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NEW YORK — Only in fashion do people think they can evolve by going backward. Designers either want the energy of a bygone youth culture or, as the phrase goes, they want to "return to their roots." To a fan of music or the movies, this would be like getting a new impersonation of Jagger or Brando every six months.
The reasons for this dilemma are pretty clear. Many designers don't have faith in the future, in part because very few fashion and retail companies operate with a long-term view. Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton are obvious exceptions. How bold can young designers be if a department store agrees to take their stuff only on consignment rather than buy it outright and share the risk? And if a brand can make a lot more profit in its outlet stores than in its mainline boutiques, why wouldn't it stage a big, noisy runway show if it will guarantee news media attention while camouflaging a lack of ideas?
Then there's the present. Things are changing so fast that people don't know how to respond intelligently. Also there's a lot of schlock around. How can one get inspired? I laughed when I saw someone describe the current street scene as "baroque." That's putting a happy face on it.
Like Washington, the fashion industry has too many special-interest reasons it can't move forward. Usually they involve the bottom line.
So I tip my hat this season to Tracy Reese and Phillip Lim. They may not be the best-known or most creative designers, but at least they're not trying to fool anybody.
Reese let rip with loud, multicolor animal prints. Lim did these big patchwork shearling coats that looked as if you rolled up in your bathroom rug and then hit your elbow while dying your hair at the sink. But they looked as good as any of the strange things you see on the street, maybe better.
Wes Gordon didn't set out to evoke the Rolling Stones of the late '60s, but, as the designer said Monday night at the Gramercy Theater, "I wanted to push things further." Why does that often mean the '60s and '70s?
Up to now Gordon has been dressing rich millennials, as well as some of their mothers. His clothes are tasteful despite his own assessment that maybe they have been "two-dimensional."
The real trouble is Gordon is 26. He doesn't know what he wants, and that's OK. This collection of canary-yellow flares and gold rocker outfits and pink cellophane blouses reflected a man who wants more emotion out of his work, and probably his life. How can that not be interesting, on some level? Besides, there are worse things than a trashy top and brocade pants. He could be designing satin ballgowns. I just wish he didn't have to go back to the '60s.
In one way or another, Donna Karan has been returning to her "seven easy pieces" concept of the mid-80s for a while. Yet this collection of scarf-draped body dresses in black jersey and fitted wool jackets was boilerplate rather than evolutionary. Coats in brown devore calfhair were keepers, as were knits and frothy shearlings. It's tough to design for a long time, and I keep thinking that what Karan needs to be inspired is not more women like herself but maybe some different ones.
Some bloggers, I notice, are bemoaning that fact that Olivier Theyskens designs contemporary-casual rather than couture. But what I bemoan is that I can never find his cooler Theory runway looks in stores, leading me to believe they were never produced. This collection was fairly pokey, but I'll live in hope that I can snag a loose-back sweater and the stovepipe boots.