Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
IMPACT: 50 Years of the Council of Fashion Designers of America

Norma Kamali dress. Courtesy of CFDA.

For collectors of haute couture the current exhibit at the Museum at FIT, “IMPACT: 50 Years of the Council of Fashion Designers of America,” is reassuring. This is because the pieces on display seem to have had a twofold impact on American culture: as items of popular fashion/culture, namely trends that inundated the market at specific points in history; but also as iconic items representative of the general Zeitgeist in America of the last 50 years.

American Fashion Designers became a true force after the second World War and maintained a more nimble attitude in business compared to their French counterparts. This allowed them to have a real impact on styles, attitude, and fashion design. Fashion historians confirm the beginning of a new trend in the last 50 years: it is not French design that influences fashion trends any longer, at least not exclusively–American design trends started flowing back to the old continent where the institution of Haute Couture had already begun crumbling. In markets where economic power had already been reshuffled and redistributed (including France of the 1960s and 1970s), the old model of Haute Couture (High Fashion) became antiquated and unprofitable. American designers with an admittedly mass approach to fashion (in terms of pricing, distribution channels, and operations) modernized fashion and articulated a new vision of “chic.” Think of the iconic designs by Halston, Diane von Furstenberg, or Donna Karan to name just a few.

While “mass approach” did not necessarily mean available to the masses, what American designers accomplished was to instill in a greater part of the population the idea that style matters and that design decisions may affect one’s lifestyle. Today, it is again American business ingenuity that allows Haute Couture to revitalize itself and make a come back for those who have a need for it and who can afford it–think of Moda Operandi and how this e-commerce concept allows haute couture to reach the consumer. One must not forget that Haute Couture has had its brilliant moments on this side of the Atlantic as well. Several pieces of “IMPACT” confirm that talent, creativity, and individualized attention to detail were equally part of the mix. Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta but also Norma Kamali are just a few examples of the vast spectrum of American design in the last 50 years and how it often vacillated from the every day sporty to glamor and back.

The exhibit will be on view from February 10 to April 17, 2012. Don’t miss the multimedia installation in the big entry hall. This is the best integration of technology I have seen so far in any New York City museum: while documentary videos project continuously around the room, several iPads have been installed and offer the opportunity to research and study all the designers who belong to the CFDA. Alternatively, one may want to begin browsing American design history at home and visit the Museum at FIT to look at the garments on display and to appreciate their physical attributes.

© Thomaï Serdari