The lunar moth. Oscar Wilde. Eighteenth-century Japanese scrolls. An obscure Bauhaus artist. Antique porcelain. Quick, what do these things have in common? Don’t know? Try this: The Duchess of Windsor. The Arab Spring. The Beatles’ 1960s encounter with the Maharishi. A Midsummer Night’s Dream — not the play, silly, the 1935 movie. The dragonfly.
Give up? OK, we’ll tell you — each of these things was a declared “inspiration,” or theme, for fashion designers this year as they plied their wares at New York Fashion Week.
Why do designers even need such a thing, the uninitiated may ask? Well, many say it helps them organize their thoughts as they travel through the creative process. “It’s the kernel that makes the popcorn grow,” says Jeremy Scott, whose typically outrageous designs attempted to channel the Arab Spring this year, with some Harlem added in (more on that later).
But there’s also the pesky issue of having a good answer ready backstage, when you get that inevitable question as the cameras flash and the tape rolls: “What inspired you?” And you can’t just say, “I wanted to make pretty clothes.”
Which is frustrating to veteran designer Nanette Lepore. “Actually, sometimes it annoys me that everyone wants a theme!” she says. “I mean, it really does help when I have a strong one to work with. But often, what you have is just a few notions.”
At the shows that ended Thursday in New York, a number of over-arching mini-themes emerged. For example: Insects. As in, the luna moth, which lives for only a week. Indian-born designer Bibhu Mohapatra saw one, and it became the inspiration for his spring collection. “The luna moth is like a woman — she is constantly evolving,” he said backstage.
For Sophie Theallet, another rising designer who has dressed Michelle Obama, it was another insect who stirred her creative juices: the dragonfly. “It’s viewed differently by different cultures, sometimes as evil, sometimes spiritual,” she said. “I wanted to show how the woman I am dressing can be anything at any time.”
Speaking of time, some designers dig way back into it for their themes. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, for example, designers of The Row, were inspired “by the 18th century scrolls of Ito Jakuchu, depicting the Japanese traditions of bird-and-flower paintings.”
Not bad. But Thom Browne will take your old scrolls, Olsen twins, and raise them one obscure German artist from the Bauhaus school. Browne’s show — an elaborate performance, really — was an homage to a 1920s artist and choreographer named Oskar Schlemmer.
From Bauhaus to Dadaism: Designer Phillip Lim said he was exploring a literary technique — via clothing — used by Dadaists in the 1920s and William S. Burroughs in the 1950s. Not to ignore the 60s, Marchesa designers Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig channeled the Beatles’ visit to the Maharishi in India.
And Reem Acra, who designs glamorous evening gowns, said she was inspired by contemporary sculptor and artist Aaron Young and his motorcycle-themed work: “The abstract and destructive energy of his pieces are taken to create a defined, sophisticated and compelling statement on femininity.”
Some designers prefer current events, as Scott did with the Arab Spring. This acknowledged bad boy of the fashion world had long veils to go with see-through dresses, some Arab headdresses — paired, of course, with thigh-high alligator boots — and, to dress up that tired tank top, a slew of metallic mini-M16 automatic rifles.