Beating the Beast of Branding

Looks from the Eckhaus Latta collection. Photo: Imaxtree
Beating the Beast of Branding
Eckhaus Latta’s excellent collection shakes off the industry’s impulse for rigorous definition and lets consumers draw their own conclusions.

Last night around 9:30, a couple hundred people, mostly under age 30, met in the dome at PS1 to watch the Eckhaus Latta show. It was Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta’s ninth collection, and the first fashion show ever in MoMA’s space in Long Island City. Outside, the snow had changed to a driving sleet. As PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach said, you couldn’t help but be aware of the effort people made to get there.

It was standing room only. Chairs had been set up in a spiral pattern, leaving the models just enough room to pass between guests, and the periphery of the dome was filled with those who couldn’t get a seat. Eckhaus and Latta, who live and work in New York and Los Angeles, are part of the current “Greater New York” exhibit at PS1, and the idea of a fashion show there sort of naturally evolved, they said. But, as Latta added, they weren’t thinking of a collection with art links. Rather, she said, “What is the space between fine art and fashion? We really enjoyed that gray area.”

Each style that came out at Eckhaus Latta was unique, and, in a way, a more refined offshoot of things they’ve done before. Photo: Imaxtree

As it happens, the “gray area” in general is one of the hardest mental spaces for designers to access, much less occupy with Eckhaus Latta’s sense of confidence — more evident with this collection than ever. The majority of designers know only how to feed the beast of branding, and that means making clear, definitive statements each season that are rewarded with the encomium that he or she was “very focused.” For many reasons, the industry wants designers to stay within well-defined but very narrow guardrails. Other designers clearly understand the virtue of the “gray area,” but sometimes overload their collections with images or ideas, leaving us little room to make our own leaps of thought about the designs. (That’s what I loved about the Pyer Moss show. I could see where the designer, Kerby Jean-Raymond, was going, but, at the same time, he left me plenty of room to make my own connections. With Hood by Air, on the other hand, I felt the exits were closed off.)

Eckhaus Latta is already exceptional because its premise is quite modest. Although the designers are plainly interested in regular shapes — a classic, ribbed-knit tube skirt, for example, or a rangy shag fur coat — they firmly refrain from the temptation to dig out a frumpy style from the past (a dirndl skirt, say, or a Victorian blouse) and try to elevate it in a sly way. The designers are too smart for that. Each style that came out last night was unique, and, in a way, a more refined offshoot of things they’ve done before: a pair of simple black shifts made dynamic with irregular planes of fabric, a shruggy jacket in dirty-blond shearling worn with acid-gold leather pants, a somewhat-shrunken pullover made of “confused” (according to the press notes) squares of knitting, and a truly divine “flokati” coat done in thick, splotchy pink-and-white shag fur and worn with a cream T-shirt, a rose-pink ribbed mini, and white hair-on-hide ankle boots (a collaboration with Camper).

As in all of Eckhaus and Latta’s shows, the models were a mixture of friends, artists, and professional runway guys and girls. But the casting, too, felt right, and not necessarily reactionary — against the “fashion system.” Gratefully, for their audience, that cranky complaint seems far from their thoughts.

At The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are at their best when they do chic tailoring and minimalist dresses. Photo: Imaxtree

Timing has a lot to do with why a particular fashion looks good, and that’s true for The Row this season. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen held an informal presentation yesterday in their downtown office, with the sisters sitting on the floor as their models came out. Over the years they have sampled a lot of far-flung ideas, but the Olsens are at their best when they do chic tailoring and minimalist dresses — and not when the style treads too closely to early Calvin or Zoran. By now, they have enough cred with the floor-length day dress and spare coat-and-trouser combination to make a fresh statement with them. Everything was in neutral tones, with embellishment confined to a gorgeously plain black sack dress with tiny frills near the neck and an embroidered black coat. A few coats had a nice rounded effect through the shoulders and a nipped waist. As I say, though, timing matters, especially when there’s a lot of clutter and noise.

Do women crave graphic-looking patterns, including 3-D flowers, as much as designers like to show them? In a generally strong collection yesterday, Carolina Herrera affixed petal cutouts to dresses and tops by means of tiny metal pieces, so that the flowers stood apart from the surface of the garments, and even seemed to wiggle. It was a flourish that wore thin. Phillip Lim used Japanese motifs for graphic punch, notably for boxy jackets that were a mix of kimono and military. Maria Cornejo drew on nature, blending images of crackled ice, grids, and Berber stripes in a single print. She was also high on a square-cut popover top. Great for layering, it looked rough and Revenant.