Discussion | The Future of Women’s Fashion at 92Y


By Richard Dupuy

With the exchange that went in earnest at the panel moderated by Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of GLAMOUR magazine who spearheads a very successful magazine and one of the marquee titles within the Conde Nast publication; Isaac Mizrahi, designer maestro; Robin Givhan, the only Pulitzer awarded to a fashion journalist of the renowned Washington Post; Ashley Olsen, co-founder and partner with Mary-Kate of their name-sake preteen clothing brand at Wal-Mart; one came away with a hint of setbacks the industry faces but with a positive note of optimism.

Anecdotes were peppered throughout the discussion keeping it entertaining yet informative. One that springs to mind was on the topic if women dressed for the opposite sex or rather to impress each other. A plunging neckline of a provocative Dolce & Gabbana dress was definitely not going to win any female company leave alone empathy remarked Givhan, to which Lieve responded that it was not the case in her opinion and that her husband could not care less if she dressed, “ in a tank top and jeans”.

The Fascination of the press of the First Lady

The panel continued on Michelle Obama as an excellent role model of what a woman s size would represent as the contemporary American ideal standard to whom women could look up to. In the literal sense, the First Lady was quite literally the ‘first’ offering the world with the ‘First Thighs’ and a coy glimpse of the ‘First’ décolletage. Of course ‘democratization’ of fashion has has been the order of the day when a handful of emerging designers were introduced into the mainstream almost overnight , as well as lending chain a certain cache for brands such as J. Crew and White House/Black Market .

Size Matters

The fact that a sizable population in America is turning larger in girth, the runway mannequin is shrinking into a sliver of its former self. An anecdote recounted by Isaac Mizrahi’s recollection on once having regular and plus sized women walk the runway several years ago was greeted with hostility especially when editors dropped their pens and crossed their elbows with absolute disdain and contempt. This point was driven further when the former Ralph Lauren campaign model, Filappa Hamilton, was met with much public outcry over the retouched image that resulted in a emaciated disproportionate figure.

“What has struck me is that for all the complaining and the blogging about how thin models are….the only thing that has stopped them(consumers) from buying is the economy, not because they were reacting to the images they were seeing”, said Givhan.

Successful Branding

With the unemployment rate reaching an almost alarming high of 9.8% and growing steadily, buyers at all price points have scaled back their orders by 30 percent.

In terms of retail, Isaac attempts to return to the roots of a bygone era when a beautiful constructed garment was an item that a customer lusted for and now the present economy is forcing designers to re-examine women’s priorities; the flaw now is that everything in this trade is all so fleeting and mass produced that it has lost its allure, “For a long time the fashion industry was coasting on trendy handbags and trendy shoes and tons of sales,” Robin said

Ashley’s enthusiasm for in the long term in retail seems almost viral in the best possible sense, “it’s going to be more exciting. And more fun.”

Refraining from pursuing any projects as an actor for Ashley was definitely ruled out, when asked if returning to it was a possibility. It is only because of her and Mary-Kate’s devotion to their couture fashion label “ The Row” inspired after the famous Savile Row of London, and now “Elisabeth and James”, named after their siblings.

It has been a struggle to keep a steady pace of ten deliveries annually for the licensed latter brand, which is a daunting challenge faced by a staff of about 30, but one that continues to grow. Their designer price point, “The Row”; financed by the girls themselves and operated by ten, affords the luxury of domestically carte blanche production that caters to a niche market; a grassroots movement of attempting to refrain further redundancy from oversea outsourcing and practiced by the likes of ‘Rag and Bone’ among others. When I dug a little deeper on their profitable line at Wal-Mart, I was surprised by their commitment when they signed a pledge that allowed the workers in Bangladesh full maternity leave.

Among a handful of celebrities who introduced their lines, the Olsens stand apart for their unrelenting commitment to the business and for their longevity in a highly competitive market.

But to Isaac, as long as it can be constructed within accepted industry expectations, it should not be an issue or make any difference from where the merchandise are made, for that matter.


Smoke and Mirrors

The visual commercial appeal is what Mizrahi has successfully manipulated that serves as a driving force for his brand, and one that served extremely well during his tenure at TARGET and until 2008, and then repeating this formula at LIZ CLAIBORNE where he serves as the creative director. Celebration to his customer, who is in “her thirties”, will always be the point reference.

His 2008 carried an advertisement of an ensemble of the ‘every day modern woman’, with the exception of a model who seemed out of place in this stunning contemporary classic image because ; “ Fashion advertising is hateful.” Images with emaciated figures or in rather dubious comprising positions for provocative situations to stir publicity is still practiced to which Isaac’s conclusion was that, “they would not do it if it did not work.”

He still has deep admiration for women who exuded an elegant carefree bohemian chic attitude, and for him Loulou de Falaise personified it (whose daughter Lucie de la Falaise went on to become a successful model) and who was a one time fashion muse and designer associated with Yves Saint Laurent.

For his Spring/Summer 2010 collections , Mizrahi had models parade and enact ‘art imitating life’ in a soundstage setting; descending a staircase, walking through the rain and wind with a little support from theatrical implements, emerging from a golf car or walking on a guided dotted line which was an appropriate metaphor as the path of destiny of her choosing- that brilliantly captured the essence of the modern woman.

Lily White Runways

It is more of a question of aesthetics and not a deliberate arrogance against diversity, even though it might appear otherwise according to Robin Givhan. This lies partially in fault with a few European designers who wished the focus to be on the clothes that resulted in disconcerting clonelike nondescript girls. But that entailed only the caucasian race by default; a grave oversight that continues to plague the industry’s haughty ignorance. One recent attempt to overturn this practice was a commendable step taken by the British designer Matthew Williamson Spring/Summer 2010 who showed in London after a hiatus of several years when he presented in New York , by having a very diverse casting ever taken on the runways in recent memory.

“Why do people love to hate fashion?”

Asked by Cindi to the panel, to which Robin explained that, ”It’s just really easy to hate…In the U.S. we don’t think of fashion in the same category “ with the fine arts. And yet it is viewed as rather frivolous but, “ Nobody would really ever say that spending thousands of dollars a year on football season tickets is ridiculous!”

Event Attire

When asked on the choice of their attire for the evening, Isaac Mizrahi,was devoid of all vanity and zoomed in for with an amusing explanation, “because it was the only thing that fit” (perhaps from a little indulgence of cheesecakes on QVC, along with several products, on his preliminary rounds of preparations slated to air this winter). He even proceeded to remove one foot from his gown slippers to proudly wriggle his bright pumpkin painted toe nails for Halloween to everyone’s delight!!

Comfort is what Ashley Olsen seeks when it comes to her choice of dressing and looked radiant in a white long split maxi framed by a tiny black bolero and strategically disheveled ‘shattered edge’ shoulder length bob . But one exception was donning the red mile high platform stilletoes just for the event itself.

Robin Givhan refrained from appearing “as a black lump” and chose a knit dress of caramel and ebony overtones.

Cindi Lieve, whose choice would always have been trousers and blouses has lately been seduced by the appeal of the dress. It was a black and white full skirted cinched version and whilst she daintly tethered in a pair of zebra pony skin platforms, to which she lamented “that it would indeed be a very sad day” whenever this trend came to pass .

In conclusion Cindi was quite delighted by the mostly upbeat response from the panel on role of magazines in context to the print media’s present standing by a question forwarded from the audience,”It is a celebration to women” according to Robin Givhan and, “ That it points customers to discover ways to indulge during the recession and celebrate style”; while Mizrahi, would rather see the return of models rather than celebrities, while in reality it does not appear to end anytime soon.

AFTER THOUGHT: One Notable Mention

On further research on a blogger, Sheena Matheiken, piqued my interest. Her website is aptly titled theuniformproject.com, which is a deeply admired cause by raising funds for uniforms and school expenses for children in the slums of India.

She has vowed to wear one dress, a uniform, for an entire year.

It was brought up when Cindi recalled it vaguely during the panel discussion, and for this am trying to spread the word.

The Future of Women’s Fashion at 92Y

Ashley Olsen - The Future of Women's Fashion at 92Y