Past Perfect: NYFW's Nostalgia Trip

New York Fashion Week got a new and much-needed digital-friendly home at Lincoln Center this season, replete with amenities such as smartphone chargers and airport-style kiosk check-ins. Invites were emailed, confirmations barcoded and, inside, rows of iMacs glistened beneath the soft, blue-tinged lighting. This techy atmosphere nonetheless belied the nostalgic undercurrent felt in many of the spring/summer ’11 collections. Whether they were looking back to the “Me Decade” or more recently to the ’90s, designers turned out contemporary iterations of styles that were largely inspired by the past.

Marc Jacobs, always a bellwether for the sartorial zeitgeist, swapped fall’s minimalist maven for a ’70s spring swan this season. Using a rich palette of raspberry, persimmon, mustard and mauve, Jacobs featured a series of zig-zag knit dresses, full, peasant skirts and high-slit strapless jumpsuits. The looks recalled two of the decade’s biggest attractions: Studio 54 and Yves Saint Laurent. Meanwhile, both Derek Lam and Peter Jensen conjured slightly more staid variants on ’70s staples, such as a yellow jacquard tunic and shorts set and a shrunken pink corduroy suit, respectively. Unlike Lam’s city sophisticate or Jensen’s colorful young miss, Anna Sui’s muse was a prairie-by-way-of-Laurel Canyon bohemian. The looks combined homespun with haute hippie, mixing suede and chiffon with afghan crochet, granny squares and patchwork quilting.

Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy made the ’70s artisanal aesthetic more avant-garde by using samaurai-like paneling and grain-effect leather and silk—the latter inspired by the Redwoods of their native northern California. The idea of home figured prominently in the collection, most notably evoked in a long plaid skirt (a tablecloth or throw) and blue and white floral print halter (a Ming vase). Like Jacobs and countless others this go-round, the Mulleavys kept their hemlines largely below-the-knee, adopting a trend the designer himself memorably embraced last season. Long-considered unflattering at best, and downright démodé at worst, mid-calf lengths were all over Spring’s runways. The respite from ultra-short suggests a collective disavowal of the party-ready skirt and dress lengths predominant for much of the last decade.

To wit, Preen’s Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi showed gauzy variations like skirts patterned in black and inky blue, or silky dresses the color of desert dust. Donna Karan did likewise with her sandy-hued dresses cut on the bias and below-the-knee, while Narciso Rodriguez kept his mainly black and white collection chock full of slim, tailored dresses, which also hit at mid-calf. The demure length of Proenza Schouler’s chartreuse, cobalt and tomato slip dresses and skirts, meanwhile, was tempered by a touch of see-through naughtiness.

Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein followed suit (partially at least) when it came to an aversion to skimpiness. Granted, both collections were also predictably more pared down, underscoring another one of spring’s biggest trends: a yen for ’90s minimalism. At Helmut Lang, this meant city girl go-tos like neutral-hued, draped cowl neck tops and dresses, or a slim, one-button white blazer. Chez Calvin, the look was much sparser, scrubbed of superfluous detail yet undeniably sensual, as seen in a white racerback tank jumpsuit. Similarly, Olivier Theyskens’ collection for Theory—surely one of the season’s most buzz-worthy—was filled with sharp, thoughtful structure and imaginative detail, marrying a clean simplicity with progressive tailoring.

Theyskens’ navel-baring, rib-knit sweater and cropped black tank might be better-suited to Theory’s newest acolytes, but he wasn’t the only designer showing some skin this season. Ohne Titel paired abbreviated neoprene shells with pleated skirts, while Rag & Bone’s Jean Yu-designed harness lingerie literally anchored the duo’s collection. VPL’s Victoria Bartlett coupled bandage-like tops with color-blocked and cropped leggings, whereas Richard Chai made bandeaus an integral part of his ’90s nostalgia trip. Though the minimalist redux journey was steeped in formerly verboten decade staples like flared culottes and palazzo pants, in Chai’s hands, it was undeniably a voyage worth taking.

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