Carolina Herrera and Ralph Lauren Play the Generation Game

Ralph Lauren, fall 2018.

There was something awfully appropriate about the fact that Michelle Obama’s official-for-posterity portrait by the painter Amy Sherald was unveiled smack in the middle of the New York shows. In it, the former first lady and great champion of the American fashion industry is depicted in a Thinker-like pose while wearing a halter-neck evening gown in a geometric print by the designer Michelle Smith, founder of the accessible luxury line Milly.

Milly? The times they are a-changin’.

During her tenure in the White House, Mrs. Obama was known for wearing clothes from approximately 90 percent of the names on the fashion week schedule, from up-and-coming designers to the tent pole brands of the industry, providing all of them with an enormous boost to their name recognition. This choice was fully in line with that legacy. She had always treated the most formal outfit with a certain throwaway ease, and had no truck with traditional hierarchies. They are breaking down nonetheless.

New York fashion is suffering some sort of identity crisis, and not just because designers are decamping for foreign shores (that’s the easy excuse), or making movies instead of shows (get ready for Monse) but because it’s in the midst of generational shift — both internally, with founders of a certain age preparing to hand over power, and externally, when it comes to what the customer may want. Athleisure? Streetwear? Gender fluidity? Ball gowns? All of the above?

As a result, the big brands that used to dominate the city no longer have quite the same aesthetic authority. When Ralph Lauren cruises from barefoot-in-Jamaica (where he has a vacation house) in lovely blue and white and faded denim sundresses to Cap d’Antibes in bright red, yellow, blue and green sequined minidresses, patent leather sweats, and an Art Deco ocean liner print, it’s hard not to feel a little lost. The clothing compass is pointing in too many directions at once.

It also got a little wiggly at Carolina Herrera — who is herself sailing off into the sunset, at least sort of, by becoming the brand’s global ambassador, and anointing Wes Gordon as creative director — made the admirable, if not always successful, decision to look forward instead of back, swapping her usual florals for a lame leapin’ leopard print in glinting lamé. The awning stripes she favors were still in there, as were the polka dots (sequined, on a flowing cape), but the mixing of ostrich feather and silver ribbon on a skirt and coat had less direction than the parade of floor-sweeping faille skirts in a rainbow of shades paired with crisp white shirts and belted in contrasting colors that closed the show.

A homage to Mrs. Herrera’s signature style, it was the best look on the runway. There’s often a lot of pressure on new designers to “youthify” older brands, but here’s hoping that Mr. Gordon — who presented his boss with a giant bouquet of red roses during her bow — sticks with it.

In this, he might take a page from Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, who have been smartly diplomatic about updating Oscar de la Renta without reinventing it. This season, a trip to the Cloisters inspired a host of tapestry prints, parchment shades and stylized florals, not to mention chain mail and silver filigree embroideries, all balanced by a stripped-down silhouette: narrow pants with deep cuffs and squared-off jackets; pencil skirts with slouchy sweaters sporting jeweled bouquets.

There were lots of the usual party dresses, to be sure. Presumably, many will end up on the red carpet at the Met Gala in May, for the opening of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” (or even at the Oscars’ next month). But hidden among all the sparkle was one genuinely new idea: Many of the untucked shirttails poking from under the jackets were not actually shirts at all. They were fake-tails that belted around the waist, so they read as casual without the construction of layers.

They made sense — more so than the horses and … wait, was that a cow? — that reared across the linen serapes and shirts of Derek Lam’s otherwise understated and sporty Western-inspired suedes and slouchy trousers. Just as the lyrical, swaddling suiting in earthy shades at The Row makes sense. (The more ecclesiastical evening wear would also be good for the Met Gala, if anyone is feeling a little party Puritan.)

For Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the brand’s designers, it’s all about the inside, and the tiny detail: jackets cut in a classic hourglass or pulled just off-center, a single lapel flying out like a scarf; a trench coat secured by one button just above the waist. The show was held in a makeshift gallery spotted by 13 Isamu Noguchi sculptures on loan from the artist’s foundation. That’s a pretty ambitious connection to imply. But as the old order shifts, there’s room at the top.

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