Tag Archives: Claire McCardell

NYFW SS 2015: Creatures of Comfort

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It’s always tricky when retailers launch their own wholesale label. They have to set their line apart from what they already stock while still embodying the experience of the whole store. It can go wrong for many number of reasons but often it’s because retailers treat the label like floor filler to plug the holes of their merchandising scheme and not as a separate and proper business that calls for proper clothes. When it goes right, which it surely did for Creatures of Comfort, you get an accurate synthesis of a retailer’s identity into a collection and, more importantly, a studied and developed offering of wardrobe solutions. They are retailers after all and you’d hope that any store with such a distinct point-of-view would have a strong and empowering idea of their patrons. And if they are doing their job correctly they should have a pretty good insight on what his or her deepest needs and dreams are. And if they have a handle on that they should probably cut to the chase and make the clothes direct. It must be said that the clothes at Creatures of Comfort were more than proper.

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Who is the Creatures of Comfort woman? I suppose that cliché question is the first abstract to be addressed when looking at a runway interpretation of a retailer’s vision. The store gives you a strong idea but the new collection is far more expansive and precise. I had a hunch from the first look on the runway; a madras shirtdress with a wrap detail in the skirt. My mind immediately went to Claire McCardell (as it would) but it wasn’t until the second look, a silk tank and matching wide pleated pant, that I started to realize the bigger story. As the collection revealed itself it formed into a pretty persuasive proposition on world dress. The CoC woman is not quite a citizen of the world, but as a piece of prose provided in the show notes titled “A Wild Way Awhile” claims, she is “beyond cartographic delineation.”

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I know the mere mention of “world dress” can send you into a Pier 1 Imports nightmare but fend it off and hold on. Consider something like Japanese dress, not the orientalist affectation of a cherry blossom kimono or a geisha, but rather its radical power to deconstruct and reconstruct fashion as designers like Miyake, Yamamoto, and Kawakubo did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then consider South Asian, Southeast Asian and all the vastness of African dress and you get the idea. As Western fashion exhausts itself through endless self-referencing, world dress provides a wellspring of solutions derived by other ways of life, some now extinct. That alternatives to modernized and Westernized life should be so appealing at this point in time is anybody’s guess. In the ‘50s American sportswear designers constantly referenced world dress, particularly costumes of Japan and Southeast Asia and they came up with, what was in their context and time, some pretty radical ideas. They were based on economy. Why have the extra cost and labor of buttons? Just tie it. Why bother with the resource-gobbling construction of traditional dressmaking and tailoring? Just wrap it. These designers sourced a great number of innovations from across the globe and adapted them for the Western mode which simultaneously critically reassessed the shifting paradigms of modern dress.

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It was great go see Creatures of Comfort’s Jade Lai wrestle with the same ideas with her interpretation landing somewhere between McCardell and Issey Miyake’s Plantation with a good dose of British New Romanatics ala Westwood and Galliano mixed in. But my personal references aside, it actually read as a collection full of new classics. A skort with an extra-long wrapped panel was both a utilitarian and aesthetic adaptation of Southeast Asian wrap skirts keenly realized for urban life in New York. A long stripped linen car coat, sampled in a few covetable fabrications, seemed just as easy and necessary. There was a range of knit vests, skirts, and dresses that had ease and polish, particularly a knit dress with a placket running down the center back (it made for a memorable exit). And there was a major call for loose pajama dressing– novel today as fashion but obvious for its comfort and grace throughout the rest of the world. The collection shifted between familiar and foreign, always effortless and casual but highly refined with moments of splendor. It did not suggest a different world but perhaps a whole new one. It’s a pretty inviting one Lai has made for her and her customer which now exists well beyond the confines of her stores in L.A. and New York. “This is where I’m meant to be, she thinks” reads the ending to the prose, “where I’ll be for a while.” I can’t blame her and I don’t think many women will be able to, either.

Images by Shawn Brackbill courtesy of Creatures of Comfort.

The American Look

She has been dismissed as a designer of homemaker frocks: plaid shirtwaist dresses worn by Betty Crocker moms and Mrs. Cleaver clones — the domestic uniform of the 1950s — a fallacy jimmy-rigged by an unwanted and unwarranted marketing campaign intent to tame her earnest appeal to the modern American woman, obscuring what was one of the most radical and innovative talents that post-war fashion, either American or European, had ever seen.

Claire McCardell is considered the mother of American fashion, and rightly so. As individualistic as her forbearers, Elizabeth Hawes and Valentina, she managed where they could not: in ready-to-wear, recognizing that market as a means to innovation in the same manner as Charles and Ray Eames who re-envisioned architecture and industrial design; unapologetically pragmatic, distinctly American, poetic in its succinctness, enlightened in its push towards the future.

She eschewed Paris fashion, and fashion altogether, and like her peer Bonnie Cashin, she sought to define a new code informed by the real lives and needs of an emerging and active modern American woman, not by the affected residue of Parisian chic, an impulse that at the time was widely obliged but nonetheless ineffective.

She established the blueprint for American fashion, its own semantics and epistemology, a system of beliefs based not on function, but purpose, not simplicity but an effortless beauty; an elegance requiring no frills and thrills, only the dramatic impact of point, line and plane, of humble fabrics and perfect proportions; supposing that that is all a woman really needs. Her ways were as radical then as they are perhaps now, favoring ease over extravagance, triumphant in her design solutions, discarding the most familiar references for the sake of progress. She was avant-garde in the truest sense of the word, she forged the path forward.

If contemporary American fashion has lost sight of what McCardell once ardently fought for, what she almost lost her career and her life to pursue, one needs only to consider the fantastic minimalism of Halston, the bold futurism of Rudi Gernreich, the feminism of Norma Kamali, the virtuosity of Mizrahi, the sensuality of Donna Karan, the intellect of Geoffrey Beene, the matter-o-factness of Anne Klein, the rebellion of Stephen Sprouse, the perfection of Matthew Ames, the purity of Calvin Klein, the sincerity of Ralph Lauren, the wit of Perry Ellis, all of whom are indebted to her ouvre, to her fascinations with modern femininity, intwined with true blue contemporary life, as she created the American Look and as it finally dawned on a country desperate to find its own identity and startled to realize it had one.