NEW YORK — The last show here for the fall 2017 season was mounted Thursday afternoon by Marc Jacobs and was inspired by hip-hop. Jacobs saw the documentary “Hip-hop Evolution” several months ago, and it made him nostalgic for his high school years in New York — when rap was emerging as popular music, a new fashion aesthetic was being created, and the definition of Americana was shifting.
His stripped-down production began at the stroke of the hour, when a single model began her walk across the cracked wooden floor of the Park Avenue Armory. There was no elaborate set design. In fact, there was no set at all. There were just two long rows of chairs lined up facing each other, only 326 in total. There was no music. The models walked in silence, without even the soft clicks of cameras —photographers were asked to wait outside to capture the models as they emerged.
It was a gorgeous and wondrous 10 minutes.
That’s how long it took for the women to saunter down the runway with their woven coats with furry collars, their gold sequined minis, flared trousers, throwback sweat suits, huge platform boots, giant gold hoop earrings and Stephen Jones-designed takes on Kangol caps.
It was a diverse cast of models walking in this show with its late ’70s/early ’80s retro vibe. They evoked a stylish, city girl look from the time before hip-hop turned ghetto fabulous and triggered an arms race for Gucci and Louis Vuitton. There was more style back then than fashion — at least the kind that came with fancy French and Italian labels.
The collection didn’t reproduce the clothes of the era. Jacobs isn’t doing hip-hop, per se. This was that time period as seen through the eyes of Jacobs, a New York City kid attending the High School of Art and Design. It was his memory — both accurate and false.
Or, as he put it in the show notes, “an acknowledgement and gesture of my respect for the polish and consideration applied to fashion from a generation that will forever be the foundation of youth culture street style.”
With this collection, Jacobs dove headlong into the murky waters of cultural appropriation, a phrase used here with some trepidation. American popular culture, after all, does not exist in hermetically sealed bubbles. Forms of dress and music spring up because of cross-fertilization. Sometimes styles are born in direct opposition to another.
But last season, Jacobs caused consternation with his use of multi-colored wool dreadlocks on the runway. His beauty team said the inspiration was punk and Boy George, among other things. But no where in that mix did they mention black people. And that omission caused outrage.
Typically, Jacobs does not leave mission statements for his audience. So the inclusion of an insert explaining the source of his inspiration, a page headlined “Respect,” was an exception and served as a direct rebuke to those guardians of culture who would stand ready to call him disrespectful.
But there was no need for a statement: There was beauty and sophistication in this collection. There was humor. The collection wasn’t a caricature. And it wasn’t mocking. If anything, it struck a note of awe.
Jacobs served as a fine finish to the season here, with a collection that was deeply American in a manner that felt vibrant and particularly relevant. Hip-hop, after all, was nurtured in urban centers by black and brown youths. It spoke of ingenuity, ambition, protest and confidence. Now, of course, it is a global language — one that speaks just as profoundly to immigrants in the suburbs of Paris as it does to ambitious, middle-class young men recording mix tapes.
Ralph Lauren, with its enormous cultural footprint, speaks of a different vision of America. There is nothing messy, tumultuous, tacky or ugly in his version. He presented what he calls his February 2017 collection. In September, Lauren turned fashion’s seasonal calendar upside down when he decided to present a see-now/buy-now show. So the clothes that he put on the runway Wednesday evening are now available for purchase in various flagship stores and online.
He presented the collection in his Madison Avenue store where the walls were covered in thousands of white orchids and the sound of chirping birds greeted guests. The collection was filled with ethereal caftans, sparkling gold dresses, motocross leather leggings, distressed leather jackets and evening gowns with geometric cut-outs.
The collection was tasteful and restrained. Some of it was beautiful, especially a simple, gold silk caftan-style evening gown. But much of it was flat. Cold. Rote. The clothes could have been from five years ago or 10. In part, that is because Lauren is a classicist. He works within a vocabulary that he established decades ago. It defines his brand; it has built his legacy; it’s what customers understand. But Lauren has not used that powerful vocabulary to speak to the moment, to the right-now.
This is not a plea for Lauren to be political or to dive into some social issue. But while the brand is fretting about when exactly its merchandise should turn up in stores, it doesn’t seem to giving the same urgent attention to what is on the runway.
The clothes weren’t fanciful enough to be transporting. And they weren’t real enough to be soulful. They seemed detached. Do people wear leather motocross pants? Does a woman want silk britches? Maybe. But it will take some convincing, and Lauren doesn’t make much of a case. It is as though his name on the label should be convincing enough.
Clothes don’t have to have a message. They don’t need to come with a story attached. But what gives them a vibrancy are the details and flourishes from a designer who is forever curious — listening to new music, attending the reading of a new author, taking in an artful film. That awareness comes through the clothes in subtle ways. The collection that Lauren presented looked as though it was sketched in a soundproof room.
Mostly, though, this was a raucous season for women’s fashion. There were countless expressions of displeasure with the Trump administration and exhortations for female power, immigrant rights and human rights, in general.
The designer Sophie Theallet, who took an early stand against dressing the first lady, created a collection of printed dresses and multi-textured evening gowns that through their silhouettes and proportions are meant to serve as a kind of protective armor. She also included embellishments of bees — a symbol of femininity, Theallet said during a presentation at her showroom. And so the abundance of bees “represents an army of women.”
Other designers had nothing to say politically — at least not publicly. They simply created collections that elevated the needs of professional women. Victoria Beckham offered beautiful printed dresses and tailored blazers. And Gabriela Hearst, in her first formal show, exhibited a keen eye for a sleek overcoat and the kind of woolen separates that a woman could wear into the boardroom. Narciso Rodriguez offered distinct ideas on female power dressing, too. He likes lean trousers in black or bold colors paired with streamlined leather tops. In short, ladies, there are professional alternatives; you can give those sleeveless sheaths a rest.
Derek Lam once again showed his collection to editors and retailers in several small group presentations. It afforded him the opportunity to answer questions and gave his audience a chance to really see this clothes and not just glimpse them as a model rushed by.
His trousers with double layers of light, contrasting fabric looked as comfortable as pajamas, but a lot more stylish. He also favored high-waisted, full pants and luxurious blouses. Lam also has a knack for a head-turning coat — and his black and white, dyed-mink coat could make one long for a polar vortex.
J.Crew showed a quirky mix of Fair Isle sweaters over pleated skirts and crinolines, as well as full trousers and dramatics blouses — all of it on nonprofessional models. This was good fashion and perhaps, if the quality and fit are as good as the aesthetics, the company may once again find its financial groove.
If there was any thread that connected the collections for fall, it was the question of what it means to be a U.S. designer. How do you speak your mind? How do you represent America in this moment? In the aftermath of the Women’s March, how do you create fashion that speaks to women’s desires and needs? What comes after pink pussy hats?
This was a season in which women of all color walked the runways. So did women wearing hijabs, as well as plus-size women, older models and women who are not professional models at all. Female poets recited quartets; female protesters raised their voices; and designers spoke up about everything from human rights to the humanity of the American story in all of its windswept, Midwestern glory.
And in the midst of it all, there were sleek and colorful trousers, fur-trimmed stadium coats, exuberant blouses and strong-shouldered tailoring. There were fanciful handbags, metallic fabrics and sexy, high-heeled pumps.
For fall 2017, Seventh Avenue reflected the times. And still managed to give us fashion.