FEELS LIKE HOME - Designing America
Marc Jacobs, Winter 2010 | The Armoury, New York
By the time I finally got around to visiting New York Fashion Week, I thought I’d know what to expect. I’d had several years’ worth of London shows to go by, as well as the smooth elegance and sticky heat of Paris and Milan. It took barely as long as it did for the jet lag to dissolve, though, for it to feel unlike any fashion week I’d ever been to. First off, there was Manhattan itself - a narrow island with a sky sliced up by blocks of steel and glass and stone, and gridded with those long, smooth streets cut into angles of sun and shadow. I’d been before, but never sensed how intensely compact it was; how closely packed, how reduced, how strangely village-like. And that small grid was populated by a chess-board of unfamiliar faces; to much of the world press, New York fashion just doesn’t constitute news - and so much of the usual line-up was missing, replaced by an alternative hierarchy which felt deeply, unfathomably local.
Inside the Lincoln Centre (where entry was un-blag-past-ably barcoded, no margin for confusion or dispute), the queues were full of immaculate women in pairs and small groups, lined up in quiet out-of-towner excitement. They came, by and large, to buy, not to write; and to see not something new, but something nice. And then the shows themselves were so smooth, so sleek, so monotonously harmonious. Tall, tanned girls in lean, flat sheaths. Whites, beiges, greys, metals; a New York dresscode laid down two decades ago by Klein, Karan and Lang, and refined to a fluid, fluent minimum of fabric floating away from skin.
And I was surprised, too, at how few off-schedule presentations there were; just a handful of alternative venues here and there, according to an individual designer’s capacity to lure an audience away from the Lincoln Centre’s well-marshalled, all-inclusive convenience; but practically nothing of that ragged, don’t-get-your-hopes-up, door-stampeding pile of possibility that makes London in particular so unevenly exciting. It was as though the idea of an alternative vision simply didn’t exist.
‘But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me - why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man - he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead.’
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
‘Then Laura pulled up the picket pins. One by one, she led Ellen, the baby calf and the yearling calf to fresh places in the soft, cool grass. She drove the iron pins deep into the ground. The sun was fully up now, the whole sky was blue, and the whole earth was waves of grass flowing in the wind.’
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie, 1941
But amidst it all, outsiders still managed to crop up in out-of-the-way corners, showing to strays in West Village galleries and waterfront warehouses and cavernous industrial shells - everything from Ivana Helskinki’s wayward, gloriously quirky hymn to retro Americana, through to young Canadian designer Jeremy Laing’s gentle textures, extracted from California’s half-Biblical landscapes.
Laing only barely qualitfies as an outsider, but that border crossing gave his collection, with its’ earth-washed hues and crumbled surfaces and loose apron shapes an sense of distance and romance which for the only time that week reminded me that this tiny, intense island city wasn’t the all-encompassing world of newness it seemed - that it came tethered to a vast, quiet continent somewhere over the horizon.
The idea of American-ness has been around as long (more or less) as America itself (that is, as long as the America that Europeans discovered and then subsequently invented). But it took half of the twentieth century, with its’ shattering wars and the long, bleak depression that spanned in between, for America to recognise and celebrate that identity - and, just as importantly, for the rest of the world to understand and embrace it.
“Go on,” said Lennie.
George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.
“Go on,” said Lennie. “How’s it gonna be. We gonna get a little place.”
“We’ll have a cow,” said George. “An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens…an’ down the flat we’ll have a…little piece alfalfa———-”
“For the rabbits,” Lennie shouted.
“For the rabbits,” George repeated.
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, 1937
‘In the West the land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high. There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers.’
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, 1935
And it took until the Seventies - the last great era of economic depression - for American designers in general (and Ralph Lauren in particular) to engage with the idea of an indigenous fashion heritage; the decade’s terror of uncertainty and change challenged with reminders of a simpler, more authentic, more grounded world, wrapped up in the colourless simplicity of gingham, lace and sun-washed cotton.
Nostalgia, by definition, is a harking after something already irretrievably lost. So forty years earlier, whilst Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing the stories of a prairie life which would become a national security blanket, a new generation of pioneers were watching their self-sufficient dreams evaporate into the bleak reality of the Dust Bowl - a temporary Paradise, destroyed by overdevelopment in a matter of decades.
But there’s always a gap between history and the story we choose to remember. And now a new depression, in a new century, has revived the search for American-ness. Season on season, some of that need for repair asserts itself - even on an island sp utterly constructed around the shiny and the seductively new. And defaulting to no-place-like-home romanticism only reiterates America’s jagged, splintered identity; a nation obsessed with the fairytale of its’ own ideology, and searching for an absolving skin.
The WIzard of Oz | Victor Fleming, 1939
Written for 1972projects