Carolina Herrera and Diane von Furstenberg Face Their Legacies at a Moment When Women Need Them Most

Eric Wilson

“With all that is going on with women in the world today, no brand is more relevant than this one,” Diane von Furstenberg said at a presentation of her house’s fall collection on Sunday, as she was curled up in an egg-shaped chair. She has good reason to boast.

As one of the most powerful women in the industry, von Furstenberg has made a message of empowerment practically synonymous with her brand since her very first design – the wrap dress, which she introduced in 1974 with an indelible blend of practicality and sensuality.

Many designers at New York Fashion Week are making pointed references to current events and the momentum of the Time’s Up movement by addressing the modern woman, but you would be hard-pressed to name a garment that has held up as a symbol of liberation as powerfully as a wrap dress. To drive that message home, in von Furstenberg’s showroom, there were updated wraps shown in convertible, floor-grazing designs that could go from day to evening just by removing one layer to reveal a slip dress beneath.

Unfortunately, for the sake of optics at least, von Furstenberg’s collections over the last decade have been designed by a series of men – Nathan Jenden, Michael Herz, and Jonathan Saunders have all held leadership roles at the house since Catherine Malandrino left ages ago.

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Now Jenden is back as creative director. Having rejoined the house after a seven-year absence, he was assigned to complete the fall collection in less than a month. His mission is to put the DNA back into the DVF, and to his credit, he immediately looked to von Furstenberg’s granddaughter Talita, who is featured in promotional images for the collection, for inspiration. Since von Furstenberg stepped back from day-to-day design to focus on her philanthropy and leadership role in the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she’s been searching for an ideal successor, and – who knows? – maybe she’s been there in the family all along.

A clean succession has also proven to be a challenge for Carolina Herrera, another woman who conquered the Seventh Avenue garmentos to command respect in an industry still dominated by men. Herrera, a terrific fighter, recently announced she’s passing the torch to Wes Gordon, who officially becomes creative director this week, while she will take the title of global brand ambassador. Gordon’s a great guy, an excellent designer, kind and respectful to everyone, even his dog is handsome – gosh, everything Herrera might want in an heir, except, I don't know, maybe a woman?

Perhaps that’s a question for another day.

Monday was Mrs. Herrera’s moment to shine, and it was touching to see in the audience at the Museum of Modern Art so many editors and photographers who have known her over the years. Andre Leon Talley’s silhouette stood out at the far end of the runway, and the Studio 54 photographer Rose Hartman, as relentless as ever at age 80, was pushing her way shamelessly between the aisles for a better position. And the collection was absolutely beautiful, elegant, modern, chic, chic, chic, no?

From the opening looks of black and white minimalist separates cut with an ecclesiastical sense of propriety in silk gazar to the alluring red dresses decorated with tigers that pranced like Scalamandre wallpaper figures to the bright chiffon and novelty feathered fluff to even the models’ hairstyles, center-parted and tucked up into a coiled chignon, this was the very element of fashion that Mrs. Herrera has made her own. The show ended with a parade of models, each wearing a crisp white blouse – her signature – with a full brightly colored taffeta ball skirt, and, well deserved, a standing ovation.

That women are underrepresented in the top echelons of fashion is a persistent problem, and likely to be more pronounced in the near term since Phoebe Philo left Céline (to be replaced by another dude, Hedi Slimane). It will be interesting to see who rises to the top in her absence, particularly for a younger generation of women who view the power of designers and their dictates with more skepticism.

For many people who love fashion, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen represent the future. Their clothes for The Row are sophisticated (increasingly so), exceptionally constructed, just jaw-dropping to watch in motion, and destitute-making to pay for. As if they could aspire to be more exclusive, the Olsens on Monday presented their collection in a garden of Noguchi sculptures, and if you have to Google what that means, then The Row is not for you.

Their devotion to monochromatic dressing extends from the beige to the rose-beige to the all-black or the all-white ensembles. And for their latest work, they pushed further into couture-level eveningwear than I have seen from them yet, best rendered in a body-skimming black knit top worn with a full black ball skirt.