A Season That Defies Its Own Description
c.2014 New York Times News Service
So we come to the end of that interminable, puzzling, ill-defined womenswear season that is known as pre-spring — or almost the end, to be absolutely accurate; there are a few more shows dribbling out after the menswear spring 2015 collections begin in London this weekend. But you have to draw a line somewhere. And having drawn it, we are left with ... what exactly?
Some nice, non-challenging clothes, a thread of nautical-meets-1970s and an industrywide identity crisis.
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It began a month ago with a big bang when Christian Dior came to the Brooklyn Navy Yard with its show of silk scarf dresses and New Look Bar jackets, shaved fur coats and lacy frocks. It moved to Monaco days later when Louis Vuitton held its inaugural resort presentation of neat silhouettes with look-at-me prints, then on to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, courtesy of Chanel and its bouquets of bouclés and florals, Ottoman Empire golds and Poiret flounces. It landed back in New York last week with a flurry of smaller presentations and mini-runway shows from U.S. and European brands (though not all European brands).
Some of the presentations took place in galleries, some took place in showrooms, some took place in stores, and some included an up-close-and-personal designer narration. And some were not called pre-spring at all but, depending on the brand, “cruise” or “resort” or simply “pre-collection” or —
“It’s called, ‘Everyone is confused!’” Ralph Lauren announced after his mini-show of tightly edited navy-and-white polka-dot and striped classics with eye-poppingly unabashed accents of gold, held in his Madison Avenue flagship. “Cruise means beach, and ‘pre’ means you can ship early. As a retailer, I like that, but as a designer, I find it difficult. I dug my own grave.”
Gucci’s creative director, Frida Giannini, agreed. “It’s very confusing for us,” she said in her suite at the Carlyle hotel, where she showed her collection of pastel cashmeres, clownishly oversize sailor bottoms and a terrific new take on her signature Flora print, best in a swishy spaghetti-strap sundress.
“I mean, resort? That’s such a crazy phrase,” said Michael Kors, who had a series of small presentations in his showroom complete with a running monologue as backdrop to a collection of sweet white eyelet dresses, sable-lined anoraks and tie-dyed suede flares. “Are we talking Palm Beach resort? Phuket resort?”
“And it lasts forever,” Carolina Herrera said, laughing, during her presentation-cum-cocktail party in her Seventh Avenue showroom. To wit, there was an understated double-face cashmere wrap coat and skirt that will go into her stores in October and daisy-strewn organza ball gowns and long silk dresses made for dancing under the stars in January.
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Once upon a time, a cruise collection was just that: a niche drop of product that went into stores in December to provide a little taste of the new after the fall lines had been exhausted and before spring was delivered, and was designed with a holiday destination in mind. But as stores began demanding product earlier and earlier, sales gradually got reversed, and now the pre-collections (the current pre-spring and pre-fall, which takes place from December to January) make up approximately 70 percent of a label’s seasonal revenue, because they are on shelves at full price for a full four months. Spring, by contrast, delivers in February and is on sale by May.
Yet the industry itself cannot agree on what exactly is pre-spring (let’s just call it that for logic’s sake). Indeed, last season Phoebe Philo of Céline decided to put her foot down, and not only stop bringing her pre-collections to New York, but also stop releasing any pictures of them until the products actually go into stores. Which was interesting, given that Céline is owned by LVMH, which also owns Louis Vuitton (and is in turn owned by Dior), two brands championing the opposite approach.
It is, as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song goes, a puzzlement.
Part of the tension is economic; only a few brands have the financial muscle to take a collection on the road and then put on a mega-show like Chanel, especially given that the media-client ratio in the audience is 1-2, and that many of those VICs (very important clients) have been brought by the brand as a treat, or a form of direct marketing.
Part of it is temporal: Since pre-spring is a bridge season meant to be worn as soon as it is bought, and clothes go into the stores just as there is a chill in the air, it needs to include cold-weather garments as well as beach-worthy ones. But most of it is aesthetic.
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The pre-collections are defined, if they are defined by anything, as “clothes for people to wear,” and clothes for people to wear are generally not clothes that make a big design statement, and hence not clothes that designers think they necessarily want to “present.” This is part of why most brands show an abbreviated selection of looks to the critical public, though the collections are, said Frederick Lukoff, the chief executive of Stella McCartney, during its party/presentation, complete with living statues posing by models wearing print-heavy (though conceptually lighthearted) cutout sundresses and jumpsuits, “exactly” the same size as the spring main line.
Of course, as with all things resort, there is no real norm. Ralph Lauren had 36 looks in his pre-spring show, for example; Dior, 66; Balenciaga 24; Chanel, 84. Go figure.
Put another way, after a round of runway shows, it is usually easy to identify the bag of the season, or the defining silhouette, but after five weeks of resort, no revolutionary look or “it” item sticks out, though a few trends have emerged.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In some ways, in fact, it is a consumer-sensitive thing, responsive to women who simply want to put on a beautiful garment and not become a walking billboard for someone else’s “statement.” As Donna Karan said, showing off her “boudoir to black tie” collection of many easy pieces (diaphanous cardigans, slouchy silk cargo pants, airy dresses), “there’s less pressure with these clothes.”
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And in that respect, among all the identity crises, a number of themes did emerge. The mood, for example, was largely, if not surprisingly, seaside-inspired, from skinny sailor pants and transformational peacoats (giant collars attach and detach at will) at Joseph Altuzarra to aquatic prints at Louis Vuitton and nautical stripes at Thakoon; at Balenciaga, the trapeze capes and sailcloth canvas miniskirts were worn with wellies; and a Japanese surf-palette marked Proenza Schouler’s cool skating dresses with dropped obi belts and rounded, oversize overcoats. For those in a different holiday mindset, safari also played a role, as in a Burberry skirt with big suede patch pockets or double-breasted trench with oversize horn buttons. Then there were florals, surprisingly romantic at Narciso Rodriguez and regal at Oscar de la Renta.
The 1960s-’70s segue was the time reference to watch, best in Derek Lam’s neat color-block dresses, Jason Wu’s little skirt suits and a multitude of flared trousers from Diane von Furstenberg (brightly colored jersey rooted in memories of Stephen Burrows), though the 1960s lolly-popped up in retro-flavored velvet mini dresses at Marc Jacobs and geometric print versions of the same at Versace.
Possibly the single most universal garment was the shirtdress, bias-cut and with contrast collar at Gucci, minimally white at Balenciaga and ready for evening at Carolina Herrera. For fabrics, it was luxury denim — in a skirt-and-jacket combo at Acne Studios, for example — or skins, especially suede and leather, which seemed pretty much every designer’s solution to the trans-seasonal problem. So there was matte pink snakeskin at Reed Krakoff, a studded suede tank and not-quite-matching leather skirt at Lanvin and a bright gold leather suit at Ralph Lauren.
Of course, none of this is going to upend anyone’s wardrobe, but arguably that is the point. According to Alber Elbaz, who may have started the whole pre-collection wave when he decided to hold presentations of the Lanvin resort lines in the Crillon hotel in Paris 12 years ago, this particular not-quite season is actually “not about showing.”
“It’s about sharing,” Elbaz said, explaining his decision to jettison his plan for “28 models and two pianos and important piano players” in favor of a much less portentous mini-show of lavish evening skirts with paper-bag-ruffled waists; four-layer tulle day dresses and striped shifts; and T-shirts and skirts and jackets made of cupro linen with an oily, easy sheen.
It’s “not about creating perfection, because life is not perfect,” he said. “And fashion is about life.”