New York designers re-envision the American woman.

The language of style.
Sept. 19 2008 6:17 PM

The New Ordinary

New York designers re-envision the American woman.

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There can be no question that Donna Karan is a great American designer: She changed the way a generation of American working women dress. (Disclosure: I worked for her in the 1980s.) Yet for spring she seemed to have the two sides of Angelina Jolie on her mind. Her collection was based on slithery jersey dresses with a deep décolletage and the occasional mannish jacket or military-style leather vest. The marbleized silks were lovely and the draping was pure Karan.

If Karan deserves credit for following the development of her inner muse—and the lives of her many fans—from the urban superwoman of the late '80s to the spiritual everywoman of the '90s, her spring collection raised this question: Where were the suits? Ms. Jolie—part limpid lady, part warrior goddess—is delicious, but you need look no further than the famously pantsuited Hillary Clinton, and now the famously skirt-suited Sarah Palin, to know that powerful American women still need help looking their feminine best.

Marc Jacobs fashion.
The Marc Jacobs spring 2009 fashion show 
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Marc Jacobs—who ruled the week, again—presented a collection that was, despite its zaniness and the hauteur of its high-fashion look, completely American in its reinvention of the past. Jacobs took a hobble skirt, a gingham shirt, and a Sunday-best dress and ran riot with them. He used lurex florals and richly hued boucles, and tossed in kimono coats, athletic stripes, and a George Washington jacket in his Rorschach test. Where do you see America?

Jacobs said his collection was "American, womanly, Broadway, Perry Ellis"—which he designed briefly—"country and naiveté." To me, it seemed to have come from the honky-tonk pattern mixes of Porgy and Bess, the high-yellow glamour of Showboat and the incredible grace of "Revelations," the Alvin Ailey masterwork on the black churchgoing experience. Nearly every model wore a hat and carried a bag, which could easily have been one of Ailey's fly-swatting fans.

Take away the church hats and look past the (sublime) runway styling, however, and these are great clothes—ribbed sweaters, silk blouses, wide leg pants, simple evening dresses—that will find their way into many big-spending women's closets. And given this designer's influence, the copies will be available to everyone else.

That most American of American designers, Michael Kors, loves his separates like a preacher loves his down-home religion. The problem is he rarely changes the hymn. Sometimes, preferably, he does Hollywood glamour. This season he retreated to the suburbs with checked picnic skirts, bikinis, and scuba-style suits.

Which brings me to our potential first ladies, each a symbol of American womanhood. Cindy McCain seems the kind of woman who would be drawn to Kors' red-white-and-blue country-club pageant. Yes, the shift dresses were immaculately well-cut, the coats both comfortable-looking and precise. But with the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" playing and the sundresses bouncing down the runway, this collection revealed neither naiveté nor optimism; it seemed willfully ignorant of the perilous world pressing in around it.

It's anyone's guess whether Marc Jacobs' collection presented provocative images of black American women intentionally. And it's unfortunate that he, like so many New York designers, didn't use more models of color in his show. But as the jazz-inflected American classic "Rhapsody in Blue" played at his show, I couldn't help thinking Michelle Obama—open-minded, adventurous, curious—is the kind of woman who would be drawn to Jacobs' clothes. If she wears them to the inauguration, it would be a revelation.

Josh Patner has written about fashion for Slate, the New York TimesBritish Vogue, Glamour, Elle, and Harper's Bazaar.