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What is Modern?

Fashion News

Lynn Yaeger turns to this season’s buzzed-about designers for answers.

Fashion is a devilish muse. When we consider what was once thought of as cool and new—everything from Amelia Bloomer's 19th-century balloon pants (they were a commercial flop) to the nadir of human existence, lime green 1970s polyester leisure suits—we can only wonder whether our notions of what looks modern now will seem equally strange to our descendants.

This autumn, dedicated followers of fashion know that a new wind is blowing, carrying a streamlined, minimal aesthetic with it, a movement known in the trade as Céline-ification, after the creations by Phoebe Philo at Céline. But along with this wave of perfectly plain, precision cut ensembles (never to be deployed, let us be clear, in a way that could be described as matchy-matchy), the season brings other, radically different interpretations of modernism: the full-skirted, wasp-waisted ladylike outfits at Louis Vuitton and Prada (were Marc and Miuccia up late watching Rear Window and Dial M for Murder on TCM?); the adorably cozy fake-fur parkas at Chanel; and the sleek monastic-chic capes and jumpsuits at YSL.

I'm so confused! Do I want to look like a super-stylish white-suited Shelly Hack in a Charlie's commercial or Grace Kelly driving around the Riviera with Cary Grant? A cool snowperson or a groovy nun?

I decide to ask Isabel Toledo what she thinks constitutes modern dressing, and she states emphatically that she is quite sure "a modern woman does not want to be sold, or marketed to!" Toledo, whose exquisitely tailored, wonderfully imaginative designs were pretty much a cult secret until she burst to national prominence with her inauguration day ensemble for Michelle Obama, adds that she thinks "a modern woman is a thinking woman, and that is timeless. She likes to discover things on her own."

This is great on paper—it's fun to discover something new and fabulous! Still, in dreams begin responsibilities: anyone who has stood in a fitting room or, even worse, in front of her own closet faced with a mile-high pile of warring separates knows there can be such a thing as too much freedom.

So I seek out Michael Kors, the recipient of the CFDA's 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award, a guy millions of women look to when they are worried about getting out the door without looking ridiculous. Michael, what makes a woman look modern today?

Never shy, Kors whips out a prescription. "Personalize how you wear things by mixing it up. Take a glamorous evening dress and pair it with flat sandals, mix linen with cashmere, try boots with shorts: Put a new spin on things to keep things current and totally modern," he says. "It's all about knowing yourself, your body and your lifestyle, and finding clothes and a way of dressing that works for you, and not wearing things based only on trend or what your friends are wearing. Individualism is modern," he swears.

And I guess that's true, but I can't help but think that this rampant individualism not withstanding, there is something wonderful about purchasing an item you find yourself besotted with, even when a lot of other people want it too. This season's perfect Lanvin purse or dazzling Vivier pumps, things that fairly scream 2010, can seduce just as surely as those aforementioned—if only we could forget—leisure suits did decades ago.

In search of a bit more historical perspective, I dial up Valerie Steele, the director of the museum at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. Steele, whom I have personally seen gallivanting around town in everything from an Ann Demeulemeester corset-jacket to the most obscure Japanese street labels, is a study in modern dressing herself. She doesn't mince words, telling me that she is sick to death of "nauseatingly boring, ladylike fake couture. I'm so relieved to see this new look!" she says, citing with wild approval this coming fall's stripped-down sportswear. "It's chic, austere and really modern." Bring on the Raf Simons, the Chloé and, of course, the Céline, she fairly crows.

So, Valerie, is there someone who you think personifies the essence of modernism? With her newfound affection for minimalism, I expect her to invoke names like Jacqueline Onassis, or maybe the scarily perfect Faye Dunaway of Network, true goddesses of American pared-down style, but no. Steele's response truly stuns me. "I think Lady Gaga is totally modern." Really? Gaga, a person who, if she owned a Céline sheath, would probably splatter it with fake blood, add a crown of thorns made out of tinfoil?

"I love her!" Steele laughs. "But then again, we want something different from our icons."

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