Politics Comes to the New York Runways

Prabal Gurung, fall 2018.

Should celebrities wear all-black to the Oscars? Ever since the Golden Globes, when they did exactly that (or most of them did) in support of Time’s Up, the movement to combat sexual harassment and gender inequality, this has been a question. Especially after the white-rose moment at the Grammys; especially since a similar all-black call has gone out to attendees of the British Academy Film Awards (the Baftas) this weekend.

Fashion has been largely avoiding the issue, but on Sunday night, Prabal Gurung addressed it head-on.

“I respect the solidarity of wearing black, but I don’t want to get to a place where women have to suppress their sense of self,” he said backstage before his show. “Where I am from” — Nepal — “color can be a show of strength, as well.”

Then he name-checked the Mosuo, a matriarchal society in China, and the Gulabi Gang fighting for women’s rights in India (a.k.a. the Pink Brigade), and then, in front of an audience that included Cardi B., the celebrity of the season, as well as Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, he put his palette where his principles were.

Bright pink mandala-print scarves were swathed sari-style around ivory knits and fuchsia silk skirts; a grape puffer came topped with a sapphire fox collar; a sky-blue mandala sweater topped a blue sequined skirt with beaded fringe; and a cherry-red cashmere cable-knit dress was finished in a burst of degradé ostrich feathers. Though Mr. Gurung has a tendency to over-egg his clothes (there’s a lot going on in a lot of these looks), the point was generally well made.

A year ago during fashion week he ended his show with a parade of models in a variety of message tees that seemed addressed specifically to the policies of the new president (“I am an immigrant”; “The future is female”). He has been making something of a name for himself ever since as a public advocate; a designer willing to Instagram what he thinks. Sometimes his positions seemed better formed than his clothes, but this time, with a finale that saw the models emerge en masse clutching their own white roses, they met in the middle.

Still, over all it’s been an oddly apolitical fashion week. For a season occurring at a time when clothing has become a vehicle of public messaging in a way it rarely has before, the runways themselves have been strikingly silent. It makes the collections, pretty as they can be, lack a certain currency.

At Sies Marjan, the designer Sander Lak, one of the premier colorists in New York, produced a play on life before sunset, all ombré shades of rust fading into black, silver to rose, blood red to indigo, in satin and twill. It was enticing, but had the ephemerality of a dream. At Brandon Maxwell, the big idea was knit — knit flares! Knit tees! Knit turtleneck halter swing dresses! — which sounds lame but was actually smart, contrasting with the formality of his signature evening wear and giving it a bit of ease. A cashmere hoodie over a giant tulle skirt glinting with Swarovski crystals was an appealing look, albeit a safe one. Mr. Maxwell isn’t pushing any boundaries, or big ideas.

But that is partly why the Pyer Moss show had such an impact. Also, the clothes were very good.

A choir clad entirely in white and brought together for one night only by the singer-songwriter Raphael Saadiq stood atop risers and began a soaring, emotive performance that began with “Everything’s Got to Get Better” and then ranged through Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” It was a fitting backdrop to the designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s quietly calibrated ode to the black cowboy, the men he described as being an oft-ignored part of the history of the West, including James Beckwourth, an explorer and fur trader, and Bill Pickett, a rodeo star.

So there were oversize crisp white shirts and cropped cowboy versions. Short leather jackets with patchwork pockets and trousers billowing with pleats like chaps at the side, to create an hourglass silhouette for both men and women. Loose silk suiting with a medley of seams picked out in white topstitching. And a finale that introduced Mr. Jean-Raymond’s new collaboration with Reebok and included floor-sweeping coats and abstracted flag scarves, sweats palazzo-pant wide, and accessories emblazoned with the words “AS USA AS U.”

It was a rare bit of sloganeering in a season that has not been using its words too much. Less stident than soulful, it pretty much said it all.

Mr. Jean-Raymond has never been afraid of tackling big issues — his shows have addressed police brutality, the economic downturn and Bernie L. Madoff — but while this may have marginalized the designer in the past, it makes his work feel particularly relevant today. He deserves more recognition.

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