New York Fashion Week: Rihanna, diversity and drag queens

Programming note: For more on fashion and culture, watch the premiere of “American Style” on Sunday, January 13 at 9 p.m. ET.

New York CNN  — 

Once an insular industry trade event, New York Fashion Week has transformed into a high-priced, fast-paced, public-facing marketing opportunity. Shows are livestreamed, Instagrammed and live-tweeted, immediately transmitting what happens on the runway to the masses.

With social media helping to democratize the industry, conversations surrounding fashion week aren’t always centered on the clothing. Here are five of the wider conversations spurred by the Spring-Summer 2019 event.

Diversity on the runway

Models pose backstage at the Chromat Spring-Summer 2019 show.

The fashion industry is, like our culture at large, increasingly engaged in discussions around representation. More than ever, designers are being forced to consider who should be seen – or excluded – on the runway and why.

Chromat founder Becca McCharen-Tran has long championed broader inclusion by casting a diverse range of femme, female-identified and gender non-binary models on her runways, featuring people of all different shapes, sizes, ages and abilities. This season, her models wore swimwear and athletic apparel, inspired by the idea of wearing T-shirts at pool parties in an effort to hide one’s body.

Elsewhere, British artist Patrick Church confronted ageism with a series of printed bodysuits, crop tops and skin-tight wares that were modeled exclusively by older women. Tome’s models – wearing sustainable menswear-inspired pieces – also represented a variety of different age groups.

Meanwhile, Shanel Campbell, who has dressed the likes of Solange and Teyana Taylor, made her event debut with an all-black cast of models, and a predominantly black team working behind the scenes. And Marco Marco Underwear, which presented everything from evening gowns to sheer bodysuits, hired an all-trans lineup. The show reportedly made history by assembling the largest group of trans men ever used in a runway show at New York Fashion Week.

T-shirts as political billboards

Jeremy Scott walks his own runway in a shirt that says "Tell Your Senator No on Kavanaugh."

Fashion has always been political. But in recent years, designers have become less discreet with their words.

Jeremy Scott, for example, sent out a 62-look show (seemingly aimed at club kids) featuring words like “resist” and “riot” in a comic-book font. The designer then took his bow in a T-shirt urging attendees to contact their senators in protest against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court.

“Project Runway” alumnus Christian Siriano may best known for gowns and evening dresses, but he too found space in his lineup for a political T-shirt. It directed guests to “Vote For Cynthia,” referring to New York’s gubernatorial candidate, Cynthia Nixon, who was seated on the front row (and who was today defeated in the Democratic primary, despite Siriano’s best efforts).

Pyer Moss Spring-Summer 2019

Kerby Jean-Raymond, of the buzzy label Pyer Moss, used slogans like “See Us Now?” in his range – particularly potent, given that his brand is dedicated to celebrating and elevating the experiences of African Americans. One of his line’s most talked-about designs was a simple graphic tee printed with the words “Stop Calling 911 On The Culture,” a reference to recent high-profile incidents of unnecessary and racially motivated calls being made to US police. The $125 item went on to sell out within a day of release.

Pitch-perfect collaborations

With high fashion increasingly taking its cues from the streetwear market – which prizes partnerships and “drops” – it’s no surprise that there were a number of collaborations on show.

Luxury label The Blonds, known for its over-the-top looks, partnered with Disney on a collection inspired by the studio’s villains. Yes, Maleficent, Ursula and Cruella de Vil all got their runway moments on the backs of Paris Hilton, Leiomy Maldonado and Patrick Starr, among others.

Paris Hilton walks the runway at Disney Villains x The Blonds.

Streetwear label Kith welcomed brands like Ugg, New Balance and Levi’s to its roster of collaborators, in addition to producing collections for Tommy Hilfiger and Greg Lauren. In an unexpected twist, the label also unveiled a 24-look capsule collection with Versace, featuring fur jackets, sweatsuits, biker shorts and more.

The fashion show as ‘happening’

With the over-proliferation of fashion shows and the growing role of social media, brands are opting for increasingly dramatic fashion week productions. What may have once been a simple catwalk show is now a high-wattage fete, complete with dancers, drones and live musicians.

To that end, Telfar, winner of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2017, held its show on a helipad near the East River. Featuring the likes of Selah Marley and Moses Sumney, and presided over by singer Ian Isiah and South African duo Faka, the event saw audiences watched behind a chain-link fence while performers roamed freely around a drum set.

Ralph Lauren Spring-Summer 2019

New York label Opening Ceremony put on a performance – though one of a different kind altogether. Founders Humberto Leon and Carol Lim recruited drag queen Sasha Velour to curate a line-up of performers to showcase the brand’s new wares, including notable queens like Shea Coulee and Hungry, as well as non-drag talent like Christina Aguilera.

Ralph Lauren arguably went the biggest (it was the brand’s 50th anniversary, after all). He took the industry to Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace, where the likes of Hillary Clinton, Kanye West and Donna Karan listened to Oprah pay tribute to the designer. The fashion veteran also turned out a casting that spanned a range of ages and races, as well as a collection showing the company’s breadth, from Polo Sport and RRL to women’s evening wear.

Rihanna steals the spotlight

Rihanna closed out New York Fashion Week with a show for her lingerie and intimates line, Savage X Fenty. And while the event started late (the organizers were waiting for editors to arrive from the delayed Marc Jacobs show), it has attracted almost universal praise.

Savage X Fenty Autumn-Winter 2018

The show dovetailed many of the week’s trends: It was an elaborate production with dancers, runway choreography, an incredibly produced set and an expansive line-up of models representing a variety of colors and sizes – including two pregnant models.

If Rihanna’s celebrity glow wasn’t enough, she also cast Bella and Gigi Hadid. With the livestream repeating lines like “We know beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive,” and, “We know that we can be as competent in the boardroom as the bedroom,” the entire production was – as Rihanna herself called it when speaking with Vogue – “a celebration of womanhood.”