On Saturday night in Manhattan, Ralph Lauren took over the Bank of New York building, a 1920s edifice on Wall Street just across from Cipriani and cater-corner to the stock exchange, transformed in 2015 from financial headquarters to cavernous event space. And inside he built a nightclub.
There were soaring Art Deco columns framing enormous arched mirrors; little round tables covered in crisp white tablecloths beneath rotund black-and-white chandeliers. There were special Ralph’s matchbooks and special Ralph’s cocktails.
There was a stage, with a 16-piece jazz band. There were potato chips and corned beef sandwiches. There was nostalgia bathed in the refracted light of a zillion beaded flapper dresses.
Oh — and there were clothes. Tuxes! Lots and lots of them. Classic monochrome tuxes and tuxes in primary colors; halter tux jumpsuits and sheer tux shirting and sequined tux T-shirt dresses (one with a teddy bear insignia). Amid it all were a few body-skimming sequin numbers made for crooning atop a piano.
They were the least of it, though, because as soon as the last strapless black column appeared, so did Janelle Monáe (in her own backless halter tux top, complete with a little black bow tie, detached cuffs on her wrists and a billowing sheer plaid skirt), belting “Fly Me to the Moon,” kicking off her shoes, climbing on tables and smashing champagne glasses. Boom!
Amid all that, who could focus on the fashion?
It was fine, in any case — the sort of classic formal wear Mr. Lauren could probably do in his sleep. It was hard not to wonder why he even bothered, given that Ms. Monáe was really all the model he needed; given that the point was other, and the point was apropos. We all need a bit of escapism these days, a moment away from the relentless mess of trade wars, Brexit, missile testing and the redefinition of truth.
The question is where you find it. Do you retreat to the fantasy of some defanged sepia past, or do you try to conjure up an unknowable next? Mr. Lauren opted for the bygone (he has built a career on it), and he wasn’t the only one. Sometimes the opening days of New York Fashion Week felt like an exercise in sliding down brightly festooned wormholes.
At Helmut Lang, Mark Thomas and Thomas Cawson went faithfully back to founder-era silhouettes and styles: skinny pants unzipped at the ankle; layers of sheer and straps; utilitarian slickness. Tory Burch tunneled even later, channeling Princess Diana, which got Ms. Burch thinking about rose gardens and the 1980s, which led her to fragile garden-party frocks with handkerchief hemlines; shirred go-go party dresses speckled in posies; blowzy harem pants and voluminous sleeves.
And Brandon Maxwell went all Shelley Hack-Charlie Girl, with long swinging blazers atop slick denim, slithery silk columns under slithery silk trenches, and piles of costume jewelry. Gobstopper-colored stones glittered from every finger, were linked in a belt, dangled from ears; glittering ropes of silver chains swung with the stride. Which nevertheless seemed less liberated than encased in perfectly polished amber.
Mr. Maxwell’s one nod to looking forward: a new men’s wear line, in the same colors, fabrics and loose silhouettes as his women’s styles.
But there are two sides to every era (or 10), and Jeremy Scott offered up another in a David Lee Roth-meets-Betsey Johnson carnival of neon zebra stripes, psychedelic palm trees, fishnet, prom dress poufs and sci-fi silver (and one panty dress, which is exactly how it sounds: a dress collaged from cartoon silk lingerie). Because, as Mr. Scott said backstage before his show, “It’s fun!”
Fun! Well, yeah. It’s been athleisure and street wear for a while now.
And it made the grounded cool of Marcus Wainwright at Rag & Bone — his brand of “just clothes” (cropped collegiate sweaters, little leather minis, slouchy olive green suiting) — seem neither here nor there. Despite the fact it was dressed up in a dance performance recorded by a robot and replayed on video to live tunes provided by a pair of guest drummers and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
While there are all sorts of reasons to pay attention to history at this particular moment — we seem increasingly at risk of repeating our worst mistakes — it is also increasingly apparent that old solutions no longer work. To offer them up as cheerful costumes can spur a smile (almost everything is rosier in retrospect), but it’s ephemeral.
Mr. Lauren’s nightclub, after all, so gorgeous on the surface, was really just a thin veneer inside an empty building.
Which is where Tomo Koizumi comes in. A Japanese designer discovered last season by the stylist Katie Grand and Marc Jacobs, Mr. Koizumi became almost immediately famous in fashionland for embracing the outré: mountains of tulle, ruffles and candy-colored cornucopias that had little recognizable relationship to clothes, other than the fact they were put on the body.
This season he raised the ante with a performance piece in the basement of Mr. Jacobs’s Madison Avenue store, where the trans model Ariel Nicholson, in a shiny black bodysuit and towering cone of hair, was dressed and undressed by two similarly prancing black-clad assistants in seven equally extreme Marie Antoinette-on-Mars, steroid-fueled confections.
Once in a garment (it could take a while), Ms. Nicholson would emote, silent-screen-like, at the audience and her mirrored self for a while.
The whole thing was less about dress than the emotions evoked. The whatever-they-weres — pantaloons plus coronation robes plus purple people eater onesies — had a little chat with the past, but they were not mired in it. Rather, they exploded with the glee of the indefinable, the over-the-top.
And didn’t leave any room to worry about reality.