow cleansing of surface details and prints. And their new clothes – boxy jackets with turnkey locks, wide-leg trousers in black or terra-cotta suede, austere coats and blazers in a flat rigid crepe – uncannily reflected what they said about home.

And that’s the problem. There was a wooden-soldier stiffness in many of the day looks, even when the fabrics were fairly supple. There was also a vaguely vintage cast to the clothes that I couldn’t put my finger on. I liked their idea of a long, sleeveless top in crepe tied at the waist with soft, pleated pants (it’s a good uniform), but in general, I was made too conscious of things like craft and form. That’s not particularly inviting.

Ten minutes of a very good Michael Kors show makes you stupidly happy. The crisis in Syria? The mayor’s race? Kors could only imagine a perfect world during his Fashion Week show, with a parade of conservative-chic clothes, including blazers, some beautiful dance skirts in white linen gauze and embroidered taupe linen, and refined-looking coats. In a way, this show was also about home, with red-haired Karen Elson in a motherly blue crepe dress with beaded pansies.

“Hug me, kiss me, baby,” the song went.

And buy some Michael Kors stock on the way home.

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