It’s difficult to imagine any period in time without the costumes that substantiate the cultures. More than a source of shelter, clothing is a symbol of status and mobility: who you are, where you’re going, what you represent. For a designer like Victoria Beckham, who for so long weaved a web of her own celebrity (and really, a moniker like “Posh” carried with it certain expectations and responsibilities—a progression into fashion seems like destiny), taking off that satin robe wasn’t an easy choice to make. She’s exposing herself in front of a tough crowd. These are people who have seen it all, been there and done that. And that very idea of unravelling and revealing was evident throughout her latest collection: low necklines, sleeveless coats, jackets with folds that shrivelled like a cashmere leaf, and other bits of fabric that seemed to recoil and recede as they went down the runway. It did not, however, feel the least bit innovative; perhaps innocuous is a better word. Her design signature—the skirts that skim the thigh and drop just below the knee—appears to be written in another designer’s handwriting. Phoebe Philo’s perhaps? I’m still now sure what this brand stands for. Identity and intention never converged.
The message was conveyed a little clearer at Public School, though, where designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne reassured us with a cogent collection. The recent CFDA Fashion Fund winners presented loyally, lovingly, to their name. The clothes were cut to ruler’s exact measure and calculated to decimal-point precision; black and white panels could have been arranged in afternoon graphics class with hip-hop blaring through the sound system; and they dropped, loosened and widened these pants to such sweet extents that we forget, for a moment, that School is governed by two men aged almost a decade apart, one of them hovering 40. To win such a prestigious and generous funding program would have sent the average student into waves of hysteria, days of drinking, and to ultimately forget the core of the business: to pass the final exam. This test is more daunting than most. Ideas either come to fruition, or they never make that final exit to the runway. It demands months of sketching and editing and refining. Chow and Osborne have the clarity and concentration that helps puny brands compete with some of the bigger kids—Kors, Jacobs, and even Proenza Schouler, the Fashion Fund’s first-ever winner—in the struggle for longevity.
If School is a place to enforce codes of conduct, Versus is where they are broken. Under Donatella Versace’s tutelage, Versus has welcomed Christopher Kane and J.W. Anderson to its academy. Both of these designers have since enrolled into other institutions, bigger and better: Kane to Kering, and Anderson to LVMH. Anthony Vaccarello’s research could have started off at, well, school: the library’s rich depositories of epochal Versace imagery, including the Grecian key pattern and Medusa heads finished in gold; the gilded safety pin, the precarious leather strap, the thigh-high slits that would make a mother sweat. Those slim mini dresses, with silks and jerseys twisted around key Versace motifs, were a lesson is licentiousness. Very Versace. Very apt for those dizzying Friday nights when the girls go dancing between the boroughs. Still, it doesn’t require a genius to copy from a textbook, or rush to the photocopiers before the start of class. And it’s all too obvious when a teacher has been spoon-feeding their student. Perhaps this is where the latest Versus Versace collection ultimately fell short. It was difficult to tell where Versace ended and Vaccarello entered—that scandalous harmony was too neatly packaged. Vaccarello’s voice seemed lost in the furore, and the formula.
If there are rules and expectations, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen at The Row are defying them. In utter silence, of course—the quiet achievers of the New York schedule. Celebrity designers aren’t meant to be this good at what they do. Every shade of bronze, brown, and beige seemed to rise out of the ground and mould against the models’ bodies, fitted so perfectly the girls could have grown an organic second skin. Coat dresses with violent, oversized twists and knots provided a kind of rustic regalia. The fact that the sisters lack any kind of formal training could easily be forgiven. How they can manipulate raw fabrics to behave in such elegant ways, with earthy appeal, is something even trained designers have trouble achieving—sisters’ secrets, perhaps, whispered to them in the wind. “Purity” is a word often thrown around, especially when it involves the Olsens’ creative cachet, but it suggests that clothes come together as if by magic. There is human intervention, expert handicraft, behind the process. To hide all traces of gruelling labour is to cast an illusion of its own. If there’s magic in these clothes, it’s that they evade all sense of description. They fit in everywhere, from Tibetan monasteries to concrete Manhattan. The Olsens’ clothes are truly made for ceremonies—contemporary ones, ones that their women live and breathe every day of their lives.