NEW YORK – “It’s very important to me that these not be viewed just as wedding gowns,” said Vera Wang, the pre-eminent wedding gown designer for a generation. She was on the phone discussing her decision not to hold a live show during the recent presentations of bridal collections in New York, a kinder, gentler and briefer version of Fashion Week, with profusions of curling-ironed hair, platform pumps and champagne flutes twinkling in broad daylight.
Instead, Wang’s public relations department had circulated a short online video titled “Chasing Alix,” after the self-effacing early 20th century French couturier Madame Grès (aka Alix Barton). The video showed models in dresses whose cobwebbed bodices and fraying edges, accessorized with black rose petals and the odd tattoo, suggested not heterosexually coupled bliss but a small sorority of blasé Miss Havishams.
Wang opened her bridal studio in 1990 and 22 years later separated amicably, as “conscious uncoupling” used to be called, from her husband, Arthur Becker. This is not the first time she has put forth an unconventional vision of that great American mass theater production, the wedding.
“I’ve been subversive in measured amounts,” she said, referring to times when her signature dresses were black (fall 2012), or red, as in China (spring 2013), or “architectural” (spring 2014). But perhaps never before, in fashion or history, has a man seemed such an optional part of the overall edifice.
“I don’t want to use the word goth, but certainly there was a sisterhood,” the designer said of the video, in which several female models stare into the foggy distance, entwine hands and twirl wanly, Lorde-like, in an abandoned manse. She intended to evoke not Dickens, but the Brontës. “I didn’t think we had to be literal with a groom and a tuxedo and all that.”
Yeah, who needs a groom, anyway?
With marriage rates low and the contours of the institution inexorably shifting to accommodate same-sex and transgender couples, surely Wang would not be the only one in the wedding-dress business to be lifting the veil, or dispensing with it entirely.
But visits to a half-dozen bridal presentations showed only pockets of innovation here and there. Such as Zac Posen, who put actual pockets on a soutache-embellished skirt with a fitted bodice, which could come in handy for stashing the nuptial cash gifts standard in many cultures (or the money saved by spending only $245 on the ensemble; many sell for 10 times that much and up).
“I get in there with my scissors,” Posen said fiercely, standing in his atelier for an old-fashioned appointment-only viewing. He was describing not a turn toward deconstruction but his emphatic personal involvement in a mass-produced line, Truly Zac Posen, that has been ordered for a second season by the chain David’s Bridal and runs, with unusual generosity for a name-brand designer, from size 0 to 26.
“I’ve always been about embracing women and their bodies,” said Posen.
At Reem Acra, toes were bared in beachy sandals. But the real action was above the waist, with several necklines plunging to the solar plexus in the silhouette revived by “American Hustle” and reviled by prospective mothers-in-law the world over.
Even the more demurely dressed models wore their hair long and loose. Their faces were flushed; their lips reddened; their expressions confident and knowing. Before and after the show, three male performers in fedoras pantomimed lap dances as if at a bachelorette party. Acra, whose work has been worn by Madonna (whose early career she alluded to with lace gloves), gamely gyrated, too, as she took her bow in sequined high-top sneakers.
If this all felt very sexy and irreverent, the Oleg Cassini show the next morning was a bracing cold shower, a reminder that the traditional American bride is still a significant force to be contended with, and catered to.
Well known in his heyday as a Hollywood costume designer, couturier to Jackie Kennedy and brother of Igor Cassini, the second incarnation of the gossip columnist Cholly Knickerbocker, Oleg died in 2006. The house of Cassini has since fallen somewhat off the map, except in this rarefied realm, where it is also a marquee name at David’s Bridal, at least at the Houston branch.
“Oh, my God,” was the verdict of an employee from there as a series of meringue-like frocks with sweetheart necklines emerged onto the runway. Popping a stick of gum into her mouth, she periscoped up a rhinestone-encrusted iPhone to record the moment.
Monique Lhuillier also got cute with the feet, showing an open-toed lace bootee or two. Models wore shades that included “blush, hydrangea, pistachio and mist,” as if springing from a box of the ubiquitous Ladurée macaroons.
Afterward, a couple of the models, denuded of finery that had included a skirt with giant rosettes and yards of the aptly named “illusion” fabric, stood on Ninth Avenue in tough black jeans and jackets, smoking and chatting as they tried to hail a cab. No longer goddesses, they were just a couple of millennials, the obvious intended audience for “Chasing Alix.”
“A lot of them are getting engaged, but they don’t necessarily want tradition,” Wang had said of this up-and-coming demographic. She described a goddaughter getting married this year who is considering something “very avant-garde and shredded.”