Finally, some clothes that make you sit up and stare.
New York Fashion Week finally came to life Tuesday evening in the shadow of the valley of — well, not death exactly. More like a post-apocalyptic prairie seen through a B-movie lens. Toto, what happened to Kansas?
Raf Simons buried it under 50,000 gallons of popcorn.
Or, to be fair, he buried the floor of the American Stock Exchange building under 50,000 gallons of popcorn, trucked in for a wackadoodle Calvin Klein show. It piled up in drifts around the weathered sides of four skeletal barns hung with blood red Sterling Ruby mop heads and papered with spectral black and white Warhol reproductions. It was crushed under the shoes of guests, so little motes of popcorn dust blew through the air. They landed on the coats and skirts and hair of Michael B. Jordan and Nicole Kidman and Millie Bobby Brown (among many other famous people), making everyone look as though they had an unfortunate case of dandruff or had wandered into a Food Channel version of nuclear winter.
Then a model in a bright orange hazmat suit and waders appeared. Let’s rephrase: Welcome to the pop-calypse.
Since he arrived at the brand that bluejeans and minimalism built, Mr. Simons, who is from Belgium, has been fixated on defining his own brand of twisted Americana, largely built on the twin pillars of Laura Ingalls Wilder and “On the Road” (the Netflix versions) — after the rot set in. This season he took it even further, with women in giant tweed coats over sweeping lawn skirts and men in sweater vests that looked more like life vests over skinny suits and shirts buttoned tight to the neck. Everyone wore knit Fair Isle balaclavas and often big firefighters’ gloves in silver foil, which also was used in false-front A-line cocktail dresses trimmed in white lace that turned into camper-blanket sheaths at the back.
Also the two-tone cowboy shirts and placket trousers that Mr. Simons has used in every collection since his Calvin debut, and skinny striped sweaters and sweaters with Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner knit in, plus apron dresses with nothing underneath, so the breasts were exposed (a strange segue into Naughty Nellie from the general store). Quilting squares were pieced onto crisp white shirts and reworked as bias-cut chiffon evening gowns. The effect was all very survivalist. Simon & Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence” played in the background. So did “California Dreamin’ ” by The Mamas & The Papas.
It was both a reductionist view of the country’s most accessible myths and also stomach-churningly right. That’s where we are now: drowning in a sea of puffed corn kernels and empty calories, appropriating the appropriators.
You might not like it all (though it’s not hard to imagine those homespun balaclavas becoming a thing the next time the temperatures hit minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit), but it was viscerally recognizable, the way really good fashion — which is not the same thing as wearable clothes — is supposed to be.
The kind of fashion that suggests a different way of expressing how you think of yourself or your world at that moment. The kind of fashion that has been largely missing from the runways this week.
Instead it has seemed like most designers were strolling around, heads turned to the sky, la-la-la-ing and minding their own business (in every sense of that phrase) rather than pushing themselves to confront the cultural mutation occurring around them. Maybe it takes an outsider’s perspective, or gumption. It’s risky to pontificate on national identity.
Fashion often likes to talk about how it offers an escape from everyday ugliness, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with beauty for beauty’s sake, but at a time of turmoil it can feel a little empty. Confrontation often isn’t pretty, but it gets you somewhere.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Stuart Vevers, the creative director of Coach and a Brit, shares many of the same American obsessions as Mr. Simons, especially when it comes to the Badlands and biker dressing. It’s expressed differently — his men and women look like luxe hobos, loaded up with tiny prairie florals in vintage lines, rough shearlings, laces and lamés, everything dangling leather tassels and charms — but the ingredients are similar. So, this season, was the sense of dystopia.
Though instead of wading through snack food, Mr. Vevers’ models had to wend their way through a forest of denuded trees, like something out of the Brothers Grimm or “The Blair Witch Project.” Maybe that’s why the bags and knapsacks they all carried were cavernous enough to fit a large part of their worldly goods inside.
(For what it’s worth, big bags are a trend this season. They were everywhere, including at Monse, which had a top-handled carnie-striped version that also can be folded and squished under the arm. So are amped-up white shirts: See Vaquera’s dress versions, sporting portraits of its fashion forbearers, including Vivienne Westwood and Miguel Adrover, over the left breast. And wide-whale corduroy — Maria Cornejo did an especially appealing cherry red jumpsuit in her Zero Maria Cornejo line.)
But back to Coach.
“I was thinking, ‘What is our goal?’ ” Mr. Vevers said backstage before the show. Then of the people who populate his imagination: “What are they doing here? Where are they going?”
He didn’t have an answer — his Elvises just left the building — but he did have a convincing proposition for a look. We all have to start somewhere.