New York Fashion Week is a different animal than it’s been for a couple of years now. That is to say that the Big Apple is once again EXCITING. Capital letters exciting, as far as fashion week goes. It’s still early days in the Spring/Summer 2019 show calendar but already the shows that have been put out have been promising and inspiring in a way it hasn’t been in a long time.
This season, four big things stood out for me at New York: the new generation of designers, designers sending zeitgeisty socio political messages, new beginnings, and the blockbuster modern greats.
The first can be credited to youth. Thanks to the efforts of the CFDA, the Vogue Fashion Fund, and countless other programs in place to help young designers, there has been an incredible surge of new labels showing on the calendar. Great, because some of these young brands have a real opportunity to stand out in a moment where there is a generational divide amongst the brands and their markets. Better still, because a whole lot of these designers are extremely talented. Which is easy to take for granted in a hype-driven culture that’s quick to sell blurbs of endorsement in an Instagram caption. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it loses the kind of extended vision that helps you see the creative merits of a designer and where they could take things years to come. Longevity, as it were, is still a very valid virtue even as the world speeds up around us.
At Pyer Moss, there was a real palpable sense of celebration. Celebration, unabashedly, of the African American person. And in the hands of Kerby Jean-Raymond, this took a powerful activist slant without sacrificing the beauty of the garments. Jean-Raymond’s inspiration was driven by The Negro Motorist Green Book – a guidebook from the 1930s that aided black travelers by flagging out areas safe for them in an age of rampant and violent racism. He then began imagining “what the African-American experience would look like without the constant threat of racism,” as reported by Vogue Runway’s Chioma Nnadi.
It’s no coincidence that this imaginary alternative is a narrative strongly expounded in this year’s Black Panther – arguably a rallying banner for black people in a wider way than even last year’s Get Out. It’s been a landmark year for black media and culture, and Pyer Moss is tapped right into that venal drive for progress. But yes, the clothes. The designer commissioned paintings from the artist Derrick Adams, which were infused in the collection either abstracted for their plastic visual quality in voluminous and asymmetrical skirts, or printed front and center: on t-shirts, and especially strikingly on a figure-hugging dress. The painting on the dress? A black father cradling a baby. Mundanity. The everyday. It’s radical precisely because it isn’t demanding fair treatment because they are outstanding or special or represent ‘black excellence’, but simply because. And just when you thought these poetic visual displays were enough, out comes a cummerbund with the words “SEE US NOW?” and a t-shirt with “STOP CALLING 911 ON THE CULTURE.” Take notes, Maria Grazia Chiuri. This is a powerful slogan t-shirt with believability. This is how you infuse something as humble as a white tee with power and urgency.
At Chromat, designer Becca McCharen-Tran made diversity her seeming modus operandi. The casting was incredible – there was such a range of body shapes and sizes and women of color in the lineup. But more importantly, I think McCharen-Tran hit a very touchy but critical nerve about the politics of the body. Beyond gender, the male gaze, patriarchy, sexism, feminism, objectification, and all those other battlegrounds, the designer took the story home to the individual self. That is, the construction and presentation of the self. This was an arc set on the theme of a beach, using a graphic print of wet, clingy fabric as a motif. Anyone with a physical insecurity will tell you those clinging folds are a source of fear, panic, and an arch aversion to baring skin. Well, fuck that. Here was a show featuring athletic women, fat women, skinny women – PEOPLE, basically.
The idea of looking attractive in a bathing suit is only as inaccessible to us as we’ve been conditioned to think they are. A beach body is simply a body on a beach. Plain and simple – a wonderful message. I think it’s important, too, that we not forget the personal and individual when we discuss the politics of the female body. The theoretical framework is built for debate and change, but these fashions help to soothe and ease the immediate and the present. It reminded me of the mental and emotional abilities of clothing. And here, I felt the message took a form in these clothes that buzzed with energy and urgency.
Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony are probably some of the earliest tastemakers to define contemporary New York fashion. It was about time, then, that the pair put out a show dedicated to celebrating and uplifting the LGBTQIA+ community. This came in the form of a show in collaboration with Sasha Velour, a New York drag queen and winner of the 9th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The cast was made up entirely of people from the community. Other drag queens were invited to perform and create outfits with the support of Opening Ceremony. It was a lot of fun, and it was also a significant moment that allowed (for starters, at least) drag queens and queer people into the circus of Fashion Week. That’s a slightly absurd thing to say, considering how openly gay the fashion industry is – yet its elitism and snobbery has been of the privileged white kind that has so far neglected the rest, and yes they also are the majority, of the LGBTQIA+ community.
At this point, it doesn’t matter what the clothes Lim and Leon produce for Opening Ceremony – it’s the event and what they create around it. And this time it rang powerfully. Especially so since India has just repealed and done away with the archaic Section 377 of its penal code, legitimizing and legalizing gay sex. This detritus of British colonial history had been used to strike down arguments for the repeal of 377A in Singapore, and the LGBTQIA+ community here now stands nervously as we “try again”, to quote Tommy Koh. The OC show was a tangential affair to this newly revived battle, but it nonetheless adds to a global environment of increasing openness – and who doesn’t love globalism?
Prabal Gurung, for one, showed a collection espousing the very merits of globalism. It’s no understatement to say that the incumbent American President is antithetical to the American dream and the New York ethos of melting pot multiculturalism. But that’s what’s necessary and what makes these metropolitan cities so successful. Gurung is himself a Nepalese, Singapore-born, American designer. That’s a number of cultures strung together. So you could say his collection of colorful, straightforward and multicultural clothes were his way of weaving a social fabric of sorts.
Sarong skirts were mixed with shiny, high-drama beading, and asymmetrical dresses made from gingham plaids with the silhouette of a sari got spliced with sporty cut-out details. East-West, old-new, here-there – the borders were eased for a moment in this show to wonderful effect. It should be noted here too that Gurung cast a diverse lineup that hailed from nearly three dozen countries. Diversity, it should be proven by now, is neither impossible nor a trend. These shows were emboldened by the representation of people of color, and it can no longer be an excuse for brands to blithely choose otherwise.