On the way to Sandy Liang’s show, in a medical library on the Upper East Side, I had one of those funny but depressing thoughts, which is that fashion week is one of, if not the only. the only cultural events dedicated to what women want. Twice a year, on the spot, designers ask women: Do you like this? Do you want to be this person? How can I help you become the person you want to be, or express what you need to say? Does this feel cool, nice, unique, safe to you? And when a woman is doing the design, it is one of the few moments when women are asked, without interruption, to express their opinions to us.
Maybe that’s why New York has a unique phenomenon (say that three times fast!) of female-led fashion brands with a passionate following. Brands like Rodarte, Sandy Liang, Collina Strada, and Puppets and Puppets put on shows not just with celebrity endorsers dressed by dealer stylists, but bonafide fanswho want to live their lives in the world of these designers.
That’s the kind of thing that would be unimaginable in Europe. Sure, the Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens shows are packed with customers (and you could say the couture shows are the same phenomenon on a one-percent level), but these people create a community around the designers rather than just a customer base. They are friends, or friends of friends, of the person or team that makes the clothes, and they attach themselves to the labels as others attach themselves to football teams or bands. They help interpret their fantasies and their ideal life, and make them feel seen. It helps that each has a distinct value system, from the heart-broken romance of Rodarte to Collina Strada’s steadfastly eco-conscious approach to everything from the shows themselves to the production of the clothes.
It’s almost like the garments and products these designers make as items for their modus operandi. (That’s the best in the world who designed these things!) Carrying a Puppets and Puppets bag with that hyperreal cookie on the front, or wearing one of Collina Strada’s recognizable slip dresses, shows that you are aligning with one of a series of micro-niches of the city’s fashion.
Rodarte, the punk-poetry brand run by sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy, sells dresses and gowns from the great golden age of cinema for more than $2000 on Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi. In other words: their appeal is broad. But the sensibility is so specifically, and her opening set on Friday evening was packed with celebrities and celebrities wearing the clothes – a line I could predict, which I don’t mean in a negative way, but a heartfelt one. The likes of Tavi Gevinson, Natasha Lyonne, and Jemima Kirke mostly tell us where in the world pieces like a 60ish beaded mint green top and matching bell-hemmed pants belong in the world.
Many of the Rodarte-isms we’ve seen before, like black dresses with dramatic trumpet hems and Morticia Addams sleeves, were made of cheesecloth that tattered on the runway as the women walked. Clothes for women who know it, sometimes feel good to cry! They even recreated their famous cobweb knits from Fall 2008. But again, a brand like Rodarte has fans who expect the designers to play some of the hits, and introduce something new. Modernity came from beautiful prints covered in faeries drawn by the designers’ mother, who looked particularly impressive on a large cape dress trimmed with neon tulle.
After that, it was a skip over the bridge to Collina Strada, where you could never tell if designer Hillary Taymour’s friends – Hari Nef, Tommy Dorfman, Ella Emhoff, Aaron Rose Philip – would be seen on the runway or in the audience. . The genius Isamaya Ffrench wore many of those who appeared on the runway very detailed animal makeup. The message is that humans and animals are much more closely related than we imagine.
I loved her lime and green Leopard-ish print pants and top with lace trim; model of the moment Alva Claire in a gooey, webby mini dress; and a sharp mint suit with floral embroidery on the bodice. If you didn’t like the masks, that’s your problem, because the growing number of Collina’s acolytes totally get it. (Though in the back of my mind, I wonder what Collina’s show would look like with some of the theater sequences peeled back, to reveal it to an audience larger than those who know she could be New York’s answer to Dries Van. Note, making really beautiful and romantic printed pieces that form together season after season….)
“The atmosphere definitely feels very enthusiastic,” Taymour told me, but it was something that grew over time. “We gradually started to become more functional in the exhibition space,” by doing spoken word, or putting a farmer’s market on the runway, or even just instructing their models to wiggle their fingers as they walked, as they did she last season. The audience often screamed the models’ names, she said.
Collina and Rodarte’s show scene shared something mildly nerdy – a bit of cosplay couture, with the animal makeup by Collina and the fairy wings and drawings (done by the Mulleavys’ mother) by Rodarte. Not everyone who buys clothes wants to look like a global art dealer (Proenza, The Row), or someone who has read all of Rachel Cusk’s book like seven times (Rachel Comey, Toogood), or just hot and sexy and cool (Khaite , Burch Tory). What about the people who grew up wearing animal ears to middle school gym class, or filling notebooks with anime drawings? Or a direct intuitive connection to the feeling and vision of the Mulleavys or Taymour?
This was the spirit of the 1990s New York, when you had brands like Ghost or RUN Susan Cianciolo doing things for their friends. (Or, in Cianciolo’s case, the costume designer did with their friends.) Anna Sui is a great example, although of course Madonna and Mick Jagger were her friends. (Hot.) But she pioneered a sense of feminine intimacy through little whippy slipdresses and babydoll shapes worn with a lipsticked sneer, and her show on Saturday evening, at a teensy bar in the East Village, reminded me of that attitude. Don’t try to dress an imaginary muse or the whole world – instead, focus on dressing the people you’re friends with. They are your friends, after all, because they are creative, influential, and want to change The world.
“I wanted to throw a party,” Sui told me after the show, as Sofia Coppola, Marc Jacobs, and Jane Holzer stood nearby, waiting to say hello. Some of her looks, like the slips and also the bunny ear hats, are archival items that customers are looking for, and she decided to recreate them. (Thank God the stigma around designers dipping into their own archives has evaporated. If a piece is really good, it’s as good now as it was then! Why not give the people what they want instead of forcing them to chase price-gouged. vintage!) Others, like a tweedy jacket with yarn trim, or a white blouse denim suit studded with colorful gems a la Nudie Cohn, looked just amazing.
At the moment, Sandy Liang may be the most dedicated fan in town. If you are in contact with the Liang Universe, you know how rabid it is, but if you don’t, you can think of her as the woman behind those big fleeces a few years ago. At her show on Saturday morning, I saw countless twentysomethings in apron dresses with little lace ups, and minidresses with Peter Pan collars, and big bows and ballet flats. (It was a funny contrast to the Proenza show an hour later, where millennial and Gen X editors strutted around in sweatshirts and jeans, with expensive boots and shearling coats.) Sandy’s customer loves femininity, even looking at gender roles. and identity, and the runway show felt like a catalog for the superfans. She is sometimes too close to predecessors like Simone Rocha and Miu Miu, but her customer is not capable of that kind of thing. (Even its shoppers could be drawn into a dupe culture on TikTok, where users try to find copies of runway looks they love.)
Liang’s customer is someone who doesn’t have… the energy of a main character, but the ultimate energy of a runway. Their daily life living in New York is a catwalk, a fashion and theater novelty performance through which they have to walk in the most stylish and fashionable way. The goal is to look edited, polished, plugged in. The exquisiteness of your outfit reflects your knowledge of contemporary fashion and style.
It is interesting that these brands are aimed at younger customers is precisely, together. Is it a challenge for the slovenly millennials, or is there something subversive about dressing up for anything basic? Puppets & Puppets brand Carly Mark had many of the little red sequin cocktail dresses and faux fur coats on the belt with layers of clear tape. It is clear that some of their audience were invited to dress in last season’s attire Eyes closed all over– encouraged goodies, although a lot of nerding out in past seasons, like dog tapestry barn jackets and shoes with cracked eggs on the toe.
Mark’s surreal clothes appeal to a group that thinks of clothes as art, in the sense that art is as much as fashion can be a corporate eye. She’s like Jonathan Anderson, if he was still small enough to be making haha-knitwear and pants-on-hangers-as-necklaces just for his friends, instead of the global audience he commands at the LVMH brand.
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