Fashion's mood relaxed as designers welcomed the new season with day-to-night and classic sportswear-inspired creations. Whether purposely becoming more relevant, or just more saleable, the pragmatism of many Spring/Summer collections pointed at wearability as a defining trend, writes Indigo Clarke.
In line with the volatile economic climate, this season's collections seemed to follow, perhaps loosely, the modernist dictum that form follows function. As though gauging that on some level all of us, whether we have been personally affected or not, are reacting to the crisis, many designers approached Spring/Summer with designs that flaunted practicality over superficial aesthetics.
A return to classic tailoring and timeless basics swept through numerous New York collections, while London – usually relied upon to push new and outrageous ideas each season – toned it down a notch with clothing that could have stepped right off the catwalk and out onto the street without a second glance.
In difficult financial times, fashion often responds to the prevailing mood with sober cuts and colours – it's been widely noted that fashion follows the stock-market and economic trends. In times of prosperity when the stock market is up, so are the hemlines. Miniskirts were huge during the 60s, thanks to Mary Quant and a booming economy, but with the downturn in the 70s, hemlines dropped and floor-sweeping maxi-dresses took over. While super-short skirts still abounded this season, (Peter Jensen had one so ridiculously and brilliantly short it barely concealed the models knickers), and mini-dresses were rampant in collections from Sinha Stanic's wearable silk confections and Eley Kishimoto's playground love A-lines to Richard Nicoll's sumptuous block colour shifts – the summer collections notably featured 70s style flowing floor-length dresses and jumpsuits, best exemplified by Rodarte's glowing dip-dyed chiffon gowns.
Hemline ups and downs aside, sportswear came out on top this season. When you're not sure what you should be buying – and let's face it, boutique and department store buyers don't even know what to buy at the moment – it seems a pretty good time to stock up on wardrobe mainstays. While professional buyers do their best to buy clothing that will sell (especially since the Autumn/Winter 'toxic stock' has reportedly moved very slowly, urging early sales), consumers are doing their best to buy things that they will actually wear. It makes sense then, that timeless casualwear – following in the footsteps of American sportswear greats Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein, infused the collections of young American, not to mention London designers.
Reinterpreting comfortable classics was the name of the game for recent Vogue/Council of Fashion Designers of America Award recipient Alexander Wang, who injected his seemingly effortless designs with a trademark hard-edge glamour. "I'm not out here to reinvent the wheel, I just aim to create wearable, accessible and luxurious clothing that girls dream about and love to wear," explains Wang of his overall aesthetic. "This season I wanted to work with colours, to have a collection that was vibrant and sexy with glitz and bling, conceived in a sporty, athletic and casual way." Wang's vibrant collection, in a palette inspired by Miami architecture and swim culture, featured reworked basics including blazers, shorts and Swarovski crystal-encrusted sweatpants – just the thing for when you can't think what to wear. "Using crystals, I took many of the pieces out of a purely casual context and gave them a sense of luxury and sophistication," says Wang, "while still being totally wearable on a day-to-day basis."
Newcomer Lyn Devon, who launched her eponymous womenswear label in 2005, presented her accessible SS09 collection in New York during fashion week to a responsive crowd. While 'wow' pieces, in the vein of London's inspired innovators Christopher Kane, Louise Goldin and Gareth Pugh (who maintained their unique, future visions this season) weren't the go, it was because Devon was more interested in creating lasting favourites than instant hype. "The starting point for the collection was to recreate iconic American sportswear pieces – to bring to life classics that myself and the women around me actually wear in a fresh, sophisticated and fuss-free manner," Devon explains. "I have a very tailored aesthetic, while I may be designing womenswear I follow the principles of traditional men's tailoring in the vein of cool American summer sportswear." Showing his debut collection the same day, emerging designer Julian Louie, impressively endowed with an architecture degree (and whose ideas-lead designs saw him selected by Francisco Costa, Creative Director for Calvin Klein Women's Collection, to be his protégé for the Italian Vogue "Protégé Project") even found himself tempted away from the conceptual. Delivering an equally cerebral and wearable collection, Louie referenced,"The tension between opposing elements; sportswear detailing with couture fabrics, plastic zippers with crystal beading, neutral tones with shots of saturated color," he explains. "I saw this Spring/Summer collection as 'baroque athleticism' – a meeting of the dual themes."
The sportswear fever also surprisingly took hold in London, where label Ashish, renowned for fabulously over the top sequined, beaded and appliquéd extravaganzas (favoured by Madonna, M.I.A, VV Brown and recently Beyonce), looked to easy cuts and sihouettes – still iridescent with sequins of course. "It just feels wrong to be wearing couture at a time when so many people are losing jobs," the label's designer, Ashish Gupta, says. His Spring/Summer collection featuring dice, lucky charms and playing card motifs throughout, "Was responding to these uncertain times. We have a huge recession looming and a never-ending 'war on terrorism' – people are wondering what's going to happen. I feel that fashion absolutely should be relevant and respond to current issues." Following his London Fashion Week show, Vogue.com noted that every piece in the collection "is sure to be a sell-out hit", a sentiment well-received by Gupta. "To me, that's a real compliment because that is actually what fashion is all about – making clothing people will wear and feel confident buying," says Gupta. "An evening gown should feel as comfortable as a t-shirt – that's the basis for the evening wear I created this season, which had overtones of American sportswear. We live in a jeans and t-shirt culture, so for me it's quite natural to involve casual design elements – like oversized t-shirts and sweats conceived in contrasting fabrics with luxury detailing."
With key sportswear pieces coming out in force in both New York and London's ready-to-wear collections, investment dressing du jour has seemingly been made easy. The bleak economic climate is a good excuse to start buying a lot less (and help abate the environmentally destructive fast-fashion culture), but spend more on high quality, classic and endlessly wearable designs that won't age – well, not as quickly as that pseudo-ironic early 90s revival ephemera that's somehow still surfacing on the catwalk (Though boob-tubes and bicycle pants in retrospect were quite genius… what on earth was going on with the stock-market to lead the general fashion-fearing public to sexy fluoro lycra?). Really, it all comes down to what you consider must-have basics – for most of us, it's not what to choose, but what not to choose that's the problem.