'Couture fetish robot' were the first words that fell out of my mouth when my eyes rested - nay, feasted - on Marc Jacobs' Autumn/Winter 2011 collection. In a weird sense, that could have been a description applied to the whole season. Then again, so could Masaai Marie Antoinette, parka-slung nineties Galliano vixens, pixellated Native American tribeswomen. What do those opposite, or even opposing, visions have in common with Jacob's cool, calm and slippery when wet-look show of strictness? And what do they tell us about New York fashion circa right now? Well, on the one hand, they were unabashedly, undeniably whole-hearted. And on the second, they were obsessed with craft.
That in itself seems an odd thing to comment on from the New York collections. Craft continues to be seen as part of a European tradition of clothing design: couture rather than commerce, the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fashion statement that hollers 'You shall go to the ball - and wear a gown crusted with fourteen-thousand hand-tied nosegays of camellias to do it!' Increasingly however, New York designers have been thrusting into the handiworked realms of demi-couture intricacy. And we're talking the young guns of NYC rather than the embroidery-crusted grandee gowns of Oscar de la Renta. Those intricate devore dresses at Proenza Schouler, for example, patterned to resemble Navajo rugs spiral-cut around the body. They're not only made-to-order, but even limited in the number of editorial shoots the delicate fabric treatments can handle. I flash back constantly to something Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez said to me: 'We want to push the high end higher.' It seems this is New York's new goal, both in the workmanship of their clothes, and consequently the prices.
How much can commercial reality be sacrificed for creative passion? That's the question being pushed by new New York right now. Proenza Schouler have entered the rat race of pre-collections and Resort (until we find finer terminology for these interseason seasons that are cropping up all over the place), and hence have a savvy knack for distilling an extreme catwalk vision through from show-pieces to luxurious garments with a hefty sell-through. Joseph Altuzarra tows a different line: his vision is unmarred by commercial restraints. This is luxury fashion both for designer and for customer. For Autumn/Winter, Altuzarra was on a retro trip, albeit nineties retro, slinging fur-trimmed anoraks over slithery Galliano-alike bias-cut slip dresses in imitation of Kate Moss' inimitable collision of grunge and glamour. It sort of worked, but as a retro statement it felt at times too close to the present to really convince us it was a past worth revisiting.
You felt no such thing at Rodarte's show. The interesting thing here was how Kate and Laura Mulleavey managed to twist visions of midwest Pioneer women into a compelling new image of modern femininity. There was something streamlined and sleek and yet pagan about their clothing - long silhouettes, full skirts, slightly peasant blouses and yes, more of that craft. But the whole thing was synthesised into relentless, strident modernity. There was nothing chi-chi or retro about a scrap of this collection. That was what made it refreshing.
That idea of using the past to invent the future (presented in the present, funnily enough) is one of fashion's foundations. Jason Wu and Thakoon both alighted on the same heroine for Autumn/Winter - Marie Antoinette. Thakoon mixed his with Maasai, poufing out panniers and patterning them with rugged oversized checks. Robert Polidori's imagery of the restoration of Versailles inspired Wu's clothes, and those images of rococo extravagance encroached with the utilitarianism of modern life - as simple as carved Verbeckt panelling juxtaposed with a modern fire alarm, for example - was reflected in his mix of the baroque with all-American ready-to-go sportswear. Wu managed to inject his consistently well-behaved, ladylike style with a spark of rebellion - or at least a touch of oddness that made it compelling.
Oddness brings us back to Marc Jacobs, full circle. And his collection was full of circles - pockmarked with polkadots woven, printed and heat-embossed onto fabrics from lace to latex. Those dots were the prim, but where was the proper? The strictness of Jacobs' silhouettes recalled Victorian schoolmarms and mid-century couture in equal measure, but all that latex spoke of a kink those ladies would never even dream of. Prim but improper. That's a concise summary not only of this collection, but of Marc Jacobs as a whole. That's what every fashion show should seek to be: recapturing the essence of a designer, repackaged for the moment. Maybe that's why it was the highlight of the week. In fact, it was a highlight of Jacobs' career. What a way to start the season.