The art of the fashion show: How designers set a mood to make you fall for their frocks

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

EDITORS: Robin Givhan, The Washington Post's Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, is covering New York Fashion Week. Follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.)


NEW YORK -- Designers have to make hundreds of decisions, big and small, to mount a fashion show. Every choice tells the audience something about who they are.

Designer Sophie Theallet booked the location for her fashion show three months in advance. She didn't want some buzzy restaurant. And she wasn't going to ask the city to shut down public streets so she could construct an elaborate tent. Instead, she simply wanted a central location, and she wanted to be outside -- or more precisely, on a roof.

And from this particular rooftop, one can see the signature buildings of New York -- as well as a searing yellow one that, for her, evokes the urban landscape of Africa. That's what her collection is all about.

The French-born Theallet decided that now was the time to create an "homage to the beauty of Africa because I always love Africa. And it was the moment to show that beauty that I really stand for. It's why I'm a fashion designer."

Theallet has always believed in a diverse definition of beauty. She is one of the few designers, for example, who has worked in the plus-size realm, creating a collection for Lane Bryant. But spring 2016 allows her to apply her French design roots to ideas picked up from travels to places such as Marrakech and her friendship with Jenke-Ahmed Tailly, a stylist of Senegalese descent whom Theallet calls "the chicest person."

"She comes from a couture background," says Tailly, who has worked with Beyonce and Kim Kardashian. "And she's referencing the history of fashion."

Theallet also called up her favorite models, including Veronica Webb, whose Revlon deal in the late 1990s made her one of the first black models to win a contract with a major cosmetics firm.

African drummers were recruited to play live. And the show began as the sun was sliding toward the horizon.

Theallet's collection blended the rigors of her technique with fabrics that hinted at traditional African prints, without slipping into costume. She kept to a color palette dominated by earth tones and used feathers as her favored form of embellishment. And she included non-traditional size models on her runway.

"In fashion, you're supposed to fly," Theallet says. "You're supposed to dream."

For spring 2016, Charles Harbison created a collection for what he described as a girl who is "quirky" and "smart." One would hope that all designers think of themselves as catering to intelligent women. But this collection, indeed, suggests a woman whose aesthetic inspiration is found in intellectual pursuits as well as visceral ones.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the jazz vocalist Candice Hoyes is Harbison's muse. But the two did become fast friends after a chance meeting at Jazz at Lincoln Center in June, and Harbison did invite her to perform at this Tuesday afternoon presentation -- although technical glitches prevented that from happening live. And Hoyes is a smart girl, with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia. Also, as a male designer, Harbison has said that it is important to him to surround himself with women who can inspire, inform and critique.

"We started off talking about our interests: books and music and things personal to us," Hoyes says of their introduction. And soon they were talking about the intimacy of jazz and the connection between fashion and fine arts.

Harbison is a jazz patron and Hoyes is a classically trained singer. For her first CD, "On a Turquoise Cloud," she dove into the National Archives to retrieve rare works by Duke Ellington written specifically for female vocalists.

The singer and the designer find common ground in the challenges of a creative life. Hoyes came to his studio and "he told me about when he was doing a lot of soul-searching in college he listened to a lot of jazz vocalists," Hoyes says. And she finds confidence and comfort in wearing his clothes when she performs. On the day of his show, she was wearing a filmy black dress with a patchwork of graphic shapes.

For spring, Harbison's collection, titled "Vicissitudes," includes exuberant dresses with mismatched ruffles, intense shades of red and orange, ribbed sweaters adorned with buttons and tailored officers coats. It is a step forward as he continues to refine his vision and find his voice.

Telling a story through fashion only begins with the clothes. A fashion show is a symphony of graphics, models, makeup, props, lighting and a host of other details, most notably, the music. It sets the mood. Because after the designers make the frocks, to sell them, they have to create a little magic.