Marc Jacobs Rummages Through Grandma’s Attic for Magical Castaway Couture

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There have not been many visceral delights on the New York runways for spring 2014. There were spikes of pleasure — at, among others, Joseph Altuzarra, Michael Kors, and Narciso Rodriguez, where the designer proved that even a collection defined by restraint can still stir the senses. But aside from a troubling obsession with shades of wimpy sea-foam green and spineless coral, the only story line was that the conversation about runway diversity had sparked change. Anecdotally, it has been clear: There were more black models on the runway than last season.

But by the time the sun had gone down last night and just as the skies released a torrent of rain, the doors opened at the Lexington Armory to reveal Marc Jacobs’s gray, weathered urban shipwreck — a setting filled with an oversize Adirondack chair and a dilapidated bus (destination: "Dark Hollow") half buried in sparkling black sand littered with cigarette butts and half-empty bottles of booze. The air was thick with heat and the sound of thunder filtered through the walls. Jacobs’s evocative backdrop, designed by Stefan Beckman, set a bewitching mood. The music, which opened with the ominous and campy bass notes of the "Theme From Jaws," established the tone. And the clothes — creative, surprising, covetable, wearable — made a much-needed, lasting impression.

The first models came stomping down the runway wearing castaway couture: slim-fitting walking shorts in contrasting upholstery prints with wide-shouldered cropped jackets heavy with fringe and ribbon embroidery. They all had matching hair — badly chopped bobs the color of a bleach job gone south from too much sun and saltwater. As one model after another sprinted by, the clothes became more ornate, more fantastical, more magical. Black lace blouses peeked from beneath mannish jackets trimmed with drapery swags. Block-printed shorts were embroidered with darkly romantic black flowers and dotted with jet beading. Teva-style sandals were sprayed with glitter and flat suede moccasins sparkled.

Long, richly embroidered dresses in murky shades of pine green, merlot, and midnight blue soon followed. The heavy lace looked antique and old-fashioned. And the dresses were often cut with puff sleeves, high collars, and other modest gestures. But they were never stodgy. The dark caviar beading gave them a mysterious, sensual glimmer similar to the shimmer of the spotlights bouncing off the dark sand.

The collection wasn’t quite retro, yet it wasn’t striving toward some futuristic vision either. There were patterns and shapes that called to mind the rich finds in grandma’s attic. Silhouettes were classic, historical, and even theatrical, but they were also rooted in contemporary sportswear. And who doesn’t have a secret affection for footwear that puts comfort before style? How splendid that Jacobs glammed up moccasins and walking sandals! Wearing them no longer requires an apology for knowingly committing an aesthetic offense.

Continuity is the essence of Ralph Lauren: A well-honed sensibility subtly tweaked from one season to the next. No matter the location of his shows, guests find the same lacquered environment, luxuriously carpeted entryway, and massive vase of glorious white flowers. This season's collection was a little different, leaving Lauren’s usual haunts — boardrooms, country cottages, ranches, and the chandeliered salons of the Mayflower gentry — for the glossy cool of the sixties pop-art aesthetic. Yet despite the bold color and punchy floral prints, it looked flat, staid, and even a bit melancholy. 

Lauren began starkly, with A-line miniskirts, cropped jackets, simple car coats, and slim-cut trousers. The few flourishes on these daytime frocks included childlike flowers and modest peplums on the occasional jacket. The collection gained energy when the same shapes reappeared in shades of lime green, taxicab yellow, safety orange, and fire-engine red. But by the end, it retreated back to reassuring ballgowns in happy hues of bright green and orange, classic tuxedos, and one-shoulder caftans. It was all well-executed, of course, but without the necessary frisson of passion.

Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa experimented with generous silhouettes, exaggerated details, and optically dazzling patterns that delighted the intellect, but left the senses unsatisfied. Costa played with scale: Trousers had cuffs as deep as a wading pool and dresses in articulated sections hung around the body like a Slinky. Wide seams were stitched inside out and left to fray. Jacket hems trailed threads. And dropped waists were marked by expansive faux belts that looked more like a carpenter’s apron than anything meant to define a model’s shape.

These were clothes that one wanted to dissect. The construction was fascinating — the way a dress seemed to be suspended from the shoulders in multiple sections. And the textures and patterns played tricks on the eye, making two dimensions look like three. But the clothes felt too remote — almost scientific. It was a thoughtful collection in a season that could have used more heart.

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