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c.2013 New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — It's a cherished maxim in the retail trade. "Buyers tell me all the time that their customers like things with stuff on it," said Sharon Graubard, a fashion trend forecaster in New York. How else to explain collections last year that groaned with fancy trims: faux gems, fringe and enough gilt to trick out a mini-Versailles?
You could all but hear those merchants goading designers to pile on the frills.
But Graubard, for one, isn't buying it. "Consumers are getting sophisticated enough to understand pure design," she said. "They don't need junk on their clothes to feel like they're getting bang for their buck."
She shares with plenty of industry insiders a conviction that this week, as Fashion Week begins, the runways will reflect those evolving tastes as designers purge their collections of showy trims and cacophonous prints in favor of a pared-down, genteelly nuanced look.
''For fall, we're going to see a sobering up, less hoopla, less bling," said Stephanie Solomon, the fashion director of Bloomingdale's. Several seasons of frivolity, she said, are about to give way to restraint and, among consumers young or not so young, a heightened attention to overlooked features like shape, proportion and fit.
''The public's eye changes," said Colleen Sherin, the senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, pointing out that seasoned shoppers have grown increasingly appreciative of tailoring, construction and couture dressmaker touches. Some of those shoppers are especially receptive to the proliferation of suits, intricately seamed and rendered in substantial fabrics that look all the more opulent when the beads, appliques and embroideries are stripped away.
If rigorously streamlined looks strained last season to compete with lavish embellishments, today the scales are tipping in favor of an understated look brought to life by well-considered details like asymmetric necklines, reverse lapels and exaggerated collars that signal, as Sherin said, "that we are moving into a new cycle."
Just don't call it minimalism.
Jil Sander, who returned to her label last fall after an absence of nearly a decade, preferred the word "purity" to characterize a spring presentation of spare but luxurious sleeveless coatdresses, shifts with elliptical sleeves and curved backs, and a parade of her signature pristine white shirts.
''Most influential designers today are known for simplicity," said Jeffrey Kalinsky, the executive vice president for designer merchandising at Nordstrom, citing Phoebe Philo of Celine and Raf Simons, whose seeming straightforwardness is actually the product of deft cutting and brash experiments with volume and proportion, and a near-compulsive attention to detail.
''The future is about new construction," Francisco Costa declared just after presenting a Calvin Klein prefall collection of artfully tailored jackets with narrow shoulders and coats with arced outlines shaped from spongy fabrics like double-faced cashmere, rubberized vinyl and leather.
To some, those words have a freshly persuasive ring. In recent seasons, the voluminous cuts and geometric precision of a designer like Costa felt out of step, Graubard said. "Now their clean look suddenly feels right," she said. "You feel that they're leading the way."
Other prefall collections shown last month similarly hinted that autumn would usher in a more serene, though hardly austere, approach to dress. Alexander Wang unveiled a selection of Donegal tweeds, their plainness discreetly relieved by leather shawl collars, and a series of strikingly unfussy dresses embellished with little more than swags of fabric draped bandoleer style across the chest.
Narciso Rodriguez used color as embellishment, working subtle gradations of red in a leather tunic and trousers. At Bottega Veneta, fabrics were double-faced, lending jackets and dresses new firmness and structure. An otherwise unadorned sheath was sauced up at the hip with diminutive ruffles, a modified take on the peplum.
A focus on structure and volume has a sculptural, even architectural, impact. It isn't by chance that Consuelo Castiglioni made reference in her recent Marni presentations to Italian architect Carlo Mollino as well as to the Bauhaus school, her shapes more rigid than conventionally rounded.
None of this arises in a vacuum, of course. Alvar Aalto's voluptuously curvy vases, Arne Jacobsen's cocooning egg chair, Richard Lautner's glass-walled houses in Palm Springs, Calif. — these and other aesthetic emblems of postwar design have cast a spell on fashion, representing a period when designers and architects found new ways to manipulate familiar, even purely functional, materials. Their groundbreaking influence has been highlighted in recent exhibitions, like the one at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York last winter that explored furniture and sculptures made of paper and bent wood by George Nakashima and Isamu Noguchi.
The Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert, Calif., introduced, among other works, the furniture of contemporary designer Tokujin Yoshioka, who revisited Modernist themes, working in paper of all things. It's an impulse akin to a fashion designer shearing, modeling and gussying up the serviceable likes of padded vinyl or neoprene.
Yoshioka likes to stress details. A particularly memorable work is a Parsons-like table, rigorously plain in all but its corners, which are modeled to look like faceted diamonds. "It's as if Tokujin is saying: 'Look at the corner, don't move beyond that. I don't want to show you any more,'" said Murray Moss, the influential curator of provocative contemporary design. "We're talking about nuance here."
In fashion, such subtleties have antecedents in the work of Charles James, whose capes and ballgown, shown in a retrospective last spring at the Chicago History Museum, were often so structured they almost stood on their own. Moss recalled one dress in particular, unembellished save for a single serpentine seam. "That seam — that's what was celebrated," he said. "People couldn't get over it, so hugely did it contrast with all the feathers and bows everyone else was doing at the time."
As freshly relevant now are the fashions of Ronaldus Shamask, Moss' onetime creative partner, whose 1980s creations, including the influential spiral jacket, cut from a single piece of cloth pieced together with one tortuously curving seam, are on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In a world of increasing complexity, focusing on an isolated detail can be reassuring. "We've come to a point when even the tools made available to us can make us feel like simpletons," Moss said in reference to the tablets, cellphones and outsize flat-screen TVs that require hefty manuals to explain their operation.
By contrast, design that draws the eye to a single gesture can make us feel that we get it. That notion extends to fashion as well. Simplified pieces "can make us feel smart," Moss said. "Isn't that one reason people buy clothes?"