On Tuesday night approximately 150 Mercedes S-class sedans and a host of SUVs wended their way out of Manhattan, ferrying more than 250 guests northeast to Bedford Hills, N.Y. Each car was equipped with a special CD of soothing tunes chosen especially for the drive, which ended in a parking lot outside of a big white building. Inside were 26 of the rarest cars in the world, made between 1937 and 2015, including a 1938 Bugatti T-57SC Atlantic, a car valued at about $40 million, and a host of waiters in tuxedos holding trays of Champagne or pigs in a blanket, and two long, low rows of squishy black leather banquettes that lined a runway.
Ralph Lauren had decided to hold his fashion show in his garage.
That it was two hours (with traffic) outside of the city, didn’t faze the designer, who has been a devoted car collector for years. He decided it was time to invite his audience in on his passion — not least because, he said, “When I think about cars, I think about clothes.”
It was a generous impulse but the entire event, which culminated in a dinner of lobster salad and burgers from his signature restaurant, added up to a display of power and privilege and success the likes of which has not been seen on the New York runways thus far. (It’s impossible to imagine that many guests going that far afield at the bidding of any other designer.)
“See that one?” said David Lauren, one of the designer’s sons and the brand’s chief innovation officer and vice chairman, pointing at a marigold 1996 McLaren F1 LM. “That car inspired a whole line of home furnishings. That one” — he pointed at a black 1937 Bugatti T-57SC Gangloff DHC — “was the beginning of a line of eyewear.”
And the ones in the center of the makeshift catwalk helped inspire the current collection, a dual-gender see now/buy now offering. So you could see the influence of the yellow and carbon 2014 McLaren P1 in the caution-tape-yellow cashmere greatcoat tossed over a black leather miniskirt and over-the-knee-suede boots, and the lipstick red of the 2015 Ferrari La Ferrari in a glossy patent bustier worn over a cloud of tulle. You could match the silver on an iridescent halter slither gown to the silver of a 2014 Porsche 918.
There were racing stripes down the sides of tuxedo trousers and the arms of an evening coat-with-train, and F1 jackets over full chiffon skirts. Also some very nice houndstooth and Prince of Wales tailoring in buttery seat-leather shades.
All designers take their inspiration where they can find it (a flower! a film!), but rarely is the relationship quite so obvious.
Or quite so detrimental to one of the elements. The juxtaposition of cars and clothes made the connection clear, but unfortunately also the fact that the automotive design was far and away more interesting, complex and original than the fashion. Full of high polish though the collection was, in translating his passion to his products and giving it accessibility, Mr. Lauren had dumbed it down; taken the rare and specialized and made it almost ordinary.
Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison — the cars, after all, are the best of their kind, selected over decades; the fashion collection is one of many, produced twice a year, and all designers struggle to be original on that schedule — but Mr. Lauren is the one who set it up by bringing everyone out and letting them in on his source code.
Such grand gestures and palpable extravagance seem to have fallen out of favor. The watchwords of the moment, whether uttered in self-aggrandizement or sarcasm, may be “Huge!” “Epic!” “Biggest ever!” — but as far as New York fashion is concerned the vision has been small. Mr. Lauren was the exception that proved the rule.
Maybe it’s an attempt by designers to distance themselves from the conspicuous consumer-in-chief. After all, as the New York catwalks made clear last season with a flurry of position-taking not only on the runway but on shirts, skirts and caps, a lot of the fashion world is not exactly enamored of the current administration. At this stage, however, and ironically just as Hillary Clinton (fashion’s candidate of choice) steps into the spotlight with the release of her book “What Happened,” the industry seems to have largely muzzled itself. Instead there’s been a lot of noncontroversial championing of “America.”
At Coach, for example, Stuart Vevers continued to develop the Route 66 elements of his brand vernacular — shearlings and prairie dresses, cowboy shirts and varsity sweaters — by jazzing them up with a bit of sparkle, a lot of sequins, and some new, lacy slip dresses (he’s expanding the evening offering); also a nod to Keith Haring in the form of prints and intarsia sweaters. “He represented the democratization of art, and that felt very personal to me, and also right for the moment and Coach,” the designer said backstage.
Mr. Vevers has always had a thing for a pop culture character — past inspiration has ranged from Snoopy to Felix the Cat — but the choice of Mr. Haring, who believed in art for all, brings a new, perhaps more subversive element to the conversation. It’s a pretty subtle addition, however.
Raf Simons’s ode to the American nightmare at Calvin Klein aside, it’s possible the most political act of the last week has been the notable diversity on pretty much every runway; an implicit statement of belief in the value of embracing a wide variety of races, shapes and ages visible not just at those brands famous for their multi-everything casting (such as Chromat, Tracy Reese and Zero & Maria Cornejo) but across the board.
Yet the diversity of individuals, commendable as it is, was not matched by an accompanying diversity of ideas.
For all the talk of changing up the runway — and there has been much of it since the shows began, from Alexander Wang’s faux-guerrilla outing in Brooklyn to Opening Ceremony’s dance show — the clothes themselves feel as if they are idling in neutral — or worse, parked. There’s no real new direction at a time when thinking about where to go next is clearly the defining imperative, in fashion as in life. And as the New York season draw to a close it does make you wonder: Who’s in the driver’s seat?