Alexander Wang and Vena Cava: A Dark Safari

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Published June 17, 2009

Alexander Wang. Courtesy the Gap

Vena Cava and Alexander Wang, two NYC labels who specialize in edgy understatement, are having quite a year. Between them they have three CFDA awards, after Wang received his second honor, the Swarovski Award for Womenswear, Monday night. But can they reverse a maligned fabric’s terminally un-hip reputation? Gap creative director Patrick Robinson thinks so.

Robinson certainly knows a thing or two about transcending the mundane: his own sensibilities have drastically upped the mass retailer’s aesthetic value. Shopping at the Gap is cool again. And in the age of the high/low collaboration, Robinson’ Gap Design Editions—a CFDA-themed capsule collection project now in its third year—is unparalleled. Each year, Robinson gives his guest designers a specific challenge: to reinvent a staid classic; give utility grace; do it for a fraction of your usual cost. Last year, Phillip Lim and ThreeAsFour rose memorably to the challenge as they alchemized boring buttondowns into Perfect White Shirts. Now, with Vena Cava and Alexander Wang on board, Gap tackles the stodgiest ghost in its closet: khaki.

What is the most challenging aspect of working with khaki? “Giving it attitude,” Alexander Wang told Interview yesterday as the collection launched. “It is typically seen as very “mass” and commercial in the styles that its incorporated into, but we tried to give it a new spin in the silhouette and cut.”

Vena Cava. Courtesy the Gap

 

That “new spin” is best embodied by the collection’s showpiece: a khaki motorcycle jacket, which, with an enviable asymmetrical zipper detail, cropped fit, and pseudo-trench details, is the best hybrid jacket you are going to find this year for under $100.

Other capsule highlights from Wang reflect his knack for slouchy, yet flattering tailoring. The motorcycle jacket’s more sober sister piece, a hip-length, double-breasted  trench, is a clever (and at $88, relatively cheap) way to buy into to this year’s boyfriend jacket. He even gives safari chic a go with low-slung, pleated khaki shorts, which look great belted and paired with one of the complimentary hats Albertus Swanepoe created for Design Editions.

Vena Cava initially struggled with the khaki concept as well. “At the beginning, we were having a hard time figuring out how to make khaki grungy and dark, the way our friends in Brooklyn would wear it,” says Sophie Buhai, one-half of the Vena Cava design duo.

Ruinous inspiration finally struck: they vandalized school uniforms. “We doodled on the khakis a prep school kid would wear everyday with a Sharpie,” Buhai says. Those doodles turned into the duo’s signature “Havisu” print, which is incorporated throughout the collection, most notably on the graphical  zip-up shift—the garment Mayock agrees is the highlight of their high/low khaki experiment.

“We always look to geometric patterns, as well as Navajo weaving for inspiration,” she says of the Art Deco meets nativist motif that runs through their guest designs. “Chevrons, triangles, and arrows make their way into each collection.”

With Wang handling daywear with expert, careless ease and Vena Cava dressing up khaki into day-to-night dresses that echo a 1920’s exoticism, khaki seems overdue for a cheeky revival. Only a day into the collection’s commercial debut, the designs are quickly selling out.

But now that they’ve made khaki cook, will these designers use it in their own future collections? Wang admits he’s never considered the fabric a viable option til now, but found this challenge “very exciting”, so keep your eyes peeled. As for Vena Cava, Buhai is all for it: “We’d love to do some hand-painted or Batik khaki.”  According to her, the future of khaki will be “distressed and gothic.”

The Gap Design Edition khaki collection is available exclusively at select international flagship and premiere Gap adult stores. It is also available online in the U.S. at Gap.com. Items range in price from $39.50 to $88.00