With this endless drip, drip, drip of clothing into the public consciousness, it’s hard to sustain enthusiasm. Still, the spring 2021 season was, perhaps, the most urgent of a lifetime — less about the garments themselves and more about an industry’s stubborn determination to survive and fulfill its most fundamental purpose, to bring joy.
There’s also the hope that joy, along with a sprinkling of glamour, will be good for business. After all, fashion folks make up 4.6 percent of the city’s private sector workforce here. A normal fashion week can have a $600 million ripple effect on New York’s economy. The country needs fashion.
After months of living and working in various degrees of solitude, designers emerged unsure of their economic fortunes, overwhelmed by social, political and emotional upheaval. Most seemed to find calming certainty in aesthetics, which is to say, they were clear on the kind of world they wanted to see and the way in which they wanted to live in it.
“The pursuit of design and beauty is bigger than a dress,” says Wes Gordon, Carolina Herrera’s creative director, who will unveil his summer 2021 collection in several weeks. In the meantime, he premiered “Conversations,” a short, filmed chat with the brand’s namesake founder, who is now retired. She taught him that fashion is rooted in “the way you live. It’s the way you interact with people. It’s the flowers on your table. It’s your family. It’s laughter. It’s a dinner party. It’s joy all around.”
For Gordon, who only recently was able to return to the company’s Seventh Avenue offices to collaborate in-person with his design team, fashion week is an eerily quiet affair. Instead of focusing on 800 to 900 items for sale, they’ll be creating about half that number. The usually bustling showroom is mostly empty aside from a camera setup for Zoom conferences with retailers.
The sewing machines are once again switched on in the workroom. Theirs is a gentle whir that reflects the delicate nature of Gordon’s designs — bodices shaped like bows, silken polka dots fluttering from a skirt, a dress shaped like a giant blossom. The lack of hubbub reflects the fact that fashion has not yet revved up to full speed. But it will get there. Gordon is certain.
“I grew up in Atlanta. I always wanted to be a designer and loving fashion and doing internships in New York. So I am forever intoxicated by the magic of New York fashion week,” Gordon says. “I believe in it more than ever. We’re not abandoning New York fashion week, nor will we ever.”
Despite limitations and hurdles, designers are determined to celebrate creativity. Some debuted collections online with still photographs or with artsy films accompanied by soundtracks of poetry and earnest music. Tom Ford offered pictures of glamorous caftans and high-class track pants. Imitation of Christ returned after a hiatus with a jaunty film of skateboarders wearing upcycled designs. There were straightforward runway shows, like that from Frederick Anderson, streamed from empty studios and Maria Cornejo’s pragmatic wizardry shown against the bricks and stones of the city. While Peter Do showed his collection weeks ago in one-on-one Zoom appointments, where he explained how his sophisticated but easy sportswear is a reflection of his workplace philosophy.
“You always hear like, you know, you have to, like, almost die or stress out and kill yourself to get good work,” Do says. “I really believe that you should be treated with kindness and respect, you know. And you should be at a place where you can be yourself and simply creative. And I think that’s when people do the best work.”
For spring 2021, designers recognize that consumers are now accustomed to comfort in their daily work attire. Yet no one has given up on style, on the pleasures of dressing up. This is not the sweatpants season.
For a designer like LaQuan Smith, who will debut his collection in several weeks in a film directed by Hype Williams, shoppers are coming to him because his clothes communicate the promise of a party, he says.
“I’m noticing in like my sales reports that LaQuan Smith is selling out during a pandemic,” says the designer, referring to his eponymous brand in a Zoom chat from his Long Island City studio. “Women still have this idea of yearning for a cause for celebration. I think that there is hope there. People are probably saying to themselves, ‘Oh, my God, I love this dress. … I’m going to buy this now because when the pandemic is over, I know exactly what to, you know, break out.’ ”
Smith also knows that he’s getting more attention as a Black designer at a time when inclusivity is front of mind. Indeed, the group of designers showing this season — as well as the models — was quite diverse. “I definitely think that I’m grouped into this concept of, you know, support Black designers,” Smith says. “But at the same time, even just without people knowing or being privy to who I am, they’re just stumbling across something that they like.”
“That to me is organic and really has nothing to do with being Black,” Smith says. “I myself have learned of some new designers and new brands during the quarantine that I didn’t even know. And I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, this is really dope, you know?’ And I’m paying more attention to it now because I think we’ve just had the time. We have slowed down tremendously. We’re reading more books. We’re like doing more research.”
Can high-definition photography or films by celebrated artists substitute for the energy and magic of a live show that for all of its faults — the expense, the environmental impact, the chaotic prelude of crowds and traffic and exclusivity run amok — can transport an audience to another place for a few exquisite minutes? Perhaps, someday. But this was not the season of the better alternative. This was the season of making do.
IMG, the massive talent and production company, hosted shows downtown at Spring Studios where a rooftop terrace served as the setting for Jason Wu’s live runway show in front of a few dozen guests and Rebecca Minkoff mounted a live presentation. In past seasons, this has been ground zero for street style photographers and social media butterflies. This time, there were fewer lensmen; the plumage was far less extravagant. The backdrop was more sobering.
“We thought it was sort of important to send a signal of, we’re open for business,” says Leslie Russo, the executive in charge of global fashion events for IMG. But instead of a street sign advertising designers and brand, “we’re thanking the essential workers.”
While IMG’s planning began in late spring with the hope that fashion week would take place in some form, executives didn’t get a sign off from the governor’s office until the second week in August. Nothing substitutes for “the energy of having multiple people together, I think that for us was something that we really, you know, always believed in,” Russo says.
No designer did a live show more boldly than Christian Siriano, who spent much of the spring producing masks for first responders. He invited guests to the grassy acreage surrounding his modern home in Westport, Conn., an hour’s drive outside of the city. A single row of chairs, spaced at a safe distance, snaked across the meadow. A little pond adorned with brightly colored flowers, formed the centerpiece around which the models walked.
Picnic baskets, filled with tea sandwiches, cookies, bubbly and hand sanitizer, awaited each guest, along with face masks bearing the exhortation, “Vote.” Some guests arrived dressed up like they were headed to the Met ball rather than an extra large backyard. The entertainer Billy Porter, bedecked in a sparkling pantsuit and side-tilted hat, served as a reminder that fashion lives — even now.
Siriano found inspiration in his binge-watching of “Troop Beverly Hills” and “The Wizard of Oz” during lockdown. He filled what he called collection 37 with tomato red party dresses, sunshine yellow frocks covered in flowers and enormous crinoline-lined ballgowns for galas that may not happen for a very long time.
“I like to make these clothes. It’s what makes me feel good and I haven’t felt good in six months,” Siriano said after his show. “I thought, I’m going to do what I love. I’m going to do a show. I’m going to transport everybody and take them out of the things that have been bothering them for a while. Fantasy for 20 minutes.”
Just before the designer took his bows, model Coco Rocha finished her finale walkabout and strolled into the pond for an impromptu dip. She was still wearing her bright red dress with its ground-sweeping train and matching hat. She emerged, soaked but with her hat still atop her head.
It was a spontaneous move that the audience greeted with confusion and even a bit of concern. Did she fall in? Was that on purpose? What the …?
We have nearly forgotten what it means to be silly. Serendipity has gone missing. Nothing is off-the-cuff. Everything must be planned now: the masks, the spacing, the sanitizing, the ventilation, the points of contact. Everything is a risk that must be managed.
How quickly we’ve forgotten what it was like to just do. Just be.
It may be a long time before the world gets back to joyful spontaneity. Fashion is doing its best to remind us of what that is like.