Designer was deeply affected by the Nepal earthquake - so was his spring collection

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

NEW YORK — Fashion designers wander through museums taking notes. They attend countless movies. They rifle through rare books and listen to esoteric forms of music. They love eccentric personalities and fictional characters who have inconceivably impractical wardrobes. They hunt for inspiration from myriad sources and sometimes the explanations for their collections read like a dense dissertation on post-modernism or the history of Le Corbusier. And what does all of that intellectualism do for the clothes? Oftentimes, not much.

As designers unveil their spring 2016 collections here, they have posted inspiration as diverse as Brutalist architecture, Nina Simone, psychedelic trips and Goa. But ultimately, some of the most beautiful clothes have resulted when designers simply allowed the personal to guide their hand - and the clothes are a reflection of who they are and how they relate to their world.

Prabal Gurung opened his Sunday night show with the solemn and soothing chants of a chorus of Buddhist monks. As the audience waited in a darkened loft with its high wooden beams soaring overhead, the monks silently assembled at the top of the runway. With soft lights illuminating their saffron robes, the low rumble of their voices moved gently across the room.

When they finished, they left silently. The audience was silent, too. And then, the show's music rumbled to life and the first models appeared dressed in flowing dresses in shades of saffron, burnt orange and gold.

The collection reflected what has been a difficult year for Gurung. The designer grew up in Nepal and felt the devastation of the earthquake there deeply. As he wrote in his show notes, "Saturday, April 25, 2015 changed my life forever." Gurung has family and friends in Nepal, and the images of the destruction there left him reeling. He set out to raise money through his foundation to help the victims. So far, he has raised more than $613,000 via Crowdrise.

As he worked to do what he could for loved ones on the other side of the world, he also began -- as so many people would -- to reminisce about his childhood, about the Nepal landscape, about the sounds and smells that immediately make him think of home. And he created a collection that recalls those daydreams, as well as the depth of the country's history.

The result is a collection that is full of ease and beauty. At times, Gurung's work can feel constricted and over-worked -- too much technique getting in the way of creative expression. There were none of those hiccups in this collection. The clothes moved with grace; the embroidery was rich but not overwhelming; and he created subtle variation in color by playing with the density of the fabric.

The show was, in some ways, Gurung's thank you to the fashion industry for supporting the people of Nepal -- for supporting him. His gift was in sharing a bit of what he holds dear. For an audience that considers a trip to Brooklyn a far-flung adventure, Gurung's inspiration might have felt exotic and distant. But because his collection was rendered with such intimate emotions, the impact of his presentation was soulful and familiar.

Designer Joseph Altuzarra turned to his Basque heritage for inspiration and the results were beautiful. The textures of his fabrics, the embroidery and the embellishments gave his lean shapes interest and a sense of luxury. He used tiny white pearl buttons instead of sequins or paillettes to give a linen coat the feeling of an heirloom. And his use of lavish pearl embroidery in graphic -- almost architectural patterns -- gave this decadent dresses a sense of character rather than just a gloss of ostentation.

But his colors -- shades of the sky on a shirt or of a sunset on a sweater -- especially captured the imagination. Perhaps color is one of those particularly rich repositories of memory. We recall the deep green of the grass at a summer retreat or the dazzling blue of the water on a family vacation.

For other designers, inspiration hasn't been as personal. And sometimes the results have been charming and enticing. Derek Lam, for instance, was moved by the music and life of Nina Simone. And while that has nothing to do with some unique aspect of his growing up or coming of age, the inspiration served him well.

His collection was a little bit retro, a little bit masculine and a little bit girly. But it ultimately added up to a group of sharp jackets, breezy dresses and intriguing proportions that attract the eye. Some of his bell sleeves and extended cuffs, while good-looking, would require a personal valet to spoon food into your mouth lest you end up with a sleeve dripping in spaghetti sauce. But why nitpick? Look good now. Eat later.

Other designers, however, struggled to blend inspiration with a finished garment that speaks with a unique voice. In the past, designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony have presented their collections in the form of a play. They've used a photo exhibition as its starting point.

For spring, they were inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. They presented their collection in an elaborate set with lights inspired by the work of the influential architect. There were plants that would be donated to Edible Schoolyard NYC, the non-profit that connects schools to gardens. And there were dancers. And a thick pamphlet with "further reading" about all the various elements of the show -- but not so much about the clothes.

The collection recalled the designers' love of a graphic pullover, and there were patterns and shapes that spoke to Wright's architecture. And all in all, it was a fine collection but one that felt a bit overwhelmed by the premise that inspired it.

While the inspiration varies wildly, there are a host of designers who have found a foothold in knitwear, from the genderless dressing of Baja East to the luxurious comfort of Ryan Roche. The danger of knitwear, with its unstructured ease, is that it runs the risk of blurring into high-minded sweatpants and grandpa cardigans -- or very expensive ones, at least. Roche stayed true to her favored palette of blush or pale pink. Subtlety bordering on dull.

And at Baja East, there was a psychedelic explosion of red and blue knits, rainbow crochet cropped tops and trousers that dragged across the floor. The collection was jarring in its styling -- with models in ungainly black wigs and greased-up skin -- and in its colors and proportions.

If this was inspired by a personal experience in Goa or in Marrakech or wherever, one hopes everyone has since recovered.