Elegance is a shield of armor. I used to believe it an exclusively inherent trait, developed over time, grandest in old age, but what I have learned is that it can be slipped on or stepped into like a garment and worn, metaphorically, when an individual is in need of chin-up, shiny shoes bravery. It can be channeled to mask insecurities and worries, and it can be taken off at night when you’re ready to breathe. It does not have to look one way.
Yesterday, four designers showed their visions of armored elegance, manifested in fabrics that you can step into like a garment, literally. These are clothes that help you stand taller, whether you button them over your body, wear them like a mask or consume them vicariously from a screen.
Shayne Oliver, designer in residence at the recently-revived Helmut Lang, makes unapologetic subversion more so than he makes pants or shirts, and is famous for challenging binary standards. He’s like a cheshire cat; with him, there are no straight answers. His clothes respond in questions to make you feel awkward on purpose. This SS18, massive bras stolen from grandma’s underwear drawer, hooked over shoulders just like you did as a kid with your friends in gut-busting, hilarious secret are likely not meant to be worn “for real,” or to dinner. That’s not the point. The point is to defy, to see how far you can cross the line and to be emboldened, more than anything, by the knowledge that strange things exists in someone else’s head besides your own. There’s safety in numbers; Oliver’s clothes-as-armor say, We are all a bunch of weirdos.
At Derek Lam, armor came in his usual, cerebral form: the precise tailoring of luxe fabric in shapes that give women confidence. You can wear any of his makings to any dress-coded occasion and be the most elegant woman in the room. Sitting at his show set in the Seagram Building’s very swanky restaurant, “The Pool,” I thanked myself for remembering to dress neatly, in a way that refracts the common fashion week waves of imposter syndrome. This round (though I’ve whiffed it before), I absorbed rather than hid. I cannot afford Derek Lam’s clothes, but I love when they wash over me.
Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, the two young designers of the storied house Oscar de la Renta, showed their version of elegance in New York’s finest fashion. For the women who seek it, there were impressive but unstuffy poofy dresses to wear to the openings of operas and other uptown things. For those who want to see their favorite American house built by such a beloved designer succeed, who want to know that New York Fashion Week is going to be okay, there was shimmer and magic tricks in a way that delighted rather than deceived. What I mean is: sometimes a ton of glitz is really hiding crap. Not the case here. Meanwhile, for those who wanted to see something new at Oscar, there were embellished “paint-splatters” (trick of the eye: those were beads) on denim.
Finally, at Carolina Herrera, another iconic American, New York-based label — this one with the powerful woman who defines elegance standing at the helm of that which she built, brand consultant and designer Wes Gordon closed the night in an injection of crowd-energizing beauty. I know how dramatic I sound, but that’s what it was. Little girls and boys (of every age) who close their eyes and dream of fashion must imagine these kinds of gowns. How can you not want to wear these Funfetti-freckled confections or power-sleeved dresses covered in sequined polka dots, or decked out like a very chic disco ball? Even if you’re only playing dress up in your imagination, the armor is all yours to try on.
Runway photos via Vogue Runway; feature photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images.