New York Fashion Week
© Jason Lloyd-Evans

Mixed messages emerged from New York Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer 2020 collections.

On one hand, there was a pronounced focus on easy wardrobe staples, with plenty of garments that promised longevity beyond a single season. All the better if they’re made with eco-friendly methods. Designers such as Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen of The Row, Brandon Maxwell, Gabriela Hearst and Ralph Lauren know the appeal of timeless clothes well.

On the other, there was the continuing gravitational pull of celebrity clout and of-the-moment hype. Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty spectacular on September 10 — part fashion show, part dance performance, part concert — revealed the latest from the star’s lingerie line, which was made available that same day on Amazon. (Amazon Prime Video will debut a film of the event on September 20.) The show was impressive in its production muscle and its ultra-diverse cast. Tommy Hilfiger and Euphoria actress Zendaya’s collaborative see-now, buy-now collection (their second together) had similar power, though it felt somewhat less original.

This divergence reached something of a tipping point. Many people have woken up to the waste generated by both fast and designer fashion; they’re buying items to last. Plus, the resale market has never been bigger. Pieces that work now — and that will remain working for a while — are key. But equally, many consumers go wild when a personality like Rihanna or Zendaya enters the room, even though their designs are markedly transient.

The Row
The Row © Jason Lloyd-Evans
Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren © Jason Lloyd-Evans

So where was the glue? New York’s dissonance was bridged by a much echoed refrain: “optimism.”

“Courage and optimism,” said Gabriela Hearst, whose light, lovely line-up was inspired by elements of protection from the mystical, ecological and physical realms — her show also had a net zero carbon footprint.

Gabriela Hearst
Gabriela Hearst © Jason Lloyd-Evans
Gabriela Hearst
Gabriela Hearst © Jason Lloyd-Evans

Self-Portrait designer Han Chong’s notion of optimism was about “making things easier. It feels right, right now, to be cleaner,” he said. “Before, everything was about making a statement.” His collection had simpler concepts and looser silhouettes when contrasted against the intricate use of lace and pattern clashes of his previous seasons.

“This show is a celebration of life, joy, equality, individuality, optimism, happiness, indulgence, dreams and a future unwritten as we continue to learn,” wrote Marc Jacobs of his exuberant and irreverent show at the Park Avenue Armory. His clothes were filtered through a rainbow prism of nostalgia, and were generally very pretty if slightly scattershot.

Marc Jacobs
Marc Jacobs © Jason Lloyd-Evans

Such positivity, however, often came across as forced. In certain places, the good vibes were more surface than soul. Success really came down to whether or not the message was delivered with sound conviction.

Some have it to burn, like Ralph Lauren, whose ’80s-leaning and Art Deco-spritzed collection — which featured a cabaret-style set by Janelle Monáe — not only looked good, it felt special. A red-beaded gown worn by the model Bella Hadid was a sanguine and rather stunning highlight.

Brandon Maxwell launched straightforward menswear alongside his peppy, wearable-luxe women’s roster. He is an emotional designer, but his output is consistently drama-free; a great pair of jeans, a simple but elevated dress, and a versatile blazer are more appealing than ever in a world of nonstop visual assault.

Brandon Maxwell
Brandon Maxwell © Brandon Maxwell

The Row’s Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen have a taste level so enviable and unwavering, and a quality so pristine, that their fuss-free daywear was the week’s strongest. Likewise with Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez’s Proenza Schouler, where a sharp edit, replete with superb dresses and coats, was one of their better line-ups in recent memory. The commitment was palpable: the duo said they sacrificed an August holiday, quarantining themselves in their studio to work, nonstop, until show day. Others appeared less confident this season. Two famed New York houses — Carolina Herrera (now helmed by Wes Gordon) and Oscar de la Renta (now run by Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia) — came up short. The former lacked in vigour, namely with an incohesive colour palette and some overdone silhouettes. Though a sheer long-sleeve full-length dress, with Herrera’s signature polka-dots, had a new freshness to it. The latter, with a collection based loosely on inspiration from the late Oscar de la Renta’s home country of the Dominican Republic, was mixed. A striped, one-shoulder dress boasted elegant island charm, as did a sheer frock with cream-coloured flowers woven throughout. But a lot of it was inordinately busy, and the beach-chic impression soon dropped off. One got the sense that Gordon, Kim and Garcia might still be wrestling with the weight of their respective inherited legacies; it is not easy to meld many decades’ worth of someone else’s aesthetic with one’s own.

Proenza Schouler
Proenza Schouler © Jason Lloyd-Evans
Carolina Herrera
Carolina Herrera © Jason Lloyd-Evans

Another comparatively flat example was the three-and-a-half-year-old brand Sies Marjan. Designer Sander Lak’s offering, with embossed faux-croc pieces, flowing but arduous dresses in jewel tones, and too much overarching variety, was missing the smarter colour-play and collectibility of his earlier work. A cannon-shot of metallic confetti that concluded Lak’s show failed to deliver the necessary crackle.

Younger, on-the-rise brands also had mixed results. Matthew Adams Dolan unveiled a smooth, shirting-focused collection, much of which had a toned-down, lasting appeal. Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond delivered a beautiful and moving performance, as part of an homage to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was a queer black woman who was a major early figure in rock-and-roll music, whose legacy has been under-recognised in the years since. The clothes, though, looked less impactful (see piano key motifs and a lapel sculpted like the contour of an electric guitar). Meanwhile, Area, by Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk, was gimmicky and unfocused. Dresses made of vertically bound tubes walked alongside netted crystal-embellished pieces or chains with characters from different languages. It didn’t adhere, though individually, there were some engaging items, like a pair of trousers that broke into botanical crystallised vines.

Given the balance between the enduring and the ephemeral, and a sense of genuine elation versus manufactured idealism, we’ll say it was an unsteady week — but a nicely challenging one, all the same. And, ultimately, it’s what the buyers think that counts for a lot. Kristen Cole, the president and woman in charge of Forty Five Ten — an influential Dallas-founded boutique with outposts in New York, Aspen, and more — felt uplifted: “New York had beautiful clothes with little irony. I felt a certain joie de vivre back in fashion. So far, spring feels like a breath of fresh air.”

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