NYFW: Hometown heroes
As the New York shows wound down and the circus gets ready to move out to the next stop London, three designers—Prabal Gurung, Bach Mai and Claudia Li—looked to their respective upbringing and the families and friend left behind in their different homelands and hometowns.
The sexy and strategically placed crisscrossing straps connecting bustlines, waistlines, and hip lines; the pattern piece on clothes Prabal Gurung created as part of his Fall 2022 collection had an unexpected origin.
Backstage post-show, Gurung told reporters where the inspiration for the peek-a-boo styles with ties was drawn.
“I haven’t been back home to Nepal for three or four years now because of the pandemic. I was looking at old albums of my grandmother and great grandmother, and they wore these sexy choli blouses but with a sari,” he explained, continuing, “I wanted to strip that away. The customer we dress is now coming with their daughters, and the collection has this understanding of them both.”
These continue to guide the designer. “This is a New York love song to Nepal from the women back home to women here who have been big supporters of mine. I always say my women are unapologetically glamorous and unabashedly feminine. This collection is a colorful and optimistic celebration.”
For Gurung, colorful is an understatement; the brighter, the more acid, the more electric, the better. Whether shiny gowns in chartreuse, turquoise, or bright red to marabou feathers in a bright multi-color pattern dress or striped colorful upcycled furs. Those will be limited-edition due to source material availability which he is quick to say aren’t a sustainability statement but rather a small start. Rhododendron prints remind the designer’s homeland and appear on the more demure cuts, ostensibly for the moms.
But these are not wall flower looks by any means. These are for New York women who have no qualms about expressing personal style.
“New York women are resilient. I don’t want to say tough. That diminishes the whole thing. Its resilience: an attitude and unapologetic way of being themselves that says, ‘This is what I want to wear'.”
What do Cy Twombly, Maison Margiela, Texas glamour, bijin-ga, and Hurel fabrics have to do with one another? These are just some of the many inspirations Bach Mai draws upon when creating his American couture-level made-to-order collection.
Speaking to press at The Stage at The Times Center, Mai was on hand, donned in a traditional couture atelier lab coat giving a personal tour of his sophomore effort entitled, 'A Flower Walk'. Twombly’s 2007 exhibit 'Blooming', featuring massive abstract expressionist flowers also featured a Haiku that caught Mai’s eye, which led the designer to the Japanese art form bijin-ga.
“I discovered this disarming power of femininity in the connection between Twombly’s uniquely vibrant and refined color usage and the Japanese bijin-ga art drawings,” he recalled.
This combo manifested as an explosion of pastel ombrés resembling sunset or layered strips of chiffon in easter egg colors in one group or multiple shades of reds in another. The color was layered in different fabrics such as chiffon, velvet, or leather. The former became hand-torn strips sewn together for a layered stripe effect on long lean skirts worn with boning-exposed corsets and strapless bustier gowns.
“My collection has been a lifelong goal. I fell in love with haute couture when I was really young because of John Galliano,” explained the Houston, Texas native.
The 33-year-old designer attended Parson in both New York and Paris, working for designers Oscar de la Renta and Prabal Gurung before landing a dream job working for John Galliano at Maison Margiela as the first assistant. Thus, comes the Texas glamour.
“The goal was always to go to Paris and learn couture, the craftsmanship, then come back and be an American designer because we have haute couture clients here,” he continued, noting he started making dresses for women and their daughters as a teen in Texas.
"Women in Texas have a real understanding of glamour which leads to the fearlessness of these clothes,” Mai said, adding, “Glamorous clothing gets a bad rap, but they want the clothes now as there are so many weddings. Some shop for the dress and make anything an occasion; they will find somewhere to wear it.”
Mai is keenly aware of his capabilities as a young designer starting out. Couture-level fabrics are generally out of reach for a fledgling brand like Mai’s. He is fortunate, though, to have an unsung industry hero as a partner, Hurel, the French heritage fabric house founded in 1879. He explained it was a partnership that helped many of the greats.
“Saint Laurent and Dior both started with fabric partners such as Abraham and Boussac, respectively. Dior’s New Look fabric use post-war was an extravagance, but he could do it because of the partnership between him and the textiles company. It’s a beautiful story between fabric houses and designers,” Mai said.
French training, French fabrics but couture needs French artisans as well. Finding that type of craftsmanship here can be challenging, he admitted.
“We have craftsmanship here. It hasn’t been exalted or focused on, though. I love bringing these garments to the sewers because I see the expressions on their faces, and they are so excited to work on things like this. It’s not the same thing,” he continued. Mai’s work certainly is not.
The pandemic and its casual dress codes may be winding down, but Claudia Li wants to explore just how to keep that cozy vibe going.
“I went back to New Zealand for two years and during the whole lockdown I was wearing pajamas and sweats every day. The selection gets repetitive so now was the time to think about the next step, ‘how do I style them to wear outside,’” she noted.
The collection imagined these clothes from a romantic and personal viewpoint. Her opening group of quilted pink floral oversized garments big enough to cover an actual bed in many cases —a massive poncho for instance—came from childhood memories.
“It came from the bedtime stories my grandmother used to tell me as a baby. I don’t remember much but they were ancient Chinese fairy tales.”
The large proportions also appeared at the show’s end in a sheer red and white sheer organza segment, the scarlet color evoking Chinese ceremonial robes. Many looks throughout employed a hip treatment of smaller gathered fabric bustles that gave an 18th century silhouette to the clothes but allowed for modern movement.
While these groups were bolder and fantasy dressing, in between Li showed a black and green group for smart dressing with a sculptural slant. She adorned several looks with macramé ‘vests’ that were finished in fringe that swept the floor. The technique also showed up as water bottle holders for instance. A certain amount of craft is a staple of Li’s collection; the kind that looks like it has to be shipped offshore to make. But it’s not the case at all.
“We do the macramé and beading craftsmanship in house. I have a really amazing team and interns; we all learn to do it together,” she explained.
It sounds like a relaxing activity you could do while wearing some of Li’s cozy frocks.
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