Creative Fashion Genius Crops Up Around Town

By Sonnet Stanfill
Victoria and Albert Museum, 128 pages, $55

Suffering for fashion is now as obsolete as some of New York City’s corporate fashion houses.

In New York Fashion, the companion volume for an upcoming exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Sonnet Stanfill argues that it’s a diverse, emerging generation of New York designers who will determine our taste for years to come. “Their forte: fashionable, dressy sportswear.”

A curator at the V&A, Ms. Stanfill is writing for her fellow Brits, who might feel the need to hop over the pond and use their bargain-buying power—it’s just another reminder of how we Americans are falling behind, even when it comes to promoting our own creative genius. Luckily, the author will appear at the Fashion Institute of Technology on May 8 to deliver the news in person.

Her book covers the years from 1999 to 2004—what some might call the era of the Williamsburg boom—with profiles of 20 designers whose careers were made possible by design grants. The descriptions of emerging talent—from “sportswear chic” Zac Posen, an industry insider, to Slow and Steady Wins the Race’s outsider conceptual avant-garde—prove that Ms. Stanfill gets New York.

The historical context is the emergence of the independent American woman: New York’s rise as the fashion epicenter of the mid-20th century can be traced to increasingly liberated women—in college and in the workforce—demanding clothes appropriate to their daily activities.

New York fashion, according to Ms. Stanfill, is episodic. For instance, the gaudy and sometimes irrelevant public-relations stunts used today? Invented by Dorothy Shaver (1893–1959) of Lord & Taylor, former arbiter of New York style, and fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert (1903–2003), who used groundbreaking retail promotions and influential fashion shows to gain attention.

Right now, it’s wearability that makes for chic fashion, and functionality that gets newcomers corporate contracts. See Behnaz Sarafpour, who describes her line as “interchangeable, functional clothing,” and Proenza Schouler, who, after a flurry of recognition, landed one of the largest mass-distribution deals with Target to create accessible fashion for a small budget.


Mike Bloomberg working to keep the peace between the $3.5 billion annual industry and Bryant Park officials over where to house Fashion Week? Just another city official working to sustain an important industry. City Hall, Ms. Stanfill argues, is “actively proposing and backing programmes to sustain New York’s fashion industry.” Meanwhile, where Parsons and F.I.T. were the industry mentors of the 20th century, today mentorship is second to cash: Competitive—and at times corporate—grants are creating and sustaining the city’s young design movement.

Explaining the New York aesthetic by its shifting philosophies and geography—the decentralization of retail centers, and the emergence of downtown as an alternative to Seventh Avenue—Ms. Stanfill gives the city’s fashion past and present context. She provides a terrific primer for those who may have not noticed the emerging fashion sectors on the Lower East Side, the meatpacking district, Chelsea and Williamsburg.

Odd to think that, for now, if we wanted to see the life-size version of this colorful, visually exciting book, we’d have to cross an ocean.

Nicole Brydson is a reporter at The Observer.

Creative Fashion Genius Crops Up Around Town