Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Times They Are (Not) a-Changin'

On the first of many trips to Washington D.C. that we see Phyllis Schlafly make in the FX limited series Mrs. America, her clothing comes up almost immediately. “Oh, libbers don’t wear dresses?”, she trills at conservative congressman Phil Crane. “Not pink ones,” he offers in return only to be swiftly and sweetly corrected. “Well actually, it’s dusty rose.”


Schlafly visiting Washington D.C. in episode one

That exchange is far from the last time that the clothing of the characters is referenced, applauded, or derided by those around them. Set against the backdrop of the 1970s and centered on the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, Mrs. America wrestles with the question of what it meant to be an American woman at a time when, for certain segments of society, the answer was in flux. Costume designer Bina Daigeler, who has worked on projects ranging from Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver to the Netflix film Dumplin', was tasked with taking that question and its many answers and forming them into a pivotal piece of the visual story being told. “It’s very rare that [women don't] use the way we dress as a moment of expression," Daigeler stated during an interview. It's a simple truth but one that some are quick to overlook or toss aside. And it is through the costuming work of Daigeler that we begin to see this form of expression take shape.

Even now an unfair assumption persists that clothing is frivolous and unimportant especially as it concerns women, but movements on both ends of the political spectrum and composed of people of all genders have used fashion to promote their stances and broadcast solidarity for centuries. How does one dress when at the forefront of a revolution? How does one dress when fighting to maintain the seemingly comfortable status quo? These are not new questions but they are very much a piece of the history of second wave feminism.

In her suits, which Daigeler described as "mostly stiff" but also "very feminine," the audience can see Schlafly admitting to a fact that she is loathe to give voice to throughout the series, the precarious and often unsafe position in which women found themselves. In Daigeler's mind, Schlafly used those wools and tweeds as protection because "she knew about her vulnerability as a woman in a man’s world." The women on the other side, and even some within her own group of supporters, state it plainly. "Let me tell you something about 'those kind of women,' Phyllis. They could be me. They could be you. They're just trying to get a fair shake. They want to go to work, get paid, go home. They're not asking to be harassed, manhandled, degraded, assaulted," ERA supporter and fellow Republican Jill Ruckelshaus says after Schlafly suggests that certain women are asking for it. And one does not put the kind of suiting armor that Schlafly does unless there is something to fear and something to fight, but this is only one of the ways in which her clothing points to her hypocrisy.


Schlafly and Ruckelhaus' dueling suits in episode six

For the many supporters who surround the central, public figures of the series, Daigeler used the fashions of the 1970s in general, which at the beginning of the decade saw a stark divide between these two sides of the ERA debate, as a guide. “I think in the 70s at the beginning, the conservative women were wearing pastel colors and the little A-line skirts with the blouse with the little jacket. And the feminists, they have a little bit of the hippie vibe and flowers and prints. But then at the end of the 70s [and] beginning of the 80s, fashion changed. It wasn’t so separate. Our two worlds started to merge a lot.”


A group of feminists highlighting their concerns to the McGovern campaign in episode two




Schlafly and her supporters in episodes two and eight as well as in the finale

Schlafly wears that housewife uniform of A-line skirts and silk blouses, often adorned with a pussy bow at her neck, and a cardigan or little jacket draped on her shoulders when she's not in those suits. But by the end of the decade and the series as The Age of Reagan comes into view, Daigeler keeps her solidly in this uniform even as many of her closest followers move closer and closer to the general style mood for women of the era. It is obvious through her words and actions how little Schlafly changes but keeping her in that stylistic space gives the viewer an immediate understanding of where she stands even when she is silent.


Schlafly and her pussy bow haunting Alice's dreams in episode eight

Schlafly isn’t the only woman in the series who relies on a uniform of sorts. Nearly all of the main players have a stylistic root from which many aspects of their identities, both the internal and external, spring. Activist, lawyer, and congresswoman Bella Abzug has her many hats. "When I graduated from law school, my mother always said to me, 'Wear a hat and gloves. That way they won't mistake you for a secretary,'" Abzug says to fellow congresswoman Shirley Chisolm in one of the latter episodes. "Oh, and when did the gloves come off?", Chisolm shoots back. It's through her ever present topper, and the absence of that other half of the equation, that the audience can tell the type of woman Abzug strives to be, serious, determined, and constantly fighting against the stereotypes that block her way in a world that was, and still often is, dominated by men. And it's through the few times that we see her without it that a fuller picture of her comes into view.




Abzug in a variety of hats throughout the series

Chisolm relies on her statement jewelry and what Daigeler described as her “amazing elegant style" befitting a trailblazer whom the audience sees refuse to acquiesce to the many around her who view her historic run for President of the United States as merely symbolic. When dressing Steinem at the beginning of the story, Daigeler had her all miniskirts and legs. There are assumptions about what a woman in politics should look like, about what a woman who wants to do serious work should put on her body and through Steinem in those early years of the story Daigeler was able to show how some women were pushing against those boundaries, that this woman wasn't simply "a dilettante who wanted to play politics" as Abzug describes an early Steinem during a heated exchange between the two. But as she became more deeply engaged in politics, she too changed and adopted a uniform albeit one far more casual than that of Schlafly, Abzug, and Chisolm. Hers instead centered on jeans, which for Daigeler was not about rejecting the seeming frivolity of those earlier looks but about utility as she traveled frequently the deeper she got pulled into the political realm.



Chisolm in her statement jewelry at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in episode three


Steinem tap dancing away her restlessness in episode two


Steinem donning one of Abzug's hats in the finale

But even as The Age of Reagan came into view and the two sides of the ERA debate began to merge stylistically, Daigeler kept Schlafly solidly in her dual uniforms. In the static nature of Schlafly's housewife costume, and it is truly a costume, we can see the hypocrisy and falsehoods upon which she has built her platform. People adhere to a consistent style for any number of reasons that aren't full of deceit, an understanding of what feels most comfortable on their body for one, and in those foundations they can discover and revel in the truest parts of their selves. That, however, is not what is happening with this particular woman in this particular tale.


The Schlafly family Christmas portrait in episode seven


Schlafly meeting a pair of now infamous Republican operatives in the finale

Still Daigeler held off on putting Schlafly in aprons, the marker of the mid-20th century housewife that the audience might expect her to don, for most of the series. "She had people who did that [typical housewife work] for her," Daigeler noted, and we see them at that work, preparing dinner and putting their lives on hold when asked to pick up children from school. It isn't until the final moments of the series when wallowing in her personal defeat that Schlafly puts on that last piece of the costume. She hadn't failed at what her supporters and her foes were led to believe was her primary objective. The clock ran out on the ERA even with the extension on ratification granted to it by Congress. It wasn't until 2019, three years after Schlafly's death, that Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment. And there is no certainty that the legislation needed to enshrine it in the Constitution will come to pass.



Schlafly baking a pie in the finale

But in those final moments in her kitchen, stripped of the power that the audience could see had always been her actual goal, the type of power that she claimed throughout was the real intention of the ERA, there was nothing left for her to do but fully commit to the part that she, with her A-line skirts, pussy bow-adorned, silk blouses and cardigans draped delicately on her shoulders, had created for herself.

Monday, September 30, 2019

First Days

I haven't stepped foot in a classroom for the purpose of formal learning and lecture in almost fifteen years, and yet when August entered its final, hazy days a month ago, I settled into a familiar state. It's a state that I've returned to during each late summer that has passed since my college graduation. It's a state filled with thoughts of and longing for notebooks and a rainbow array of pens and carefully curated, first day outfits meant to impress.

I had an odd loathing for summer as a child. It wasn't only the sticky heat that caused me distress. I also desperately missed school. You could find me at high noon on a Saturday in mid-July laying flat on my back in bed with my eyes closed as hard as I could manage and wishing for the next six weeks to slide away and disappear. Sometimes I would mix it up and turn over onto my belly, forehead against forearm, hoping for the impossible. I outgrew this behavior around the age of 12 but never became exactly comfortable with summer and the freedom that came with it. It's no surprise that I'm still left flat-footed when offered unstructured time that could be used, if I were the type of person who enjoyed such a thing, for hours of leisure.

There are other types of freedom that I've never had trouble exploring to the fullest. When I was set loose from the confines of my Catholic school uniform, free finally (on the days I chose to be) from starched white shirts and pleated plaid skirts, I spent a lot of that summertime freedom focusing on all of the things I would wear once school was back in session.

In my mind, it feels like I must have written numerous pieces on my mother's negative feelings about and disinterest in my former dreams of a career in fashion. But as I look back, there's only the one published on the eve of my 30th birthday. I speak of her distaste sometimes, mostly in passing and often laced with a joke. And I think about it a lot as it is so intertwined with the disappointment I know she feels about the path my life has taken. It's this final piece that likely explains my confusion. I've written whole tomes in my head about the ways in which I've let her down.

Her attitude about this facet of my personality has always left me wondering what exactly she expected of the child who spent most of the summer of 1994 carefully planning a purple and white ensemble for her first day of sixth grade. After all this was also the child who was in love with lace-trimmed socks worn with Mary Janes and became briefly obsessed with the printed fans one could find at little shops throughout Boston's Chinatown. The one who insisted that the day printed on her Day of the Week underwear always aligned with the actual day of the week and carefully slotted the shiniest pennies she could find into her brown loafers.

The one who wore a seersucker suit to her birthday dinner and asked to be made a gold lamé dress for a New Year's Eve trip to the Boston Pops.

White. Purple. White. Purple. That was the pattern I settled on in the original conception of this Very Important outfit. I was foiled in the execution by the fact that there were no purple Keds to be found in the Greater Boston area, so I pivoted to a white pair worn with purple socks that I scrunched as hard as they could be scrunched. 11-year-old Samantha was as persnickety then as 36-year-old Samantha is now and so was greatly disappointed by this deviation from the plan, but I walked into my school's red doors as close to perfect as I could manage, a stark white tee worn with a pleated purple skirt from Limited Too. Around my neck was a pendant necklace from the same store, a thick black cord with a flower made of clay in shades of purple, yellow, and orange hanging from it.

The previous year I sat in a purple dress with little pink flowers scattered on it and pink tights on my legs surrounded by my classmates as the annual school-wide picture was taken. It takes work to get 400 girls from the ages of 10 to 17 and all of their teachers and various administrators settled in for a group picture, especially on that first day with the last of the summer cobwebs yet to clear away. The youngest girls were always seated cross-legged on the ground in front filled with nervous anxiety about this new beginning while the oldest stood on the highest riser thinking about the coming end of this chapter.

It was no coincidence that I wore purple on those two first days at this new school. It was my favorite color for much of my childhood, a perfect mix of hot and cold. My obsession with and love for it might explain why my mother is confused by the navy and gray adult that I've become. I lived within a whirlwind of color and print back then before moving to invisibility through trend obsession to preppiness and finally to this neutral chic that causes her to screw up her face.

And yet in that 11-year-old and all of her colors and all of her prints and that last gasp of a fascination with hats lived all of the pieces that explain how the 36-year-old dresses now. The planning. The precision. The need to impress others but mostly to impress myself. The delight at having a special occasion that calls for, at least in my mind, an entirely new look. I have found all sorts of ways in my adulthood to replace the thrill of dressing for those first days of school. My birthday party and the birthday parties of others. Weddings and baby showers. The first truly brisk day of fall and the first truly hot day of summer. I mark events big and small and life-changing with new outfits. Not all of such events or even a quarter of them but enough to fill myself with that childlike giddiness once more.

Then I stand in front of my closet as I prepare to put on the chosen outfit for the first time and think "today is your day."

Friday, March 1, 2019

Neon Dreaming

When the collections begin to make their way down the runways and into the presentation spaces of New York City, the work of discerning the dominant trends of the season starts immediately. Some of what we see is no surprise. Floral prints return every spring and summer without fail. Often enough they pop up for fall and winter as well. The silhouettes of the 1980s have hung around the periphery or been at the center of the ready-to-wear landscape for nearly a decade now, and at this point one could argue that their continued presence might be a sign of industry-wide creative malaise. But where a good amount of the fun, and fashion is supposed to be fun after all, rests is the unveiling of the unexpected trends. There is a thrill in experiencing the risks that land and those that do not. It is in this arena where many of the questions of the season arise.

Will we once again go a full year unable to find a tee, blouse, or sweater with covered shoulders? It appears for now that we will be spared a return to such indignity.

The colors are the most changeable aspect of the collections. Blues for a particular resort season might swing to yellows for the spring that follows. Reds in New York can easily transform into that timeless classic of black by the time festivities wrap up in Paris. Mood and season and moment all combine with something intangible to create The Color.

What was The Color during the Fall/Winter 2019 season in New York? Actually there were many colors, more than one might expect to see on offer for the colder months, and they were of a deeply saturated sort. But pulling focus from all the others was a pink that one could give any number of names. Brilliant. Electric. Eye-watering. An aggressive pink. A pink from which one can't look away.

At Narciso Rodriguez


At Monique Lhuillier


At Bande Noir


 At Novis


At Hellessy


At Adeam


At Brandon Maxwell


At Prabal Gurung



There has been a fair amount of pink in the cultural and design conversation for the past few years. Millennial Pink so dominated the discourse around the color that people began labeling pinks that in no way resembled the hue as such. It's a common enough reaction to trends, the chasing of a moment in the pursuit of relevance. The pink of the pussy hat, a complicated and sometimes controversial symbol created in response to our current political moment, rose to prominence just as its millennial sibling began to fade into the background. However, the pussy hat was never really one pink. It was many. It was the pink of whatever yarn you could find hiding around the house. It was the pink of whichever skein struck your fancy in the craft store. There was, in that regard at least, little uniformity in the project.

How pink came to be associated with the feminine in western culture is a topic worthy of a historical tome. I could never do it justice here. But when discussing the trends that come and go each season, what's most important is that in this moment, from the palest, whisper shade to the deepest magenta, pink has been assigned to a side. There is nothing wrong with being aligned with the feminine. (It feels silly that I have to make this statement but here we are.) The issues come from the ways in which so much of our larger culture views women and anything associated with them. There is a presumed softness, not only when it comes to the physical but also when it comes to the mental. A lack of an iron will. An airheaded frivolity. Like all colors, pink is many things. Often it is more than one of those things simultaneously. But like the women with whom it is associated, it is rarely given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to depth.

What about the mood, the season, and the moment led us to this particular shade? It was certainly not crowned The Color, either this year or last year or the year before that, by Pantone. Almost exactly one year ago in one of those odes to the 1980s that seem inevitable now, there were neons everywhere in New York. They encompassed almost the entire rainbow. Twelve months later, most of the others have fallen away. The blues flirted with indigo. The greens shifted to hunter. The yellows were burnt and the purples were rich. Yet the pink remained hot to the eye and, one might imagine, to the touch.

At Bibhu Mohapatra


At 6397


At Christian Cowan


At Oscar de la Renta


At Rachel Antonoff


At Alice + Olivia


At Christopher John Rogers


At Carolina Herrera

 
The packaging and selling of political ideas is not new nor, in my opinion, particularly interesting. For me it often grates and leads to the release of a frustrated huff. So the commercialization of Feminism (capital F required) generally, and White Feminism more specifically, comes as no surprise. That particular strain was occurring before November of 2016, but it has become more prominent in the aftermath of that election. If you let your mind slip for a moment, it can almost feel as if those items are making a real point about where one stands. Then one remembers that payment is required to announce said stand in that manner. This phenomenon exists at all price levels but the sour, sweet stink of the affair hangs most heavily in the air at the top. $700 for a tee is ridiculous no matter how one looks at it. $700 for a tee proclaiming your belief in gender equality is beyond the pale.

A color, well a color is both more complex and more subtle than a glib turn of phrase. One could wear this hot, searing pink merely because one likes pink. Because it looks good on you. Because you have become bored of a life fulled with neutrals. Similarly the designers' inspiration could have roots in any number of places. So while I believe that this shocking pink's appearance is partly tied to what is happening in the wider world, I don't believe that the same sour taste rises from its use. To take something coded as feminine and flip the tedious connotations on their heads, to make it brilliant, electric, eye-watering, and aggressive feels like a different kind of project.

There can be shame and fear in being looked at, especially as a woman when more often than we like those looks are directed and perverted by men. But when one controls the direction and strength of the gaze those feelings can fade away or settle quietly into the background and in their place can rise a power. Here you are unrepentant in the announcement of your femininity. Not a revolutionary act necessarily but a standing proud and firm.

That pink continued to makes appearances in London and Milan. Even now in Paris it is making the occasional showing. But as so often happens, another has come to the fore. Black, a color that is also often defined as only one or two things, was everywhere. In leather suits and flowing capes. Universally flattering and always chic. A color with its own complicated story to tell.


Images via

Thursday, January 31, 2019

An American Tale

By its nature, reinvention is a tricky undertaking. What should one hold on to? What should one discard? And when one finally reaches the bare bones of the thing in what way and in which direction should one begin to rebuild? This concept and these questions often confront us as a year draws to a close.

Calvin Klein will need more than a handful of resolutions to pull itself out of the quagmire in which it currently sits. The brand, barely into a major rebuilding project, now finds itself rudderless. Only two years after arriving, Raf Simons made his exit. There will be no collection shown at New York Fashion Week next month, and while there have been a few steps made to roll back Simons' changes, there is no real understanding of what will happen next.

In the decade since the global economic upheaval caused by the Great Recession, the fashion industry has dealt with a fair share of turmoil. Current day disasters aside, the economy as a whole has recovered. And yet uncertainty touches every corner of the industry. There is a skittishness that didn't exist prior to 2008. Many major brands find it hard to hold onto a creative director. Lanvin has had four in as many years following the falling out between Alber Elbaz and the brand's owners. Carven has found itself in a similar situation since Guillaume Henry departed for Nina Ricci in 2014. There are too many of these stories happening at too fast a rate for a full accounting of each one to emerge.

But the breaking of Simons and Klein feels bigger.

The timing of the announcement was the first sign that this rupture was different from the many others we've seen in the past decade. In a previous age, the holiday news dump was often left to celebrity divorce announcements. In this age, the dumping is continuous and the news being dumped is of a more cataclysmic sort. When this news dropped on the Friday before Christmas, there was something of the old about the entire affair. In a way it felt comforting. But then one remembered why these dumps happen. They occur to hide and distract. The dumper hopes that when people return from family dinners and presents and skiing or sunning that they will have moved on. That they won't feel the need to dig beneath the surface of the announcement.

When Simon’s appointment was announced in August of 2016, there was a frisson of excitement. His eponymous menswear line has a cult-like following. His years at Jil Sander were almost universally lauded. His short tenure at Christian Dior in the wake of the brand’s John Galliano disaster was more divisive, but he still had the respect and admiration of many in the industry. At Calvin Klein he was to be Chief Creative Officer in charge of every piece of the brand from the stark white underwear to the denim to the runway. It was the kind of power that now only comes when one is working under one’s own name. (And sometimes, depending on whom you've sold off stakes of your company to, not even then.) It was obvious that this meant a change, a real change, at Calvin Klein. You don’t choose to give a darling of the industry all of that power otherwise.

The total overhaul has become de rigeur this decade. Hedi Slimane landed at Yves Saint Laurent after the somewhat unceremonious sacking of Stefano Pilati and instantly discarded the “Yves.” Three creative directors, the aforementioned Elbaz, Tom Ford, and Pilati had controlled the reins after the man himself stepped aside, and while each had presented his own particular vision for the house of Saint Laurent none had touched the name. For some, Slimane had gone too far before he had even begun. There were rules. There was respect to be paid and history to be honored. You could strip a brand back to its bones but to pull out the foundation was unimaginable.

But it worked. Monetarily at least. It worked and worked and worked until one of those inevitable breaking aparts that now plague the industry happened. Three years seems to be the longest any one brand can hold onto any one person. Three years seems to be the longest any one person can bear to stay in place.

Bringing something back from the dead, or the nearly dead, is a different beast. Christopher Bailey lifting the Burberry plaid out of the gutter it fell into after an indiscriminate distribution of licenses is one thing. Marc Jacobs launching ready-to-wear at Louis Vuitton is another. Shaking things up is expected. A major recalibration is what's needed. There have been other examples of this kind of work in recent years, the rebirth of Schiaparelli for example, but that is not what was occurring at Yves Saint Laurent or the now defunct Calvin Klein of Simons. This is not what is occurring at Riccardo Tisci's Burberry. There was no dormant period. There was history. Recent history. Uninterrupted history stretching back decades in some cases. There was occasionally economic stagnation as well, but does that call for a complete dismantling?

It feels important to note that in the three cases mentioned above the people in charge were or are men. It’s a small sample size and in no way statistically significant, but when one looks at the work of the women in similarly lofty positions, one can’t help but begin to draw some conclusions about the why of matters. Maria Grazia Chiuri, who joined Christian Dior after Simons’ departure, Claire Waight Keller, who began to helm Givenchy after they and Tisci parted ways, and Laura Kim, who, along with her co-creative director Fernando Garcia, oversees things at Oscar de la Renta, are mining the histories of their houses.

Oscar de la Renta often posts a #tbt video from one of the house’s past runway shows on social media and then goes on to explain the ways in which the featured themes have been referenced in the present day. From the start, one could see the silhouettes of Hubert de Givenchy's mid-20th century work throughout the clothing presented by Waight Keller. While it's not as apparent in the ready-to-wear collection, the haute couture at Christian Dior always has with it a sense of the house's history. Each of these women is presenting her own vision but one can see the through line. They honor the past without feeling stale. They move things forward thoughtfully and with purpose.

“We started by offering just items that the house didn’t have before like suiting, denim or evening tops, and softer goods like chiffon dresses,” Mr. Garcia said. “And we’ve been doing it little by little so we don’t alienate the very loyal customer that the brand has.”

“Women are changing the way they dress now,” Ms. Kim said. “ I think we’re just updating [the Oscar de la Renta customer’s] wardrobe.”

One could retort that what works for one might not work for another. Maybe what one brand needs is a reappraisal of its storied past. Maybe what another needs is to forget all that came before.

Or maybe what some of these men feel the need to do is stamp their influence on something so boldly that no one will ever forget that it was they who were the creators. Even when the umbrella under which they are creating does not bear their names.

What it means to be an American generally, and an American brand specifically, is wide-reaching and often in flux. But even within that expanse, one cannot deny the fact that Calvin Klein as a brand is an icon in that regard. What was discarded in the building up of CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC, as Simons renamed it, was that stabilizing center. The runway looks produced by him included references to Americana, movies and collegiate culture and Warhol, but it all felt removed and overly cerebral. Not that the Klein of old was dumbed down. Not that at all. Its brand of Americanness was an uncomplicated, classic, sexy sort. It was about line and silhouette and less about imagery.

I quote James Baldwin often in scenarios where one might not normally reach for him. But when it comes to words written about the American condition and the American mind, its beauty and its underbelly and its beating heart, there are few who are better.

America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not dared to accept this opportunity, or even to conceive of it as an opportunity. White Americans have thought of it as their shame, and have envied those more civilized and elegant European nations that were untroubled by the presence of black men on their shores. This is because white Americans have supposed "Europe" and "civilization" to be synonyms—which they are not—and have been distrustful of other standards and other sources of vitality, especially those produced in America itself, and have attempted to behave in all matters as though what was east for Europe was also east for them.

Ready-to-wear is, and has been for decades, a global business. Three of the past four designers at Givenchy, a French house, have been British. The outlier, Tisci, is Italian. The previous designer of Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa, was Brazilian. Carrying on the legacy of a brand does not require that one have lived one's entire life among the culture with which it shares a history. But there is something about the white American obsession with the Old World as mentioned here by Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, with its assumed ingenuity and beauty, that can lead to the washing away of a core essence with roots in a different place. While Ralph Lauren sent him models down the runway to the sounds of the Downton Abbey theme for Fall/Winter 2012 and Dapper Dan has been heartily embraced by the type of brand that once sued him, the former's lush preppiness and the latter's irreverent look at luxury are both American down to their marrows.

Was the assumed superiority of European luxury what was running through the minds of the executives at Calvin Klein's parent company? Probably not consciously. They were most likely hoping to emulate the monetary success of Slimane's Saint Laurent and Alessandro Michele's Gucci by scooping up an available European prodigy of their very own. And as has now become the custom, they discarded him and anything that he had created when it didn't immediately work in their favor.

I wanted desperately to like the Calvin Klein of Simons. When he presented his final collection for Jil Sander, I thought here is a talent. For awhile I was able to twist my thoughts in such a way that I liked, or even loved, those CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC runway collections. But I couldn't forget the Calvin Klein that had been, and oddly enough it was Simons himself who wouldn't allow me to let that image go. During his short tenure, he launched Calvin Klein by Appointment, a made-to-measure offshoot that was most often seen on celebrities at major events. Many of those looks instantly transported me to the house's cleaner, simpler past.

That could have been enough if I had let it be. But the dresses seen on magazine covers and the looks that littered ad campaigns and came down the runway were something else altogether and reminded that this Calvin Klein was not that Calvin Klein and maybe it wasn't Calvin Klein at all. Not really.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Déjà Vu

Phoebe Philo makes clothes for women. Hedi Slimane makes clothes for "women." 

I tweeted that to someone in the aftermath of the latter's first collection for Céline. Perhaps it was a tad unkind. A bit much. But I was upset. The dread I felt at the initial news of his appointment was so deep that I wiped it from my mind for a time. "I don't like this," I told a friend months after that announcement. She gently reminded me that I had already yelled about this particular subject to her. So I lived it twice, that rage and disappointment, before settling into a resigned posture. But as the fashion elite moved from New York to London to Milan and finally Paris in the early fall, my anxiety returned.

Sitting there at my desk watching the models stomp down the runway in a collection that was not at all new for Slimane, I considered laughing. From the first look with its short length and its oversized bow, it was obvious that we were being served Saint Laurent 2.0.


Can one successfully perform the same trick twice? I don't know although it was apparent on that morning that the decision makers at LVMH and Céline were betting heavily on the possibility. What I did know was that I could be unimpressed twice. When Slimane took over for Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent, I didn't have many expectations. I had heard of Slimane here and there in the fashion press before the news of his appointment was announced, but his tenure at Dior Homme ended before I began to turn my attention to menswear. I knew a couple of the buzzwords that circled his work. Skinny. Rocker. To my eye, there was a bit of sameness to all of it but then what did I know? Not much honestly about the business of menswear. And after many nervous seasons of chatter about Pilati's possible ousting, I knew that I would be fairly bitter about whoever replaced him no matter the style direction they chose to take the brand in.

After Céline 's Spring/Summer 2019 show ended, I dug through my tweets in search of my thoughts about his first Saint Laurent collection. I assumed that I had been mildly pissed but mostly indifferent. I was wrong.
Rage stings and it stains and this particular one apparently never left me.

I've never owned any Céline from the Philo era. I've never owned any Céline period. I've never more than touched it, fingertips brushing against a line of dresses on a rack as I walked the sales floor of various luxury department stores like the Barneys that sat in the mall where I spent the back half of my 20s treading water at a retail job. I was there often enough that one of the stylists in the women's ready-to-wear department would warmly greet me before leaving me to my worshipful reverie. These clothes and bags and shoes, so far outside of the reality of my life both then and now, are mostly a thought experiment for me. I look at runway and red carpet pictures and make sometimes delightful, sometimes insightful, sometimes snide assessments. I daydream often. About soft leather pencil skirts and cognac loafers and dresses of various (literal) stripes. In my life, the high fashion world lives in a liminal space between reality and mirage.

In spite of this distance, there are designers who create clothing with which I forge a personal connection. Or maybe that connection springs from said distance. I look but only barely touch and so a bit of the myth surrounding them remains intact. I can revere them because I am not aware of the flaws that live up close. Because of this distance I know that a not insignificant number of my biases are, at times, baseless. When I am being mature and reasonable and a bit cold, I stomp those biases dead as they begin to bloom. When I am none of those things, when I am rash and passionate, I can't help but let them grow.

The tip top of this industry is lacking in women at the fore, but it wasn't only Philo's womanhood that drew me to her designs first at Chloé and then at Céline. There are men who I love unabashedly and with few reservations. Dries Van Noten. Alber Elbaz (formerly of Lanvin). Billy Reid. Scott Sternberg (formerly of Band of Outsiders and currently of Entireworld) to name a few. And much like Slimane, a number of them started in menswear before moving into womenswear.

When the reservations do arise, they often come from the same place as my distaste for Slimane. A frustration when it becomes clear that these men have forgotten that they are designing for women and a woman's body. When it's obvious that just for a moment we became an abstract concept to them. Women are many things and our bodies are as varied as the stars that hang in the night sky so one might think this task wouldn't be all that difficult. Pick a woman, any woman, understand her to be a living, breathing, thinking thing and then continue from there. But that path trips up more people than you might imagine.
A friend and I were sitting on a familiar bar patio talking close that night. When I discuss fashion with people, the conversations are often mundane. This is lovely. That is horrifying. We remain on the surface level because I fear that a push deeper might begin to bore my partner. If not stopped, I can begin to spiral into arcane facts and sweeping pronouncements. I begin to talk about legacies born and history made. About the highly intellectual and the more earthbound emotions. The pieces that make me shriek or clap or shiver in anticipation. But there are times when I don't stop myself and become a different person. A talkative person. An easy person. None of that hard exterior that isn't really hard.

I wasn't expecting the shrieks or the claps or the shivers to appear as I watched the first Slimane for Céline show. I knew it wouldn't be like the morning I stood with my laptop sitting on my mother's ironing board becoming increasingly enthralled by an otherworldly Alexander McQueen show. I knew I wouldn't be consumed by a deep sadness and a deeper appreciation like I was when watching the closing, rainbow light show of Christopher Bailey's final collection for Burberry. I had come to appreciate, like, and even covet some of his work at Saint Laurent. His brief return to couture right before his departure comes to mind. In those proportions and with that craftsmanship, I became enamored with his vision for a moment. But only a moment.

I wanted something different here. Something new. Not necessarily for me and my body but something beyond that limited, stilted concept of a woman. Because I loved Philo's Céline. Because I loved the woman she was making clothes for. Because I had given my heart to the brand. A silly, juvenile move but, as is often the way with such things, it occurred without my knowledge. And when you give your heart to something or someone, you hope for a gift in return.

I wonder what she'll do next and what he'll do next. I hope for a Céline collection in this new era that stirs that joy and that lust, but I'm not sure if I'll ever find it with him.


Saint Laurent, Fall/Winter 2016

 

Céline, Spring/Summer 2019



Photos via

Friday, September 14, 2018

In Full Bloom

There are motifs that never disappear from fashion. They appear no matter the decade or the dominant color story of the season. They show up again and again despite the industry's thirst for the new. So we get used to them. We get bored of them. We scoff and talk about a lack of freshness and an abundance of predictability. I am not immune to this behavior. I wish that I were, but it is easy when one is fifty collections deep in a particular season to fall back on the glib and the snide because those are the simplest words to reach for through the fog of your mental exhaustion.

Floral prints greet us every spring and summer without fail and, as Miranda Priestly cuttingly noted, they are anything but groundbreaking. They are at a minimum expected. They are at a maximum uninspired.

It rained throughout the winter before last in Los Angeles. I dusted off my Chelsea-style rain boots and stomped through the rivers that ran down our poorly draining streets. At times, the rain shifted from heavy, steady drops to gray sheets of unpleasantness. The late spring of 2009 in my hometown of Boston had been a wet, dreary affair but winter rain is different. Winter rain here in this land generally full of sunshine is especially different. I finally understood why longtime residents and those for whom this part of California has always been home complain about rain so much. Little of the variety that I grew up with back east exists here. Warm spring rains. Humidity-busting summer downpours. Sun showers that compel you to tilt your face skyward, eyes closed as drops plop gently on your cheeks. Despite the monotony of that Los Angeles winter rain, I knew something joyful would greet me at the end of it all. Something I had not seen in my then three years in this city. Something that would finally arrive after years of a drought that predated my arrival.

The spring that followed dropped heavily upon the city. The hills and mountains were a deep green. Trees bowed their heads under the weight of fragrant flowers. Cacti I had never seen bloom suddenly sprouted petals in a deep coral hue. A friend lamented that she had moved back east just in time to miss Los Angeles' first true spring in years. Facebook and Instagram and Twitter were full of people trekking inland to see the Super bloom. I had not been behind the wheel of a car in over a decade, so I took joy in what I could like the views from the patio of the hilltop house where I rent a room and the vistas that blurred in my windows on long bus rides.

Fertility. Birth. Rebirth. By their nature, flowers are wrapped up in all of these signposts of spring. And for reasons that need no explanation, these signposts are often associated with the complex concept that is The Feminine. From there they get jumbled up with tangential ideas. Purity. Beauty. Romantic love. It is through these lenses that we often view floral prints. There are designers who can take these classic threads and create pieces that are inspiring and eye-catching, pieces that feel light and sweet but never shallow. In the past few years, I've found myself enamored with Luisa Beccaria. I look through her collections and imagine a world in which I would feel the urge to put dresses like those on my body. I wonder if some of the heaviness that burdens my mind and my soul would float off as if repelled by the goodness of the garments.

It takes a fine hand to play with that sweetness. One can easily swing into the saccharine or the cliché. Vogue puts a young, white, blonde actress who has recently passed into adulthood on its cover wearing a blooming headpiece and you shake your head at the lack of subtlety. Bothersome questions for which you already have the answers make your skin itch. Who is allowed the space to be "sweet"? Who is seen as "innocent" without any qualifiers? The next year Vogue wreaths the heads of two black women in flowers and you chide yourself for forgetting all that flowers can mean. But the questions remain because you know that part of the reason they meant more here was that they would never be used in that simplistic matter for these women or the girls who share their skin. An unfair assessment of the people in charge of crafting many of the images seen in this industry? Perhaps. Although a piece of you knows deep down that you're right.

As I've gotten older, I have become less and less of a fan of symbolic anvils or sledgehammers. Purity placed on a pedestal and discussions that flatten a woman's sexuality turn me off. A few years ago there was a collection with dresses that made the models appear to be emerging from a grouping of petals. "These girls are in bloom and ready to be plucked," they screamed. I rolled my eyes in response.

When the Spring/Summer 2018 collections began to walk down runways and stand languidly in presentation spaces last September, the floral prints were inescapable. This wasn't their usual return. This was overwhelming. This was intoxicating. This was Los Angeles in spring after a winter of hard rains. I was going to write about them then. I started to write about them then. But as with most of my recent projects not commissioned by someone else, I left a half-finished draft to rot in a neglected Word document.

I didn't expect an early screening of Crazy Rich Asians to be what brought me back here to these year-old paragraphs and half-finished thoughts, but on that mid-August evening there was our heroine, Rachel Chu, greeting the family of her boyfriend in a procession of flowers. Correction, the greeting had already happened and the flowers were nowhere to be seen dressed as she was first in a red cocktail dress favored by her mother and then in disco-tinged Missoni stripes borrowed from her friend. The flowers showed up in the back half of the movie when the conflicts that had been simmering beneath the surface came to the fore. They started quietly enough, a yellow flower against a deep blue backdrop that reminded me of a printed dress I'd worn in the fall of 7th grade. They culminated in a cloud of tulle in shades of sweet blue. "Why that color?" someone asked as I took to Twitter to discuss the movie after its release.

Cinderella obviously.

Flowers for fighting. Flowers for standing one's ground. Flowers for asserting one's worth. Not dainty or fragile. Anything but weak.

Two days ago I read back through my tweets about Spring/Summer 2018 to remind myself why I was compelled to start all of this a year ago. It couldn't have just been the abundance. Goodness knows I'll likely never feel the need to sit with a glass of rosé and scribble on and on in my notebook about the recent return of the peplum or the baffling resurgence of the bucket hat without the hope of a paycheck at the end of my trials. Once I was again among those clothes, it was instantly clear why these prints had grabbed me. It was that depth and that breadth. They had kept me from doing what would have been so easy, falling back on the glib and the snide because those would have been the simplest words to reach for through the fog of my mental exhaustion.

Flowers are for congratulation, celebration, and mourning. They can hide dark secrets and deep shames. They can mark the passage of time. So in no particular order, here is a small taste of what was offered a year ago.

At Zac Posen


At Preen by Thornton Bregazzi


At Alexander McQueen


 At Valentino


At Mary Katrantzou


At Markus Lupfer


At Delpozo


At Dries Van Noten


At Cushnie et Ochs (now Cushnie)


At Commes des Garçons


At Johanna Ortiz


At Erdem


At For Restless Sleepers



The fashion calendar is oddly timed and needs revising, but I've always loved the bittersweet feelings stirred up by looking at all of these sundresses and bathing suits and shorts as summer takes its last breathes. Of course I watch from afar now. But Los Angeles has been a bit moody recently, beset with a morning chill that sometimes takes until the late afternoon to lift, and so the bittersweet returned.

New York Fashion Week has ended now and everyone has moved on to London. Yellow was everywhere. Despite my distaste for them, bucket hats stuck around. The sheers menace that has haunted formalwear for nearly a decade seems to be going nowhere. The flowers were there as they always are but not in the same sweeping manner as the year prior. Maybe things will change in London, Milan, and Paris but I doubt it. This new set of collections will likely resemble the spring we most recently had in Los Angeles, beautiful yet muted in comparison to the one before.


Images via