Even in the best of times, selling designer clothes to Americans, who have spent the last 30 years happily if hideously accoutred in jeans and sweatpants, sneakers and baseball caps, is no enviable task. And these are not the best of times. Everyone in the business is terrified of a serious recession, like the one that has befallen the Far East, heretofore a major market for Chanel key chains, Louis Vuitton animal carriers, and other gewgaws that fuel the world economy.
In this climate of fear, rife with dire predictions and Þn de siècle unease, Seventh on Sixth erected its tents last week and welcomed the spring ’99 collections.
How did the designers who showed in Bryant Park and elsewhere around town deal with the heightened level of anxiety? For more then a few, the answer was a retreat into romantic fantasies centered on recovered memories of their halcyon adolescences. Michael Kors, who grew up on the south shore of Long Island, waxed rhapsodic in his program notes about “America the beautiful . . . NASA, sailing, camping, convertibles, station wagons & barbecues all looked at with a different eye . . . marines, girlscouts,” etc. This reverie was expressed sartorially through olive windbreakers, white sailcloth skirts, and orange Bermuda shorts. (Unfortunately, not everyone looks back on a suburban childhood with such affection: for some, a trip to Rikers Island would be preferable to a return to the school gym, and the only thing they’d like to do with a windbreaker’s drawstring is choke a cheerleader.)
While Kors was studying for his SATs, Anna Sui was in the garage sucking on a bong. Her show began with the strains of “Ground Control to Major Tom,” and at first, when she sent a feathered bra down the runway, it seemed as if she might be picking up the mantle dropped by the almost defunct house of Todd Oldham. But matters soon improved: there were lacy, white cotton Mexican wedding frocks— every young woman should wear one of these at least once before she’s 20;fringed leather pants; patched denim skirts; and other souvenirs from the Summer of Love through the Brady Bunch era. If there’s any truth to the old adage that hemlines go up when the Dow is happy and plummet when stocks collapse, Sui showed faith in the future with plenty of high hems.
Not so BCBG, a house famous for its alacrity in knocking off trends. They sent out models in long, droopy gray skirts (last season’s color! What were they thinking?), accompanied by apron tops made slightly more palatable by the clever layering of sweaters beneath them, in an attempt to solve the backless-shirt underwear problem. (BCBG clearly learned this lesson from the street, borrowing this idea from the women who salvaged flimsy slip dresses during the last few summers by wearing them over T-shirts.) Of course, whether anyone will want an apron top, with or without a sweater under it, is still very much an open question.
Marc Jacobs, the darling of the Conde Nast set and not incidentally also the designer for Louis Vuitton’s new clothing line (a daunting workload, what with those LV execs breathing down your neck, and a long way from Jackie 60, where Marc used to hang out) promulgated fantasies straight out of midcentury France. The Brigitte Bardot of And God Created Women could have been the inspiration for Jacob’s kittenish smocked dresses, some decorated with tiny rufþes and puffy sleeves (alas, virtually unwearable by anyone over six). The jeune fille sensibility was further underlined by scalloped cellophane hems peaking out from the bottom of skirts.
Just when it seemed fashion week would continue to stumble along with nothing but garden variety fantasies of junior high to recommend it, along came Julian MacDonald, direct from England, opening a bag of tricks that included thong bikinis made of gold tinsel, white crochet skirts with spangles þopping off their hems, and sheer frocks covered with pink and green straw. After a week of limp retro revivals and stultifying sportswear, more than one member of the audience probably felt like donning a Christmas-tree-ornament-bedecked poncho and playing in traffic on Seventh Avenue.
Instead, they repaired to the basement of a church on Christopher Street to see a presentation by Elisa Jimenez, who calls her company The Hunger World and entitled her show “Claiming the Sacred Harlot.” This event was so esoteric and silly and self-consciously avant-garde it could have been taking place in 1911, except that Anna Wintour and Polly Mellon were perched on bridge chairs in the audience and the evening bore the imprimatur of the Holly Solomon gallery. Jimenez showed a collection of wrapped, tied, and shredded jersey and chiffon numbers in an eclectically choreographed presentation of undulating hoochy-coochy dancers. Though the whole thing felt like a skit from the old Sid Caesar show (from Hunger World?), the careful observer could discern interesting cuts and a sure hand wielding the scissors behind all the smoke and mirrors.
But it was at a show for a line called Wink, designed by Wynn Smith, that the most powerful dreamscape was, perhaps inadvertently, articulated: amid a collection of familiar apron dresses and reductive McQueenish pinstripes, there was an outfit that evoked nothing so much as a youthful cross-dresser to whom no rules apply. This costume, consisting of a sheer black ruffled pinafore plopped over jeans, a T-shirt, and a pair of clear plastic high heels, unwittingly brought to mind Edmund White’s description of the ineffable chic of a pre-Stonewall drag queen: “[He] just walked out with his tough little mug unpainted and his duck’s ass haircut and his young boy’s arms with the tattoo in the web of skin between his thumb and index finger . . . and just a dumb black dress on . . . looking like a teen killer someone had forced into a frock at gunpoint.”