In Depth

Subtle politics at New York Fashion Week

While the mood at this season's NYFW was somewhat subdued, a handful of designers dared to be different, writes Rebecca May Johnson

New York Fashion Week was relatively muted in its comment on the recently ascended President of the United States – perhaps surprising given the mood of popular unrest. Indeed, for some, it was all a little "timid" (vogue.com). However, Raf Simons' Calvin Klein, Thom Browne's masculine women and some reassuringly diverse casting ensured fashion scribes had something to write about.

For Raf Simons, a designer with distinctly European avant-garde roots, it was undoubtedly a complex moment to present a new version of Calvin Klein – a bastion of American identity. He didn't shy away from the task; indeed, a glimpse of the US flag in the guise of a skirt could be seen peeping from beneath a floral trench coat. While all the cues of Americana were present and correct – jock vests and cheerleader uniforms, cowboy boots and denim, Little House on the Prairie florals – he de-fanged and elevated the red-white-and blue-isms into sophisticated, forward-looking fashion. He kept it wearable, too, and didn't forget the city-slicker suits (this is the Big Apple, after all). For notoriously blunt critic Cathy Horyn at New York Magazine, Simons' debut was such a hit that he "exposed fundamental weaknesses" and a "lack of talent and ambition" among the rest of the pack – naming Jason Wu's "drippy knits" and dresses as a particular disappointment. Likewise, Jess Cartner-Morely at The Guardian rated Simons' show "an invigorating moment for the New York fashion scene."

Other designers engaged with politics too, in different ways. Michael Kors, for example – while sticking to high glamour and suiting with gold lame dresses and furs alongside military coats and tailoring – showed his hand in refreshingly diverse casting, with plus-size models, older models (as well as the usual twenty-somethings) and, as Kors revealed in the press conference, models from every continent. Bethan Holt at The Telegraph dubbed it "a celebration of womanliness in all its guises."

Another debut came in the form of Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia's return to Oscar de la Renta, this time as creative directors, after leaving the brand to start their own label, Monse, two years ago. In an unconventional turn, they showed Monse's collection as an overture to Oscar de la Renta. The new Oscar show went down pretty well with Vanessa Friedman at the New York Times, who thought Kim and Garcia "gave the brand the fashion equivalent of a haircut, transforming it from a shellacked bouffant into slick, swinging ponytail. Off with the frills!" While the show didn't do anything particularly radical, Friedman approved, particularly of the trousers.

Victoria Beckham has come far since her first collection at New York Fashion Week in 2008, according to Nicole Phelps at vogue.com, who praised oversize blazers, billowing skirts and "gorgeous" raspberry and claret colour combination turtleneck sweaters. For Jo Ellison at the FT, Victoria Beckham "tamed her more structured suiting with transparency and gauzy chiffon insets to create a lean body-skimming silhouette." And for Ellison, another brand that successfully struck a balance between "functionality and femininity" was The Row, where "easy tailored suiting looked confident but not too controlled. It was a great collection: pulled together and purposeful, all the more so when worn with Doctor Marten-style boots to stride about in."

The new name to get people talking was young Dutch designer Sander Lak of the label Sies Marjan, whose way with bad-taste and artificial colours made a splash. Cropped flares in azure metallic leather, a bubblegum-pink silk thigh-split dress and difficult-to-chew colour-texture combos were refreshing in the play-it-safe fashion city. Indeed, for many critics, notably Eric Platt in the FT, some brands such as Ralph Lauren and Yeezy played it a little too safe.

Thom Browne gave the show of the week for Friedman at The New York Times, reminding her why she should even care about shows in the first place. His ode to tailoring played out by putting women in menswear, "underscoring how much the antecedents are intertwined and demanding a reassessment of the suit… It was part social commentary and part disciplined creativity, and either way it made you think. Then it made you smile, and then it made you want to get dressed. That doesn't happen that often."

For Phelps at vogue.com, the most interesting political moment of NYFW came with Marc Jacobs' tribute to hip-hop and youth culture, inspired by a documentary Hip-Hop Evolution. A significantly more diverse cast of models than in previous seasons (answering to earlier criticism of cultural appropriation) posed outside on Park Avenue and took selfies in party-girl mini dresses, zip-up metallic knits, track pants and raver bucket hats. As Phelps' sees it, "at a moment when designers are struggling to find brand-appropriate ways to acknowledge America's roiling political and social issues, he appears more engaged than most."

Rebecca May Johnson writes for publications including Vogue, AnOther, The Telegraph and The Business of Fashion

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