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A New York Fashion Week Like No Other

With traditional headliners like Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren off the New York Fashion Week marquee, emerging designers had the freedom to showcase their Spring/Summer ’21 collections under a brighter spotlight than normal.

The collections also revealed a peek into their creative mindset during a turbulent six months. The somber and isolating mood during the months of strict lockdown orders in New York City, and the fiery emotions sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, however, did not result in a dreary outlook. To the contrary, collections were decidedly delightful and uplifting, emboldened by a punchy color palette, floral prints, and even excess in the form of exaggerated sleeves or cascading ruffles.

Ulla Johnson’s collection, which was presented in a video filmed on Roosevelt Island, was a love letter to New York City and its residents’ “shared commitment to each other’s safety.” During this time, Johnson said she rediscovered the joy of making things by hand. “We learned the journeys of creativity and inspiration the mind can take even as the body remains still, rooted in this place and time,” she wrote in the show’s letter.

Johnson’s gentle yet spirited approach to S/S ’21 included a flock of blossoming tiered and ruffled dresses, peasant blouses and obi-inspired belts. Multi-color knits, crisp poplin and airy chiffon were juxtaposed with acid-wash colored denim including belted overalls, puff-sleeved jumpsuits, wide-leg jeans and pleated short-shorts—each distinguished by bold seaming details.

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With headliners skipping New York Fashion Week, smaller labels had the freedom to show their S/S '21 collections under a brighter spotlight.
Ulla Johnson Courtesy

The urban landscape—or the lack thereof during quarantine—was the source of inspiration for Cinq à Sept. “Longing for the outdoors and finding space for natural elements in our urban environment of New York City became the utmost importance,” the brand wrote in its show notes. “Instinctively, the collection pivoted and the design and aesthetic became more about evoking a sense of love celebrating life’s little joys.”

Though elements of loungewear seeped through, including suit trousers with elasticated waists and a silky set with cargo pocketing that was somewhere between a Safari track suit, Cinq à Sept offered a generous dose of glam-ready looks. A slinky satin coral dress with a fishtail hemline was detailed with ruching ties, while acid yellow brought an edgier vibe to an otherwise sweet puff-sleeve dress with a square neckline. Animal prints in unnatural colorways (purple-and-green zebra) alluded to the unexpectedness of the concrete jungle.

The pursuit of joy led several designers to incorporate dance and live music into their presentations. Alice & Olivia’s show sprang up on the streets in Chelsea, where dancers and a violinist put on a public performance wearing some of the collection’s jewel-tone highlights, including a color-blocked tiered skirt and casual loungewear separates elevated by bold ’70s prints and pink-and-black tie-dye. The collection also featured slouchy pleated jeans, distressed boyfriend jeans and jeans accented with vegan leather paneling.

In the spirit of “the show must go on,” Cynthia Rowley tapped a troop of dancing models, influencers and a band to bring her S/S ’21 ready-to-wear collection to life in a film shot in the West Village. The goal of the film, Rowley stated, was to honor the musicians, creatives and restaurant workers that have brought “energy and joy” back to the sidewalks of New York City.

The collection offered the label’s signature fare of boho dresses, dark florals and playful details like blouson sleeves. But it was a line of chic sweats, including a loose drop-waist dress with a peplum, a boxy, cropped top and matching wide-leg pants and an oversized patchwork denim-printed top, that offered the most versatility and relevance.

LaVie by Claude Kameni—which technically showed her collection on a Los Angeles rooftop—added to NYFW’s exuberant use of color, including pink-and-green African wax prints. Kameni’s flair for dramatic bell bottoms, corsets and strong shoulders was married with more fluid and casual pieces like turtleneck tops, drawstring bottoms and pajama-style sets. “With this collection, I wanted to create something bold that every boss or aspiring boss can mind their business in while looking good,” Kameni said in a statement.

Back in New York, Jason Wu, one of the biggest names on the NYFW roster, also chose a roof-top setting for his S/S ’21 tropical ode to Tulum, the Mexican destination that served as the backdrop to Wu’s 2016 nuptials to Gustavo Rangelget. It was the designer’s first presentation for his casual ready-to-wear line. The Jason Wu Collection will debut at a later date.

Naturally, kaftans, maxi dresses and vacation-ready long shorts were on display, with lightweight poplin and gauzy knits being the most prominent fabrications in Wu’s collection. Broderie, which was also used throughout Ulla Johnson’s and Veronica Beard’s collections, added an airy feel to blouses and hemlines. Rust, navy and cobalt grounded bursts of orange, bright pink, yellow and abstract poppy prints.

Victor Li was also in vacation mode. The S/S ’21 collection was inspired by the seasonal concept of a “daydream vacation,” specifically an imaginative journey to Hawaii. The unisex collection spanned summer suiting, camp shirts, and swimwear to deconstructed utility pieces like zip-front cargo vests paired with matching slouchy joggers.

Taking cues from vintage postcards and the distinct appearance of aged paper, prints span retro plaids to beach scenes and water prints. The goal, the designer stated in show notes, is to bring “light and cheerfulness during these trying times.”

Veronica Beard, meanwhile, opted for more pastoral version of the nature. Capturing the desire to escape that many have felt since the start of the pandemic, Veronica Beard centered on an easy yet nature-inspired theme for S/S ’21. And in lieu of a traditional NYFW presentation, co-founders Veronica Swanson Beard and Veronica Miele Beard brought their collection to life through images and a video filmed in New York’s Hudson Valley.

“For Spring 2021, inspiration came from looking inwards and from finding peace and freedom outdoors. An earthy palette and easy silhouettes in ruffled washable linens and airy cottons were inspired by the gardens, fields and the renewal of spring. With a shift in perspective, we designed Spring ’21 around the new normal, placing the same emphasis on the little moments as we do for the big,” the designers stated.

Denim was among the versatile fabrics in the collection, including high-waisted jeans with a front pleat and tab details, a pair of cropped flare jeans with no waistband, a jean jogger, and a classic snap-front chambray shirt enhanced with shoulder pads.

For Christian Siriano, fashion week was a backyard affair. The designer hosted editors and models at his Connecticut home where rows of chairs placed at an acceptable distance between one another and a small runway stretched over his pool—which a pregnant Coco Rocha took an intentional dip in while wearing a red taffeta gown and mask.

The silhouettes were of classic Siriano nature—dramatic, campy and yearning for a red carpet—but elements of home and the designer’s quarantine experience were evident in the collection. Comic-book prints were inspired by a childhood collection the designer rediscovered, while a group of ’80s-inspired mini dresses with ruching details and large sleeves referenced the throwback films Siriano binged. Cottagecore gingham was reimagined as ball skirts, bra tops, sassy suiting and masks, which all of the models wore.

Though Libertine’s 20th anniversary coincided with an uncertain and overwhelming year, the label chose to revisit better times by using some of its original silk-screen images and vintage French red, white and blue ribbon from its first season to create patches and award ribbons used throughout the S/S ’21 collection.

The focal point in the collection, however, was the use of the Libertine Toiles de Nantes print that was collaged together from scraps of 18th-century toile plucked from a Paris flea market. The print was used across suiting and shirting alongside a slightly sinister crystal Wisteria motif.

Fashion as commentary

For other designers, S/S ’21 was an opportunity to explore narratives about race, gender identity and the environment.

In a film called “Joy Run” featuring a cast of transgender activists, Chromat presented a more conceptual collection inspired by athletics as a gender-inclusive space—a vision that began with the brand’s F/W ’20 collection. “Team sports and athletics have an incredible capacity to bring people together and offer powerful opportunities to be creative and focused with our bodies,” the brand wrote in its show notes.

A nod to Y2K color blocking is used throughout the body-con collection that includes performance tops, cut-out bras, bike shorts, running shorts, track pants and a sneaker collaboration with Reebok. Chromat also introduced a four-piece line of face masks created with fabric from the F/W ’20 line.

Apotts designer Aaron Potts explored the symbolism of the topsy-turvy doll, a toy popularized in the South in the early 19th century. When flipped to one end, a Black doll dressed in fabrics symbolic of slavery and servitude appears while on the other end is a white doll, dressed finely. The doll, or rather two dolls, the brand stated, represents a “clear but nuanced interpretation of racial dynamics disguised innocently” and “one must choose which side they would like to play with.”

Potts explored this concept, turning the perspective of the clothes upside down and inside out and re-imaging the construction. The collection included workwear, baby-doll dresses, petticoats, undergarments and quilts, while simple fabrics such as denim, cotton shirting and parachute cloth add a durable yet child-like sense to the garments.

Oak & Acorn—Only for the Rebelles designer Miko Underwood opted to show a seasonless collection for 2021 that tells the story of denim as a “cultural, social and political icon” in American history. Underwood was inspired by the “kinetic energy” ignited by the pandemic, the upcoming U.S. presidential election and “the global call-to-action to value the lives and contributions of Black people.”

“Our goal is to create pieces that unify,” Underwood stated. “Clothing that is cozy, comfortable, functional, protective, empowering and eco-friendly for men and women alike.”

Oak & Acorn—Only for the Rebelles
Oak & Acorn—Only for the Rebelles Courtesy

The result is a line of drop-crotch pants, loose jumpsuits, utility vests, ponchos and more made with handwoven and hand-dyed indigo West African cotton, deadstock denim and fabrics made with hemp and recycled cotton fiber. Additionally, the collection features pieces that are compostable, biodegradable, and repurposed, and includes antiviral and antimicrobial technology.

Mr. Saturday also featured deadstock in a collection that looked back at the spirit of New York City in 1984, an era that founder Joey Gollish compares to 2020. In the show notes, he describes the generation that lived through the ’70s and ’80s as one that had ideals and changed culture yet “was also a generation that experienced pain and struggle similar to ours.”

Gollish’s vision came together in a collection that included structured denim pant and jacket sets, flowing pleated silk chiffon skirts with a DIY look, flowing midi skirts made from upcycled vintage American flags and a mix of deadstock vintage linen and deadstock flight satin. The Sprouse Blouson denim jacket that closed the presentation was made from a lightly brushed denim and a print inspired by Stephen Sprouse’s writing.

The nomadic origins of Ka Wa Key designers Key Chow and Jarno Leppanen led the duo to name their S/S ’21 collection “There’s no place like home.” Having called multiple places home, the designers pulled sources of inspiration from each place, like the Hong Kong skyline at sunset, the old forests of Finland and the “wonky houses and diverse streets” of London. Covid-19, the designers explained, reformed what home means and infused the word with new meanings.

This story came together in a gender-fluid line that reimagined traditional textile crafts such as gauzy knits as cardigans and maxi dresses dyed with an ombre sunset effect, as well as separates made with patchwork Madras and shirting fabrics. The collection also included a utility three-piece capsule collection made with Japanese mill Toray’s sustainable fabrics.