Who Will Lead American Fashion?

From left: Narciso Rodriguez, Oscar de la Renta, and Ralph Rucci's RR331. Photo: Imaxtree
Who Will Lead American Fashion?
The industry needs a challenge. Oscar de la Renta has lost its way; Narciso Rodriguez tests himself with sportswear.

For several days now, New York Fashion Week has been getting serious again, back to bread-and-butter business. Good-bye, Yeezy and all that. It sometimes seems, in fact, that the industry has splintered into three completely separate businesses — the celebrity lines, the trendy-casual stuff that consumes most of the space (and slowly kills you with its banality), and the elite brands like Oscar de la Renta. There’s no real leader, though, in American fashion. We have stars, bona fide talent (Narciso Rodriguez) and conceptual playmakers (thank you, Marc Jacobs), but what we desperately need is someone who can challenge and ignite the whole industry. Raise the bar, because it’s pretty low right now.

Let’s talk about the Oscar de la Renta show. One of the virtues of the late Mr. de la Renta was that he was enormously competitive. It made him mean and prickly at times, but, if you knew him, it drove him to stay on top of a tough business and do relevant clothes for a woman of any age. He loved to win — at tennis, cards, dominoes, fashion — and that spirit, I think, gave a nice edge to his designs. A black lace cocktail dress became something frisky. His colors heralded fun. Let’s dance! And even if you didn’t want to be part of his world — maybe the style was too uptown — he at least made you curious about it.

At Oscar de la Renta, many of Peter Copping's cocktail and big-party looks were pretty, but other aspects of the collection looked stilted and difficult for many women to wear.

Peter Copping, his successor, has not been able to do this after three seasons. The connection to the chic and mischief and unbelievable know-how of Oscar fizzles on the runway with each Copping look. Yes, many of the cocktail and big-party looks he showed on Tuesday evening were pretty — a black silk-faille gown with a crystal-embroidered bodice, for example, and an organza tea-length dress in a haze of pale blue and emerald. But other aspects of the collection — like fine, second-skin knits with tulip or bell-shaped skirts in silvery damask — looked stilted and, frankly, difficult for many women to wear. And damask seems a dressy daytime choice for 2016, at least as Copping conceived it. Also, a number of outfits had a dainty mink collar in blue tied at the neck of a sweater or waistcoat, a dopey effect that many customers wouldn’t even want to see, much less wear.

To be sure, the Oscar de la Renta company has to move with a fast-changing world. But, oddly, a missing element in the new collections is a sense of wonder and surprise. Copping’s aesthetic feels isolated. Remember a few years ago when John Galliano spent a month working as a “guest designer” for de la Renta? I’m not suggesting at all that Galliano should have been hired, but I do remember, vividly, a gray cloak from that collection. It had a huge Red Riding–style hood. And it was like nothing else that season. That’s what is missing now — clothes that are memorable.

Periodically, Narciso Rodriguez shifts his collection more toward sportswear, away from the dresses he is known for — and this season was one of those occasions. Photo: Imaxtree

Rodriguez can speak volumes with a slip dress or the simplest jacket, because he understands cut and how things move on the body. Periodically, though, he shifts his collection more toward sportswear, away from the dresses he is known for — and last night was one of those occasions. I think it’s a way to keep him engaged, challenged by different textures and proportions. The biggest changes were chunky hand-knit sweaters and generously cut coats, stripped of detail. This was rough-and-tough Rodriguez. Some of the knock-around coats had a felted texture; others had slightly uneven vertical pleating — and from a distance, in off-white wool, looked like sheared fur.

The clothes were generally loose on the body, with interesting asymmetrical skirts that looked great with the big sweaters. A tank dress in sulfur-brown suede would look terrific on its own or enveloped in one of those big, silent coats. I love how Rodriguez keeps reevaluating his ideas, and continually surprising us.

Ralph Rucci is back on the scene with a new line called RR331, after parting with his company’s backers in late 2014. He presented about 25 looks on mannequins, and drew a large crowd of friends, well-wishers, and retailers, including the folks from Neiman Marcus. He had a number of his signature pieces in black wool crêpe and some gorgeous, almost savage-looking wraps in sable. But the standout pieces were a sleeveless, finely layered black silk dress with tiny knots down one side, and a ball gown in black taffeta. The gown was sensational. The tight, low bodice and long sleeves, with black zippers, made it sexy and youthful, while the swept-up train made it glamorous.

Ralph Rucci's RR331 had a number of his signature pieces, with a few standouts. Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Rucci

If Rucci can build on his classic styles, entice with a few one-of-a-kind pieces like the taffeta dress, and draw on the goodwill of his admirers, he can again have a business.