New York Fashion Week A/W 2021: drive thrus and digital distortion

New York Fashion Week's digital-first offering presented solutions to life post-pandemic and political crisis, from brands including Tom Ford, Proenza Schouler, Khaite and Collina Strada

New York Fashion Week AW21 Khaite
(Image credit: press)

Almost one year since the coronavirus began ravaging through New York City and upending life as we thought we knew it, it is eerily apt that the A/W 2021 season of New York Fashion Week marked an equally transitional time in fashion and beyond as the world as a whole teeters between hanging onto old ways and embracing the new.

Spread over five days, but lacking the return of some of the city’s heavyweights, including Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, who instead will celebrate his 40th anniversary with a presentation in April, the subdued impact of this season’s official calendar epitomised some of the issues that New York Fashion Week has been suffering from for years. New York’s brighter talents tend to have a habit of jumping across the pond to show in Europe, while those who do stay rebel against the established systems and traditional venues to show on their own terms at their own time. In the latter respect, this mostly virtual season was no different.

With designers hedging their bets for the most attention by showing both before (The Row presented its collection in January) and after the traditional season (Tom Ford closed the season from LA over a week later), this season New York Fashion Week felt especially disparate. Two of the city’s most exciting forces, Telfar and Pyer Moss, did not show at all.

New York Fashion Week AW21 Proenza Schouler

Proenza Schouler A/W 2021.

(Image credit: Daniel Shea)

Amongst those who did reveal new collections at New York Fashion Week, tapping into the trends of 2021, there was a strong message of simplifying and reducing silhouettes to the essential, while at the same time elevating the pieces that one would wear and depend on in an effort to bring a sense of hope to everyday life. Proenza Schouler, for example, favoured long, lean silhouettes and languid, midi-dresses, ranging from sumptuous jerseys to tactile knits, that offer a soft, in-built geometry, compared to the overt attitude and angularity the label usually puts forward. Showcased in a film that saw models stride past and pose against the Herzog and de Mueron-designed Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, the collection elegantly addressed the inherent duality of life in these times – suited for cocooning oneself in while staying, yet perfectly poised for ultimately venturing out when the time does come.

Khaite, another favourite, similarly put forward an abundance of easy-wearing silhouettes, including draped jersey dresses in cream and olive tones, oversized puffer coats in quilted patent leather and chunky, hand knit jumpers brandishing an exaggerated texture (all in cashmere of course) – all designed to both comfort and flatter. To inaugurate the collection, creative director Cate Holstein teamed up with director Sean Baker on a short film in ode to the crazy, frenetic nature of New York City. Screened at a drive-in theatre, complete with views of the Manhattan skyline, the cinematic venture celebrates the enduring nature of New York, especially at such a pivotal time.

‘New York feels raw and exposed now, up for grabs in a way I’ve never seen before. It can be frustrating and even feel hopeless, but it’s also exciting, and to live here is to cycle through these emotions, rapidly,’ says Holstein, who with Baker, drew from New York in the late 70s and early 80s for inspiration. ‘In talking with Sean, we both traced the intensity of this time to what first drew us each to New York — the intrigue, the edge, even the peril. No one moves to New York to play it safe.’

New York was also front of mind for Tory Burch, who had her latest collection photographed at The Odeon restaurant, a true New York institution. Inspired by ‘New York City, both the dream and reality of possibilities [and its] opportunities, creativity, diversity,’ she notes, Autumn/Winter 2021 is grounded in the way women want to dress: seasonless layers that are comfortable yet put together, and can be reimagined in their own way.

New York Fashion Week AW21 Khaite

Khaite A/W 2021

(Image credit: press)

Embrace of the digital medium hit a particularly exuberant note at Collina Strada, who’s experimental Gif lookbook showed a diverse cast of models morphing into hybrid animal species. To realise the images, Collina Strada’s Hillary Taymour worked with illustrator David Mattingly, multimedia artist Feeka Tet and the original artist behind the cult sci-fi video game and book series, Animorphs, to creatively address the intertwined relationship of human civilization and the environment. As always, sustainability is at the collection’s core. Taymour has not only continued using deadstock fabrics from Ghana’s Kantamanto Market, but also partnered with luxury resale site, The Real Real to upcycle and transform used items into new garments – the first partnership of its kind, and a big stride forward. 

Left to right, pet bag, by Prada, H95 headphones by B&O, chain necklace by Louis Vuitton, room spray by Byredo

‘Every season, I always look for color and prints when sourcing for materials, anything that looks fun. It feels selfish to create new garments, but we must keep creating during this time,’ Taymour says. ‘Upcycling is the perfect way to continue the Collina Strada platform, so I was excited to have access to the TheRealReal archives and give new life to pieces that have emotional and sentimental value.’

New York Fashion Week AW21 Collins Strada

Collina Strada A/W 2021.

(Image credit: Charlie Engham)

Sustainability was also top of mind for Gabriela Hearst, who continues to be a carbon neutrality partner with Eco Act. This season, Hearst contributed to the Chan Nuoi Biogas Project, which enables families across Vietnam to use human and animal waste to generate clean and sustainable energy. Her Autumn/Winter 2021 collection draws inspiration from Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a composer, philosopher, mystic and botanist, who was born in 1098 and believed in the interconnectedness between science and art, and of the individual and the world – sentiments not only embodied in the collection’s aesthetic, but in the company’s pioneering commitment to the environment as well.
This demonstration of brands using their voices as a platform beyond the realm of fashion was equally evident in the show of solidarity for the Asian-American community, especially since the start of the season coincided with the spike of hate crimes against Asians across the country as well as the start of Lunar New Year celebrations this year. Designers including Phillip Lim, Prabal Gurung and Jason Wu, lead much of the discussion in the fashion world, which counts many Asian Americans from New York, in its midst.
With the coming year still standing as a gaping unknown, the fierce optimism that grounded Tom Ford’s new collection is something we should all be working towards. Ford, who ‘began designing a few months ago, thinking that by Autumn, I would be in the mood for very extravagant materials and finishes’ after a year of cozy dressing, ‘ultimately ended up taking the upper halves of handmade, almost couture-like pieces, and cutting them into jackets and tops, and putting them together with cut off jeans,’ he says in his collection’s statement. Decadent with a hint of practicality (or as close to it as Ford comes,) the top-focused offerings are well suited to both Zoom meetings and the world beyond.

New York Fashion Week Gabriela Hearst AW21

Gabriela Hearst A/W 2021

(Image credit: press)

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.