End of Fashion Week: The Wuddoo I Know? Dept.
Catching a cab in the gusty winds along Fifth Avenue and 58th Street. Photo: JH.
Re-cap of the Bill Blass/Vollbracht show from Wednesday’s Diary:

Well, they got what they came for. From the moment the great Pat Cleveland first sauntered down the runway in her stilettos, with her most delicate ambling strut, all set out in her Blass (by Michael Vollbracht), tippy-toe stopping here, and there, along the way, sending a tiny wave of her fingers or brushing a little utter self-confidence our way, the house broke out in heavy applause and cheering.

An illustration of Bill Blass by Michael Vollbracht
He did it. Michael Vollbracht did it. A gorgeous, rich, elegant collection of day and evening wear in the spirit of Blass. When it was over Nina Griscom said, “they’ve finally created the kind of clothes these ladies like to wear.”

Re-cap of the same show from Women’s Wear Daily:

“ Fashion can be many things. But it is seldom reverential, and cannot be static or reactionary. (Intentional retro is a different matter.) Thus, Michael Vollbracht’s first runway collection for Bill Blass was doomed to fail. Vollbracht, who worked shoulder-too-shoulder with Blass on his retrospective at Indiana University last year, spent two years immersed in the designer’s archives. Before that, Vollbracht had taken a 15-year hiatus from the fashion world.

“ Just like Rip Van Winkle, he reentered a very different world than the one he left. Back then, models modeled. Lunching ladies were probably fashion’s most important constituency, and Bill Blass, the man and the house, sat at the top of their games. Clearly Vollbracht, along with those calling the business shots chez Blass, refused to accept that times have changed. If all of the recent resuscitations of storied houses have indicated anything, it’s that sadly, or not, you can’t go home again. Or at least you can’t go home, conjure up the same muse, pull out the same patterns, settled into the same chaier and get back to business as usual.

“ But that’s what Vollbracht did. He then lined up Karen Bjornson to open his show, and also cast Pat Cleveland and Dianne deWitt, who worked the line along with current models. And when a blonde teenager follows the gyrating Cleveland, the former done up in a jacquard dinner suit and supersized French twist, she looks like she’s playing dress-up in mom’s clothing. Except that mom probably has no swelling desire to stock up on wide, pleated pants and faux-haute clutch coats. In fact, there was nothing about this show that rang the faintest bell of modernity. Which is too bad, because some of Vollbracht’s work, especially the graceful gowns, looked lovely and timeless if not au courant. Styled differently they might have made some impact.

“ But the bigger problems are the albatross of Vollbracht’s overt reverence and the house’s apparent refusal to seek out a new, broader customer base. These must be addressed if Bill Blass can hope to compete long-term in a market crowded with designer names.”

Pat Cleveland tippy-toes down the runway
Reading the WWD review, I thought to myself: now that is a professional review of a runway show by someone who knows what he or she is talking about. I thought. Except.

My first problem with WWD’s report were the exaggerations in the reviewer’s descriptions. Pat Cleveland, for example, did not gyrate. She did what she’s been doing, what she “invented” for runway modeling probably two or three decades or so ago. She kind of (barely) dances a jazzy hey-look-me-over walk, taking the tiniest, almost tippy-toe steps. It’s humor, kid; wit. Like: get over it. Mom is the customer, thou shalt not forget if thous is in the shmatte a/k/a fashion business.

I’m not a regular at the shows, nor am I an avid follower of the trends. As it happens, in another incarnation, before I gave it all up to become a writer, I owned a couple of shops in the gilded hinterlands of Westchester and Fairfield counties where we catered to the women who could afford to live there (either fulltime or on the weekends) and get around in a Mercedes, Jaguar, etc. – in other words, the customer who could pay the prices that designer garments cost (we sold off-price, incidentally).

It was then that I learned some of the basic rules of the fashion business, namely, making the sale. The customer is, number one, very often unsure of her own choices. She does not spend her thousands of hours poring over the pages of Vogue and Bazaar. Secondly she has real needs that are best served by basics, especially classic basics – jacket, skirt, pants, blouse, dress. Thirdly, she doesn’t have an unlimited budget no matter the size of her house or the cost of her sedan, so she likes to make purchases that will last. This customer lives all over America and many other places in the world. She’s a great customer.

Carmen Miranda
Figuring all this out was not rocket science. Mainly it was common sense. And we succeeded. I ran into a customer from all those years ago at the de la Renta show who told me she still has a couple of items she bought from me back then – almost three decades ago. The only thing that has really changed is the price. Everything’s about ten or a hundred times more today.

Which brings me to the next thought, one I had while watching the Blass/Vollbracht show: how fashion has a changed very little, damned little since those days. Yes, they’re now baring flesh around the belly which I don’t recall them ever doing before except in bathing suits or on Rita Hayworth or Carmen Miranda in the 40s movie musicals. And they’re wearing jeans (maybe a little) more. But otherwise, “modernity” aside, the customer, the reason why these shows are staged, still has the same needs. In fact, if anything has changed in that time, it’s the reality that more women are going to work everyday, and therefore need useful, good-looking, basics that can move easily from day to night or just about, and at a price where if they’ve made a mistake, it’s not mortal.

Modernity was cinched by Chanel with her pants. Minis are almost forty years old. Micro-minis are almost forty years old. Pants that go up to there were called “hotpants” back then (although I read in some paper today that Liza Minnelli claimed to have “accidentally” invented them in the days of Studio 54. Uh-uh; they were long old news by the mid-70s.) Baring the breasts began about the same time with the burning of the bras (and the draft cards) and the hippie movement and theretofore in the 30s by Gypsy Rose Lee, Georgia Sothern and Sally Rand, who were then called strip-teasers. The wearing of vintage, along with the this/that/and everything else, quasi-ragbag look began with Barbra Streisand when she first hit it big (all of which, once she had the dough, she shed for the glamour merch over at Bergdorf’s). Otherwise kids, (and now I do mean kids), it’s all old stuff, variations on certain themes.

Fashion outside the tents in Bryant Park
Fashion presages. It is change, and in my mind, a reflection of psyche of the society we live in. When Marie-Antoinette had herself and her courtiers painted for a portrait decked out in the (copied) muslin costumes of Native American women that the French explorers brought back from the Caribbean, her detractors practically accused of trying to start a revolution. Ironically, that’s what they got. Same thing when the flappers clipped their tresses and hiked their skirts. And then Chanel stepped into those trousers – a veritable Eve hijacking Adam’s silhouette of the last thousand years.

Those were changes. And they continue. For the last fifteen years we’ve been assimilating the sped-up changing attitudes of identity – male and female – all aswirl in the fashion soup garnished heavily with grunge, piercing, and now tattoos, creating a look that could be called Grab-bag, or Bottom of Closet, or Who Gives A Shit. Perfect references to the chaos of modern Western society.

But throughout all those “changes,” what has prevailed, are the basics, the customer’s needs: pants, skirt, jacket, blouse, dress. These needs are psychological, sociological and economic. And nothing comes cheap these days.

The gals turned out for the Oscar show
At the Oscar de la Renta shows, which I’ve been attending for the past few years, you see the fashion mavens of two generations – the old(er) and the young. Successful career women, wives of rich men, and heiresses sitting on opposite sides of the runway from each other. The older, experienced girls have always come dressed for a special occasion (their friend Oscar’s opening), respectfully accessorized, looking sophisticated and chic. The younger women, for a long time, attended dressed very casually, in pants, a little tee, a sweater, with often no makeup and rarely accessories – almost as if making a political statement to Mother across the way.

This past week at the Oscar show,
I noticed that many of the younger women on the other side of the aisle were a bit more “turned out.” Casual yes, but more pulled together, and even “dressed.” Maybe it’s just that they’re “getting older.” Or maybe it’s just another example of “modernity.”

Photographs by Jeff Hirsch & DPC/NYSD.com


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