A Field Guide to Young American Designers

 Who’s overrated? Who’s unbelievably good?

The fall 2007 season began in New York this week with an unprecedented sense of bloat. Some 200 designers filled venues around town, innumerable corporate sponsors filled gift bags, and cable-TV hosts filled the airwaves with chatter about both. Does any fan of fashion need full-scale runway shows from unknowns like Mal Sirrah or Lyn Devon? Or downloadable cell phone graphics designed by almost-known Tracy Reese, courtesy of Cingular Wireless? Or “authoritative coverage” on Full Frontal Fashion of Tibi, Willow, and B Michael? Who are Tibi, Willow, and B Michael, anyway?

It has been nearly two decades since a band of so-called “young designers” first emerged during New York’s once-sleepy Fashion Week, shaking up a show schedule then dominated by the haughty chic of Oscar de la Renta and urbane separates of Calvin Klein. But those trailblazers—including Todd Oldham, Byron Lars, and Michael Leva—eventually closed their companies. More recent sensations—including Miguel Adrover—also disappeared when the hype their runway magic created failed to translate into solid retail success.

Doo-Ri Chung
Doo-Ri Chung

Today, of course, the presence of newcomers is ho-hum. (Perhaps that’s because it has become relatively easy to secure a berth in Bryant Park—all you really need is a blank check.) But what fans of fashion need are great clothes to dream about, not piles of random clothes to wade through. Thankfully, some of the new names—you’ve seen their clothes in the pages of Vogue and In Style— live up to the hype. What follows is a list of young American talents worth dreaming about.

Heading this list is Proenza Schouler. In previous seasons, skeptics (myself included) have dismissed this newsmaking label, suspecting that its good press had been fueled primarily by the good looks of its design team, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. But this season, the duo presented a collection of such authoritative polish that any remaining skeptics should take back every doubting comment. (I do.) If earlier collections seemed too married to fashion tricks (so many overt references to the curvaceous seaming of Azzedine Alaia!), this collection proved real finesse with the whole of a woman’s wardrobe. Forget the few clumsy taffeta dresses. Their established signatures—brassiere stitching, natty jackets, sexy pants, streamlined embroideries—came together in an ode to 1920s Paris that never got stuck in nostalgic homage. Every fashionable woman should have one of their puff-sleeved coats.

Zac Posen. Click image to expand.
Zac Posen

Four other designers who have gotten a lot of insider attention are also worth watching, though their fall collections proved that early hype can prove burdensome when a sure design vocabulary is not fully in place. Zac Posen, perhaps the most heavily promoted of the new pack of American designers, thanks to his magnetic charm and the deep pockets of his business partner, Sean Combs, is clearly less enamored of day clothes than the sensational evening gowns he does with carefree delight. He has yet to bring that spontaneity to clothes a woman can really live in. Doo-Ri Chung, whose label Doo.Ri won both the coveted CFDA emerging women’s designer and the CFDA Fashion Fund awards in 2006, showed some of the gracefully draped jersey dresses she excels at making. But what was the rest? Too-tight pants and the odd bolero jacket? She has yet to demonstrate range. Former Harper’s Bazaar fashion writer Thakoon Panichgul, who launched his romantic collection, Thakoon, in 2004 with a tender hand, found the right roaring ‘20s mood but lost the light touch needed to make his Charleston dresses dance. It takes more than the addition of supposedly edgy pieces like tulle hoodies to update the antique fun of the dance hall. And Derek Lam, a former assistant to Michael Kors and winner of the two CFDA awards in 2005, seems to have forgotten his strong sportswear roots. This designer clearly knows his way around the female form. He can cut strong-lined jackets, assertive coats and fluttery dresses with equal precision. But his collection was too heavy on references to the hard lines of Claude Montana and nubby textures of Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquiere. It would be exciting to see him lay the references down.

3.1 Phillip Lim. Click image to expand.
Phillip Lim

3.1 Phillip Lim (not sure what the 3.1 signifies) is another collection that people can’t stop talking about. Lim, a former assistant to queen of sexy pants Katayone Adeli, started his apparent gold mine of a label just last year and has fast become the leader of a new trend: well-priced runway fashion. (Adam + Eve is another such label to watch.) Lim deserves all praise. His clothes—layers of cozy sweaters, softly draped blouses, crisp coats, and sharp pants, all cut in neutral, everyday colors like navy and beige—are both utilitarian and stylish. There is no high design here, at least not in the obvious sense. But when a woman’s clothes are this useful and this good-looking—and most prices are well below $500—“high design” takes on new meaning: It requires an enormous amount of thought to make classic clothes look expensive when they aren’t. Lim’s genius is in giving the clothes a modish slouch that J. Crew or Banana Republic could never match. He could give those tired big brands a run for their money

The Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte 
        Click image to expand.
The Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte

Perhaps the most interesting young designers, however, are the Mulleavy sisters behind Rodarte. The pair has stirred up a whopping dose of controversy among fashion insiders. Kate and Laura Mulleavy produce expensive, theatrical clothes; looks include mad, accordion-pleated brocades, heavily encrusted crystal beading, and layers and layers of blooming organza flounces—and cost upward of $10,000. One camp, headed with vicious glee by the New York Times’ Cathy Horyn (who wrote in a blog post that the Rodarte show included “every kind of shapeless sack”), finds Rodarte’s phantasmagoric creations too far from contemporary femininity to take seriously. The other, led by Bridget Foley of Women’s Wear Daily, sees beauty in the ethereal worlds the designers conjure. This season’s collection, inspired by Guinevere and the paintings of Titian, was a fairytale of arcane cloqué fabric and lavish quantities of feathers and poufs. But beyond the theatrics, the details expressed a tender sensuality. I find it impossible to resist such over-the-top clothes, especially when they’re offered up by two oddball sisters who stay up all night cutting out organdy rose petals at their parents’ home in Pasadena. The Mulleavys present a transcendental escape from crass capitalism, and in the middle of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, that’s plenty good for me.