What can we expect from the next young designers?

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

NEW YORK — Designer Alexander Wang, celebrating his brand's 10th anniversary, returned to his roots and on Saturday night presented a spring 2016 collection that looked as though it had rolled in off a street corner where the pavement is sticky from booze, a bass line beats heavy and low, and coolhunters stalk their prey.

In a darkened warehouse at Pier 94, brooding models — male and female — lumbered down a runway in oversized hoodies, bomber jackets, pajama shirts and denim that was faded and beaten. The look tapped into the current fascination with gender-free dressing, but it also evoked the do-it-yourself ethos of the street. Occasionally there were flashes of purposeful glamour — a fitted bodice on a slim dress, for instance. But mostly, this was a collection that eschewed polish.

Wang's career took flight thanks to his ability to capture the wrecked look of a young woman the morning after a night of carousing. He might have taken his inspiration from the "walk of shame" but he freed it from any sense of embarrassment or impropriety. His style was proudly louche.

In 2012, Wang became creative director of the Paris-based Balenciaga. There he made respectful nods to the house's spare, uptown lineage. And some of the refinement and gloss flowed into this own brand. But now he is moving on from that role, and the spring 2016 collection will be his last for the venerable house. He will be free to focus solely on his signature line. And it would seem, from the collection he showed Saturday night, that he is shaking off any residual formality and reserve with gusto.

Wang celebrated his anniversary with a quick-cut video that waged an aural assault as it took the audience on a rapid fire trip through his archive of shows, advertisements and hair styles. His front row was bedazzled with the likes of Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj and Mary J. Blige. And the night was punctuated with an after-party spiced with pole dancers with their legs akimbo.

Over the years, Wang has sparked debates in fashion over how much actual design expertise went into his aesthetic and how much of his rise was reliant on savvy marketing, charm and styling. Wang's tenure at Balenciaga brought his abundant technique into the spotlight and he transferred some of that refinement to his own brand. But on Saturday, he returned to his founding strength — his ability to capture a gritty vibe and set it aloft.

Wang is ostensibly one of Seventh Avenue's great success stories among the generation of designers who came into their professional lives at the turn of the 21st century. Today, Wang is building a global brand with revenue reportedly just over $100 million. Ten years ago, he was a barely known talent designing slouchy T-shirts and showing them on models styled with torn fishnet stockings, bed hair and last night's mascara.

Who might be the next Wang? Not necessarily in aesthetics, but in brand building?

This city has its share of big brands such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein that dominate the market, but no small amount of the pleasure of fashion week here is in the constant bubbling up of new talent. The schedule for the spring 2016 collections is stuffed with hundreds of hopes and aspirations — unfamiliar names that have the possibility of becoming household ones.

On Saturday morning outside a decrepit space on the city's far west side, a small band of fashion folks gathered for a peek at a collection that promised to be really special. During fashion week, there are endless reassurances like that. The name of an unfamiliar designer is reeled off by a dedicated publicist along with data points from a resume: Graduated from London's Central Saint Martins! Worked for designer Marc Jacobs! Sold at the ever-hip Dover Street Market! Rihanna loves it!

Happily, there was something special inside that raw space with its mouldering beams, bare metal door and concrete floor. Han Chong, who in 2013 founded Self-Portrait, was mounting his first formal presentation in New York. In the past, he has shown his line in London where he built a reputation for energetic, surprising clothes. His data point? He graduated from Central Saint Martins. The clothes are stocked by Bergdorf Goodman and Dover Street. Beyonce wears it. Can Rihanna be far behind?

Chong makes clothes that are romantic and relaxed and constructed with an abundance of guipure lace, which one might call tablecloth lace. It is substantial and immediately evokes a kind of old-fashioned reserve. It's a bit grandmotherly in tone. But there's nothing precious and demure in these clothes. They are constructed in jarring but compelling colors such as burnt orange and sea foam. A single dress looks as though it is multiple layers deeps, and its fit is mildly disheveled.

Chong takes classical elements from fashion's vocabulary and reworks them into something that, in its imperfection, feels wholly refreshing in a world that is dominated by the glossy perfection of technology.

The name of the collection, Chong noted, is a reference to our obsession with selfies, the control we find in self-portraiture and its ability to help us construct an identity.

Compared to other cities on the well-worn fashion circuit — which includes London, Milan and Paris — the New York calendar, with its surfeit of unfamiliar names feels ripe with possibility. They are all vying for the dream made famous on "Project Runway." To show at New York fashion week is the great prize of reality television, but the truth is that one does not need special permission to mount a show or put together a presentation.

The official venues for Fashion Week are separated by some 50 blocks and range in style from a huge warehouse in SoHo carved up into small auditoriums to the vast wood-beamed loft inside Moynihan Station, the old post office in Midtown that is being renovated into a train depot. But the vast majority of shows — particularly many of the marquee names as well as the most intriguing new ones — do not show in either of these places.

They pop up in art galleries, warehouses, restaurants, hotels and townhouses. The great democracy of this city's fashion week is that anyone can join in. The hard part is standing out in a way that makes an audience swoon.

For Chris Gelinas, the designer behind CG, being a finalist in the CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund serves as high recommendation. The winners of that competition have included Proenza Schouler and Public School. Gelinas presented his collection at a restaurant on Ninth Avenue inside an atrium filled with trees. His collection was feminine and tailored with white cotton blouses and printed dresses and bold flourishes of red.

Dion Lee is based in Australia but has been showing his collection in New York for several seasons and has quietly announced his skill and vision with clothes that offer an easy sex appeal. His dresses skim the body thanks to fine tailoring rather than trussing. They reveal a bit of skin but never look self-conscious or forced. That's the best kind of sexiness, after all, the sort that comes across as if it is natural and doesn't require vast amounts of makeup, hair wrangling, spinning, yoga and Spanx. Data point? He collaborated with Kanye West on a shoe line.

Adam Selman is another designer that lots of folks are watching. His clothes have a girlish, slightly naughty sense of fun. Sometimes they can skew rather young, but for spring he used a bold, abstract floral print that adorned ankle-grazing anoraks, sundresses and the like. The pattern gave the clothes a raucous punch of color and a big dose of charm. And if you're wondering how such a modest collection breaks through the clutter, one word: Rihanna. Selman was the man responsible for her CFDA near-naked scrim of a dress — the one that launched a thousand near-naked starlets down the red carpet.

Rosie Assoulin was once one of those little known names but she's now a CFDA award-winning designer with a point of view that is distinct, personal and powerful. Her clothes have an architectural specificity, but they flow and move. Her color palette is painterly. And for spring, a single yellow draped skirt and a cropped t-shirt top immediately transports you to dreams of glamorous beach-side dining on some far off breezy island.

Assoulin's work is a 180-degree pivot away from the down-and-dirty ferocity of Wang's. But she, too, has charisma and charm and she has been able to capture a mood: cool sophistication. Ten years from now, that should still look pretty good.

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