With the fashion industry as a whole navigating unchartered waters in 2020, there was an extra level of unpredictability to New York Fashion Week this season, especially since as the one-time the epicenter of the global pandemic, the city still moves slowly towards reopening and recovery.
 
In a bid to control the limbo state that things are currently hovering in, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) unveiled a new digital platform, Runway360, designed not only as a portal for the season’s new collections, but a tool that will continue into the future that complements in-person events and shows. Still, many of New York’s heavyweight names – Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler, Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch and The Row, to name a few, remained noticeably absent.

For the labels that did choose to present new offerings, the spirit behind many of the collections was a clear reiteration of ‘New York Tough’ – the popular adage of New York governor Andrew Cuomo that he constantly repeated during his pandemic briefings. Many designers crafted love letters to New York. One of the week’s opening highlights, Jason Wu, transported a small number of in-person guests to the sandy beaches and lush jungles of Tulum (albeit on the rooftop of Spring Studios.) With models meandering through tropical greenery and panoramic glimpses of the city skyline, Wu’s carefree collection of pleated dresses, crisp tunics and easy, tailored blazers, provided all the joy of an escape without actually needing to go anywhere.

Ulla Johnson S/S 2021

Ulla Johnson S/S 2021. Photography: Daniel Salemi

Continuing in this uplifting vein was Ulla Johnson, who created her own ‘I Love New York’ moment by choosing the Louis Kahn-designed Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island as the setting for her latest collection. By juxtaposing the stoic serenity of the park with the dynamic vistas of the city, standing tall from across the water, Johnson’s sensual and voluminous collection, which was inspired by ceremonial dressing and featured shibori printing, boro patchwork and hand-loomed graphic elements, conveyed a power and strength in its femininity.
 
Maria Cornejo paid tribute to the raw energy, enduring resilience, and cultural diversity that makes New York, New York in choosing a pared back, industrial rooftop looking over Brooklyn as the backdrop for her newest collection. Her label Zero has long been locally made in New York, and this season, she renewed her commitment to ecological and responsible design by incorporating upcycled fabrics, using sustainable printing techniques and sourcing materials made from natural fibres and replenishable sources to create her sophisticated, geometric pieces – matching masks included.

Khaite S/S 2021

Khaite S/S 2021
Elsewhere, designers articulated the change of the times by grappling with what fashion means now in a changed reality. Khaite proved that there was innovation to be found from adversity. In lieu of a physical show, designer Cate Holstein sent industry insiders a large box that deconstructed the show experience. The first component, a large hardcover book, was filled with imagery of the new collection, shot by photographer Hanna Tviete, with fabric swatches interspersed along the way. Aided by AR technology, scans of the book’s pages further enabled viewers to experience new footwear designs virtually in 3D. Designed by the creative studio Chandelier, the box also included a 7” vinyl record to set the mood, and a scented candle, created in collaboration with Regime des Fleurs, to complete the atmosphere. A folio, made from Khaite’s signature leather, additionally held a set of postcards, which could also be scanned to view the collection’s brooding video.
 
Collina Strada also seized the opportunity to push its vision into a new dimension. Pulling from its community of creatives, both old and new, designer Hillary Taymour constructed a colourful, multimedia utopia featuring the work of artist Alicia Mersy and floral illustrations of Sean-Kierre Lyons. Set to a psychedelic soundtrack and modelled by Taymour’s friends, classic Collina Strada silhouettes were presented in a colourful, virtual world of tie-dyed cornfields, floating gardens and a rainbow waterfall that together continued to reiterate the brand’s purpose of being a platform for social change.

Tom Ford S/S 2021
Tom Ford S/S 2021

For Tom Ford, the king of glamour and current president of the CFDA, working through the pandemic and lockdown proved to be incredibly difficult. ‘Designing Spring/Summer 21 was a nightmare,’ he says with a refreshing honesty in the video accompanying the release of the new collection’s lookbook, ‘I could try to pretend it wasn’t, but it was an absolute nightmare,’ he adds, while detailing the restrictions on production and health and safety protocols that had to be followed in order to produce the images. ‘It was very hard to be creative.’
 
Ford’s response to the direness of the times was to create ‘clothes to have a bit of fun in.’ Simple dresses and generous caftans were rendered in boisterous florals and animal prints. Slouchy knitwear and button down shirts, worn with sporty trousers in acidic pinks, blues and purples, brought a high-octane energy to comfort dressing. With one eye on the work of the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez and the other on the make-up styles and icons of the 70s, Ford’s vision of the future is optimistic and hedonistic. ‘This is what the collection means for me: the hope of a happier time.’

Theory S/S 2021

Theory S/S 2021. Photography: Ethan James Green

For Theory, a label that has always been known for workwear, renewal and rebirth was at the forefront of its newest offering. In images shot by photographer Ethan James Green, the label unveiled new silhouettes that blur the boundaries of work and life. Relaxed tailoring, knitted ribbed trousers and A-line dresses were utilitarian in detail, yet inviting, thanks to the use of tactile materials such as suede, knitwear and flat twill, and ideal for wearing both in public and private.
 
Possibly the most uplifting of all were the moves being made to support and champion Black designers within the industry. From Harlem’s Fashion Row’s style awards and fashion showcase which centred around the theme ‘Black is the New Black’, to the announcement of designer Telfar Clemens’ new collaboration with Ugg, the glass ceiling appears to have been broken. The approach of Aaron Potts’ unisex label Apotts – suitable for all genders, sizes, ages and seasons - was particularly on point, with its array of artfully oversized tunics, shirts and long tiered skirts. 

Best of all was the revelation of Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean Raymond’s new venture, Your Friends in New York, which has earned the backing of Kering after Raymond met with Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault in 2019. Encompassing an incubator program, an events and experiences arm, philanthropic initiatives and a merchandise label, while aiming to create and empower a community of new talent and innovation, the platform is poised to be the beacon that will lead the way forward. §