From the Wrap Dress to Grunge
Givhan, Robin, Newsweek
Byline: Robin Givhan
Fashion designers pick their most iconic contributions to American culture.
Grunge. Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy's wedding gown. The wrap dress. All inventions that changed the fashion industry and resonated throughout the culture.
In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Council of Fashion Designers of America decided to commemorate as many of those iconic trends as possible. So the CFDA asked its members--everyone from industry veterans to relative newcomers--to assess their impact on style for a new book and accompanying exhibition. (Deceased members were appraised by a selection committee.)
The result was a bit like a therapy session conducted in the language of straight pins and cashmere.
Some designers' answers were expected. Marc Jacobs chose his seminal 1992 grunge collection for Perry Ellis--a mashup of street style and music culture that got Jacobs fired but set the stage for his international career. It also prompted the realization in the industry that luxurious clothes didn't have to be precious. Narciso Rodriguez pointed to his minimalist bridal gown for the Bessette-Kennedy wedding that had brides ripping the overwrought beadwork from their own dresses. And Diane von Furstenberg selected a simple but sensual leopard-print wrap dress from 1974, a silhouette that redefined business attire for a generation of women.
Other designers "wanted to be seen for something that they aren't or for what they do now," says Patricia Mears, editor of Impact: 50 Years of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition, which opens Feb. 10. Tommy Hilfiger highlighted his preppy roots and omitted his connection to hip-hop. Michael Kors underscored swimsuits and ignored cashmere. And Ralph Lauren focused on his personal vision of the American West--exemplified in his fall 1981 womenswear collection, which featured a white ruffled shirt, suede skirt, and Navajo-print sweater--rather than acknowledging the polo shirt that ultimately made him a billion-dollar brand. Others simply preferred to look to the present. Oscar de la Renta, who's been in the business for more than 40 years, chose to be represented by a taffeta ball gown from his spring 2012 collection.
A few designers were contrarians. Menswear radical Thom Browne, king of the austere shrunken gray flannel suit, loaned the exhibition a suit covered in feathers. And in the book, John Bartlett showcased his exploration of male sexuality with a simple pair of jeans--back view, no shirt--devoid of references to filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as was his habit in runway presentations. …