Fashion Review: At Helmut Lang and Oscar de la Renta, Wrestling with History

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Fashion Review: At Helmut Lang and Oscar de la Renta, Wrestling with History

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One of the weirdest things about watching fashion shows on 9/11 — a juxtaposition that might in itself seem inappropriate but unavoidable, and has been since the twin towers fell 16 years ago, crushing the collections along with so much else — is how few designers acknowledge the date. The tragedy changed their world in multiple ways both macro and micro, but they largely seem in denial about the conjunction. In an industry predicated on looking forward, it’s as if they are terrified to look back.

As if the past is simply a grab bag of looks and silhouettes to be pilfered at will (the ’90s continue to be popular this season), as opposed to a factor to be reckoned with. This has long been true, but it opens a chasm between the world outside and the world of the runway that reinforces the worst stereotypes of the industry.

Yet it’s possible designers may not be as willfully abstruse to the moment as they seem. On Monday in many shows, New York itself — its power structures and institutions and still-glorious landmarks — took center stage.

It began with The Row, where Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were hosts of a breakfast show in the deep-plush tearoom of The Carlyle, the hotel synonymous with a certain classic uptown swish.

It proved a fortuitous frame for their collection, as attenuated of line and serene of shade as always, but with a certain new generosity of proportion and nod to modernity: coats pulled off the shoulder and belted to blouse, like a gown, at the back; halter jumpsuits tied in a rope bow on one shoulder with a palazzo width (and no waist); space-age suiting made from white paper, and crocheted chain mail evening hoodies poured over silk.

From there, it moved on to the Pool, the restaurant designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, itself one of the first modernist skyscrapers, where masters of the universe traditionally lunch. Here, Derek Lam returned to the catwalk after a few seasons away with a polished ode to his signature Americana: the mythology of the ’70s and the Western frontier.

This outing was no exception, though befitting its frame, it had polish built into the seams: the jeans tailored, the leather silver-studded, a strapless evening jumpsuit bandanna-wrapped twice at the torso (a nice pun on the idea of black tie). Mr. Lam’s clothes are so quietly assured they have often been easy to overlook, but now that they are back, it’s clear how much we missed them.

And then it segued to the Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art, where Carolina Herrera staged the first fashion show ever held in the space. “I have been asking to come here for years,” she said backstage before the show. “They finally said yes.”

Wisely, she refrained from deciding to have a de Kooning moment, instead opting to focus on color — “The only way you can put art and fashion together is through color,” she said — from daffodil yellow to faded blue to marigold, dusty lavender and peach, worked and reworked in small-waisted, mid-calf mostly dresses and skirts, the sleeves puffed just enough to suggest power proportions.

Interactive Feature | The Open Thread Fashion Newsletter A look from across The New York Times at the forces that shape the dress codes we share, with Vanessa Friedman as your personal shopper. Sent weekly.

As it happens, Mrs. Herrera was also one of the few designers to acknowledge the date, noting a donation had been made to the Fire Department of New York in homage to its service. Oscar de la Renta was another. In a show held at Sotheby’s, the auction house on the far East Side, the designers Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim put a note on every seat in honor of the those who died, and “those who worked so hard to make N.Y.C. great again.”

But then, Mr. Garcia and Ms. Kim are in only their second season at a house they inherited not long after the founder’s death, and the past and its relationship to their present is much on their mind.

You could see it on the runway, where they mixed attempts to loose the moorings of the brand and give it a bit more currency in the form of silver-splashed denim and bead-splattered white cotton with traditional Oscarisms in a series of tulle princess party gowns. The two strains did not always mesh, and a series of faux-arty tulle cover-ups collaged with laser-cut leather atop bathing suits were just plain weird. But a new logo, made to mimic the founder’s flowing cursive signature, that squiggled over fur and fabric gave an abstractly personal edge to the clothes that connected what was with what they want to be.

At least Mr. Garcia and Ms. Kim were wrestling with legacy in a more substantive way than Shayne Oliver, the “designer in residence” at Helmut Lang, appointed by the “editor in residence” (this house is getting a little crowded with residents) Isabella Burley to provide a one-season spin on the brand whose eminently cool minimalism defined the 1990s.

Mr. Oliver, who became famous for his former brand Hood by Air, a post-gender post-porn sartorial position paper that subverted pretty much every sacred style cow, dipped into the Lang tailoring archive, no question, as well as the palette of black and white, shell pink and cerulean.

But they were just the straight men to his now-familiar aesthetic tricks: puzzle-strap-pasties that became capes at the back; trousers transformed into chaps to reveal the undies beneath; giant leather bras that could be worn as shoulder bags, lots of see-through and harness straps.

Once upon a time these kinds of not-entirely-clothes shocked New York out of its fashion stupor, but now they just looked familiar — in part because, a terrific stiffly-oversize anorak and a little pink dress aside, Mr. Oliver did not really seize the opportunity to make his id wrestle with a Langian belief in the indelible effects of refusal.

The result was easy to forget, instead of imbued with the power of remembrance.

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