Since March 2020, in just six short months, fashion week has collectively seen more changes than it has in an entire decade. Due to COVID-19, fashion shows around the world have been canceled, postponed, or gone completely digital.
For the first time since the pandemic really set in, New York City hosted fashion week, with specific guidelines in place. Taking place Sept. 13th to the 16th, most of the shows went digital except for the exception of Jason Wu and Rebecca Minkoff. With strict requirements from the New York State government (audiences of in-person shows were capped at 50 people), New York Fashion Week Spring 2021 might just be the most unusual iteration to date. However, with such unusual circumstances, some of the major designers such as Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Pyer Moss, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Tory Burch, and more have opted entirely out of fashion week this season in New York.
Still, there are more than a handful of iconic names showing as well as up-and-coming talent to watch. Here, we spoke to some designers on what their plans are and what the future of NYFW looks like.
Anna Sui has become an iconic figure in the world of fashion, especially in New York, well-known for her boho inspired colorful collections each season. “I'm inspired by so many things and this time I really thought about how our lifestyles and focus have changed with the pandemic,” explains Sui, days before her NYFW show. In place of a traditional runway show, she unveiled a digital lookbook presentation and video. “I really wanted clothing that was comfortable with touches of handcrafting. I thought about how I could incorporate sustainability into our design process. And mostly I wanted to create beautiful clothes.”
The designer has been a mainstay on the official NYFW calendar for years, so she felt it was incredibly important to participate in fashion week despite the circumstances. “I arrived in New York in the 70's, which was another very challenging time for the city,” she explains. “But there was also so much creativity going on. So many talented artists and musicians came out of that period.”
True to the Anna Sui aesthetic, there were modern bohemian pieces that took inspiration from the 1970s. However, this season, the designer was thinking even more about what it means to be living in the age of the pandemic, where many people are still at home. “I thought a lot about being at home,” Sui says. “We need security and comfort in our clothing. I think this is a great time to adopt hobbies like crochet and quilting. I love the feeling of DIY and handcrafted.”
“I think the overall feeling of the collection gives a lot of joy and contentment with a new emphasis on paring down,” she adds. “I hope it inspires people to DIY and learn new crafts and hobbies.”
Well-known for mixing architectural details with sharp construction, Adeam is an emerging label presenting on the NYFW calendar and sold at the likes of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. For Adeam’s Spring 2021 collection, designer Hanako Meada worked from Tokyo virtually with her New York City team on a brand new collection. The designer decided to debut a video that touched on cultural moments of Japan, as it was shot on the grounds of Meiji Kinenkan, a reception hall built in 1881 to welcome important guests from abroad to the Akasaka Temporary Palace, in Tokyo.
“It was important for us to still create a new collection for our three stores in Tokyo and also our newly launched e-commerce site,” explains Meada. “I also wanted to create a visual representation of not just our collection, but the beauty of Japanese culture to a global audience.”
Given the location in Adeam’s video is a stone's throw away from Harajuku, the heart of Tokyo street style, the collection represents a study of contrasts. Along with this, New York will always be incredibly important to the brand.
“New York holds a special place in my heart because I grew up in the city, and it is the place where I truly discovered my love for fashion during college through internship experiences and attending shows,” says Meada. “After I launched my line in Tokyo in 2012, it became my dream to present at NYFW. I love the fact that New York is such an international city, and people are creative in different disciplines, not just fashion. I personally believe that there is a future for NYFW as long as we can stay creative and hopeful.”
The rising label Dauphinette, run by Olivia Cheng, took a slightly different and very creative approach to NYFW this season. Cheng created a digital component as well as dress-up dolls books for guests that allow people to dress up a doll version of a model with clothes and accessories from the spring 2021 collection. “Despite the restrictions posed by not being able to have a physical presentation, I find this to be a beautiful opportunity to connect with a wider scope of people who might not usually attend the show, and having everyone be able to interact with the collection by simply printing out the dolls, relaxing, and playing a bit of dress-up at home,” she explains.
Continuing the brand’s dedication to floral inspired pieces, Cheng developed a flower chainmaille, where each “link” is actually a resin-casted flower— with hundreds of blossoms needed to build a single garment—for this collection. “For the purpose of showcasing materials alone I felt that it was important to offer something beyond the scope of digital imagery, whether that be dress-up books that everyone can print at home or mailing out samples of the chainmaille to friends and editors.”
Ultimately, Cheng sees the traditions surrounding NYFW as ever evolving. “But that doesn’t make fashion and peoples’ desire to consume art and uptake attention any less prominent,” she says. “Especially after spending so much time alone with ourselves in 2020, I believe that everyone will want to showcase themselves in some new way.”
“Regarding the digital format, the most exciting part of this is that it is accessible for pretty much anyone who can get onto the Internet and send something to print,” she adds. “I want everyone who takes an interest in Dauphinette to feel like they do not need to spend a ton of money or work a certain job to be ‘a part of fashion’— while I’m not naïve to the fact that the industry maintains its allure through some level of mystery and luxury, in the current climate I would much rather give everyone access to a small pleasure that they can enjoy at home.”
Known for her stunning and thoughtfully crafted clothing with a free-spirited sense of bohemian aesthetic, Ulla Johnson has also become a NYFW staple throughout the years. The designer usually stages a heart-warming runway show with live musical performers each season.
For the Spring 2021 season, Johnson decided to host her normal runway show and musical performance (without an audience) and present a video and love letter to New York, touching on the feeling of togetherness and unity. “It was important to create more of an immersive experience for the audience that was not able to participate,” she explains of the editorial-style video. “In order to achieve that, it had to be something much more robust and beautiful and artful than what would typically go into a runway video.”
As for the clothing, Johnson took inspiration from Japan this season. She was meant to travel to the country in March but her trip was cancelled due to the pandemic, so instead, she threw herself into research. “We definitely have a strong Japanese influence in the collection, both in terms of the prints, which have symbolic meaning with all the sort of florals, chrysanthemum, cherry blossom, the river motifs, it all alludes to ideas around fragility or rejuvenation; the beginning of life,” she explains. “I think that everything we are looking at and wanting to do right now feels like it needs to be imbued with meaning. I was always also very influenced by Ikebana and this, the whole gestural upward movement.”
“I think that New York fashion week has a lot of work to do,” adds Johnson about the recent season and last few years of NYFW. “I think in a lot of ways it's become unimportant in a way that's sort of heartbreaking. But I think in a way this year where there wasn't one show one after the next, it allowed us an incredible freedom to do something in a place we couldn't have done it before.” For example, Johnson worked with her models for a full day to film the show in a beautiful downtown location.
“We want people to feel a sense of joy and optimism and empowerment, to see these beautiful women and feel a sense of connectedness,” she says of her ultimate goal with this digital presentation.
Beyond coping with the new world of digital fashion week, PH5 has another major change in store. Launched in New York in 2014 as a women’s knitwear brand founded by Wei Lin, a new Parsons-trained, award-winning designer, Zoe Champion has just joined the brand.
For spring 2021, PH5 is debuting a video and lookbook photoshoot inspired by Champion’s connection to her native Australia. “I had just been home at Christmas, and the bushfires had finally died down. We came up with the idea of developing this collection around the idea of the bushfires and specifically how in Australia, it's been a big part of how nature regenerates and how some plants need fire to spread their seeds and things like that.”
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement happening in the U.S., the designers also wanted to spotlight indigenous Australians, sharing their platform and space during NYFW.
“As a fashion company, we get this platform and we get to reach a lot of different people,” explains Champion. “We thought that it would be a really amazing experience for us to give over some of that space to someone else who has a really great story to tell.” The result is a video featuring six Indigenous women sharing their stories. The photoshoot was done on Aborgiginal land. “They performed a smoking ceremony, which is sort of really beautiful, incredible, cultural experience to have experienced for myself as well,” says Champion. “We're really excited to share their words and what they have to say about the Bush fires that happened and how they hope that we can heal from these experiences and learn and grow.”
“I think there's a deeper meaning to everything that we do,” adds Lin. “Fashion week is just a way we break up our stories,” adds Champion. “We really miss our communities in New York city and fashion week is part of that community. We want to still be part of that space and with all of the other incredible designers that show at this time and all of the people that come together to make it happen and to experience it, we still want to be able to connect with them all because they're such an important part of our brand and our story.”