NYFW SS 2015: Creatures of Comfort

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It’s always tricky when retailers launch their own wholesale label. They have to set their line apart from what they already stock while still embodying the experience of the whole store. It can go wrong for many number of reasons but often it’s because retailers treat the label like floor filler to plug the holes of their merchandising scheme and not as a separate and proper business that calls for proper clothes. When it goes right, which it surely did for Creatures of Comfort, you get an accurate synthesis of a retailer’s identity into a collection and, more importantly, a studied and developed offering of wardrobe solutions. They are retailers after all and you’d hope that any store with such a distinct point-of-view would have a strong and empowering idea of their patrons. And if they are doing their job correctly they should have a pretty good insight on what his or her deepest needs and dreams are. And if they have a handle on that they should probably cut to the chase and make the clothes direct. It must be said that the clothes at Creatures of Comfort were more than proper.

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Who is the Creatures of Comfort woman? I suppose that cliché question is the first abstract to be addressed when looking at a runway interpretation of a retailer’s vision. The store gives you a strong idea but the new collection is far more expansive and precise. I had a hunch from the first look on the runway; a madras shirtdress with a wrap detail in the skirt. My mind immediately went to Claire McCardell (as it would) but it wasn’t until the second look, a silk tank and matching wide pleated pant, that I started to realize the bigger story. As the collection revealed itself it formed into a pretty persuasive proposition on world dress. The CoC woman is not quite a citizen of the world, but as a piece of prose provided in the show notes titled “A Wild Way Awhile” claims, she is “beyond cartographic delineation.”

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I know the mere mention of “world dress” can send you into a Pier 1 Imports nightmare but fend it off and hold on. Consider something like Japanese dress, not the orientalist affectation of a cherry blossom kimono or a geisha, but rather its radical power to deconstruct and reconstruct fashion as designers like Miyake, Yamamoto, and Kawakubo did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then consider South Asian, Southeast Asian and all the vastness of African dress and you get the idea. As Western fashion exhausts itself through endless self-referencing, world dress provides a wellspring of solutions derived by other ways of life, some now extinct. That alternatives to modernized and Westernized life should be so appealing at this point in time is anybody’s guess. In the ‘50s American sportswear designers constantly referenced world dress, particularly costumes of Japan and Southeast Asia and they came up with, what was in their context and time, some pretty radical ideas. They were based on economy. Why have the extra cost and labor of buttons? Just tie it. Why bother with the resource-gobbling construction of traditional dressmaking and tailoring? Just wrap it. These designers sourced a great number of innovations from across the world and adapted them for the Western mode which simultaneously critically reassessed the shifting paradigms of modern dress.

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It was great go see Creatures of Comfort’s Jade Lai wrestle with the same ideas with her interpretation landing somewhere between McCardell and Issey Miyake’s Plantation with a good dose of British New Romanatics ala Westwood and Galliano mixed in. But my personal references aside, it actually read as a collection full of new classics. A skort with an extra-long wrapped panel was both a utilitarian and aesthetic adaptation of Southeast Asian wrap skirts keenly realized for urban life in New York. A long stripped linen car coat, sampled in a few covetable fabrications, seemed just as easy and necessary. There was a range of knit vests, skirts, and dresses that had ease and polish, particularly a knit dress with a placket running down the center back (it made for a memorable exit). And there was a major call for loose pajama dressing– novel today as fashion but obvious for its comfort and grace throughout the rest of the world. The collection shifted between familiar and foreign, always effortless and casual but highly refined with moments of splendor. It did not suggest a different world but perhaps a whole new one. It’s a pretty inviting one Lai has made for her and her customer which now exists well beyond the confines her stores in L.A. and New York. “This is where I’m meant to be, she thinks” reads the ending to the prose, “where I’ll be for a while.” I can’t blame her and I don’t think many women will be able to, either.

Images by Shawn Brackbill courtesy of Creatures of Comfort.

NYFW SS 2015: Adam Lippes

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The thing about Adam Lippes’s clothes, what makes them so striking to behold and what look book images cannot show you, are the details. Working in unison with his appropriately classic but deceptively modern shapes, they are a whisper of opulent restraint. No heavy-handed embellishment. No unruly color. And (thank the stars) no prints (they would sully the clothes). For Lippes elegance is, as Chanel said, refusal. What he decides to leave in the garment, what makes the cut so-to-speak, is so perfectly conceived, balanced, and finished that the entire garment emanates a perversely urgent feeling of desire.

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One piece that illustrates this best is a simple silk crepe T in alabaster pink. It’s perhaps the most basic piece in all the collection, not anything especially new, yet, the proportion of the stitching along the hem and neckline was so cleverly spaced as to activate an even more flattering proportion with the slope of the sleeve and the width of neck that it could make almost any woman, be she slim or thick, beautiful or homely, young or old immediately look brighter, prettier, shapelier and possibly even smarter once worn. The fabric was so luxuriously lush, the bottom and sleeve hems were so perfectly finished and the cherry on top, the piece de resistance, was the buttonless henley-style placket with a single fringed silk tie looped through the top buttonhole. Lippes makes the mundane so magnificent. What else is luxury good for?

Another moment of micro drama was a row of hook and eye closures set in silk grossgrain on the side vent of a black sweater knit. It is, to the undiscerning eye, a nothing piece. But so beautifully knitted with the finest yarn, so smartly trimmed with the most classic notions, the whole garment is elevated beyond its ordinary functions. Its presence so striking I imagine one could wear it in lieu of an evening dress and very likely be the best dressed of the night. However, Lippes’s actual thoughts for evening are a just as potent. There was a white silk racerback floor length gown with a fringed tassel hanging from one shoulder strap. It had pockets (yes, pockets!) and the most wonderful detail yet: a single French seam running down the complete length of the center back. Is it a construction line he beautified? Is it purely decorative? I didn’t ask and I didn’t care. God was in the details and it was divine.

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All the fringe came from inspiration taken from Moroccan textiles, namely carpets. And though this theme was iterated throughout the collection rather tastefully it had its most inventive realization in what was surely the masterwork of the entire collection: a silk tank dress bordered along its low waist by a floor length curtain of plisse silk. Yards upon yards of hand pleated fabric on such a simple silhouette, in most other designer’s hands this would be an abomination with the overwrought manipulated fabric destroying the natural ease and modernity of the base structure. But done by Lippes it is a quiet affair no more bulky or assuming than a slip, that is until the dress is in movement and all the layers of silk release and expand into a glorious flutter worthy of a bird of paradise. I could watch that dress in slow motion with a Philip Glass soundtrack and be very content for a while.

Lippes’s clothes are beautiful and immaculate. His hand loomed silk jacquards, his hand tailored jackets, his plisse gowns; they are the epitome of modern luxury but they are precious almost to a fault. His clothes are so fine that while it is easy to imagine any woman wearing them it was more difficult this time around to see her living in them. Lippes has a hand for luxury and leisure, one that will make this collection a sure hit, but it would have been nice to see clothes that might be improved with a bit of dirt and grime, something sturdier that wouldn’t be so out of place on a subway car. Perhaps I am asking too much, but I’d like to a see a woman dressed by Lippes for all of life’s occasions and I’m sure he would, too.

NYFW SS 2015: Siki Im

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Siki Im is as much a storyteller as he is a designer. His collections are narratives, sometimes autobiographical, always personal, and often laden with modern metaphors. These narratives can be complicated, so much so that Im provided a reference guide which this season included William Gibson, Jean Baudrillard and Disney’s WALL-E. The intrigue began well before the clothes came out.

Printed in the show notes was a thesis on the implications of technology on human interaction and its effect on fashion. With advanced developments in personal computers, robotics and artificial intelligence, human interaction has theoretically become utterly avoidable. Through isolation, humanity risks being reduced to a mere concept, a “rational idealism.” But humanity is not rational, it is “idiosyncratic,” and the idea of human interaction disappearing altogether is, as Im says, “irrealizable.” Clothes, worn on the body, are rooted in human emotion and ultimately fashion “appraises” technology, giving it value rather than bending to its presence, “fashion lives beyond technology not within.” And so clothes become an increasingly important expression of our humanity.

It’s a potent thesis not just for its philosophical and psychological implication but for the simple fact that it made for some pretty amazing clothes.

 

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My personal favorite Robotech designs – J.L.

What is modern dress in this technological age? Im addressed it by turning to his personal experience and took inspiration from the 1985 anime show Robotech. For those unfamiliar, Robotech was a Japanese sci-fi show about manned giant humanoid robots called Mecha which are used to fight an alien invasion. The show is especially known for its extremely intricate and stylized animation design which enjoys a huge international fan base of admirers who build their own 3-D model Mechas, often with a level of detail fit for an Industrial Light & Magic production. Im translated these robotic forms, essentially fantasy concepts for human body extensions, into garments.

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Showcasing his virtuous talent in cut and construction, he reverse engineered these bold designs into their fundamental geometry and applied them with Vionnet-like cunning to cloth. His translation is extraordinary. Im avoided any retro-futurist clichés like body armor or neoprene and the end result was a series of subtle and sensuous shapes built in linen, cotton and silk. His expert engineering is masked by the graceful ease of sumptuous, fluid and tactile fabric. It’s just the fix you’d need against the dispassionate machine.

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Last season Im was inspired by the German Krautrock music movement and this season he further indulged the relaxed line of the ‘70s. Elongated soft jackets in stripe and seersucker, “neoteric” medieval tunics, loose flowing pants in cotton voile and gossamer silk; it was a softer side of Im never seen before. The collection was styled into the archetypal dandy, not unlike Quentin Crisp circa 1979 if he were dressed by Armani. Mixed in were streetwear memes which Im has touched on many times before. Both pastoral and aggressive, hyper masculine yet feminine, the contradictions presented as Im’s propositions on volume and soft dressing danced between these two archetypes was stirring. And if all the philosophizing grew too heavy, bursts of tie dye and fuchsia interrupted any overt seriousness. As the boys marched down the runway, as their pants poured over their legs with the rhythm and flow of a whirling dervish, and as the heavy electronic track boomed overhead, this season’s story turned out to be a page-turner.

In the end Im’s narrative set up a powerful metaphor: that advanced robotic technology could be transmuted into an immensely humanistic expression. The designer is breaking down our stagnant ideas on futurist dress and imbuing them with a truth and a reality that is so breathtakingly gorgeous. Perhaps more than a storyteller Im is a poet. And beyond that he’s a world class talent.

NYFW SS 15: Hood By Air

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Photography by Walter Pearce, all rights reserved.

Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver is in a precarious position. He has won the attention of international fashion’s governing cabal. He has built a thriving business of logo branded knits. His clothes are worn by some of the music world’s most influential celebrities. And he has single handedly written a new chapter in the long history of American fashion. But that cabal of fashion businessmen and editors have their attentions split thin, the youths who buy his clothes in droves are fickle, the celebrities even more so, and his aesthetic, so ubiquitous, grows increasingly familiar. The pressures for him to expand his business and scope while still remaining true to his core values are mounting.  It’s an exciting but challenging time, but I think he’s more than up for it.

In his first showing since winning the LVMH runner up prize Oliver returned to many of his go-to tropes. Present were the Jean Paul Gaultier and Helmut Lang-isms that have so heavily informed the HBA codes. Present were his ingenious riffs on urban dress and gender identity. And more than present were the wild theatrics that have made his shows such a hot ticket (there was, to many audience member’s delight, a big dog on the runway). But what was most curious was what felt like an earnest and committed exploration of women’s dress.

Oliver has toyed with the idea in the past either directly or indirectly through his ongoing critical re-contextualizing of masculinity and sexual norms. And though he has shown his clothes on women before, the feeling this time was less Aaliyah in an oversized jersey (as good as she looked) and more Le Smoking by Yves Saint Laurent. The looser, body-averse silhouettes Oliver has sourced from urban/black/hip hop dress, and has deconstructed and reconstructed throughout his career, proved electric when applied to the female form, which Oliver ceded more to its conventional ideal than ever before. Already Oliver has mastered the manipulation of gender appropriateness (with a special knack for reallocating the feminine flourish of freeing fabric to men’s clothes). On a man it was machismo subverted. On a woman the effect is a bit harder to describe.

It unfolds in waves. At first you can’t be sure if the clothes were actually conceived for a woman or if it was a mere styling and casting choice.  But then you realize that categories like “womenswear” or “menswear” mean nothing for a designer who is fluent in the mechanics of both and has engaged each with deft maneuvering and visual wit for years. And then you realize Oliver may have always been a keen womenswear designer, even if he was dressing men. And then there is the hushed glee that overcomes you as you consider his new audience and you entertain the thought of a Vogue socialite dressed to the nines in a Hood by Air ensemble with pumps by Manolo. Manifest Destiny. Let’s see where Oliver’s breadth can go.

The emphasis on womenswear highlighted an overall sophistication in the collection. The shapes were more succinct and concise and there was a more concerned line through all the straps, and wraps, and zips, and cut outs. But, while most of the forms Oliver was playing with were beautifully composed not all were totally finessed. The snaking of form around the body with woven fabric is a dastardly affair. Perfected by old school couturieres like Maggy Rouf and Augustabernard and handled consistently with great effect by few (Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood and Haider Ackermann come to mind), it’s something Oliver will have to learn and develop. And he will. He is a technician, a tinkerer, it is simply a matter of time. The foundation is firm, his will is strong, and his voice is so righteously clear.

NYFW SS 15: Chadwick Bell

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Chadwick Bell is an anathema to his generation. The designer, reared in the ’90s, does not indulge the spectacle and hype so many of his peers have succumb to. A protege of the stalwart Carolina Herrera and the master Ralph Rucci, he is well-versed in the subtleties of excellence and decorum. For the clothes he designs, a quiet approach works best. They need no loud distractions.

Stepping into his studio space at Union Square West, which for that morning had been transformed into a salon, you immediately understood the sophistication and extent of his calm. The whole room, awash in beige and accented with southwestern flora, like Georgia O’Keefe by way of Calvin Klein circa 1984, set an intoxicating mood as the morning light poured in and drenched the intimate group of onlookers. His audience was telling, there was Bethann Hardison and fellow veteran supermodel Karen Bjornson (dressed in a tan suit by the designer). Sitting across the way was F.I.T.’s Patricia Mears. To say these women know clothes is an understatement. They have intimately known some of the best clothes designed in the last 40 years. Their eye is discerning, their taste impeccable. True connoisseurs, these are the women Chadwick calls friends and customers.

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As the solemn but soulful sounds of Cat Power played the first model stepped out from behind the curtain, a vision of wrapped off-white silk crepe. Austere but sensual, highly refined but languid, it set the tone for the collection which was an exercise in pure form. The fabrics Bell uses are delectable: double satin, double wool crepe, triple georgette — each controlled with immense precision. Abstracted and unfettered, Bell let their natural beauty shine through, a restraint which belies master technique in dressmaking and cutting. So reductive, the clothes had an ethnic undertone bringing to mind the ancient shapes of Africa and the Middle East, filtered through a wholly modern vocabulary. The effect of a paneled wool crepe skirt, a series of flaps whipping about the legs, was particularly convincing.

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This season marked a turn for Bell who sought to “build a foundation.”  At a time when “basics” have become a buzzword he beautifully illustrated just how magnificently nuanced a basic can be. Extolling a classical line yet aggressively searching for a future, whether conscious or not, Bell has arrived at the building blocks of a new modern wardrobe. Speaking to the designer after the presentation he almost seemed giddy in explaining that he essentially showed the same look repeatedly throughout the presentation, a continuous variation on a theme. With clothes like these I suppose one look is all you really need.

images courtesy of Chadwick Bell

A Note on Balenciaga

Balenciaga1978A 1978 Balenciaga ad shot by Roland Bianchini at the boutique at 10, ave George-V

When Cristobal Balenciaga retired in 1968 he had already earned a reputation for being a bit stuffy and behind the times. While he dominated the 1950s the next decade saw a more spirited turn in fashion as ascending youth and street influences made his aristocratic posturing appear pompous and his stoic structures seem dowdy. A new generation of designers ventured where Balenciaga would not and the master lost his ground to the likes of Cardin, Saint Laurent and Courreges who were setting a new direction for fashion in the modern age. And when Balenciaga died in 1972 the house that beared his name, like many other great houses founded by brilliant dead designers, was chucked into fashion limbo.

Upon his death Balenciaga’s family sold the business to Hoescht AG, a German chemical company who presumably bought it for its fragrances. Under their management Balenciaga’s fashion prerogative diminished. Once a fashion leader it was licensed into an unremarkable purveyor of abutting double B monogrammed accessories and just-fashionable-enough bourgeois classics. By 1978 it was lost not only among new French names but formidable talents from Italy, The United States, and very quickly Japan. The glory days of Balenciaga were long past and wouldn’t return for another 20 years.

It would be very simple to dismiss the output of the house during this time as the runoff of a disinterested chemical company. You could very easily cite it as a classic case of fashion licensing gone awry. There is perhaps nothing here of value other than that the removal of Balenciaga from the fashion landscape as a major player enabled other talents to rise and fill the void. But then it would be a shame to overlook the curious anomaly that it presents. Balenciaga was a master tailor. His clothes were meticulous constructions built with the precision and consideration of a Corbusier. It was perhaps even his experimentation with structure and volume that launched the Space Age designers into their cosmic fantasies of form. But during the 1970s everything went soft, the line grew long and lean and here we see the codes of Balenciaga reinterpreted for a new time but, possibly because they had no such grand ambitions, without any overt affectation of its fashions. Balenciaga’s wide-cut a-line coats, an essential in his repertoire, is leaned out with long wide-leg pants. Present is his purist precision punctuated by a tasteful printed blouse and a conical Asian style bamboo hat — a nod to ’50s couture glamour. The modernist suggestion of a Balenciaga signature is given a truly modern ease revealing just how eternal his initial propositions could be provided they were adjusted appropriately. At the time such an update probably felt rehashed and probably like a chore, in hindsight it offers a rare and compelling interpretation of Balenciaga’s codes.

This 1978 update of course comes at the insistence of a new minimalist mood in the ’70s that was largely defined by Halston. That the Spanish legend and a good boy from the Midwest could at some point overlap is as much a fluke as it fate. Halston was a great admirer of Balenciaga and sought to instill the master’s purity and minimalist splendor into his own softer and more sensual designs sometimes seeing himself as Balenciaga’s spiritual heir. One could say that many of Halston’s innovations are indebted to Balenciaga, as much as Courreges’s or Ungaro’s in the ’60s. The implication here is powerful not because of what it meant for Halston but what it could mean for defining what a “modern” Balenciaga could be today, particularly now as designers like Pierpaolo Piccioli, Mara Grazia Chiuri, Christophe Lemaire, Veronique Branquinho and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski set a new tone for fashionable luxury classics.

 

Thursday at MAD

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