Ralph. Donna. Calvin. Tommy. The Mount Rushmore of Fashion, Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week, called them.
What Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger have in common is their success in transcending trends, surviving a fickle luxury market, and putting modern American fashion on the map. They communicate what it means to be American, musing on the upper-class sophisticate, the working woman, the clean line-favouring minimalist, and the red, white and blue-sporting patriot, respectively.
Ralph Lauren celebrated the 50th anniversary of his business with a fashion show and dinner party at the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Martha Stewart, Anna Wintour to Hillary Clinton, and every possible A-lister imaginable was in attendance, perched front row alongside Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger.
You had to wonder, will America ever see another legacy brand?
The chances are, the answer to that question is No. It’s not that the upcoming American designers are untalented, in fact, some of them are exceptionally gifted, but they don’t have what it takes to transform a brand into a household name. One contender is the Texan Brandon Maxwell who will show later this week. He’s got the charm and optimism required. It remains to be seen if any of them can pull off such a feat.
The Mount Rushmore of Fashion came at a time when the American customer desired something new, chiefly, direction. Ralph Lauren gave them dinner jackets with blue denim, evening gowns with cowboys boots, an instantly recognisable Polo insignia which has become a symbol of class.
His Spring 2019 show was a study in the familiar. To begin with, the show consolidated the women’s ready-to-wear, the men’s Purple Label, Polo and the reworked archive pieces of Double RL.
The models trod on the patterned carpets in wintery clothes, rich in embroidery and tactility, which were an ode to the 1940s. They looked as though they’d stepped out of a time capsule, or, more realistically, a pristine black Escalade straight from their second home in upstate New York. They sported patchwork skirts, suiting which was rooted in the rugged American West.
The show was spectacular, for all its A-list power and amazing setting, but the clothes were not. They were laden down with the same overwrought, over-styled guise that has dogged his work for some time. However, they didn’t try to be something they were not. They were loose interpretations, and oftentimes exact copies, of everything that has come before. This is a man so confident in his own design footprint he can give you the same thing over and over and you convince you it’s worth repeating. It mightn’t look revolutionary but that’s a revolutionary concept: the comfortable self-assurance of sticking to one’s guns.
Tory Burch and Kate Spade are undoubtedly important names in the American legacy brand canon. Burch’s show, first thing on Friday morning, was about vacation-dressing, replete with effortless and elegant Mediterranean-ready options. It was a little muddled in parts, veering into an urban territory which was a disservice to the ease she cultivated with peasant skirts and floaty dresses.
Kate Spade sadly took her life, aged 55, on June 5, 2018. She left her namesake brand in 2007 and, this season, the ship was steered by new creative director Nicola Glass. It took place at the New York Public Library, it was a bittersweet but optimistic, tinged with nostalgia but hopeful for the future. The ready-to-wear won’t be as sought after as those handbags, shown in every possible variation: clutch, cross-body, and bucket. It didn’t shift the brand’s handwriting significantly, it did what Spade set out to do in the 1990s, democratise luxury fashion for young American women.
The new wave of American designers, the ones with the ‘ideas’ are much more interested in niche ideas.
LRS, founded by Proenza Schouler alum Raul Solis, should consider exploring some new ideas. In an industry awash with streetwear and belligerent aversions to quiet luxury, things were trite. Hopefully, new frontiers are ahead.
The same could be said for Monse, Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia’s brand. They launched menswear this season and that was about as buzzy as things got. The nautical reference is a tired trope, it should be retired, along with unoriginal spins on beachwear.
What Ralph Lauren, along with Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger, understood that contemporary designers don’t is the belief that the longevity of an aspirational lifestyle trumps the short-term satisfaction of Instagram likes and temporal trends. As a result, they’ve influenced global shopping trends, what it means to join a ‘fashion tribe,’ but, most importantly, they’ve established a connection with their customer. There’s no austere detachment preferred by the likes of Vetements.
You don’t know Ralph Lauren but you’d welcome him for a cup of tea and invite him to stay for dinner. Fashion doesn’t create characters like that anymore. Maybe it’s gone out of fashion because it’s not perceived as ‘cool’ to be likeable. However, if you’re likeable, people might be more inclined to believe in you, and if they believe in you, you can create a multi-billion-dollar business. Sure, it involves becoming a personality but if you don’t have a personality, what are you? Just another name.