For Opening Ceremony, an Operatic Curtain Raiser

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

What was it Shakespeare said? “All the world’s a runway, and all the men and women merely players”?

He may as well have. There are barely boards left where fashion shows fear to tread.

When the curtain was raised for Opening Ceremony, the dusty stands where the audience sat, reached through a dark passage on Amsterdam Avenue, were revealed to sit behind the stage of the Met. It was extraordinary to look out onto the gilt and velvet balconies of the opera house, a privilege to take in one of the city’s most beautiful vistas from a soprano’s eye view.

One of the pleasures of the fashion industry, distinct from the pleasures of fashion, is that it can offer experiences like this. Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony are masters of conjuring them. They treat their label as their own imaginarium. From it they’ve coaxed mini-malls and drag strips.

For their latest feat, they made for the stage. Spike Jonze, a longtime friend of the label (which released a capsule collection last year inspired by his film “Her”) and Jonah Hill wrote “100 Percent Lost Cotton,” a 30-minute play about Opening Ceremony’s spring show to serve as Opening Ceremony’s spring show. (A play within a play is Shakespearean, too, but can you build a better “Mousetrap”?) John Cameron Mitchell and Catherine Keener starred as Mr. Leon and Ms. Lim; Elle Fanning and Dree Hemingway as model aspirants. The new OC collection played itself.

It was a surprisingly sour satire of a life in fashion, full of inside jokes about entanglements behind the scenes: crossed wires of love and loneliness, the soul-warping pressures of running a thriving company, the bleakness that is a model’s lot. The spectacle was awesome in its execution, six months in the making. Against that backdrop, any collection would pale. And so it was possible to be dazzled, if a bit depressed, by the effort while acknowledging that pale is what the collection, sprightly and colorful but undercooked, did.

Fashion as entertainment is the order of the day. Mr. Leon and Ms. Lim are ahead of many of their contemporaries in the race to erase the line between the two. But they are not alone. A glance at the front rows of most major fashion shows confirms that they have become full-fledged celebrity events. Edun, owned by the rock star Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, was attended by Rihanna, Daisy Lowe and Gavin Rossdale; Versus Versace, by Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Hudson, Carmelo Anthony and Rihanna (again).

One year in, Danielle Sherman, Edun’s creative director, has managed to find a delicate balance between the African connection that is one of the label’s founding values and a genuine sense of fashion. Eighty-five percent of the spring collection was produced in Africa, largely in Madagascar and Kenya.

But feel-good production won’t energize feel-blah clothes. Sherman, more than her predecessors, has been able to give Edun a fashion personality, one clearly tied to the current vogue for femme-minimalism as practiced by Céline and the Row, where she was on the founding design team. She studded her liquid silhouettes with spots and rings, citing the influence of West African masks and Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots, but kept her touch appreciably light.

A light touch isn’t the hallmark of the house of Versace. It lives loud. Its second label, Versus, has lately become a kind of lab where Donatella Versace engages with younger designers and whoever else takes her fancy. First Christopher Kane, then J.W. Anderson, then the rapper M.I.A. In Anthony Vaccarello, Versace may have found her best match.

At his own label, Vaccarello favors a Versace-esque sex appeal. He is famous for dresses and skirts slit as high on the thigh as swimsuits. “For me it’s the same girl,” he said.

That is an unusual admission from a designer doing double duty, and it may be why this fusion of man and brand felt seamless, and the collection — a selection of which is available online today — refreshing yet on message. Vaccarello grew up steeped in Versace, its Avedon ad campaigns and over-the-top early shows. Which made a reminder that fashion may court celebrities, but for those who worship it, it also mints its own.

“It’s like working with Madonna,” he said of his time with Versace, who took in the after-party in a seat of honor, flanked by Minaj.