At those words, the plaid-clad youth lined up to receive Kurt Cobain’s communion wafer. At the time, the media labeled them shallow and disaffected (“slacker” was the common label), but the anthem they rallied around told a different story – one that spoke to malaise (“Oh well, whatever, never mind”) while tacitly acknowledging the hollowness at the core of society. A harbinger of the future, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still feels relevant today as Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z speed towards a future that is materially shutting down around them (us).
Since the song first emerged in 1991, the world has morphed rapidly – each year scarcely recognizable from the one before – and the wildly changing appetites of the consumer have driven many of those changes. In the 21st century, the average person gobbles products and trends like Galactus: Devourer of Worlds, a Marvel villain who consumed planets to sustain his life force. Fashion – being an ideal if not always perfect lens for reflecting society’s interests – has struggled to adapt, pivot, imagine, and predict new futures.
In an effort to keep up, the industry has experimented with the consumer-facing “See Now, Buy Now” model that makes items from the runway available immediately after a show. Furthermore, emerging brands are going direct-to-consumers via Instagram, altogether bypassing retail giants like Barneys, which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As the ground shifts, New York Fashion Week (NYFW) had nearly fallen by the wayside – until now.
With the future of NYFW only a few empty schedule slots away from giving up the ghost, Tom Ford swept in this season as CFDA’s new chairman and shook the dust off. By condensing the schedule to five days and packing it to the hilt with events that had the fashion crowd sprinting through the boroughs, NYFW suddenly felt filled with promise.
For Spring/Summer 2020, it delivered. What it lacked in the significant legacies of legendary European houses, it made up for in youth, verve, and risk – supported by the steel beams of American design giants like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, the latter of whom returned to the schedule for the first time in years with an exhilarating collection in partnership with girl-of-the-moment Zendaya.
Everything was calculated for effect and calibrated for a social media audience.
Knowing that social media acolytes are gluttonous when it comes to the intersection of celebrity and style, shows made entertainment and joie de vivre the focus. Rihanna upstaged everyone with a multimedia extravaganza inside Barclays Center, where she presented her Savage x Fenty lingerie collection with a show that combined technicolor light displays, choreographed dance numbers starring the Hadid sisters and Cara Delevingne, and musical performances by Migos, DJ Khaled, Big Sean, and many others.
On a smaller scale, Brandon Maxwell trucked in Shake Shack for his guests, and Collina Strada took a farmers-market-meets-runway approach to her presentation. Tomo Koizumi exploded his maximalist ruffles to even more magnificent proportions and staged a technicolor camp-and-vamp themed show to complement his OTT designs. The cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills walked Kyle Richards’ runway, while Kate Spade doused its presentation with a healthy dose of influencers and house plants. Everything was calculated for effect and calibrated for a social media audience.
And in the kitchen, expertly blending social commentary with entertainment, we found Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss. In the collection, he imagined what a woman would wear at the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era, presenting a naive but colorful cast of models culled from Instagram, all of whom wore looks that meant to represent his muse’s DIY efforts.
Pyer Moss prints were created by Richard Phillips, an artist who spent 47 years wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. A 90-person strong choir called the Tabernacle Drip Choir Drenched in the Blood infused the Pyer Moss show with a spiritual moment, with celebrities like Missy Elliott and Erykah Badu sitting front row in reverent attendance.
Before the official calendar schedule kicked off, Rodarte took an altogether different approach from the entertainment theme, shooting a campaign destined for viral status. Instead of entertaining the guests at NYFW, the label chose to entertain the global masses.
Famous duos like January Jones and Kiernan Shipka (Betty Hofstadt and Sally Draper from Mad Men) and Gabrielle Union and Kirsten Dunst of Bring It On fame were enchantingly decked out in Rodarte’s feminine designs. As you might imagine, the response on social media was huge.
Dare I say… We brought it 🤔😬🤗 https://t.co/zN8rlaPL97
— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) September 5, 2019
After Ralph Lauren’s coffee shop-themed setting last season, the designer upped the ante for Spring/Summer 2020 with a polished social club, appropriately named Ralph’s Club. Held in a former Wall Street bank, the show’s location forged an indelible connection between the collection’s recherché style and the motor that runs the world: money.
Meanwhile, the designs harkened from 19th century high society, a time when J.P. Morgan opened, John D. Rockefeller started operating Standard Oil in New York, and Charles Henry Dow first started trading stocks. It proved an erudite way to draw parallels between Wall Street and the era in which it went from being a New World business district to the nerve center of the American financial universe.
Different takes on the tuxedo, louche velvet jumpsuits, and eveningwear with plunging necklines, knotted details, and sequined surfaces drove the point home. Models wove their way between attentive tables, and then Janelle Monáe emerged, signaling the metaphorical moment when the closing bell chimed and the party started.
The following day was met with nostalgia, as Tory Burch sent a collection down the runway in homage to Diana Spencer. Burch focused on Diana before she was thrust into the global spotlight as Princess Diana, which is a less-explored chapter of the icon’s sartorial history. Upholstered in English garden florals, decorated with pussy-bow accents, and shaped into 1980s silhouettes, the show echoed Diana’s style without being too literal.
Across the metaphorical pond, Prabal Gurung explored the notion of what it really means to be American. Once boasted as the ultimate cultural melting pot, xenophobia has seized the American landscape and created divides between neighbors. With a president who seems to think only one shade of skin belongs in his America, Gurung was swift to remind his guests of how beautiful diversity is. Working with Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, the designer tapped into sartorial iconography like denim, roses (the national flower of America), and combinations of red, white, and blue to support his inclusive narrative.
It’s been two years since Tommy Hilfiger has shown at NYFW and, in that time, he has taken his collections to other fashion capitals and collaborated with model-of-the-moment Gigi Hadid. His return to the New York schedule was a cause for celebration, but what’s really thrilling about this brand at this moment is its new cohort: Zendaya. Her presence, her vision, and her social conscience outsize anything Hilfiger accomplished with Hadid. Witness the theatrics of the first Tommy x Zendaya extravaganza in Paris, which paid homage to black excellence and starred some of fashion’s most famous faces: Grace Jones and OG black supermodels Beverly Johnson and Pat Cleveland.
Socially, Zendaya is saying something meaningful and shining a light on one of fashion’s most crucially ignored sectors. Sartorially, she’s having tons of fun. This season, at the landmark Apollo Theater in Harlem, a landmark theater for black entertainment that has hosted the electrifying likes of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, Tommy x Zendaya proffered an explosion of 1970s nostalgia. It crystalized an idyllic moment: a bustling street in Harlem in the 1970s, replete with trumpeters, vintage Cadillacs, and young people (i.e. a crew of professional musicians and dancers) hanging out on stoops. If last season was Studio 54, this season was Soul Train.
It translated in the clothes as flared leather and snakeskin trousers, flirty polka dot dresses, and velvet suits. A mix of curve models, silver models, Victoria’s Secret Angels, and women and men of every color showcased the collection, leaning into the Tommy x Zendaya message of diversity and inclusion. The exhilarating mood was so infectious that guests couldn’t help but dance along to the groove.
A world away from the streets of Harlem – but no less joyful – the Carolina Herrera show proved the prolific talents of its new Creative Director Wes Gordon. Every season, he gains strength with a vision that is pure, optimistic, and driven by an innate understanding of the house’s place in the fashion world.
After the show, he told Business of Fashion, “The world is full of clothes. My responsibility – my obligation, my promise – is to give them something that delights them.” As promised, the clothes were bouncy, colorful, and exactly the kind of thing a Carolina Herrera girl would love to wear, while being youthful enough to attract a new generation of fans.
For Spring/Summer 2020, Oscar de la Renta’s Creative Director duo Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia returned to one of our personal favorite eras of the house’s history, but with a Latin twist. They forged a smart connection between tropical vacation clothes and Oscar de la Renta’s own Dominican and Puerto Rican roots by way of cut and color palette. There was a sexy ease to the collection, especially its daywear selection. Packed with tunic minidresses, flowing silk kaftans, knit dresses with multicolored raffia hems, and linen short suits, the collection is destined for the suitcases of the fabulous and fortunate.
For the past two seasons – Fall/Winter 2019 and Resort 2019 – Proenza Schouler has been opening its collections with variations on the same look: a slouchy tan suit and black top with different versions of scarf attachments. But for Spring/Summer 2020, it showed the best version, proving the refinement of certain ideas over the past year. The look was more polished, complete with exaggerated padded shoulders kept in check by crisp, cleanly tailored lines.
While the 1980s were recalled in the angularity of the silhouettes, there was a softness that rounded out the collection, brought about by fluid draping. The effect of the looks culled by Proenza Schouler was achingly cool, but not outside of the realm of possibility for someone looking to smarten up their workwear wardrobe. In the fashion landscape, some names have swept in to fill the gap left by Phoebe Philo at Celine – think: Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta and Francesco Risso at Marni. And with its Spring/Summer 2020 collection, Proenza Schouler is now in good company.
Finally, closing out NYFW as he does every season, Marc Jacobs outdid himself. His past few collections have been extraordinary – thoughtful, voluminous in proportion, and thrilling within the social context in which they were placed. But this one was especially special. Before the show started, editors and invited guests were seated on a random assortment of chairs and stools on one end of Park Avenue Armory, facing the door.
Suddenly, the door burst open and a flood of models entered the space, marched forward en masse towards the seated attendees like a well-heeled mob. It was a surprising way to see a collection, initially at a great distance and then in great detail as it surged closer and eyes feasted on the details. As much as fashion collections are about the clothes, at NYFW, they were more about the feeling, the environment in which they were presented, and the message.
At Marc Jacobs, the clothes also happened to be nostalgic and whimsical as they reflected on the 2001 show that he staged the day after 9/11. There were lamé floral looks (see Kaia Gerber below), colorful striped knit dresses, slinky gilded gowns, and lots of fun confectionary ensembles – alongside looks that were a bit of a head scratcher, like culotte shorts worn over jeans. It wasn’t cohesive, but it wasn’t supposed to be.
With this collection, Marc Jacobs was celebrating the individual, eschewing the stale perfection of design by “computer or the cloud or the transient archives of the internet”. In keeping with the theme of entertainment that prevailed at NYFW, this show really chewed the scenery. Cobain might have started this conversation, but Lana Del Rey gets the last word in this runway round-up. In the words of one artist who’s also shaping up to be the voice of her generation: “The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball.”