Across the street from Lincoln Center, the official home of New York's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, is the diminutive American Folk Art Museum. Its three exhibition spaces usually display a mix of traditional objects like quilts and woodcarvings, but until April 23 it's home to a show called Folk Couture. The institution invited 13 designers, including Michael Bastian and Creatures of the Wind's Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters, to create clothing inspired by its collection.
The show's timing is perfect and not only because Fashion Week, which concluded last week, guaranteed a keen audience that could hop over between fall 2014 presentations. The pieces showcased – highlights include Gary Graham's jacquard coat woven to resemble a 17th-century coverlet and John Bartlett's elongated polka– dot jumpsuit – closely reflect much of what that crowd saw on the catwalks: a craft-focused and eclectic mix of pieces that reimagine the squeaky-clean image of American sportswear.
The way New York designers approach high fashion has long been characterized by a sense of ease and utility for everyday wear (think of classics like a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress or a Michael Kors camel coat). Those clean silhouettes are still present, but a global awareness has exploded the arsenal of materials and techniques used to create the clothes.
American fashion today emphasizes workmanship, from traditional to technologically tricky. The former was embraced at Rag & Bone, where double-breasted blazers were finished with raw-edge seams and sweaters were irregularly knit in a mishmash of stripes and squiggles. The latter was used to full theatrical effect at Alexander Wang, where black, heat-activated leather pieces turned acid green and yellow as the models wearing them moved through a set piece constructed out of furnace ductwork.
Designers drew on their own diverse backgrounds. Singapore-born, Nepal-raised Prabal Gurung's show updated a classic cable-knit sweater by layering it over a coral chiffon skirt and under a red wrap, mimicking the traditional robes sported by Tibetan monks. Zero designer Maria Cornejo found inspiration in her Chilean roots for alpaca ponchos and layers of geometric prints.
Even labels long associated with the contemporary American look mixed things up. At Michael Kors, there was plenty of camel but there were also herringbone dresses studded with grommets and a sequin-fringed skirt (Kors emphasized "artisanal embellishment for day" in his show notes). DKNY designer Donna Karan described her collection as "a collage of texture" and drew on the Big Apple's patchwork of indie creatives by casting artists, DJs and students to model her mashup of fur and lace. And J.Crew, go-to retailer for all things preppy, looked to Weimar-era Germany for metallic prints, ombré knits and woven outerwear, layered to look more moody Berlin than collegiate Boston.
The designer who best combined disparate materials in a wearable way was up-and-comer Wes Gordon. His refreshingly grown-up collection ticked all the season's textural boxes: weaving (a sweatshirt in a translucent, basket-like fabric embellished with pearls and Swarovski crystals), embroidery (a dress given a homespun quality with stitches of black-and-white ribbon) and fur (a dense beaver coat topped a cashmere jumper and silk skirt).
Muted hues like pale blue, deep burgundy and steel grey were key in making that textile medley mesh, as was the geometry of Gordon's shapes. Boxy blouses and dresses cut with a deep-V neckline that started at the shoulder straps and came to a point just above the waist were both refined and relaxed.
"At the end of day, I try to create pieces that are timeless," Gordon said after the show. "I want them to be exciting and relevant today, and exciting and relevant 15 years from now. I do that by utilizing clean, non-fussy silhouettes and letting the excitement come from beautiful fabrics and embellishment."
That jumbled approach to design is only going to get more varied, if a visit to the White Space in West Chelsea was any indication. The by-appointment showroom in artist Jeff Koons's white-washed studio hosted a selection of emerging designers. In one corner, there was Lee Savage from Savannah, Ga., whose architectural brass-and-leather clutches were recently picked up by online retailer Net-a-porter. In another corner was Wadha Al Hajri, who showed convertible dresses detailed with raffia in geometric patterns found on Bedouin tents in her native Qatar. Both collections were so very different. But, worn together, also so very fall 2014.