I hate dresses,” says Maria Cornejo, the Chilean-born designer who showed 22 of them in her fall collection. “That’s why I’m forever trying to figure out what a cool dress would look like. And I hate ruffles. I’ve tried to figure out a cool way to do a ruffle or a floral… I haven’t.”
On an overcast day in New York, Cornejo is in her studio on Bleecker Street, describing what has become her own niche of modern dressing, straddling the fraught ridge between edgy austerity and unapologetic romance. Looks from her fall collection are suspended from a metal clothing rack: a cape-like cocoon coat in cardinal red; slackened leather skirts and jackets; and, yes, many of Cornejo’s deceptively simple (and ruffle-free) silk dresses that lightly drape and flatter the body.
“My clothes don’t really have hanger appeal because they just droop,” Cornejo says. “For a while, even the edgiest designers were doing these armor-plating dresses that made everybody look like robots. I like a sexuality that is more intimate.” Cornejo reaches out and traces the curvature of my waist with her hand. “There is nothing sexy about someone touching you and feeling armor,” she says, “It’s just not sensual.”
Searching for an antidote to the blunt severity of constricting, skin-revealing garments that prop up and mold a woman’s figure to project an artificial eroticism, designers like Cornejo have dreamed up a new, relaxed fit that, with its tactile fabrics and long, clean lines, offers an authoritative femininity for fall. Victoria Bartlett at VPL presented figure-grazing jersey dresses and draped jackets in tan-on-tan and gray-on-gray tones; Reed Krakoff got on board with dropped-waist, wrapped silhouettes and roomy outerwear; Ohne Titel’s Alexa Adams and Flora Gill moved from their neoprene bodysuits for spring into softer fabrics, adding sections of primary colors to their mostly gray and black collection; and at Theyskens’ Theory and Derek Lam, full-legged trousers with slouchy tops embodied a certain new, low-key allure when they came swaying down the runway.
Doing away with the in-your-face, body-con dresses that have made the more demure among us blush in recent years, these designers have generously deployed single-tone fabric, cowling and suspending it from every angle of a woman’s figure. Instead of squeezing us into a preemptively sculpted dress—like those maddeningly stiff Victoria’s Secret bras—the new shapes take the form of each wearer, giving her a smart sexuality compared with that of the navel-and-cleavage-bearing adolescents who ran wild on the runways of the mid-aughts. The new sexy seems to be more about liberation than bondage. Not overly wrought—though design is, most certainly, there—and existing outside of recent trends, it presents something exquisitely cool to the consumer who has been bewildered by dizzying prints and ever-traveling slits and crops.
“It’s a more fluid and sensual architecture because it touches the body as opposed to confining it,” says Narciso Rodriguez, by phone from his studio, describing the slip-like silk dresses he layered under structured coats for fall. “This new fit feels very fresh and young. It has to do with life and dressing, which is so much more important than trends.”
For Rodriguez, the aesthetic recalls a specific image. “It feels so cliché to say Jackie O.,” he says, “but when you saw the way women like that dressed day to day—that perfect pant and a great sweater…. That ease is so American.”
Life…dressing…ease…American. Sounds familiar. In the late ’60s, Hannah Golofski of Manhattan founded a women’s sportswear line of wearable separates based on those very principles. Starting the company under her married name, Anne Klein, and elevating utilitarian dressing to the runway, Klein became known as one of the first American sportswear designers. When she died in 1974, an ambitious 26-year-old designer at her company by the name of Donna Karan became her successor and got to work softening Klein’s tailored skirts and blazers. In an interview with The New York Times in October 1977, Karan—who revisits the look in 2011, showing beautifully draped jumpsuits for fall—said that her empowering wrapped jersey dresses for Anne Klein would reinvent the American uniform of jeans and T-shirts. “I like an ease about clothing,” she said at the time, “clothes that move with the body and are extremely feminine.”
It is perhaps no accident then that what was once known as American sportswear is resurfacing stateside and not in Europe, where—with the exception of Céline’s Phoebe Philo, who, as the new femininity’s leading ambassador, heralded it overseas—fantasy continues to rule the runways. Reimagined in unexpected fabrications and shapes, what has emerged is not an identical twin of the past, but a revival of the sensibility that once liberated the American woman: easy, wisened-up clothes with a commanding, modern sexuality.