As Old (and New) as Time

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — It happened just before Marc by Marc Jacobs: the big style innovation the world was waiting for, the accessory that was to be a game changer, the most anticipated debut of the season, the Apple Watch, finally appeared.

Admittedly, it also happened thousands of miles away from New York, but what’s a little distance between fashion friends? Especially when the aesthetic message is so very much the same.

For what the watch, which is shocking because it looks so much like a traditional watch, proved on the West Coast was the same thing the catwalks demonstrated on the East Coast: namely, that in fashion, as in literature, the structures that were created long ago still hold us in their thrall, be it the chronograph or the cocktail frock or the Odyssey.

Everything else is just tweaks: some good, as with Sophie Theallet’s provocative pairing of St.-Tropez sundresses and intarsia knit separates with Rasta colors and tropical prints; some questionable, as with Michael Kors’ cap sleeves, which hit just at that part of the shoulder that makes your upper arm look widest; and some with improved functionality, as with Narciso Rodriguez’s high-waist, high-energy trousers, built for speed. Why mess with a good thing?

Those sleeves aside, Kors generally doesn’t. It is one of the reasons he tends to get dismissed with that dread fashion word “accessible” (often synonymous with “commercial,” aka “popular,” which may explain why he is shrugging his way to the bank). Kors is OK with not reinventing the wheel — or the button-down shirt or the trench, to be accurate — just recombining and dressing it up in another theme.

This season, that meant the “iconic American attitude of Agnes de Mille’s choreography ... the casual elegance of Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs” (that’s from the show notes), and if you find that hard to imagine, just think white cotton pullovers atop full white skirts; striped men’s wear shirting paired with layers of tulle sprouting a field of three-dimensional marigolds; bright peony prints on lawn-party dresses; organza plaid shirtdresses and tailored denim.

It might not make anyone’s jaw drop in astonishment (shiver me timbers: a circle skirt), but in its casual confidence reflects our own attraction to the familiar. We can debate its merits, but you can’t deny it exists. Just cherchez your own closet.

Or celebrate it, the approach of Oscar de la Renta. Once upon a time, de la Renta was a couturier in Paris, and that experience in the atelier has never left him: he has a respect for the classic forms (lunching suits, tea dresses, straight trousers — even full-blown ball gowns) that is almost palpable, not to mention an appreciation of the power of decoration and the allure it can bestow.

Witness oversize pastel gingham pencil skirts with cropped lace tops and contrasting gingham car coats; tailored pants paired with a nautical sweater, overlaid in clear sequins for shine and finished in floating ostrich feathers; sleeveless full-skirted organza cocktail dresses blooming with a garden of tiny roses and irises; heavy bell-shaped rose and coral silk faille fishtail skirts paired with contrasting bandeaus or blouses; and a daisy-covered gazar gown, the flowers just unpretentious enough to balance the grandeur of the dress.

Between acceptance and iconization, however, is a third approach: exposure. For this, see Rodriguez, who has made a signature out of reducing archetypal forms to their essence: narrow trousers, bathing suit tops, shift dresses.

For spring, they were even more stripped down than usual: made from neoprene, impatient with fuss and largely monochrome. Dresses were sleeveless, cut deep into a V at the neck, and skirts were filmy and throwaway, hems rippling on the diagonal over the knee. When color came into it, as it did in teal and shell pink and rust, it was as off-center inserts dripping down the sides of sleeveless dresses, the better to expose the seams, or as carefully placed waves of beading undulating across an otherwise plain torso.

It was rigorously engineered and elegant, and when a finale of mid-calf spaghetti-strap frocks, the waists emphasized by a spreading inkblot of sparkling jet appeared, modernism in a classical mode, it was hard not to think: This is just what those watchmakers and hardware geniuses in Cupertino had in mind.