Throughout New York Fashion Week, I kept waiting for the harem-pant moment. For those who haven't been following Downton Abbey (pity, that), an early episode of the hit show ends with Lady Sybil, the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Crawley family, showing off the latest fashion circa 1913: exotic pantaloons in the style of Paul Poiret. Cut to the facial expressions of everyone in the room, enhanced by the swell of strings; such awe was something I longed to feel at some point along the eight days and 50-plus shows that made up my fall/ winter 2012 NYFW calendar.
So was there anything as comparatively unprecedented, as utterly shocking? Not exactly – and I'm not sure fashion is even capable of that today (incidentally, pants seem nowhere near as popular as dresses and full skirts). Marc Jacobs came the closest with his outer-limit eccentricity and underlying wistfulness.
But certainly, there were many other compelling themes and talking points to come out of New York. These, when taken together, inch fashion toward that visceral reaction.
Anyway, Ralph Lauren addressed the Downton mania by opening the show with the series' sweeping score, a fitting accompaniment to his first grouping: aristo-suiting that was one pocket watch shy of revisionist costume.
Derek Lam's burgundies vied with Peter Som's Bordeaux. Additional tonal variations ranged from Alexander Wang's intense oxblood to Oscar de la Renta's sparkling ruby. By a certain point, this spectrum of deep reds and fruity purples became notable only if absent from a collection. Designers treated these shades as neutrals – fresher than chocolate brown and as wearable as black. But why wait until fall? Anna Wintour certainly isn't; on the final day of NYFW, she appeared fully committed to burgundy, from her sharp suit to her stiletto boot.
Though Jacobs and Canadian Jeremy Laing offered decidedly individual takes on layering, the more I thought about them, the more I found similarities. Both piled layer atop layer – beginning with cropped stoles and funnel capes, respectively – and played with volume, but the proportions of either collection never erred.
Designers ditched the darker florals this season, introducing motifs that emphasized punchy colour, playful patterns or often both. Some patterns drew from decorative templates (Calla's digitally illustrated flora, Preen's botanicals, Mara Hoffman and Joseph Altuzarra's textile interpretations), while others leaned toward kooky (Thakoon's hearts and lips, de la Renta's painted bijoux, NAHM's hieroglyphic cartoon figures, Som's snuggling cats). At either extreme: Jeremy Scott's Bart Simpson heads and Rodarte's haunting hands.
Word watch part 1: Bonded
It refers to a process of sealing fabric panels, rather than stitching them. And the effect is a seamless sculpting – particularly of leather – that Céline nailed so flawlessly for spring and was echoed throughout the Fall New York collections (see Som, Lam, Wang and Tommy Hilfiger). For Ports 1961 designer Fiona Cibani, bonding cashmere to silk helped her achieve fluid sweater shapes that mimicked blown glass.
Word watch part 2: Lustrous
Instead of sequins and little sparkly bits, designers are moving toward a smoother, overall-surface shine. All that gold lamé! Lauren, Jason Wu, Naeem Khan, Marchesa and J. Mendel were all guilty of such decadence, while Prabal Gurung and Jacobs showed fabrics with oil-slick iridescence and holographic treatments. It felt a bit like a post-1-per-cent message. We can be living in a time of encouraged austerity without surrendering the flamboyance.
The hits: Floppy Dr. Seuss-meets- Jamiroquai fur à la Jacobs and moulded crested caps from Ohne Titel. The misses: Wu's gold-knobbed toppers and Anna Sui's owl tuques. The honourable mentions: Stephen Jones's angular fedoras for Donna Karan and the knit Mohawks from Skaist-Taylor (the original founders of Juicy Couture).
Now that former wunderkinder Wu, Wang, Gurung and Altuzarra have stepped over to the established side, I have my eye on Kimberly Ovitz, Chadwick Bell, Preen and Sophie Theallet.
As for the singular standouts of the week, the pieces that I think retailers should carry and that consumers should remember, if not to buy than because they represent a wide-ranging primer for fall/winter 2012, include: de la Renta's teal velvet floral appliqué gown, Tess Giberson's quilted scarf, the elongating "moulded seam" trousers from Gurung, Lam's laser-cut leather turtleneck and black-and-white paisley jacquard dress, a "mohair lace" skirt by Kors, Lacoste's leather removable-zippered-sleeve jacket, Proenza Schouler's brocade minidress, J. Mendel's foray into handbags: a tote trimmed in fur, J. Crew's neon tangerine Manolos (yes, that Manolo), a belted onyx coat by Calvin Klein and, finally, one of Michael Bastian's resin boutonnieres.