Cynthia Rowley’s Surprising Modernist Shift

Cynthia Rowley thinks modern life is rubbish, but her Spring 2009 collection coruscates with a winning new simplicity and Jetson-lite charm.

Last night’s Project Runway challenge entailed the six remaining designers attempting to upgrade the professional wardrobes of recent 20-something female college graduates. As televised dreams of Bryant Park loom tantalizingly close, a half dozen tenuous egos neared their breaking points, resulting in an especially bitchy variety of designer-on-designer crime and commentary. It marked one of the very few entertaining episodes of the show’s drab fifth season. In our opinion, the increased watchability was also due in no small part from unlikely guest judge’s Cynthia Rowley‘s serene but decisive injections of acerbic wit.

Clipped candor wasn’t what quite we expected from Rowley. After all, this is a woman whose career, let’s be honest, has been built upon servicing young women with the witless, pretension-free, makeweight pretty dresses that define the Contemporary Market. But then, as we personally witnessed one week ago, at a gnawingly claustrophobic second-floor loft in Hellsea, Rowley’s got some new and unexpected tricks up her sleeve. Turns out she’s a lot more cynical than we thought. And her clothing, as a result, benefits from her dry humor and new, modernist intent.

Replete with a ticking timepiece backdrop (because “it’s just a countdown until the next show”, she drily noted), the Cynthia Rowley Spring 2009 line (fittingly titled “Collection One”) was presented upon a spare, white, and no-frills runway.Tapping into the nascent “scuba-chic” trend (sleek athleticism dominated the New York catwalks), Rowley turned out a series of skin-hugging sheaths in neoprene, nylon, and other highly functional fabrics. Artful austerity inspired unique focal points: the “spine” print on the back of one notable black shift (named the “Perfect Posture” dress) got people talking, as did the “gravity defying” black strapped dress, whose straps indeed did float awkwardly away from the body like deformed winglets.

More successful deviations were the geometrically shaped beaded appliques sewn onto skimpy silk overlays and the paper-thin tank tops that created a literal layer of interest beneath squarish, scooped necklines (did we mention that graceful tank top and bike short layering techniques are definitely back?). Rowley also played with the positive and negative space of her simplistic column-like sheaths, subtracting from their forms unconventional cut-outs and inserting innovative peek-a-boo elements like sheer sleeves and midriffs. Sporadic colorblocking provided outlined contrast to specific structural shapes or to the entire silhouette. It also allowed for some tonal variety in the mainly black & white color scheme, while underscoring the defter aspects of the collection’s graphic qualities.

Aside from two skirts that strongly referenced Miu Miu’s Fall 2008 décollage extravaganza, Rowley’s vision was mainly fresh and her own. Ladylike but determinedly modern, her Collection One was a welcome relief from the hefty dose of drapery and flounce we encountered at most of New York’s shows. Even though she pulled a Margiela on us and offered no final bow (we suspect all the distancing mechanisms observed were coy and deliberate), we can’t help but count down the micro-seasons until Collection Two arrives.