Why New York Fashion Week Matters

NYFW is usually thought of as the most commercial and predictable of all the fashion weeks, but this year's is worth paying attention to. Here's why.

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Feb 10 2015, 5:00am

Photo by Walter Porter Pearce

New York Fashion Week gets no respect. It's probably because out of all the world's fashion weeks, the Big Apple's is the most commercially-minded and thus the most predictable and mild-mannered. Said frankly, it can be a bit of a bore. Certainly you won't be having any mediations on sexual liberation a la exposed cocks on the runway. But fashion is, as they so often say, a mirror of the times. And it's a very interesting time to be an American. Last year saw the country clumsily navigate its way through feverish racial tension, immigration, cyber terrorism, and a myriad of other issues.

Fashion is not immune to the goings on of reality, though it can sometimes blissfully choose to ignore them. The best designers and the best fashions, however, are those that address the changing world. With that in mind, there's a lot for designers in New York to work with, particularly as American brands make strides to address a global audience. Necessity, is after all, the mother of invention. As yet another fashion week looms over us, here is a rundown of what we all might want to pay extra special attention to in the coming collections.

Photo by Conor Lamb

The Race Issue

It's no secret that fashion, a system built on classist exclusion, can be as racist as the day is long. In recent years, there has been a noticeable deficit in models of color on the runway. The reasons for this could range from anything from a lack of availability to the fact that designers underestimate the progressive attitudes of their customers, or that their casting directors are simply racist. The problem was so rampant that veteran models Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Bethann Hardison formed an activist group and publicly chastised designers for failing to cast more diverse line-ups. They went as far as to publish a list of designers whose runways were, though not intentional, racist in appearance.

A model in Eckhaus Latta. Photo by Conor Lamb

The Downtown Renaissance

Downtown New York has always been an incubator for the cool and avant-garde. In the 80s, it gave birth to designers like Stephen Sprouse, Marc Jacobs, and Anna Sui. In the late 90s and early noughties, downtown designers Miguel Adrover and Asfour (now ThreeAsFour) rose to international attention. In the last couple years, lower Manhattan has been home to a new crop of talent who are pushing forward a fashion renaissance. Rallying behind stores like Opening Ceremony and bolstered by media provocateurs like DIS Magazine, these niche and independent labels have been giving the city's uptown talent some stiff competition.

Shows from labels like Hood By Air, Telfar, and Eckhaus Latta have become must-see events during fashion week, if not for their clothes then surely for their ballsy presentations. Opening Ceremony's namesake collection has also become one of the most spectacular displays in town. And Jade Lai's collection for Creatures of Comfort was a huge hit last season. Far removed from the worlds of lace cocktail dresses and trussed-up socialites, what's happening downtown is supported and patronized by a close-knit community of creatives and artists. These designers have provided a convincing alternative to fashion's stodgy old status quo and could potentially replace it.

Photo by Conor Lamb

Remember the Titans

In the last two years the fashion industry has undergone a makeover of sorts that's seen star designers moving into unexpected new roles (Nicholas Ghesquiere at Louis Vuitton, Raf Simons at Christian Dior), other designers leaving the business altogether (Jean Paul Gaultier and more recently Viktor & Rolf have shuttered their ready-to-wear operations), and many others scrambling to readjust their strategies in the challenging and ever-evolving market. It was big news when Marc Jacobs left Louis Vuitton in 2013 to focus on his eponymous label. For years the Marc Jacobs collection has been the shining gem in New York's fashion's roster, but over the last several seasons the label has become noticeably less visible thanks to the hype surrounding talents like Phoebe Philo and J.W. Anderson.

Donna Karan, another New York fashion giant, hasn't been relevant in years. Though the designer continues to serve her loyal customer base, the brand hasn't had a directional statement in at least a decade. However, its younger sister, DKNY, perhaps the progenitor of the contemporary market, has managed to steal back some of its former glory after years of stagnancy. Collaborating with Opening Ceremony on archival reissues and tapping New York's nightlife personalities for runway shows and ad campaigns has helped the brand reconnect with its urban roots and reassert itself among competitors. Prospects are looking good for the label—yet a single misstep could undo all their progress.

And then of course there is Michael Kors, who, after all these years, has come out on top of the fashion game. Kors's runway collections are as refined and covetable as ever, and his Michael by Michael Kors line is extremely profitable. But market saturation has one inevitable side effect, beyond making people extremely wealthy: It induces brand fatigue. Kors has become the butt of snide Pusha T punchlines and was a component of pretty much every "basic bitch" listicle that ran on the internet last year. Although Kors recently announced an upswing in sales all good things ultimately come to an end.

The foreseen decline of Michael Kors will be a godsend to Coach who has lost their market share to Kors's success. Coach has since hired former Loewe designer Stuart Vevers to give the brand an upscale and fashion-centered image overseeing not just bags but also a heavily promoted line of ready-to-wear. So far so good, the line has been met with critical delight and with a new campaign shot by Steven Meisel, it looks sophisticated and desirable. But even a great product and sure message may not be enough in these trying times.

Photo by Conor Lamb

The New American Look

For years New York fashion has been synonymous with lace cocktail dresses and uninspired tweed suits, the uniform of the conservative haute bourgeoisie. But ever since the minimalist sentiment Phoebe Philo instigated several years ago and the endorsement of a more intellectual and nuanced approach via the prodigious talents of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen for The Row (believe it or not, the pair are some of the most talented designers in town) a new uniquely American look has taken hold. Designers like Rosie Assoulin, Chadwick Bell, Adam Lippes, and Rosetta Getty work in a luxury environment where they can cater to clients who are both open-minded and outrageously wealthy.

Assoulin and Lippes are protégés of the late Oscar de la Renta. Bell worked for American couturier Ralph Rucci. And Getty, as in the wife of Balthazar Getty, is no stranger to fine clothes. The group have taken the tenets of luxury—its fine fabrics, impeccable craftsmanship, its sense of timeless elegance—and imbued it with a relaxed appeal and modern vocabulary. Unlike most of New York fashion, these designers don't cling to trends. And between them, they have managed to give American fashion an association with words like innovative and distinct.

What's more, they represent a new model for New York designers working as smaller businesses with lower overheads. They don't require an arsenal of licenses or contemporary lines to pay the bills and aren't necessarily looking to be the next Michael Kors—their ideal is probably Zoran, a fashion millionaire who you've probably never heard of. If businesses like these catch on, they could be a boon to the New York fashion landscape.


Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

Where Boys Fear to Tread

While New York's womenswear has been hard pressed for new talent, the menswear game has exploded. Over the last several years New York men's fashion has given birth to the "heritage" look we know too well: plaid shirts, waxed cotton jackets, raw denim jeans, and the obligatory Redwing boots (Aldens if you're feeling fancy). Pioneered by labels like Band of Outsiders and disseminated all the way down to J.Crew, that look has since become ubiquitous if not passé. And as fashion moves on so must American menswear.

But there have been some alluring propositions. Tim Coppens, a former designer for RLX, has made a name for his hyper-modern take on luxury. Siki Im, a protégé of Belgian menswear maverick David Vandewal (an eminent stylist and past Raf Simons collaborator) has shown a talent for cultural amalgamation and a striking architectural sensibility. And there is of course Duckie Brown and Patrick Ervell, by now industry veterans, who have remained not only relevant but directional in recent seasons. Most talked about, however, are Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School, who, along with Hood By Air's Shayne Oliver, have popularized a more urban look.

Which of these designers will lead a new way forward? What unseen directions lay ahead? The European men's collections gave some strong hints, though American menswear, never too loud and always pragmatic, often manages to assert its own voice.

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