Diversity: A Movement, Not a Moment

Slow and steady in its progress, the scrappy indie incubator known as NYMD (for New York Men’s Day) finally managed to slip into the big top this week with a full morning of digital shows run under the banner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Although in its early days NYMD got little mainstream love, it quickly established itself as a showcase for fledgling labels, a forum for politics and a place to make discoveries. And it remains one.

Take the case of Tristan Detwiler, a 23-year-old surfer and sometime model who made a fashion week debut with his label Stan, a startlingly polished collection of outerwear themed around patchwork quilting.

By now you’d imagine this form of home-stitched Americana had been fully exploited by designers like Raf Simons (at Calvin Klein) and Emily Bode. But then along comes Mr. Detwiler to riff on Irish chain, bow tie, meridian and other traditional quilting motifs (using some actual very old blankets) with clothes he still sews himself, including a two-tone quilted hoodie that, in the good old days of runway fashion shows, would have had buyers stampeding backstage.

Without question the deadening flatness of fashion seen online can feel like a bummer when you compare it with the experience of the shows in their hectic, wackadoodle glory. Yet there is something to be said for the digital alternatives that emerged in response to the pandemic.

Now everyone can participate in a designer’s process and can acquire direct from a talent like Aaron Potts an understanding of how his gender-neutral Apotts collection originated not with a traipse through the wilds of Pinterest but out of a fascination with syncretic culture and the topsy-turvy doll.

Most likely these curious artifacts — two-headed and two-bodied, one half white, the other Black, the parts joined where the hips and legs would ordinarily be — originated in the antebellum South. Eventually they became popular enough to be manufactured commercially and distributed nationwide.

“You had this symbolism of one side with the pretty white doll dressed in calico, and when you turned it upside down, the Black doll in tatters,” Mr. Potts said. “That fascinated me.”

Subtle references to duality and racial dynamics were threaded through a largely monochrome collection of voluminous shapes; of ruffled floor-length skirts for people of either (or any) gender; of beautiful bell-sleeve khaki overshirts; of supersize denim coveralls with deep cuffs turned up and the hems left frayed; of a cloaklike leopard-print poncho worn atop a matching suit that looked as though designed for the Nigerian superstar Femi Kuti.

It was less our oppositions that Mr. Potts, who is Black, found compelling than our likenesses. “Whatever our race, size, gender, class, age, in the end we are all intimately connected,” he said. Like the topsy-turvy doll, we are conjoined.

Mr. Potts was far from the only designer questioning the social costs of implicit bias. Carter Altman, the 22-year-old Carter Young designer, took the heroic masculinity of white style “icons” like Steve McQueen and Peter Fonda and transposed it in his presentation onto models of color (and either gender).

In the process he made a credible statement of his evolving design chops (think “Easy Rider” meets normcore) while quietly underscoring the unconscious ways race is coded into even our clothing.

The Timo Weiland designers — Timo Weiland, Alan Eckstein and Donna Kang — achieved similar goals with a tightly edited selection of what, in one sense, seemed like men’s wear staples (a relaxed double-breasted blazer, a shorts suit, a sleeveless sweater worn shirtless) but rendered in the Necco wafer palette (tobacco brown, pink, mint green, pink) that is Mr. Eckstein’s specialty and modeled by the furniture designer Khiry Sullivan.

That Mr. Sullivan is Black is worth noting in context. While fashion, an industry in its haste to undo decades of bias, occasionally gives the impression that racial inclusivity is less a movement than a “moment,” the Timo Weiland designers have drawn on a diverse friend cohort since founding the label a decade ago.

“We’ve always wanted our collections to reflect the world we live in,” Mr. Weiland said, “not some imaginary place dreamed up by a quote fashion designer.”

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