Modern is as Modern Does

The dictionary definition of ‘modern’ is: “ Of or pertaining to the present time, or time not long past; late; not ancient or remote in past time; of recent period; as, modern days, ages, or time; modern authors; modern fashions; modern taste; modern practice.” But chances are, if you ask 30 fashion designers how they define ‘modern’ you will get 30 different interpretations. The word ‘modern’ as it pertains to fashion has been so overused and bastardized at this point in time, it has almost lost its meaning. Everyone likes to think their philosophy and vision is the last word on ‘modern’.

For me, ‘modern’ is defined by that unbeatable and often elusive combination of form and function – attractive and beautiful things that are comfortable, practical, versatile, and useful all at once. Like Ralph Rucci’s lacquer red silk gros de longres pantsuit comprised of an elongated, seamed jacket worn with narrow pants that is actually a ‘rain suit’; or in a season where the crisp white shirt, or the white collar and cuff, makes everything look better, Zang Toi’s deliciously exaggerated, oversized white organza/lace cuffs that were not part of an entire blouse, but rather, separate pieces affixed to a black silk, wool, cashmere fitted twin set (brilliant!) Just think how much easier this will be to dry clean when they inevitably fall into that bowl of soup. Or Yeohlee’s application of Nano-Tex technology to the fabric of a delicate silk white tattersall cable dress in order to render it stain and water repellent (of course, Yeohee has traditionally had the needs and interests of the ‘Urban Nomad’ on her mind within her collections. I’m still waiting for her to design with a fabric that automatically adjusts to temperature and climate changes. It seems to me that with the exorbitant price tags these days, maybe it’s not asking too much if we expect our clothes to ‘multi task’ and do more than just one thing.

Almost no designer captured and summed up the notion of modern, better than the late Geoffrey Beene, whose influences were recently seen and felt throughout New York Fashion Week, whose life and work has recently been celebrated, and whose personal estate went up for auction this past weekend at Sotheby’s. Geoffrey Beene once took a “dress and crumpled it in the palm of his hands and decreed, “This is modern dressing” according to Jade Hobson Charnin, one of the panelists who remembered and celebrated the designer at an event at Sotheby’s last Monday evening.. Certainly then, by this definition, Einar Holilokk for Geoffrey Beene’s black lurex trimmed black double faced wool crepe suit comprised of a molded zip front jacket and narrow knee length skirt exemplifies this. Because of its precise tailoring and construction, I assumed it would be weighty and stiff but when I took it off the mannequin, I saw that it was completely unlined and had the weight and feeling of a thin cardigan. It could indeed by crumpled in the palm of one’s hands and could easily travel anyplace in the world!

But another major design force to reckon with these days, whose influence and point of reference was hard not to notice on recent runways, was that of Alber Elbaz, head of design for Lanvin, who was the subject of an article in yesterday’s The New York Times Magazine, “The Classicist”, by Lynn Hirschberg. Elbaz, who was awarded the CFDA Award for international designer of the year this past June, coincidentally (or not) worked for Geoffrey Beene for 7 years and though his work is not as architectural as that of Mr. Beene, and relies far more on a very French, feminine approach, the modernity of his work lies in his “ability to combine the hard and soft”, his philosophy that “clothes should be timeless, that the elegant simplicity of a Lanvin dress or skirt or sweater should endure for many seasons”, his desire to put “beauty back to fashion”, and his seeming ability to tap into precisely what it is women want right now (they don’t want to look overtly sexy in a vulgar way, and they want luxurious items that are not too precious and perfect). Alber also stated, “I heard about a Japanese woman who put 10 kimonos in a bag, and I thought, how modern. There’s something about this basicness that I’m attracted to these days.”

It was hard not to see some traces and echoes of Alber in Vera Wang’s beautiful spring collection, shown in New York just weeks ago and indeed, the article alluded to the fact that Vera Wang and her two daughters were recently in the Lanvin store in Paris where she bought three of his silk dresses. As Ms. Hirschfeld noted, “It is unusual to see a designer purchasing clothes by someone else, and Wang had her arms full of garments”.

Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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