American Fashion Designers Assess Their Impact for CFDA Exhibit

Oscar de la Renta highlighted his taffeta ball gowns. Steven Meisel for VOGUE

Grunge. Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s wedding gown. The wrap dress. All inventions that changed the fashion industry and resonated throughout the culture.

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Council of Fashion Designers of America decided to commemorate as many of those iconic trends as possible. So the CFDA asked its members—everyone from industry veterans to relative newcomers—to assess their impact on style for a new book and accompanying exhibition. (Deceased members were appraised by a selection committee.)

The result was a bit like a therapy session conducted in the language of straight pins and cashmere.

Some designers’ answers were expected. Marc Jacobs chose his seminal 1992 grunge collection for Perry Ellis—a mashup of street style and music culture that got Jacobs fired but set the stage for his international career. It also prompted the realization in the industry that luxurious clothes didn’t have to be precious. Narciso Rodriguez pointed to his minimalist bridal gown for the Bessette-Kennedy wedding that had brides ripping the overwrought beadwork from their own dresses. And Diane von Furstenberg selected a simple but sensual leopard-print wrap dress from 1974, a silhouette that redefined business attire for a generation of women.

Other designers “wanted to be seen for something that they aren’t or for what they do now,” says Patricia Mears, editor of Impact: 50 Years of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition, which opens Feb. 10. Tommy Hilfiger highlighted his preppy roots and omitted his connection to hip-hop. Michael Kors underscored swimsuits and ignored cashmere. And Ralph Lauren focused on his personal vision of the American West—exemplified in his fall 1981 womenswear collection, which featured a white ruffled shirt, suede skirt, and Navajo-print sweater—rather than acknowledging the polo shirt that ultimately made him a billion-dollar brand. Others simply preferred to look to the present. Oscar de la Renta, who’s been in the business for more than 40 years, chose to be represented by a taffeta ball gown from his spring 2012 collection.

A few designers were contrarians. Menswear radical Thom Browne, king of the austere shrunken gray flannel suit, loaned the exhibition a suit covered in feathers. And in the book, John Bartlett showcased his exploration of male sexuality with a simple pair of jeans—back view, no shirt—devoid of references to filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as was his habit in runway presentations.

In defining themselves, some younger designers paid tribute to those who taught them. Doo-Ri Chung, who is still establishing herself in the industry, highlighted her draping skill—a sensual technique that is her signature, but also a homage to her mentor Geoffrey Beene. “I apprenticed under a designer who was just amazing,” Chung says. “The tactile experience isn’t there anymore. I was the last generation that had that experience.”

fashion-designers-om04-givhan-purcell James Purcell’s choice: his overskirt, popular in the early ’90s. Gideon Lewin

Other young designers underscored the business of fashion rather than the aesthetics. Phillip Lim emphasized his acumen for delivering fashionable yet affordable frocks, instead of the charming white dress with handmade flowers that brought him so much early attention. Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler paid homage to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund that gave them an early financial foothold.

fashion-desingers-om04-givhan-hilfiger Tommy Hilfiger picked his preppy style. Courtesy of Dan and Corinna Lecca

The book is sweeping in its scope—a chronicle of personal remembrance and passionate history. For readers, it’s a chance to peak into ateliers and accounting offices, to get a sense of the egos and the insecurities of the biggest names in the industry. It’s also a place where a designer who may have had only a single modest—yet proud—moment of impact can stand alongside those who spoke to a generation.

fashion-desingers-om04-givhan-doo-ri-chung Doo-Ri Chung celebrated her draping skill. Courtesy of Doo-Ri Chung

For designer James Purcell, who no longer works in fashion, it was a chance to recall the popularity of his overskirt—a detachable skirt that could be paired with a dress. “It was a way to get two outfits out of one,” he says. “It was the businessman inside of me.”

Purcell’s entry is in the company of those by luminaries such as Norman Norell, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan, who selected one of her “seven easy pieces” that established her brand as one aimed at solving the wardrobe problems of professional women. Even more memorable than her clothes was the way in which they were pitched. The book includes a photograph from her 1992 advertising campaign, “In Women We Trust,” shot by Peter Lindbergh. It depicts the swearing-in of a female commander in chief.

“We celebrated women,” Karan says simply in her self-assessment.

What makes her impact so powerful is that Karan didn’t just hail women for what they had achieved, she cheered them onward to what was possible.

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