Room at the Top

The Spring '99 Collections

Mizrahi belly-up. Todd Oldham in the toilet. Halston hanging by a thread. Sprouse sinking. It's been a devastating season for many who were until a few months ago the cream of the fashion aristocracy.

"Remember all those times Isaac didn't invite me?" cackled one veteran as the Spring '99 shows began last week. "Now I'm still here, and there's no Isaac!" But once you get over the schadenfreude, is it really such a laughing matter?

It's not just the imminent collapse of major houses that's made this such a strange fashion season. A host of designers, anxious to jump the gun on European collections, broke ranks and showed their lines in September, when it was still 90 degrees in Manhattan and the last thing on any rational person's mind was what she was going to wear next spring. Donna and Calvin and Helmut were over and done with before the Seventh on Sixth presentations even began, focusing more attention than ever on which, if any, of the newer names might rise from the ashes of canceled tent shows and take up the mantle dropped by Isaac, Todd, et al.

Prints valiant: Mixmaster Custo Barcelona
Sandra-Lee Phipps
Prints valiant: Mixmaster Custo Barcelona

The 20 catwalk presentations organized by SOS (South of Seventh, to benefit The Soho & Tribeca Partnership), and the numerous other novice designers who exhibited just before the official week began, offered a golden opportunity to discover talented upstarts. Or so one would think. But unfortunately, even the most bohemian designers seemed to have one beady eye fixed on the second floor of Bloomingdale's. (Which is fine on a certain level, since everyone wants to make a living and see actual people wearing their labels, though it does tend to quash the creative imagination when you're obsessed with pleasing buyers and the bottom line.)

But enough caviling. Time for some good news: despite the recent pot banging for a glam-rock revival (Tom Ford's garish Gucci collection; the hideous fashion show at the VH1 Awards, etc.), feather boas were nowhere in evidence on the runways below Houston Street. Instead, the mood was simpler and sweeter: dependent on drawstrings, uneven hems, saccharine eyelet, and a surfeit of wrapped, tied, fluttering, cobwebby gauze. (Actually, this is hardly the first season designers have pushed gauze on the public, though shoppers have hardly been clamoring for more.) Designer Rebecca Dannenberg even drifted black chiffon over schoolgirl plaid.

In addition to all the floating panels, there was no lack of Helmut Lang­ian details, including those persistent bilevel hemlines, and either clear plastic strips or Ace bandage­like straps to hold up bodices. (Whatever you think of these, they're a big improvement on the strapless tube top, as anyone who has tried to wear one will attest.)

Ribbon, seen all over the European catwalks, invariably showed up here too: Jean Yu even suggested woven-ribbon hot pants. Anait Bian made a bra-top out of straw visible through voile, a kind of Pier 1­Wallpaper­inspired look introduced by Alexander McQueen, who used raffia to great acclaim last month in London. There were even versions of the Parisian runways' peasant blouses, a style last popular 30 years ago, when it was embraced by hippie girls expressing their solidarity with the Third World. Now, stripped of their implied critique of capitalism, these gathered tops look a little forlorn wafting down the runway. (If you really want one of these things, they still sell them at that Ukrainian store on 7th Street.)

Though there was a preponderance of flowered skirts on Downtown stages, at least the ones at Heather Witt didn't make the models look like elementary-school teachers. At Witt, a name worth watching, quilted flowered housecoat material appeared in a variety of incarnations, including ribbon-trimmed hostess skirts. Maybe the quilting was a nod to Jil Sander, the esteemed German designer who showed puffy clothes in Milan. (But whoever said extra padding was a good idea in the first place?)

At Custo Barcelona, riotously printed T-shirts with long skirts and what were surely the models' own jeans livened up an eclectic show that featured pregnant women, screaming toddlers, and what the program described as a "shaman offering." The New Age pretensions may have got a bit out of hand (hello? it's only clothes . . .) but the prints didn't disappoint— they cheerfully combine irreconcilable patterns (maps of Vietnam; '50s abstracts; cartoons of pretty girls, etc.) and they retail for less than $100, a price point that's a rarity even among the least distinguished downtown designers.

If the avant-garde is breathing anywhere in the fashion underground, it's alive at the workshop of Susan Cianciolo, who this season presented her oddly patched, feminine clothes in a Chelsea art gallery. Cianciolo's crude stitching looks like it was done by a child, but then her designs also have the childish virtue of never making a really false move. (While everyone else is showing open-back tops held together by thin straps, Cianciolo just ties hers with twine from the hardware store.) Most fashion shows disguise crude commerce as art, but here it was just the opposite: in a back room of the gallery, the designer was selling pitiful little necklaces of blue beads strung on frail blue thread ($70), and Barbie dolls clad in Cianciolo outfits ($100). For $2 you could buy a raffle ticket and take a chance on a custom-made Cianciolo original.

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