What Are Madison Avenue Fashion Designers Trying to Tell Us?

Posted inDesign Trends

The windows of the shops on Madison Avenue between 86th and 59th Streets in New York City might have as much to say about culture today as the fashions depicted in the art in the Metropolitan Museum tell us about life in ancient Egypt and 19th-century France.

A visit to the Met in late February brought me to the neighborhood, and I thought, why not walk down Madison and see what’s going on?

What I saw surprised and bothered me.

Nothing looked like it was wearable by a human on Planet Earth. A pouty, leggy mannequin might be outfitted in a huge feather headpiece, a fur wrap, a sequin bra, ripped jean short-shorts, and chunky construction boots. The question was not, on what occasion could one wear such an outfit, but at what time of year and in which time zone? What were the designers—actually the managers, buyers, window-dressers, and salespeople—trying to say?

Clearly, the Upper East Side, like most shopping environments, took a beating in the early days of the pandemic. There were empty shops, a few boarded-up windows, and many “For Lease” signs. Was the message something like, “Up yours, loyal customers, for abandoning us, for shopping online?” I wondered if there had been the expectation that very wealthy people wouldn’t curtail their spending. Not only for clothing and shoes, but for all the other stuff offered on those 30 blocks: jewelry, watches, luxurious bedding, lingerie, antiques, art. But then there was the lockdown. The survivors seemed to be the biggest brands with locations around the world. Yet I sensed that the employees must have been pretty scared that their livelihood would be next to go.

Curious about the state of high fashion, I recently returned to 79th and Madison with the intention of taking pictures and—because the designers themselves rarely set foot in their namesake shops—speaking with salespeople about why the clothes in early spring 2023 were so unwearable.

But nothing looked or felt the same. It was all changed, all different. But is change not the essence and nature of fashion?

What was on display? Outfits for the golf course, the tennis court, the yacht, drinks in the garden, trips to Europe, spring and summer weddings, parties and more parties. Okay, we had our fun, the windows seemed to be saying, but we’re here for you and we know what you need to wear, wherever you are going. Ralph Lauren, who practically owns the corner of 72nd and Madison, was showing the world that he’ll have the whole family classically attired in bright polo shirts. Michael Kors was all about red and plunging necklines, fringe and sequins, but nothing too racy for the country club.

The displays that most captured my attention were designed for people who know where they’re going and want to make a provocative statement when they’re there.

At which tennis club might this Intermix dress be acceptable? Perhaps it’s meant for a private court in the Hamptons.

If you’re the kind of man who holds informal meetings at the Polo Lounge, this Missoni outfit could be an interesting choice.

At Zimmermann, I pictured myself in a sequin-encrusted skirt.

At Oscar de la Renta, trapeze dresses. I haven’t forgotten their first appearance in the ‘60s. But not quite like this.

Inside, there were dozens of equally ornate short dresses, embroidered, embellished, appliquéd. When I told a sales associate I was doing a fashion story for an online design magazine, she was happy to let me take pictures and even rearrange the garments on the rack. But just as she was explaining that every Oscar de la Renta butterfly is hand-sewn to the $9290 dress, one of her colleagues threatened to call the manager. I exited quickly, blending into the other window-shoppers on the increasingly busy street, with its signs of re-openings and new tenants moving in. No matter, the whole story is on their website.

But then I found my happy place at Dolce and Gabbana. In a black satin D&G bra and with a red Logo Bag, would I look as smokin’ as Kylie Jenner?

Inside, a young man named Nelson explained the black and silver color story: “Right now, everyone wants to shine and celebrate, to sparkle from head to toe.”

“This is the “Re-edition Collection,” Nelson continued. “Each garment is labeled with the year it debuted.” Such as this $595 white cotton tank from 1994. Hmm, could I achieve the same look with a $12 tank from Target or Uniqlo? After all, women my age were taught to never let their bra straps show and to make sure labels are always tucked in before leaving the house.

“And is this for the boudoir?” I ventured, pointing at a see-through slip from 1995. Nelson seemed surprised. “No, it’s also for the street.” Of course, outside a late-night club on the Lower East Side.

Ah, the body as sculpture. You are not inside a museum viewing someone else’s art— even Karl Lagerfeld’s at the Met. You, yourself, are an art form to be draped in diaphanous fabric, your perfect body shimmering underneath.

In a more realistic moment, I stopped at Brunello Cucinelli, which occupies the entire block between 62nd and 61st. There, I was graciously offered a seat at the bar, a cappuccino, biscotti, and to browse a book about the legacy of the Cucinelli family and its company. “We are all about neutrals. Every design is influenced by nature, by plants, the earth, texture,” the buyer told me. “As one of the most innovative, fashionable global knitwear companies, we focus on wardrobing clients for all occasions.”

I have to admit being smitten by the sweaters, especially a pale beige cotton-blend vest subtly dotted with tiny sequins. If it’s $200 or less, I’ll buy it as a special treat, I told myself. It was $2000. Oh well. And then I was off to an event at The Society of Illustrators, where illustrators, graphic designers, and art directors were happy to greet each other after what seemed like a very long drought of in-person events. No one was wearing a black satin bra, a see-through dress, or even a $2000 vest. But we all seemed to be comfortable in our own skins, perhaps secure in the knowledge that if we were in the One Percent, everything we needed for an outstanding summer would be in the shops right around the corner.