Fashion's Younger Generation Gives Respect to Its Elders by Flinging Paint at Them

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With the exception of Rihanna’s motocross fantasy at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday night, most uptown designers are sticking uptown this season, and the downtown ones are staying downtown (or going to Brooklyn).

It made for a convenient narrative, if not a convenient commute, all day on Monday to drift back and forth between the posh aesthetics of The Row, Oscar de la Renta, and Carolina Herrera—all uptown—and the brash, pot-scented dreams of Anna Sui and Helmut Lang downtown. They couldn’t have been further apart conceptually than Venus and Mars.

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Let’s start with the uptown crowd, over which Ms. Herrera reigns supreme. Her show was organized within the gardens of the Museum of Modern Art, and on a fine-weathered night this was a truly amazing thing to see. With skyscrapers as a backdrop, and an audience that included the remnants of ladies-who-lunch society as well as the new power-brokers from the people-who-post crowd, plus Manolo Blahnik, this show was so cinematically perfect it could have served as the backdrop for a movie scene. It was a big stage, too, one that required the clothes to have an extra amount of vibrancy, which Herrera achieved with combinations of acid yellow and pink, tangerines, and Scalamandre wallpaper-worthy zebras that pranced across her ball gown skirts.

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It was a bold direction for Herrera, and probably influenced by the younger generation of executives and designers she has promoted in her studio, most recently Wes Gordon working behind the scenes. And perhaps it’s coincidence, or perhaps it’s telling, that Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia (who spent a brief spell at Herrera that ended badly before they returned to de la Renta as creative directors), included some looks in their sophomore collection at Oscar that ended up in just about the same place as the dresses at Carolina.

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Youthful eyes have a tendency to both worship their icons and seek to contemporize them. Kim and Garcia went so far as to incorporate handwritten notes they had received from clients as well as the late de la Renta’s signature as embroideries and prints on dresses, coats, even in crystals etched into furs. While touching, these kinds of mementos are also kind of a downer as a design motif, like wearing a rather expensive scrapbook.

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On a lighter note, the duo carried forward their pop-color haphazard sequin splotches that are flung on dresses with abandon, as if the designers had sat up in the studio all night in a paint battle and embroidered rubies and emeralds on top to cover all the stains. There was a dress at Derek Lam’s polished show that also had rough patches of sequins, too, shown with a tailored jacket. And at Herrera, there were spots of primary-colored crystals and paint splatters, aplenty.

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The big news downtown, though, was a re-imagined future for Helmut Lang. In a clever marketing experiment, the current owners of the label, which has been fading into denim oblivion since Helmut left the building in 2005. His legacy remains quite potent, though, as Lang’s work is referenced in some way in collections today from virtually every hot young designer, most of who never experienced it in person or in real time. So the results of this new strategy—naming Isabella Burley an “editor in residence” and Shayne Oliver as a “designer in residence” for a capsule collection shown Monday night – are bound to be completely different than anything Lang would himself ever have produced. (At the same time, the company is reissuing some of Lang’s original designs, but that’s another facet to a complicated story.)

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Oliver, whose Hood by Air collections gained notoriety for their boundary pushing treatment of gender and denial of anything remotely normative, was a great choice to begin what is expected to be a series of Helmut Lang redux collections. Of course, he, too, sought to contemporize the brand, taking elements of bondage or bra tops that featured as accents in the original work and turned them into the main event. Giant-size bras appeared as cages wrapped around the body like corsets, and entire tops were made of winding, knotted strips. Some of it had the overt quality of fetish costume, which was more HBA than HL, and frankly, it was a better approach for Oliver to do his own thing rather than have to address the big old elephant in the room, which is, What would Helmut think of all this?

And Oliver did show a lot of respect, paying his dues to a designer who may no longer be here on the runway, but is definitely there in inspiration. He ended his show, improbably, with Whitney Houston belting it out: “I have nothing, nothing, nothing, if I don’t have you.”

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