The hype surrounding Proenza Schouler is so strong and consistent that one might think the clothes are beside the point. It’s been said again and again that Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, both 30, are the 21st century’s first big fashion success story, with two CFDA awards, a collection for Target, accessories lines, and an army of devoted fans including Chloë Sevigny, Amy Adams, Mary-Kate Olsen, Kate Bosworth, et many al. Fun, photogenic, puckish, professional—what’s not to love? But what makes the Proenza boys transcend the hype is how they’ve resisted that gotta-getta-gimmick branding-101 advice so many swallow without thinking. They don’t have a “look”—it’s more nebulous than that. One season it’s old-school, black-velvet, art-deco, nipped waists and hauteur; next it’s flirty color, short skirts, flowy bows, and ruffles. Then, for Spring ’09, a power-chick ’80s-mélange artsy-slouchy here, a streamlined-saucy there. They saw that women don’t want preconstructed ideas of femininity. They just want clothes. Great, beautiful, fun, real, flattering clothes.
“Having a muse is limiting,” says Hernandez. “It’s more about a general vibe of a woman. She’s not about being so fussy and put-together and precious. She’s very casual, with an element of grunge, but also sophisticated and elaborate.” Even the Spring show that Hernandez thinks of as a foray into fantasy (which would play as all-out sensible on other runways) felt like too much. “We’re taking it back to what we do best,” says Hernandez. “A little messy, nonchalant—that tomboy who’s into fashion that we love.”
In just a few short years, 25-year-old Alexander Wang has become so linked with downtown New York and its grungy burgeoning art scene that it’s almost starting to bug him. “I do live in the East Village—and I want to grow old there—but I’m not some crazy party animal,” says Wang, whose fast rise began in 2005 with a knitwear collection that he designed while he was still at Parsons. He’s now the beloved of ladies such as Alice Dellal, Daisy Lowe, Alexa Chung, Vanessa Traina, Julia Restoin-Roitfeld, and, of course, Erin Wasson. “I’m not the biggest art person either,” he admits. “I love the amazing mix of characters in my neighborhood doing whatever they want. I live right next to this retirement facility, so I always see great old people in these crazy insane outfits. I love seeing people dressed like that. You can’t get away with that anywhere else. And that’s the thing today—there’s not one scene. -Everyone has their own little scene . . . They do what they want.”
Despite Wang’s embrace of the full East Village spectrum, there’s no denying how deftly his raw, industrial colors and slouchy, sullen silhouettes jibe with the EVil’s grungy glory days in the ’80s and ’90s. For Spring ’09, though, Wang added some aerobics to the cigarette regime, imbuing his power-girl look with a kind of ’80s-health-goddess sex appeal (minus the L.A. Gear), and demonstrating that he can add new fans while holding onto the old ones. Et voila: He won last year’s prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.
For Spring, dinosaurs. For Fall, cockroaches. And yet Christopher Kane is not just being obscure to shock the ladies. His valentine to stegosaurus plating not only bristled with candy colors and futuristic pizzazz, it had a grand-dame old-worldliness recalling the obsessive sugar-cookie geometries of the Wiener Werkstätte.
Kane loves layers—of fabric, of texture, of reference and meaning. The 26-year-old Scot studied fine art and fashion at Central Saint Martins College in London, interned with Giles Deacon, and his first show, for Spring ’07, was a colorful take on ’80s power pop that won him instant admiration. In his work since then, some inspirations seem clear: a rainbow of Versace color; a louvered space-age mass of Cardin circles; a skinny Alaïa silhouette. But there’s so much more going on. Asked what’s inspired and interested him lately, Kane scarcely knows how to begin. It’s everything from bathrooms to Barbie, everything from -Tokyo (“I was there recently, and I found it so modern and peaceful,” he says) to Gossip Girl (“It’s such total escapist pleasure, this world of these cruel rich kids. I want to be Blair, a rich bitch”). Or it can be any far-flung thing since the dawn of time. The challenge now isn’t casting the line—it’s in reeling it in. “The whole economy change has scared me,” he says. “I want to close the sale, make clothes that are beautiful and wearable for next season. It’s difficult to be experimental right now—the fear of going under is very real.”
It seemed only yesterday that a designer had to have a secondary skill set as a party boy. How else could you stay on the pulse and cultivate that crucial “It”-girl following? At first glance, the wild Euro-’80s-Princess-Stephanie-on-a-tear clothes that Christophe Decarnin has been designing for Balmain since 2005—making the label today’s most talked-about resurgent maison and a favorite of young Parisians—might suggest that Decarnin goes out all night every night. How many hours spent clubbing would you need to come up with such divine party clothes? Certainly Decarnin does not disappoint with his runway shows. But when it comes to bad-boy antics, the designer is one big letdown. He doesn’t go to discos. He doesn’t hang out at Le Paris Paris, or hit the Côte d’Azur with Charlotte Casiraghi (another “It” girl, and Princess Stephanie’s niece). “I’m absolutely not a party boy,” says the 46-year-old Decarnin. “I never go out at night . . . I like being at home. I like to cook. It’s important for me to do things that I can control totally. I don’t travel a lot, I don’t like to go to museums. I like to keep everything in my imagination. I have my own world in my mind.”
Yes, those little liquid gold dresses, those slouchy, shimmery tank tops, those slim rocker pants, all spring from Decarnin’s head. The reclusive designer, who headed up the Paco Rabanne women’s line for seven years, has the finesse and audacity to make it work. “I love special clothes for special occasions,” he says, “I love the glamour, the Swarovski, and the sequins.” Who needs a hangover?
It’s a good thing that, despite being named British Designer of the Year in 2006, Giles Deacon has yet to become a household name—words haven’t caught up with what he does yet. Explaining his collections for Giles to your sister or neighbor is not easy. Other designers have vision, but Deacon has visions—the kind that usually send you to a shrink or priest. Not fond of restricting himself to any one kind of unifying theme for his phantasmagorical shows, Deacon, 39, has become a kind of British Bacchus. At each show a fresh gang of camp followers emerges as if leaving a mad party, festooned with Deaconesque fancies like ribbons, shirring, graphics, fringe, and more. His Fall ’08 show—an eerily prescient ode to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death—was a crepuscular parade of gothic elegance, with whiffs of mantillas, mantises, and Metropolis (1927).
But even though his mind seems lodged in the notions district, Deacon is no fool. A graduate of Central Saint Martins who worked at Gucci and Bottega Veneta, Deacon showed his practical side with Spring ’09, focusing on lesser-known fortes, cutting the simple, sweet, and sexy dresses with just a dash of Deacon, which has already endeared him to smart-setters from Agyness Deyn to Gwyneth Paltrow.
He finds himself drawn to the strange-but-true images and stories he finds on the Internet, as well as the colorful personalities London is known for. “I love going to the British Museum to see the British home county ladies,” he says. “I love people who are eccentric, and you see really great eccentrics here.”
Rejecting the idea of a signature style, Jonathan Saunders designs each season as though clothing a squadron of secret agents on special assignment. The 30-year-old Scot’s Spring ’08 collection found unity in clean lines and creams, blacks and grays—yet each look seemed designed for a different murder suspect: governess, art dealer, socialite, au pair. Last fall, Saunders found surprising beauty in humdrum English camel, fashioning it in ’30s-deco lines, neo-noir-’80s silhouettes, and satiny flounces—usually the sacred domain of cocktail black. Then just as this sexy-secretary act was hitting the stores (and Saunders was chosen to design for the Milan-based Pollini, taking over from Rifat Ozbek), he showed a Spring ’09 collection so alive with color it might have been made by Disney—a corps of Sgt. Pepper–jacketed, soft-skirted beauties that resembled . . . What? The passengers and crew of a 1960s interstellar luxury liner en route to Venus via Rome?
Saunders studied fashion at Central Saint Martins, and consulted with McQueen and Chloé while starting his own line in 2003. Today his clients include Thandie Newton and Charlize Theron. But his inspirations range from the specific—like the collaborations between Grace Jones and Keith Haring and his own niece’s drawings—to the tapestry of life that is London. “There’s such a wealth of visual information here,” he says. “London’s a pretty expensive place and young people here are pretty poor. So basically the youth culture just thrives on making things out of the means you have. It’s really kind of amazing to watch.”