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What does American fashion mean in 2021?

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Written by Nick Remsen, CNN; Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNN

Contributors Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Amid a global pandemic and unprecedented political, social and environmental crises, culture in the United States has been influenced by extraordinary forces in recent years.

As a result, the fashion industry – one of the country’s largest creative sectors (clothing and footwear was valued at $ 1.9 trillion in the United States in 2019) and one of its means of most powerful expression – was forced to take stock.

The industry has, of course, been grappling with the impact of Covid-19 on its ability to manufacture, display and sell clothing. But designers and labels are also adapting to less tangible complexities.

During the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, fashion faced uncomfortable questions about its lack of diversity and elitist culture. With silence on social and political issues increasingly seen as a form of complicity, many American fashion designers have also become vocal activists. In the meantime, sustainability has made its way onto the agenda of almost every fashion company.

There is a growing sense that the industry is on the brink of a courageous new era. Yet it is the one that is still very much in the process of being defined.

All this makes the new successful exhibition “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, seems particularly timely. Opened on September 18 and inaugurated – as is tradition – with Monday night’s glitzy Met Gala, the show asks a crucial question at an industry-wide moment of introspection: what is American fashion today?

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According to Vogue editor-in-chief and one of America’s longest-serving stylists, Anna Wintour, it’s about several things at the same time.

“American fashion is a celebration of exuberance, joy and creativity. It hasn’t changed,” said Wintour, who has chaired the Met Gala since 1995, via email: “What she became in 2021 is a patchwork, reflecting the world we all live in, as seen through many different lenses. ”

A fashion patchwork

This patchwork was put in the spotlight during New York Fashion Week, which ended Sunday evening. Over six days of parades and presentations, dozens of designers presented their latest take on how Americans could and should dress today.

During a show by independent label Imitation of Christ, held at St. Mark’s Church in Bowery, a cast of nearly 80 artists (many of whom had spent months without work due to Covid-19) took poses and danced without a tie in recycled clothes. After the choreographed portion of the show ended, some of the models grabbed strings of balloons and rushed through the streets, inviting passers-by to join the impromptu parade.

At Collina Strada’s show the night before, adults and children walked hand in hand, drenched in bright psychedelic prints that wouldn’t be out of place while strolling on Venice Beach in Los Angeles.

Elsewhere, Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung – who in 2019 put catwalk models in scarves while reading “Who’s Becoming American?” – asked a different question with his latest collection, “American Girl”: who becomes a woman?

“America has always been a woman – but she wasn’t always treated beautifully,” he wrote in his show notes, “What does it mean to be the most personable person? essential in this country? What is feminine? What is the American? And who can be all – or none of it? ”

At Italian label Moschino, long run by American designer Jeremy Scott, disabled black transgender model Aaron Philip made his fashion week runway debut. After the show, she wrote on Instagram: “Hope this is the start of more and inspires and allows more global brands at the same level to really work to include and standardize disabled attendance and talent in their storefronts. . ”
Model Aaron Philip's debut at Moschino.

Model Aaron Philip’s debut at Moschino. Credit: Marie Altaffer / AP

For Scott, American fashion is, like the country itself, a “melting pot of style, taste and personality,” he said via email.

“Traditionally, ‘sportswear’ has been one of the main pillars of American fashion,” he added. “I feel like over the past few decades the definition of sportswear has broadened and transformed to encompass more than ever before.”

A new vocabulary

Scott’s designs are one of over 100 sets on display at “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”. The work of other American heavyweights like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and the late Halston will also be featured, but the show extends beyond established names to spotlight some of America’s brightest independent talents, including Telfar Clemens, a Liberian American designer whose eponymous brand has shaken up just about every fashion norm, from gender binaries to runway formats. (Her tote bags, nicknamed “The Bushwick Birkin” by some, are perpetually sold out.)

Becca McCharen-Tran, who heads Miami-based swimwear and ready-to-wear brand Chromat, will also be in attendance. She has been an advocate for inclusiveness since the start of her career, with an everyone’s mentality that deserves this space that is now flourishing.

“Ten years ago, things were so different,” McCharen-Tran told CNN Style via email. “It took a lot of work and intention to find plus size models, trans models and even models of color. Now that’s the bare minimum expected in a runway cast. As it should be!”

Leyna Bloom walks for Chromat in September 2019.

Leyna Bloom walks for Chromat in September 2019. Credit: Mike Coppola / Getty Images

Other young designers appearing in the Met’s exhibit may be at an early stage in their careers, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t already made history. In July, Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder and creative director of Pyer Moss, became the first black American designer to appear on the official program of Haute Couture Week in Paris.

Hosted remotely from New York City, her fashion show was hosted at the former home of Madame CJ Walker, a beauty entrepreneur considered the first self-made black woman millionaire in the United States. Jean-Raymond’s designs were an ode to black American inventors and entrepreneurs, celebrating their historic creations with bold silhouettes referencing everything from oversized peanut butter jars to cell phones.

“I wanted to use the stage to share with other black Americans who inspire me – and blacks who inspired me,” he told CNN after the July broadcast. “So I chose to make the collection a reflection, in a way, of many of the things that we have brought to society as a whole.”

Part of the Costume Institute’s mission is to “establish a modern fashion vocabulary,” according to the exhibition’s press release. It’s a mission taken up by American icon Tommy Hilfiger, who said via email, “I think the new vocabulary will represent a fashion that really connects with you on a personal level. and intentionally. ”

The Met Gala red carpet could prove to be the perfect place to witness new additions to the new American fashion stock. As celebrity guests prepare to climb the famous Met staircase on Monday night, their sartorial choices are expected to reflect fashion’s need for deeper values ​​and explore the rich and complex identity of Americans today. ‘hui. Young, diverse and environmentally conscious designers and brands will most likely take center stage.

“Designers are independent like never before and they have their own perspectives, sensibilities and experiences,” said Wintour. “Overall the community is incredibly exciting. She’s inclusive, concerned with sustainability, focused on mentoring and connection, and determined to move important conversations forward.

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