Friday, February 8, 2008

Mainlining Michael Kors

Michael Kors began his career at a propitious time for American fashion. In 1981, the druggy symbiosis between designers and celebrity culture was over. In its place was the healthy aesthetic of Ralph Lauren, a designer who celebrated the American woman by not placing her on the brink of scandal. Lauren gave American fashion a renewed etiquette and reclaimed it from the borderline vulgarity of the disco era.

Twenty years earlier, American fashion was a nearly featureless landscape. What would become signature American style had its roots in the outfits Oleg Cassini designed for Jackie Kennedy. Cassini cut his dresses as simply as possible, allowing the First Lady's beauty and gentility to speak for themselves. Although a European by birth, Cassini smartly avoided overt reference to the Parisian houses that either favored distortion or carried with them a sort of existential ballast. American style as seen through the Cassini prism celebrated the art of tasteful, streamlined living.

Lauren's Connecticut plaids and high-collared blouses were the direct ancestors of Cassini's earlier work and the consumer responded enthusiastically. The class that had been disenfranchised by the disco era was back.

Michael Kors is heir to that legacy of discretion. Unlike Lauren, whose rugged good looks propelled many ad campaigns, the less photogenic Kors would spend two decades in the background.

And then came Project Runway. The popular reality show revealed Kors to have a slightly cumbrous personality and a fondness for the tanning booth. He rejected garments that reminded him of mothers of the bride. His ability to provide effective critique was often overshadowed by idiom; his detractors lampooned him when, mirabile dictu, he twice lauded contestants' garments by exclaiming, "That crotch is insane!"

Recently, he announced that he didn't think straight men could design for women.

So Kors is a bit of a bumbler when it comes to shaping a public image, but his designs continue to advance American style even as they look to the '60s for inspiration.

Kors has a widely recognized love of classic Hollywood that often appears in his work. For Fall 2008, he engaged a famously cool heroine, the arctic blonde.

If you buy into Hitchcockian myth, arctic blondes are fascinating, dichotomous creatures whose surface sterility conceals a wanton interior nature. So widely disseminated is this character that Kors could easily have turned her into caricature.

Dressing a stereotype creates a special problem set. Narrow-mindedness would cause the designs to look like costumes, even as the costumes they reference were themselves referencing the rigid dress code of the Philadelphia Main Line. Then there's the problem of models: They just don't build 'em like Grace Kelley any more. Should the collection then be transformative or does one take it as a fond, retro citation? The answer seems to lie in whether the collection has a natural motif that can be delicately advanced.

One thing is clear: Kors is steeped in this character's developmental phases. First seen as a bookish graduate in sweaters and slim skirts (with horn-rimmed glasses), she later acquires the extensive and liberated wardrobe of Helen Gurley Brown's original Cosmo girl. Her newfound skill in mixing purple with green gives her the confidence she needs to move from secretary to matrimonial partner. She also moves beyond her grandmother's vintage stole and allows a junior partner to buy her a swanky, gray mink capelet.

Her mother does not approve of this gift.

After she marries a stockbroker and moves back to the Main Line, she becomes a modest yet successful hostess attired in a chaste evening gown whose gray color and full, hostess-pajama skirt evoke Mamie Eisenhower when it is likely supposed to recall her chicer successor.

There were only two missteps, one more serious than the other. There were no insane crotches. Television has a way of building expectation even as it inevitably disappoints. For those who were able to live with unremarkable crotches on slim capris, Kors rewarded us with an over-televised find: Britney Spears' castoff fedoras.


WendyB said...

No insane crotches, eh? Aren't ALL crotches insane? ;-)

laurakitty said...

I rather loved this collection- usually I can't stand his retro rehashes (Ali MacGraw- ugh!) but he finally picked my favourite era so i can't help myself from loving every look and wanting to wear them out tonight.

Suzanna Mars said...

Well, yes, WB, to put it mildly.

LK, that Ali McGraw theme wasn't the best.

Thomas said...

The word crotch is as underused as the design feature, "moat." Kudos for bringing it back with a vengeance.

Every time I see a pair of shoes I don't like, I know that I will find Mr. Kors name on the box, in that staid, boring font he uses.

Suzanna Mars said...

LOL, Thom!

I love that people refer to him as "farty," because that's ultimately the best descriptor.

Still, given the carnival of madmen that was Thom Browne, maybe farty has some benefits.

riz said...

There are moments for me when Kors comes too close too being strictly imitative. It's clear that he does American sportwear, and will always execute it within the bounds of his Americam high society vision...
too much lilac!

enc said...

I like the look of this collection, but then, I like the arctic blonde/sexy secretary look; that's the way I dressed when I had to wear office clothes, and it's the way I dress when I step out of my dungarees now. I think there are better versions of this look out there, though. I think Kors is coming late to this party.

I'm still wondering what his big "thing" is going to be in fashion. It can't be his role on Project Runway. Can it?

Suzanna Mars said...

Kors is late coming to a number of parties, thanks to a mindset that is lately rooted in Boomer Hollywood.

He doesn't bother me much on PR; in fact I prefer him to Nina and also to Heidi. But then one does wonder what would happen if a PR contestant showed the worst of this latest collection--that stole on the messy-haired model, or the Ali McGraw lovefest...

Sometimes I think he does his best work when he sticks his name on something like Leg Shine. Remember that cult product?

riz said...

Re: leg shine - NO. what was that?
=) Heidi is terribly annoying I'm sorry to say, and Nina is too much into slotting designers into retail spots according to market demands.

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, Leg Shine is a flanker product to the Michael fragrance line. It was a sales Goliath a few years back and it is now available in three exciting shades! (Eh.)

It smelled of the frag and had gold sheen. For one pallid winter it was Manhattan's favorite accessory. Very clever product, because the frag itself was tropical. I had some of the juice and have no idea what became of it when I moved. I have since found white-floral tropicals I prefer.

I was afraid people were going to take me to task for not liking Heidi, but you are of the same mind so I feel less of a snip. Does she seem a bit condescending? Is that just our American view of a German mien (I say this because I have two charming German girlfriends whose manner is similar to Heidi's and therefore opposite our bounding, cocker-friendly American way)?

Nina always looks pinched to me, motive aside!