NEW YORK — Paris has its scarves and skinny suits, Milan has its luxe leather and London its swinging miniskirts, but ask American designers what they've added to fashion and the collective answer is democracy, from wrap dresses worn by working women in the 1970s to a dress worn by the first lady.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America, in honor of its 50th anniversary this year, asked its membership, which includes president Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, Sean Combs and Michael Kors, to craft their own "impact statements" and choose outfits and photos they feel best represent their signature styles for a new exhibit opening Saturday at the Museum at FIT in Manhattan. There are 80 outfits on display in the show, called "Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA," but the works of 450 designers are represented in a multimedia display and a companion book.
"There is something magical about the way this group was founded back in 1962, in a small room off of Seventh Avenue. It was the brain trust of 20 passionate designers who were motivated to create a safe haven for the members of their community. They sought to protect and promote their own," von Furstenberg writes in the book. "Nearly half a century later, through triumphs and failures, with businesses made and broken, that small assemblage has evolved into a modern family of over 400 members."
Von Furstenberg lent to the museum one of her original wrap dresses from the 1970s, a symbol of the working-women's movement, while Oscar de la Renta, a former CFDA president, offered up a gown, accented in neon, from his current spring collection. (De la Renta always says his newest designs are his most important.)
A surprise came from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in talking about their contribution, said Patricia Mears, museum deputy director and curator. They didn't note their celebrity or even the accolades earned by their collection The Row, instead saying they were most proud of a commitment to manufacturing in the United States.
"'Impact' in America is interpreted a lot of ways. It has a lot of diversity. It could be making things affordable, it could be quality like haute couture," said Mears.
She added, "Someone like Marc (Jacobs) is such a huge, influential entity but he followed the American path. When he did his groundbreaking grunge collection, it got him fired, but he says that's what set him free and served as a launching pad for something new."
Jacobs is represented in the exhibit by a dress from that 1992 flannel-and-long johns collection. The garment came from Anna Sui's personal collection of Jacobs' clothes. Her explanation: "I guess Marc doesn't keep an extensive archive, and I'm a pack rat!"
But that's typical of the remarkably close relationships formed within the fashion community, said Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA, which identifies advocacy, mentoring and charity as its missions.
While the industry is stereotyped by outsiders as catty and cutthroat, Kolb says he's come to see that designers not only support each other, but they thrive off each other. For example, Kolb said, Halston's craftsmanship, represented in the CFDA exhibit with a bias-cut dress made from a single piece of satin, has inspired the work of Ralph Rucci, who is touted as a master of fabric and pattern-making now. And it's no accident that Michael Kors' gold beaded pants were placed near the gold sequined outfit by Norman Norell.
Sui became an early, regular staple of what's evolved to be known as the contemporary category, along with the likes of Nanette Lepore, Trina Turk and even new powerhouse Tory Burch. "Contemporary" might not exist if there weren't enough people to fill a boutique or section of a department store, Sui explains.
"One of the things that is kind of ironic, and one of my problems was that I had to ask myself, 'Where do I fit in?'" says Sui. "The most wonderful designers of the day were Bill Blass, Donna Karan and Anne Klein. I couldn't compete with them, I couldn't hang with them in department stores, but they inspired me to do my own thing."
That brings her around to her impact. "Somewhere my dresses started appealing to a new generation of girls who had worn jeans and T-shirts but were now going to work. She saw she could take a dress and dress it up for evening or tone down for daytime," Sui says. It didn't hurt that the age of the supermodel was dawning, and they were fans of her clothes.
One of the most familiar dresses in the exhibit belongs to Narciso Rodriguez. It's the runway version of the red-and-black sheath that Michelle Obama wore on election night in 2008.
"We are glad to show fashion in a cultural context," said FIT's Mears. "We want someone to look at the Stephen Burrows or Halston and say, 'That's from my youth,' or remember Donna's (Karan) woman-as-president ad campaign and remember the effect it had on them. They've all had impact beyond creating a beautiful dress."
If You Go...
THE MUSEUM AT FIT: Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, New York City; http://fitnyc.edu/334.asp or 212-217-4558. Open Tuesday-Friday, noon-8 p.m, Sundays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free admission. "Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA" runs Feb. 10-April 17.
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