Fashion Weak

The search for cool, beyond Bryant Park

Marc Jacobs's recent comment, "A dumb bag on a cool girl is a cool bag," may be more telling than he realized: If the Seventh on Sixth Fall 2005 shows were any indication, the still waters separating cool and dumb, hip and dorky have never been murkier. After all, if Jacobs is right—if it is in fact up to the coolest among us to figure out how to combine flea market finds, cheap chain store stuff, and Century 21 retreads in our own inimitable, ironic ways, then what are runway shows for?

It was a question haunting the uptown catwalks last week, where acres of middlebrow clothes and salivating photographers stalking C-list celebs contributed equally to the depressing atmosphere. This season's official Bryant Park shows were especially dismal but, truth be told, American fashion shows were never really a big whoop. Our great strength is sportswear, which tends to wilt on a catwalk. The real runway action has always been, and remains, in Europe, and if you have any doubt, the people at Zara and H&M don't—it's Prada they'll be knocking off, not DKNY.

If there was what passed for buzz surrounding any show, it was audible at Heatherette on opening night, where hordes of eccentrics filled the house: a painfully thin Tori Spelling (was she scouting for the Donna Martin line?), the ubiquitous Sylvia Miles, and any number of downtown drag personalities all bellowed enthusiastically at the enforced, if occasionally winning, juvenilia. A poufed skirt (these would later emerge, along with velvet, ruffles, corsets, empire waists, gold, and puffed sleeves as hallmarks of the season) was decorated with an appliquéd, sequined rocking horse; a scalloped skirt brandished a Care Bear and the legend "Follow Your Dreams."

Drinking in the atmosphere at Jeremy Laing
photo: Jennifer Snow
Drinking in the atmosphere at Jeremy Laing

But follow them where? To the Lower East Side, perhaps, where more than a few designers with unfamiliar names were presenting nascent collections in makeshift venues. A line called Dick by Richard took over a former firehouse on Elizabeth Street and offered menswear that included a bright-red Ultrasuede poncho enhanced with safety pins—a nod to punk style, perhaps, but in reality closer, with its Highland fling sentiments, to Johnny Walker than to Johnny Rotten.

In a community center on Suffolk Street, Christian Joy, revered in downtown fashion circles for her role as designer-stylist to Karen O, said before the Shenan show that the clothes were "super-cute and awesome," and though that might be a bit of an overstatement, the outfits did seem just right for a certain type of young woman who lives in the neighborhood and whose idea of dressing for a big evening out consists of throwing together a miniskirt with an appliquéd cocktail apron, a little ruffly cape, a pair of lace hose, and Chinese slippers from Canal Street.

Jeremy Laing commandeered a gallery on Rivington Street and raised the bar—literally and figuratively—with an installation that consisted of one woman in a lovely draped gown drinking from a Heineken bottle, surrounded by folks wearing jodhpurs with miniature knee patches and ribbon suspenders. The unexpected lesson? Apple green thermal-underwear trousers with little knee patches are far more charming than they sound.

Charm was also in bounteous supply at Gary Graham, who took up temporary residence in a spectacular if dilapidated former synagogue on Norfolk Street. Graham's program notes stated that he imagined his pewter camisoles and floating skirts on three different women—a scientist, a farm girl in Barbour boots, and a party animal so wanton she was in danger of slopping booze on or burning a hole in a particularly ethereal raspberry chiffon skirt.


The children's hour at Heatherette
(photo: Jennifer Snow)
Two days later, in a stifling basement theater on Bleecker Street, a group show of seven designers affiliated with the Tallulah showroom collectively suggested car wash pleats, faux-naïf pieced dresses, full skirts decorated with portraits of old-timey cowboys, and from one participant, the superior Epperson, shredded confections that raised patchwork to high art.

The whole evening had a sweet "let's put on a show" feeling, which was distinctly missing at the Imitation of Christ show at Lever House on Park Avenue—a long way from Imitation's first venue several seasons back, a funeral parlor on East 7th Street. In those days, the house was known for cleverly reconstructed vintage frocks with astronomical price tags; this season, the clothes—taupe flannel jumpsuits, leather-piped camel wrap coat—were obviously intended for another sort of East Side woman: one who lives 70 or so blocks north of 7th Street. Even a song by the much touted Mommies Inc., a Damien Hirst installation, and the occasional visible breast (well, it was Super Bowl Sunday) failed to raise the hipness quotient.

Hipness was not a problem for Maria Cornejo, who outfitted her models in quiet velvet bubble skirts and high-waisted dresses and let them wander around her shop on Mott Street. Cornejo, whose clothes are utterly adult (no sequined rocking horses here) proved once again that the future of fashion lies in eschewing those huge, hackneyed labels (ask Helmut Lang or Jil Sander what it means when your business gets too big) in favor of a quiet jewel uncovered in a tiny shop. Still, a potentially hackneyed label can offer compensations: Zac Posen presented stunning mermaid dresses at a big show in the tents. (He's putting that money from his partnership with P. Diddy to good use.)

Marc Jacobs may sell his own label from his own little shops, but his empire is towering: Along with the several lines that bear his name, he's got the whole Louis Vuitton behemoth resting on his shoulders. Still, of all the American designers, he's the one who comes closest to evincing a European sensibility, in the sense that he might actually show pieces that could be considered "directional."

Be careful what you wish for: When the lights finally dimmed at the Jacobs show, more than an hour and a half late (this was due either to the tardy arrival of Beyoncé or to an errant dress, depending on who you talked to), there was a directional piece all right, but it was a heavy, mid-calf, bell-shaped skirt so unflattering it made even his stellar models look dowdy. (Just imagine how it'll look on you.)

When the show was over, Jacobs stepped out on the runway and mouthed, "Sorry," to the audience, in reference to the lateness of the hour. But he might also have been apologizing for the larger fashion system, which has thrown up its hands in the face of dumb and cool and tossed the stylish ball right back in the audience's court.

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