On the Runways To Other Worlds

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Fashion can often seem like an alternative cosmos, or a trip through the looking glass — say, when you are standing in Central Park and a three-story hologram of a runway appears, as it did Monday at the Ralph Lauren Polo show. Or when a Mad Hatter’s garden party is held, complete with girls dressed as shuttlecocks and badminton rackets and daisy chains, as it was at Thom Browne.

Forget the Twilight Zone; this is the fashion zone. Midway through the New York shows, we were well into it. Even collections nominally inspired by real places had an otherworldly feel.

A viewer could be forgiven, for example, for reading Donna Karan’s show notes about New York as an inspiration (OK, actually a “my palette, my passion, my fuel,” but let’s paraphrase) and then nodding in recognition as neatly belted graffiti-print shirtdresses appeared — only to grow increasingly puzzled as crisscross bra tops and full 1950s skirts followed, as well as raffia suiting and fishtail ball-skirts with a salsa air (or flair?). All topped by Cat-in-the-Hat towering millinery.

It felt fresh and, some bathing suit chiffons aside, largely straightforward, but it did raise the question: What New York do you live in?

The New York of the mind, of course. These reality gaps are often cited as proof of fashion’s out-of-touch-ness, mocked as examples of its outsize preference for fantasy. But they actually illuminate as much as they obfuscate. And what they show (and tell, in the case of Browne, who set his collection to an original short story about six very different sisters read by Diane Keaton) is simple: We all create universes of our own and costume ourselves for them.

You could see it at Zero & Maria Cornejo, where a play on asymmetry was apparently rooted in Cornejo’s youthful European travels, but the landscape — one-shouldered white tanks that skimmed the body on the diagonal over easy leather pants; lace-trimmed tank dresses that wrapped around on the bias like a fresh-faced snake — was carved in her image.

And you could see it at Rodarte, where Kate and Laura Mulleavy often appear to live inside their own imaginations, which exist on a plane pretty far removed from the quotidian business of getting dressed. It’s astonishingly fertile territory.

Indeed, watching their spring collection was like watching a sped-up stop-motion film, as one idea grew into another grew into another: New Romantic ruffled pirate shirts over skintight high-waist jeans worn under over-the-knee lace-up boots, which rode a wave to terrific fishnet and canvas and crystal jackets (Ahab gone glam), which became sliced-out naiad-ready dresses of net and sequins and embroidery, which led to longer, more lavish versions of the same dangling chiffon seaweed fronds.

We all have our happy places — Vera Wang went to hers with a series of highly worked LBBDs (little baroque black dresses), black trouser suits with pleated or otherwise fraught peplums and flowing tentlike evening gowns — but this seascape was somewhere to settle.

It was Browne and his tour de force of a garden party, however, that summed up the point most succinctly.

Working within the confines of a consciously limited group of basic shapes — three-piece trouser suits, squared-off skirt suits, neat coats, little dresses — he created seemingly limitless options for multiple personalities in a variety of mixed media.

There was reined-in and toned-down houndstooth suiting over-embroidered in acres of winking monochrome violets; pastel floral silkscreens on skirts and T-shirts paved in beading; and outlandish numbers bristling feathers like a cage, or half-enclosed in silver plating.

There were shaved fur shifts and rainbow-tinted abstract expressionist coats; terry tennis car coats and patent princess ones. And just when you thought he might have exhausted his iterations, out came some more. The technical prowess alone was extraordinary, but it was the point that carried the most punch.

In the past, Browne has played the provocateur of New York Fashion Week, reveling in showmanship and challenging the concept of wearability. This time around he seemed to set out to prove he had the basics in a lock.

But here’s the thing: There were worlds within each one.