September Issues

Edward Enninful, Jennifer Lopez and Anna Wintour at the Coach runway show.
Edward Enninful, Jennifer Lopez and Anna Wintour at the Coach runway show. Photo: Nina Westervelt/Getty Images
Lauren Sherman
September 11, 2023

At the Coach dinner on Thursday night at the New York Public Library, a friend asked me if I thought that brands would still be staging fashion shows in 30 years. Yes, I said, if the world doesn’t blow up before that: Fashion always finds an excuse. 

His question, though, was reasonable. We all know runway shows are no longer a tool of the trade. Coach’s sales are now something like 90 percent direct: buyers don’t buy it, editors are obliged to cover the brand largely because it’s a name people know and because it’s an advertiser. For Coach, the biggest brand in the Tapestry portfolio, the show—a display of oversized leather blazers and pointy-toe jelly flats embossed all over with Cs, with J.Lo in the front row—is a customer acquisition cost. 

Could they do it another way? Perhaps. But it’s part of the formula devised by creative director Stuart Vevers, who moved to the U.S. 10 years ago for the job. He’s a well-liked, commercially-minded leader, who has managed, whether you’ve taken to it or not, to give Coach an identity that rises above off-price and discounting strategies that drive the business. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tapestry uses Coach as the template for each of the brands in its growing portfolio, which is set to include Michael Kors, Versace, and Jimmy Choo, once the acquisition of Capri is completed by the end of the year. 

Is that a good idea? Seems very private equity, and there’s plenty of skepticism around it. Of course, the skeptics were out at Helmut Lang, too. Now designed by young talent Peter Do, misalignments abound at this company. Looking around as I pounded a bottle of Voss water before the show, the audience told me everything I needed to know. Regarded designers Ralph Rucci and Italo Zucchelli (he of Calvin Klein menswear fame) came out to support Do, but the Seventh Avenue garmentos were there, too, not to mention Kazumi Yanai, the Fast Retailing heir. The Uniqlo owner bought Helmut Lang in 2006, and has never quite known what to do with it, other than debate selling it. Where does it belong? Dormant, I’d argue. Helmut Lang is ground zero for so much of today’s fashion, and the particulars of Lang’s exit from the industry—at his peak of influence, to pursue fine art—means its perfection is preserved in a way that normally doesn’t happen. There is virtually nothing Do, who started working on the collection four months ago, could have done to have succeeded. Especially since Raf Simons’ debut at Calvin Klein in February 2017 was such a sharp homage. (Funny, since Klein was accused of copying Lang late in his career.)

Helmut Lang is ground zero for much of today’s fashion. Photo:Jonas Gustavsson/Getty Images

Do seemed to be looking at Lang directly, but also at Simons’ interpretation. I thought the pants were good, but it just wasn’t enough. I like Peter: I think he’s talented and thoughtful, and he’s young. Plus, every creative choice someone like him makes is so scrutinized now. But my question for a while has been, is his work limited by being in New York, or is he limited by his capabilities? He shows his namesake collection in Paris in two weeks. It may give us a better indication. 

Commercially, this season of Helmut Lang may sell better than it ever has for Fast Retailing. Walking out of the show, I asked a store owner if she planned on buying the collection, and she seemed keen on the blazers and jeans, which are reasonably priced. (Reasonable, in this case, means between $300 and $600.) And then, a shop-and-copy master (who worked for a big specialty retailer for decades and still consults for many of them) sent me a diatribe about how old Helmut is informing the look on the street right now. He really liked Do’s take, and seemed to like Proenza Schouler’s even more. 

“Art and Commerce”: (Mainly Commerce)

Those two! Backstage at Proenza, designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez said that they don’t do well with the “scrum” interview, where journalists ask designers questions like, “What’s your inspiration?” or “What fabric did you use on that dress?” I’d say they’re better at it than most (low bar on both sides). Really, though, the clothes did all the requisite talking this season. It was a good looking, unfussy collection of high V-neck sweaters, low-slung pants, and basketweave gowns. (An ultra polished, super slick version of what the Shopping Newsletter Ladies are already wearing, like sheer red tights, as one of them pointed out.) 

Their soundbite was about “art and commerce,” and these designers, maybe more than any in New York, have struggled with balancing the two. I haven’t checked in on their business since I did a big story on their ups and downs in February 2022, but it feels like they’ve regained a good amount of confidence during the past two years. I hope that’s reflected in the numbers. 

The Proenza Schouler SS24 show. (Photo: Jed Cullen/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Proenza’s current investor is Mudrick Capital, a hedge fund, so they’ll certainly be looking for an exit at some point soon. But this is par for the course: Proenza already went through the private equity ringer, years ago. Now, it’s Khaite’s turn. The Cate Holstein-designed label is now under the watch of Stripes, one of the few investment firms that regularly takes bets on fashion. Backstage at that show, I asked Holstein how the money has empowered her: I expected her to mention supply chain upgrades or more freedom with show budgets. (The Park Avenue Armory staging wasn’t extravagant, but it definitely felt like an upgrade from previous seasons.)

Instead, she reminded me that she doesn’t have to be the C.E.O. anymore. (That title goes to Brigitte Kleine, who helped build Tory Burch before joining Stripes as an operating partner in 2016.) It’s interesting to see who likes Khaite in fashion circles and who doesn’t. Many fashion journalists and editors feel a distance from it. I asked a friend if he had any inkling as to why. He said, They hate success. (Another guess: they don’t understand money.)

To understand Khaite, you’ve got to view it like a merchant. (I liked the pin-tucked gazar dresses; they reminded me of this Marc Jacobs look from his Spring 1998 collection.) Holstein is very much in touch with what women with money want to wear. When I saw Yael Aflalo, founder of Reformation—another Stripes investment, which turned out very well for everyone involved—sitting front row at the show, I thought, Yep, that’s right. Aflalo, who made a fortune with the backing and support of Stripes, is now Holstein’s target audience. 

More Commerce…

For years, investors have backed away from fashion because it’s such a tough business to get right. But now the power players are recognizing just how lucrative luxury can be, thanks to the success of LVMH and Kering, and I suspect we’re going to see an influx of new money flowing into the space. One person recently likened LVMH to me as a private equity firm with 40 percent carry rather than 20 percent carry. Not a bad deal. 

At Fforme, I was introduced to Union Square Ventures’ Andy Weissman, who was there to support Nina Khosla, daughter of Vinod Khosla (of Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures) and co-founder of the Paul Helbers-designed label. Nina Khosla just hired Joey Laurenti to be the brand’s C.E.O. 

What a choice, given that Laurenti was the co-founder and C.E.O. of Sies Marjan, another label designed by an incredibly talented European and backed by wealth made far away from the industry. (In that case, Nancy Marks, wife of the famous investor Howard Marks.) As you may remember, Sies Marjan ceased operations during the pandemic—for the usual reasons—and I’m sure Laurenti learned plenty from that experience that he will apply to this. 

I could also see Nancy Marks, famously a client of Ralph Rucci’s before buying his label, firing him, and re-imagining it under Sander Lak as Sies Marjan, being a Fforme client. The Paris-based Helbers, whose résumé includes Louis Vuitton and The Row, is a world-class designer, and there is a whiff of Rucci in the silhouettes he clearly puts a lot of work into defining. The question, of course, is whether the world needs more sculptural clothes made with very expensive materials. If Fforme can become the American version of Arts & Sciences (the Japanese label every minimalist adores) then I think it has a fighting chance to differentiate. The styling of those clothes needs work, though, in order to communicate how special they are. 

Ari, Bezos & Sanchez

Chris Burch is one of the few fashion financiers who made his fortune there, and he’s still in it. Last night at Staud, which he backs, designer Sarah Staudinger staged a throwback to ’90s runway shows, constructing an elevated runway in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel. (No one really does elevated runways anymore, other than Sergio Hudson, who showed earlier in the evening. Everyone just walks on the ground now.) Styled by Danielle Goldberg, whose sister, Arielle Charnas, was in the audience—and has been out and about all week—it was an obvious homage to Isaac Mizrahi and that candy-colored ball gown look he helped make so famous, with the models smiling and vogue-ing in an unserious way. 

While Staud is on the precipice of becoming a huge-ass business (close to $100 million in annual sales), this was all about the show, especially the front row, populated with friends of Staudinger and her husband, Endeavor C.E.O. Ari Emanuel. There was no Larry David sighting this time, but Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez were there, seated front and center, not far from Jeffrey Deitch and Annabelle Dexter Jones, Rachel Sennott, Jeremy O’Harris, Justin Bartha (!), and company men like Endeavor president Mark Shapiro. (Was he on social media duty or something? He seemed to be documenting every second of this show with his iPhone.) There were woots every time a model twirled.

Lauren Sánchez and Jeff Bezos at the Staud runway show. (Photo: Dolly Faibyshev/Getty Images)

Front row curation is an essential element of what makes a good fashion show, and Staud’s assemblage was rivaled only by Area, who welcomed Mary J. Blige and her green exotic leather Hermès to the Williamsburg Savings Bank. There, it was much about what they were wearing as who they were; the Piotrek Panszczyk-designed label, known for its couture-inspired, intentionally outrageous creations, has a robust private client business, and made more than $10 million in revenue in 2022, according to a BoF report. It’s gala garb for progressives. On the runway, Panszczyk made the unexpected choices we expect from him, such as inserting fossil-like lacquered pieces into gowns and coats. (Show me one review of this show that won’t include a Flintstones reference.) I normally really admire his work, but this time it felt a little too unfinished and conceptually disorganized for me to totally get behind it. 

I can’t judge a show like Staud against Area or Proenza or Helmut Lang. But was it a satisfying experience? Absolutely. And will those ball gown skirts sell? Sure.  

Who else is making money this week? Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta designs have a ton of commercial potential, and they want people to see that they’re good at cutting clothes. So they staged this show not in a raw space in East Williamsburg or a schoolyard on the Lower East Side, but at a green-marbled office building in Midtown. Brilliant. Also, they’ve been doing great denim of the Helmut Lang variety for years. Calvin Klein, hire these two.

What really works in American fashion is consistency. I’m usually pretty bored by Ulla Johnson’s shows, but on Sunday morning I couldn’t help feeling dazzled by her three-dimensional florals and dizzying zig-zag knits. (Made me think she’d be a great designer for Missoni, but that brand needs help, and she’s too smart to take on some impossible post like that.) Each season, nothing really changes, and yet she is good enough to keep people hooked. We talk a lot about “the next Ralph Lauren,” or that “there will never be another Ralph Lauren,” but in many ways, I don’t think anyone of her generation is as clear about their identity. 

And that brings me to the man himself, who showed in the Brooklyn Navy Yards on Friday night, in a venue constructed to mimic the RL Ranch in Colorado, with the models drowning in denim and gold and piles of jewel-toned jewels. I used to get all huffy about Ralph Lauren shows because they don’t budge one bit forward. Maybe I’ve softened, but I not only don’t care about that any more, I don’t think they should. Lauren is really like Lagerfeld of America, and his ideas hold up. The revolution will come when it’s time.