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.

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