At New York Fashion Week, Almost Every Brand Is Aligning With A Cause
NYFW gave us some edgy, interesting trends, from Victoria Beckham’s shaped leather dresses to Alexander Wang’s wet-look belted coat. But does championing a cause always make for brilliant fashion?
This article titled “Fuchsia pink, leopard print and ‘Pussy Power’ bags: is this what female empowerment looks like?” was written by Jess Cartner-Morley, for The Guardian on Tuesday 13th February 2018 15.59 UTC
I learned a new word at New York fashion week: gynarchy. I had to look it up; it means rule by women. Designer Prabal Gurung chose it to sum up his show, where sarong-inspired draping in pinks and reds referred, he said backstage, to the matriarchal Mosuo tribe of China, and to northern India’s Gulabi Gang, all-female vigilantes fighting against abuse and oppression of women. The same day, Diane von Furstenberg said at her presentation that “with everything that’s happening with women right now, I personally am more committed than ever to the empowerment of women … the DVF woman through the generations has always been about a woman being in charge.” Jonathan Simkhai, meanwhile, took inspiration from portraits of suffragettes. “This moment seems particularly relevant now, when the inner strength of so many women has been at the forefront of our American consciousness,” he explained.
The rights of women are at the forefront of public conversation, and fashion is trying to figure out what female empowerment looks like.
It is worth remembering at this point that until a couple of years ago, mainstream catwalks did not engage with activism or feminism, and political sentiment was voiced only on the fringes of fashion week. Things are different now. That the fashion industry has embraced the cause of female empowerment reflects the mainstreaming of a battle that is front and centre of public life. New York fashion week, where the catwalks kick off a month of international shows, opened on the day when close-up photos of the bruised face of Colbie Holderness, an ex-wife of White House staff secretary Rob Porter were on every media channel, along with President Trump’s dismissive response.
Fashion week championing the cause of female empowerment is obviously a good thing, so I hope it’s not unfeminist of me to say that on the basis of the opening few days in New York, it doesn’t always make for brilliant fashion. Tom Ford’s “Pussy Power” handbag, from his show on Thursday, is a bit too literal for me, and I find myself unmoved by the empowerment represented by putting shoulder pads in jackets. New York fashion week is going through lean times. Headline names are absent from the schedule, for all kinds of reasons. Tommy Hilfiger is showing in Milan, Donna Karan has bowed out, Kanye West gets Kim to model his collection on Instagram these days, Off-White’s Virgil Abloh has decamped to Paris, Rihanna’s Fenty line for Puma may or may not still be happening but didn’t show this season. Meanwhile, Marchesa – run by Georgina Chapman, the soon-to-be-ex wife of Harvey Weinstein – cancelled at the last minute. Without the tent poles of big names, fashion week has a tendency to lose its shape.
Still, there were some nice clothes, and some interesting suggestions about where fashion might be heading next season. The two tropes of what female empowerment looks like on a runway – either boardroom-style power dressing, or a vaguely dominatrixy kind of sex appeal – met in the middle with lots of tailoring that emphasised the waist.
At Victoria Beckham there were belted coats (the leopard print was the standout) and shaped leather dresses. At Jonathan Simkhai there were peplum-hipped trouser suits with lace detailing, and softly curving Prince of Wales check dresses. At Christian Siriano there were lush coats fastened with wide belts and glittering trouser suits, cinched at the waist and with an exaggerated flare over the hip. Han Chong’s Self-Portrait show had all the lace detailing and cute shoulder framing its loyal customer base have come to rely on him for, but also windowpane-check belted coats and A-line leather skirts.
And then there was Alexander Wang, who took the waisted-tailoring idea and made it crazier and edgier. The look was The Matrix, with a touch of Bella Hadid (bumbags, ski pants) and a dash of Alaïa (zippered leather.) The Matrix coat – black, wet-look, belted – appeared on several front rows this week, as well as Wang’s catwalk, and looks set to be a thing. Tiny sunglasses, as seen at Wang and Self-Portrait, are definitely happening.
Matrix coats aside, there was a lot of colour, which was interesting.
The #MeToo blackout, as seen at the Golden Globes and soon to be reprised at the Baftas, doesn’t apply here. (Prabal Gurung, who was vocally in favour of the Globes blackout, said backstage that he’d like to see an all-pink red carpet next time.) Gurung and Alexander Wang went big on fuchsia pink. Bottega Veneta, making a guest appearance on a one-season transfer from Milan, had everyone drooling over velvet dresses in salmon and kumquat.
A lot of shows I saw over the past few days felt as if they were as much about the human beings wearing the clothes as they were about the clothes. Designers talk about models as people, finally. “I felt it should be less about who the cool young face is, and more about meeting individuals and styling each of them to show their character as well as how gorgeous they are,” Victoria Beckham said before her show. Diversity on the catwalk – different skin tones, different body shapes – is starting to become the norm, which is immensely cheering. I particularly enjoyed Eckhaus Latta, one of the buzziest shows of the week, where there were models of all body sizes: not just very thin and very voluptuous, but all the sizes in the middle, the kinds of bodies we see every day in real life but very rarely on the catwalk. Fashion cannot claim to champion strong women while celebrating only those under eight stone. As Naomi Wolf pointed out in The Beauty Myth more than 25 years ago, a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. And that look is over.
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Lead Image: The Prabal Gurung collection at New York fashion week. Photograph: Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock