How Designers Are Redefining American Fashion

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The New York Fashion Week calendar took a hit when a handful of the city’s top fashion darlings (Rodarte, Altuzarra, and Thom Browne for starters) all collectively decided to decamp for Europe, leaving behind a rather sparse line-up—and an overarching question of what it means to be a designer in America for those who stayed.

For so long, America was all about utilitarian workwear that prioritized functionality above else, leading to the creation of blue-collar brands like Carhartt in 1889 and Levi’s in 1853 that supplied super durable garments to manual laborers. Heavy in weight and built to last, denim was a staple for the working class—and eventually, for everyone as it became synonymous with America. But it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the nation’s aesthetic skewed middle-class casual with a predilection toward sportswear: a concept that revolves around accessibility, mobility, and easy dressing—an alternative to luxury fashion. And the keepers of that look and lifestyle—the designers who built empires on selling the American Dream—were Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan.

Now, with the democratization of fashion—both in terms of the industry’s recent push for inclusivity and the rise of globalization, the result of increased access made possible by social media—Americana, as seen through the lens of its own people and those across the world, has become a giant question mark.

For Alexander Wang, who pulled out of the traditional fashion week calendar this year to start over with “Collection 1,” he took it to mean as a celebration of his Taiwanese-American heritage. He did so by implementing mandarin collars on tops, loudly stamping “Chinatown” along pants, and painting the faces of models with black-and-white stars and stripes, a graphic interpretation of the American flag.

“Today marks a new beginning, a new identity and a new day for my brand,” the designer wrote in his show notes. “I share with you my pride in being an American with immigrant roots and calling this wonderful inspiring city of New York my home.”

He’s not alone—a number of designers at the helm of some of the biggest labels in America are immigrants. The most notable is Belgian designer Raf Simons who, since his 2016 appointment as the chief creative officer at Calvin Klein, has won both the distinguished Menswear and Womenswear Designer of the Year honors at the 2017 CFDA Awards (the first time a designer to have been awarded both since Calvin Klein himself in 1993) and Designer of the Year for women’s once again at this year’s awards. With full creative control, complete with artistic collaborations with Sterling Ruby and Andy Warhol, Simons has been able to deliver his interpretation of America: A Western take distorted with horror movie motifs embedded in a post-apocalyptic, popcorn-filled setting that’s somehow incredibly terrifying, thought-provoking, and awe-inspiring all at once.

“I came to America because America, and you, are inspiring to me,” Simons said when he accepted his CFDA awards in 2017. “If we as creators can be an inspiration for how the world should look, that is something we should take as a very important task in our existence.”

In his five years as the creative director of Coach, British designer Stuart Vevers, too, has completely revived the heritage leather goods brand with his vision of Americana, taking samplings of classics like varsity jackets, shearling pieces, and Laura Ingalls Wilder-esque prairie florals, and making them over in a youthfully warped, Goth-grunge way.

The Brunei-born, Holland-raised designer Sander Lak of buzzy New York-based brand Sies Marjan is also drumming up noise with his color-happy collections (he also recently won the 2018 CFDA Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent). And Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, the duo behind Monse and Oscar de la Renta, serve as yet another example of talented immigrants running the show.

But it’s not like America’s influence starts and ends in the U.S. Abroad, designers have (and continue to) riff on iconic stateside brands and landmark moments. Demna Gvasalia of French streetwear brand Vetements spoofed Bernie Sanders’ campaign logo for Fall/Winter 2017, and he collaborated with Champion, Levi’s, and Juicy Couture to supply unique, never-before-seen takes on old-school styles (like who can forget those zippered bare-butt jeans or velour onesies). And most recently, Glenn Martens of the Paris-based label Y/Project took Ugg, aka America’s most controversial boot, and manipulated them until they were, well, cool.

Of course, American designers are all wrestling with how their work could go on to shape the American fashion landscape as well, making their voices heard in both small ways and big through their designs. Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of Eckhaus Latta, who were one of the nine finalists up for the 2018 LVMH Prize, have taken a more abstract approach, concluding their Fall/Winter 2017 show with a politically motivated dress embroidered with, “Is this what you wanted.” That same season, the four designers behind emerging label Vaquera made a more literal statement with an American flag gown fashioned with an extra-long train that dragged along the runway. “It’s a subversion of patriotism,“ said Claire Sully, one of the Vaquera designers. „But also a beacon of hope at the same time.“

So what does it mean to be a designer in America? That’s still to be determined, as designers continue to present their visions of Americana—though in a neat way, this melting pot of different perspectives is what kind of makes America so great.

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