It seems odd to say, but at New York Fashion Week the focus is arguably more on the clothes than anywhere else. In London, it's about newness - new talent, new ideas, brave new fashion frontiers forged. In Milan, it's about big bucks and even bigger business - you don't go there expecting to be surprised. In Paris it's about haute couture and high art, and qu'ils mangent de la brioche to commercial considerations. Old or new, designers in New York seem resolutely focused on what people actually want to wear - and it seems the recession has forced many New York names to step up their game. Witness the bevy of fantastic coats, jackets and trousers at 3.1 Phillip Lim - never a must-see or even a must-buy for all his commercial acumen, this collection conversely fairly heaved with genuine must-haves, desirability stitched into every textured shearling seam and spiral-cut chiffon hem. Outstanding outerwear was a story of the week (and in retrospect, the season): fantastic, swaggering numbers with a touch of the Romeo Gigli at Preen, swooping cocoon shapes at Donna Karan and superb coat after superb coat, stripped to fabulously bare bones, from Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein.
A perfect example of this new focus on clothing was Marc Jacobs' collection - and, as his show has come to be regarded as something of a diving-rod for the mood of the fashion moment, it was a portent of the season to come. Jacobs' pared-back presentation, swathed in brown paper and strutted out in ten minutes flat, was all about the clothes - that is, simple, unpretentious clothes stripped of theatrics, celebrities and even models. Jacobs offered nothing but wardrobe basics - indeed, a whole wardrobe of them. He played 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' and showed a whole prism of neutrals, eschewing any obvious theme in favour of reworked (some may say re-perfected) staples such as the chiffon evening dress, the pea-coat and the trouser suit. They are wardrobe classics, but they are Jacobs classics too. His complete assurance was what marked his offering out.
Both Joseph Altuzarra and the women who wear his clothes have assurance in spades - which is lucky, as his Winter collection seems to have split opinions like his many many slit and slat pencil skirts. For every pair of eyes that saw a return to distinctly un-PC sex appeal and raw animal urgency in those all-black leather and fur suits, another saw a restrictive throwback to the dated feminine stereotypes of Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, the brutalised victim appeal of the 'Shaped to get Raped' look of the late-1970s. I am inclined to come down on Joseph Altuzarra's side - to me, although they were undeniably restrictive, there was nothing constraining about his vision of a powerful, assertive woman roughly stitched into layers of boiled wool, goat hair and lots and lots of leather. The energy was refreshing as was the thoroughness of vision, particularly in one so young.
Energy and youth are watchwords for Proenza Schouler - their label may be some eight years old, but they don't seem ready to relinquish the latter moniker anytime soon. Their Autumn/Winter collection was relentlessly, infectiously young, with thigh-high high-school hemlines and letterman jackets (albeit lapelled in mink), skinny jeans and shrunken proportions. These were the parts that looked realistic, cropped duffle-coats and sliced blazers sliding easily into the wardrobes of women who would only glance disapprovingly at a Kinderwhore Lolita baby-doll frock. They glanced disapprovingly at them back in 1993, too. Alexander Wang's collection was equally tarred with the 1990s brush and understandably, it would seem - aged just 25, the early nineties are Wang's nostalgic reference-point du jour. His chopped-up tailoring bared the midriff, dropping to midi and cropping at mini hemlines, with boxy-bags, blocky cylindrical-heeled platforms and a dark, distinctly Gothy bent to boot.
By contrast, Kate and Laura Mulleavy turned away from the menacing overtones of their recent outbursts of creativity, albeit in a collection inspired by the murder of Maquilladora workers, sleepwalking and dressing in the dark. What this amounted to was a pile-up of fabric, texture and print, coupled tightly around the body and occasionally layered with chunkier pieces of tartan and shearling. It was an effort to rip apart and abstract individual garments, and many watchers simply weren't willing to make the effort, tagging the collection as 'difficult' - an epithet that can so often turn into an epitaph in fashion. More's the pity - as an escape into fantasy, the Rodarte collection, as always, was unrivalled. And isn't a bit of dreaming just what dark times call for?