The March 2006 New York Fashion Industry Report for members and press with original commentary by Marilyn Kirschner on industry news, events and issues.

‘Desperately Seeking Modern’:

I suppose that in addition to fashion, I’ve had movies on my mind as of late, and who could blame me? The broadcast of the 78th Academy Awards on Sunday, March 5th, formally ended the overly drawn out ‘red carpet season’ and approximately three months of highly publicized award ceremonies celebrating the movie industry in which fashion played a large part. And so many movie titles, past and present, can be used to describe the current fashion scene- and I’m not even including the upcoming ‘Devil Wears Prada’, which is specifically about the fashion industry.

There’s ‘5 Easy Pieces’ (okay, so Donna originally made 7 but, so what? Come to think of it, there was a movie entitled, ‘Seven’); ‘March of the Penguins’ (the runways have been a study in black and white, not to mention all those tuxedos being offered); ‘Victor/Victoria’ (so many styles can be worn by Victor OR Victoria); ‘Woman is the Future of Man’ (the line between masculine and feminine is continually being blurred); ‘Walk the Line’ (well, alright, so it should really be, ‘Wear the thin Line’, but why bicker over small details?); ‘Red’, ‘The Woman In Red’ (welcome flashes of red especially in the form of evening dresses brightened up many a dark runway) and ‘The Perfect Storm’ (this could have included the word ‘coat', since runways have been filled with perfect coats for every type of weather condition, including storms).

And more, ‘Stormy Weather’ (refer to the preceding title); ‘Eight Below’ (there have been enough toasty warm layers, cozy knits and big fur hats proposed so that finding oneself in the North Pole should pose no problem); ‘Match Point’ (designers have rekindled their love affair with the matched suit - be it a skirt suit or trouser suit); ‘To Have and Have Not’ (alas, with the high price of fashion, there is an even bigger dichotomy between those who have and those who have not); ‘It’s a Mod Mod Mod Mod World’ (oh, is it really ‘mad’, not ‘mod’?); ‘Black Sunday’ (for true fashion insiders and many others, every day of the week is a good day to wear black); ‘Basic Instinct’ (good fashion design is a matter of following one’s basic instincts); ‘Goodnight and Good Luck’ (this is what your husband/wife/partner wishes you as you leave to attend Marc Jacobs’ always late Monday night show during New York Fashion Week); ‘The High and the Mighty’ (this one is rather self-explanatory, no?).

Just two days after the Academy Awards, the front page article of the ‘The Arts’ section of The New York Times, bore the word ‘thank’ in big letters, along with much smaller words above it (film, great, love, people academy, work, partner, tonight, everybody, etc.) and came with the by-line explaining: “Each word is scaled proportionally to the number of times it has been used in acceptance speeches at the last six Academy Award ceremonies. Words are included only if they have been used 10 or more times and pronouns and other common words have been removed.”

So here we are, almost just under two weeks after the final presentation in Paris of Miu Miu which officially ended the international round of fall 2006 runway shows. If I wanted to painstakingly duplicate what was done by The New York Times, but skew it to the world of fashion (and include those words that were used most often by members of the press and retailers in the last month, in their attempt to describe and define the season), it would list the following in no particular order: black, layers, dark, romantic, balloon, luxury, hard, textures, simple, sophisticated, fabric, sleeves, mini, downtown, egg shape, tights, short, restraint, fur, trim, hats, leggings, platforms, boots, chunky, fuzzy, mohair, knits, mod, moody, primitive, artistic, sobriety, medieval, archival, protective, belt, strong, cocoon, plaid, leggings, coats, wool, military, herringbone, tweed, street, sweater, and shoulder.

But the word that would have to appear in large letters and serve as the headline, at the top of the list would no doubt be ‘MODERN’, a term that is so overused at this moment in time. Editors and retailers are taken with the notion of ‘modern’ and, each month or each season, they desperately seek to articulate and illustrate what that is so their readers and/or customers will be ‘enlightened’. It goes without saying that fashion designers would like to think that their proposed vision is THE modern vision for the 21st century.

‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

There are many ways to use and define ‘modern’; In WWD’s March 7th, cover story, “Falling in Love With Fall: Retailers Praise Paris for Romantic Season”, Holt Renfrew’s fashion director, Barbara Atkin, spoke of a “new, modern couture” direction; Bloomingdale’s fashion director, Stephanie Solomon, thought Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton was “breathtakingly modern” and that Balenciaga “looked modern”; Anna Garner, fashion director for Selfridges, London, heralded a “move away from ladylike chic to a more modern, harder edge”; Michael Fink, senior fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue, hailed Balenciaga for its “perfect, modern reinterpretation of the legendary archives”; Neiman Marcus’s executive vice president, Ann Stordahl, thought Chanel “looked luxurious and modern from start to finish” and cited Alber Elbaz at Lanvin for “moving his fashion forward in a modern way”; Sarah Easley, co-owner of Kirna Zabete, proclaimed Balenciaga as “retro yet modern; and Teiji Yoshimura, owner, buying company Yoshimura, Japan, thought that Chloe typified “modern elegance.”

Elsewhere, The International Tribune’s Suzy Menkes, (“Taking the high road to romance”, March 5th) observed that the story of the season was ‘modern romance’, which she thought was summed up by Alexander McQueen. For Karl Lagerfeld, it’s the idea of “movement, movement, movement” and clothes that have a “faultless connection to life”, as he told Cathy Horyn, (“At Saint Laurent, A Blueprint for the Future”, March 4). And Cathy Horyn’s revelation of what constitutes modern crystallized towards the end of Paris Fashion Week. As she reported in her review, “Walking the Thin Masculine Line”, March 2, it hit her “on Wednesday night at Rochas, when Olivier Theyskens sent out a skinny black pantsuit and then a lean black vest over a white cotton shirt with narrow trousers. If he wanted to communicate the idea that modernity is a thin masculine line, I don't think he could have done it any better.”

Certainly, I would agree that fashion cannot be considered modern if it’s not relevant for modern urban life, or if speed, mobility, and ease of movement are not taken into consideration. This is why I don’t find floor sweeping skirts or coats for daytime, regardless of how beautiful or poetic they may be, to be particularly modern. On the other hand, I do think that leggings, pants, and short skirts are the essence of the term (what I mean by ‘short’ is at or above the knee, How high one goes depends on age, body, and many other factors).

And I do think that short coats and mini coats are the perfect modern solution because they cover and provide warmth, especially when layered over tights and leggings, skirts, and pants. At the same time they are practical, easy, and perfect for getting around town, getting in and out of cabs, going up and down the stairs to the subway, and quickly going through one’s routines and chores.

I agree with Cathy Horyn that there is something especially modern about a lean masculine line, but that’s not the only thing modern about the male ritual of dressing. ‘Modern’ sums up the inherently unfussy, non-sensical, masculine approach to getting dressed and the idea of affecting a uniform, which is at the heart of the male wardrobe. When it comes to clothing, men have it so much easier than we do within a certain defined framework. They have relatively few choices that must be made in the course of a day, or evening, while conversely, women are bogged down with endless possibilities and options. Long or short? Skirt, dress, or pants? Bright or subdued? Plain or fancy? Minimal or to the max? Clutch bag or handbag? Sandals or boots? Sheer, nude, or opaque? Hard edged or soft? It’s enough to send us straight to a padded cell or to the poorhouse - or BOTH!

‘Nine to Five’:

Uniforms have been very much on my mind as of late and I think they’re highly underrated. The concept makes so much sense and jives so well with the busy, multiple lives we all lead, and it’s particularly relevant when applied to one’s work life. Sure there are those special times that demand a pull no stops, all out primping but, let’s face it, most women don’t have the time or inclination to fuss on a daily basis and need reliable pieces that they can depend upon and that will work for them day and night. Affecting some sort of uniform ‘works’ because it’s quick, easy, surefire, and a no brainer. It enables one to get dressed and get out the door in no time flat. Best of all, you feel confident, comfortable, prepared for whatever the day has in store, and ready to tackle more theserious issues of life.

The late great Geoffrey Beene, who defined ‘modern’, was always an advocate of the ‘uniform’, and even called his spring 2003 collection, ‘Uniforms’. But he was not proposing the uniform of a man’s stiff suit, a garage mechanic, or a flight attendant, but rather a chic wearable modern uniform that flatters a woman (one of the proponents could easily be the versatile jersey jumpsuit that he loved so much and that so often served as the foundation of a day to evening uniform look).

Donna Karan’s breakthrough ‘7 Easy Piece Collection’ in 1985 (which many felt the designer wisely and successfully tapped into this season) began with a bodysuit as foundation, and was fundamentally a uniform way of dressing. And style iconoclast Iris Barrel Apfel, may be celebrated for her rather eccentric and colorful style, but on a daily basis, she relies on distinctive basics. In the course of my interview with her for ‘The Masters of Fashion’ Series, she admitted that even though the Met’s Costume Institute curators were more interested in displaying her more visual, over-the-top outfits for the ‘Rara Avis’ exhibit, the wardrobe staples she tends to ‘live’ in are of the more simplified black and gray variety, which provide her with a perfect backdrop and foil for her amazing accessories. When I asked how she dresses for summer in the city, she proclaimed her uniform is a white shirt and jeans (men’s jeans, which she said fit her best).

Of course, what constitutes the components of a uniform will vary from woman to woman and one must take into consideration one’s age, occupation, geographical location, and personal style. For example, for a lawyer or corporate executive, it would most likely be some sort of matched suit (probably a skirt suit), or a dress with jacket or coat. For a stay at home mom, the perfect uniform could consist of those perfect, well-cut jeans and ankle boots (or skinny pants tucked into tall boots) teamed with a shirt and/or a hand knit or cashmere sweater, with that all-important coat thrown over it.

For a magazine editor or someone in a more creative field- there is far more flexibility and a uniform could mean anything and everything (all the above, some of the above, a mix of the above). And one can’t overlook the always chic and timeless white shirt worn with a black skirt or black pant that works across the board, and has been touched on by almost every designer (or so it seems) for the past few seasons with no end in sight. It’s impossible to go wrong with this combo.

Coincidentally, this subject was broached in the special March 13-20th double issue of New York Magazine, ‘Best of New York’. Within the section on ‘Buying’, they focused their attention on urban essentials and asked four New York editors (Harriet Mays Powell, fashion director, Aja Mangum, market research editor, Amy Larocca, style writer, and Janet Ozzard, Strategist Editor) to “offer their dream versions of this spring’s uniform”.

Unsurprisingly, while the choices may have been somewhat different, they were all similar in that they were to the point, non frilly, and built around a fabulously chic knee length coat, in a neutral shade (white or tan), thrown over either a black dress or perfectly tailored black pants and a crisp white shirt, and worn with distinctive, timeless accessories (chunky chain necklaces, expensive bags and shoes).

What elements have to be present in an item in order to qualify it for uniform status? Well, it has to be simple, versatile, comfortable, flattering, effortless, timeless, classic, AND distinctive (in fabric, shape, or silhouette) because, quite frankly, if it’s not distinctive what’s the point? But it also must be ambiguous and non-descript enough so that the woman won’t easily tire of it, can easily ‘disguise’ it and wear frequently (without appearing to have done so), and can easily mix it with other items in her closet. (So it probably won’t be something in lacquer red or in a memorable eye-popping print or pattern). Tall order? Not necessarily.

A look at recent runways which were filled with tons of perfect crisp white shirts, great knitwear, beautifully constructed coats, deftly crafted and constructed jackets, a procession of trousers and skirts, simple yet artfully draped jersey dresses, updated classics like pea jackets and trench coats translated into a neutral, dark color palette that relied heavily on black, ink blue, and gray, suggests that designers have provided a variety of women with enough choices that can work as dependable wardrobe staples.

‘Around the World in 30 Days’:
Based on what was shown on the runways during the month long round of international showings, it’s clear that as a group, designers felt that the key to modern was to factor in the perils of urban life, the environment, the world around them, and world events. This was apparent in their offerings for fall 2006. The clothes expressed a newly restrained and realistic sobriety in both color and tone (as Karl Lagerfeld noted, it’s rather difficult to even think of using colors like lime green and pink at this moment in time); and can arguably and offered a ‘safe haven’, cozy, comfortable, warm environment, and practical versatility. ‘Modern’ is apparently now being equated with strength rather than vulnerability and designers are intent on empowering their customers by providing them with protection through covered up, layered, constructed outerwear, and grounded, heavy, almost orthopedic looking footwear

Although in what was a disarmingly disquieting trend, many of the designers (particularly some of the innovative Japanese) who were most successful in this realm were also the ones who saw fit to wrap the heads of their models and encase them in bondage-like masks, giving them the appearance of faceless victims. Not only was this unsettling from the point of view of recent world events and the fact that we are constantly being exposed to images of hostages and mistreated prisoners of war with their heads and faces obscured but, far closer to home, it’s hard not to think of the recent brutal rape, torture, and killing of New York grad student Imette St. Guillien, whose face had reportedly been wrapped with packing tape ‘mummy’ style.

It is in New York that the trends begin to crystallize. However, it’s not until the shows formally end in Paris or until after Miuccia Prada shows her two collections (Prada in Milan and now Miu Miu in Pairs), and Nicolas Guesquiere puts his vision for Balenciaga forth that trends are set in stone and the season can be viewed in its proper prospective. So it was on the runways in Bryant Park and all over town that designers first proposed the dark, somber, fall like color story (and the return to black); the emphasis on sleeves with different shapes, lengths, proportions and treatments; the egg-shaped coats and other forms of protective outwear; leggings, layering, chunky hand knits, black opaque tights, heavy grounded platform soled footwear, the ankle boot, the eccentric headwear, the artistic references, and the innovative use of furs and fur trim that were later seen in Europe.

But giving credit where credit is due, Marc Jacobs’ highly acclaimed tour de force on the first formal day of New York Fashion Week would indeed set the stage for much of what would follow internationally and, in many ways, set the standard for the layered, sophisticated, urban ‘waif’ look, (not to mention his use of eccentric, exuberant hats, and innovative use of furs). And while others may have presented versions of fur sleeved coats later on, Derek Lam’s wonderfully chic khaki trench with lavish fox sleeves was one of the best of the season, even better than Christopher Bailey’s for Burberry, the company that ‘invented’ the trench.

The whole idea of fur not being worn for warmth but used unexpectedly, as lavish trim or in more unusual ways, turned out to be one of the most interesting aspects of the month long showings. Miuccia Prada even used fur to trim pockets on her functional yet luxurious nylon jackets. Nobody quite does the whole nylon techno/street/couture genre like Miuccia Prada who started it all.

And nobody treated structure, volume, the egg shape, and heavy plaid couture fabrics quite like Nicolas Guesquiere who somehow made it look youthful, not dusty and musty. But then again, Cristobal Balenciaga ‘invented’ all the above. His work is currently being referenced by everyone, and he is the subject of two exhibits in Paris (one currently at the Mona Bismarck Foundation, and another planned to open in July at the Musee de la Mode). And who other than Nicolas is lucky enough to have access to the vast and enviable Balenciaga archives?