As New York Fashion Week Begins, Designers Put their Relevance to the Test
“My biggest critique,” the Off-White designer Virgil Abloh said of the current state of fashion as he introduced his new collaboration with Nike on Wednesday, “is that we can all be complacent, and be sort of a critic of everything that is out there.”
Abloh, one of the most engaging creative forces in the contemporary, disruptive-driven fashion landscape, was speaking of his own perspective on the potential peril he faced for having taken on a project that, by his own description, could have been “career suicide.” No one can sniff out a marketing play faster than a sneakerhead—you know how cruel those blog commentators can be. And here, Abloh was literally taking an X-Acto knife to a pair of Air Jordans, labeling “Shoelaces” as such in his script-happy aesthetic, and mixing in his take on a Converse Chuck Taylor design, generally considered no-nos in the branding control playbook of an athletic behemoth like Nike.
“What I’m trying to perfect is a mature way of being disruptive,” Abloh said.
In a moment when maintaining relevancy feels like walking a tightrope for all of us, Abloh’s lament, in a larger sense, applies to designers of all stripes, not to mention models, magazine editors, publishers, publicity houses, and even those ubiquitous pseudo-professionals known as influencers. It seems especially ominous at the beginning of a New York Fashion Week that has faced questions of its own ongoing relevance, following the decampment of a number of hot designers to Paris, including Rodarte, Proenza Schouler, Joseph Altuzarra, and Thom Browne. No wonder everyone is looking over their shoulders, for fear they’re about to be shoved off. So everyone tries harder, or tries different ways to stay on top.
VIDEO: Runway Remix: Watch Our Recap of New York Fashion Week
“Designers today feel like we have a role to entertain,” Zac Posen told me last week during a preview of his spring collection, a delightfully upbeat line of flocked velvet party dresses in MTV colors, preppy cotton shirting separates, and some wildly embroidered dresses with country club floral motifs mirrored in his shoes. He decided to forgo a runway this season because he recognized that the impact of fashion shows has lessened in the age of social media, where they can easily get lost amid the hundreds of shows that will take place over the next month. Instead, he created a look book and a special shoot with Kate Upton that was so compelling it made the cover of WWD.
Narciso Rodriguez, too, opted to show his collection privately in his showroom, noting the larger business opportunity remains in the pre-season collection, so why bother wasting so much effort on a show of clothes that no one really ever buys? Rather than produce enough showcase dresses to fill a runway, he opted instead to focus on what he thought his customers would want to buy, and the results were sharp, especially his newish concept of evening tops—a sequined tunic with a silver hem or a one-shouldered T with a dramatic sash dangling down the back that can easily turn an ordinary office look into a gala-ready outfit.
On the subject of maintaining relevancy, there may be no better expert than Tom Ford, who, after experimenting with presentation formats for a few seasons decided the quiet route was just not for him.
And so, his was the first major show of the season on Wednesday night, and a spectacle at that. In fact, it seemed a comment on the whole scene of fashion today, the need to impress and, well, to influence. Here were body baring gowns, big-shouldered suits worn with bras, densely draped evening dresses à la Adrian that somehow were transparent only around models’ backsides (Kendall Jenner wore one such bum-baring black dress, which suggests Ford is paying close attention to the impact of celebrity street style around his West Coast home). It seemed that Ford wasn’t so much taking potshots at tackiness, as he was gently correcting the aesthetic of overt sexiness to demonstrate a more tasteful form of provocation.
It was a poke in the eye to start the season, but it certainly got people’s attention. Walking into a dinner later, the artist Rachel Feinstein described it as “pervy, but in the nicest possible way.”