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On the Runway, Money Is the New Sex

This past May, as a foreboding heat washed over Manhattan, Demna, Balenciaga’s artistic director and a master satirist of our dystopian digital age, became the first designer to stage a runway show on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Following the ceremonial ringing of the bell, models emerged in double-breasted wool coats and silk jacquard pussy-bow blouses from the brand’s resort 2023 collection, which they wore over full-body latex bondage suits with talonlike nail details, some of them gripping leather briefcases or takeout coffee cups as they navigated a crowd including Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, Mayor Eric Adams and the makeup artist Alexis Stone, who attended as Dolly Parton. The plan had been for the presentation to take place in the Ramble, a section of Central Park as famous for cruising as for bird-watching; the Georgian fashion designer had been thinking about the exchange of desire and his own complicity in such transactions. However, when it proved tricky to obtain a permit, Demna turned his attention to an even headier fetish: money. The invitations were stacks of fake $100 bills.

It wasn’t that long ago that fashion was heralding a return to free love and sex, as reflected in the sequined bandanna tops and ultra-low-rise pants that dominated the spring runways. But just like back-to-back promises of Hot Vax Summer, that came and went fast. Gone are the micro-miniskirts, tattered jeans and other signifiers of hedonism; they’ve been replaced by no-nonsense dressing, the sartorial equivalent of a spreadsheet. Even the bare midriff, a staple of the recent Y2K style revival, has been covered up and cinched into a corset — particularly in the case of Versace’s fall 2022 collection, where various iterations of the silhouette-shaping garment were built into luxe suit jackets and worn underneath sporty puffers and satin coats in electric pink and blue.

A fall runway look by Versace.Credit…Imaxtree
Another look from this season, by Interior.Credit…Courtesy of Interior

Much of this season’s fashion arrived with a sense of urgency — not to distract from our confusing economic moment but with what seemed like a determination to weather it. The tone has been neither submissive nor transgressive; it’s steadfast. We’ve seen it before: Following the feathers and colorful embellishments of the Roaring Twenties, wide-leg suits in sober tones became the uniform of the Great Depression. And even when things appeared to be humming along — when, for example, Americans settled into the “greed is good” mentality of the late ’80s — designers embraced muted colors, padded shoulders and other cues that suggested restraint and power. The message this time around, to paraphrase Kim Kardashian’s recent divisive comment about women in business, is similar and unequivocal: It’s time for people to get up and work.

At Alexander McQueen, the creative director Sarah Burton offered boardroom-ready ivory jackets and pleated pants for women that looked as if they’d been spray-painted yellow or red and black in the shape of a blurry body — perhaps someone rushing to the office. Equally head turning were Dolce & Gabbana’s double-breasted suits in bright pops of color with exaggerated, angular shoulders that called to mind Joan Collins’s costumes on “Dynasty” (1981-89). Gucci’s Alessandro Michele sent out suiting in a portfolio of prints and textures: cashmere, corduroy, plaid, purple, sequined, striped and studded. About his new tailored collection, the Vietnamese American designer Peter Do said, “I really like the suit. I like that it takes time to make, that you don’t need to buy many and that when you find a good one, it becomes your safe space.” Do’s versions, which he limited to four hues — black, white, camel and gray — included corkscrew color blocking for the expressive executive. But perhaps the most bullish suit came from Jack Miner and Lily Miesmer, the duo behind the young New York-based brand Interior — it had been covered with trompe l’oeil illustrations by the Brooklyn artist Richard Haines of darts, creases and a button that gave the illusion of holding the jacket together.

Mens’s wear from Prada’s fall collection.Credit…Imaxtree
An outfit by Alaïa.Credit…Imaxtree

Of course, there’s nothing new about men in business attire, even if it can feel that way in the Zoom era. Ralph Lauren, a metonym for American style, brought decorum back to domesticity by recreating the glamorous living room of his Fifth Avenue home at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for his fall 2022 show this past March — black-and-white photos of Central Park stood in for his actual views — in which he styled guys in perfect-cut suits and Gilded Age tailcoats. At Prada, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons added whimsy to modern workwear with mohair-trimmed overcoats, techy boiler suits and jackets with gargantuan Gordon Gekko shoulders so wide they seemed almost parodic, despite a statement from Prada herself about celebrating “the idea of working … a practical, everyday thing.” The California-born designer Rick Owens honored another way to keep the lights on: Models wore headpieces that doubled as lamps, many of them in looks that yielded to corporate culture while also skewering it. One oversize black hoodie read, “Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman Owenscorps.”

As Orwellian as that sounds, it’s hard to deny that making money gives life purpose, or at least structure — two things that have often felt in short supply these past few years. “You are not casual,” Prada said to the men she imagined in her clothes. It was the most seductive affirmation she could have uttered.

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