Looks That Are Up to the Job

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — No designer today can ignore the working woman. She is the one who demands the practicality (leaving aside perilously high heels) that was once reserved for the male of the species. So the conundrum becomes how to create appropriate clothes that still keep their feminine essence. That was the subject of three very different collections during New York Fashion Week for fall 2014.

Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the Rodarte sisters, have taken a meandering path from their magical start with arty craft and a passion for horror movies, shifting to more banal influences from their native California. The fall season had bright 1970s colors like mustard and orange, as well as glitter Lurex coats in turquoise, orange and shocking pink, all competing with a circular show set of neon pipes.

No one could describe that intense place between childhood and becoming an adult as a “comfort zone.” But the Mulleavys have a way of exploring the nervy intensity of a child dressing up in fancy finery, hinting at the first stirrings of sexuality. All that was present, but with charm: knits for berets, shoulder capes and stoles, which were worn as if they had been borrowed from Mom, as well as dressy tunics and high-waist pants.

The show moved into pastel chiffon dresses and finally the special items: iconic “Star Wars” figures, including Luke Skywalker, digitally printed on dresses.

“Childhood nostalgia is everything we cared about and were interested in when we were kids,” Kate Mulleavy said backstage, while her sister added that “Star Wars” “had to be a part of it.”

This collection was not exactly a coming-of-age for Rodarte, given that the sisters seem mired in their childhood experiences. Yet it was a moment at peace with the idea of merchandising their creativity.

Oscar de la Renta closed his collection with swooshing ballgowns for the Cinderella set, all body-conscious tops with skirts spreading into pools at the back. But before the grandeur and the polite cocktail dresses in never-too-transparent lace, the designer had offered something subversive, at least for him: outfits to wear for work.

Could that really have been an upscale version of the onesie: a pinstriped flannel jumpsuit, along with an oversize version of the ubiquitous down vest? The tough tailoring and streamlined pants suggested not so much ladies who lunch, but those who hunch over a smartphone with a takeout salad. Of course there were still shimmering crystal earrings and cocktail attire, but they, too, are part of some working women’s lives.

Narciso Rodriguez is an exceptionally talented cutter with an ability to make the complex seem simple. Whether for the vibrant red dresses and coats that opened the show or for bonded silk dresses, there is a sculptural purity to his designs. The designer talked backstage about the influence that the angular bronzes of the British sculptor Lynn Chadwick had had on his work. They were reflected in the subtle seaming that flattened the front and loosened the back.

The result was superrefined minimalism, its chilly clarity warmed this season by russet colors, like layering a wine dress over a chestnut brown underskirt or perhaps an oxidized bronze bodice lightening a moss green dress. The construction of the clothes, so apparently simple, was masterly, and Rodriguez clearly has dedicated himself to adding a new kind of elegance to work wear.

And yet these clothes required a touch of freedom. Surely tireless executives could appear in flat or even low-heeled shoes. After all, there should be room in a working wardrobe for little touches of girlishness or something you could wear to leave the boardroom early and go out to dance.