The Fraying of the American Wardrobe

It is not exactly a secret that the American dream is fraying. The cowboys are not necessarily the good guys; the founding fathers had their Achilles’ heel; the melting pot mythology is starting to come apart at the seams.

That can give someone nightmares, or it can give them ideas — about where we are and what comes next. When it comes to fashion, which has often trafficked in either escapism or the tropes of the national origin story (pioneer dressing! denim! the wild, wild West), it seems as if it is starting to give designers material. And to make their material more relevant.

Whether they are part of the establishment or the insurgency.

At Coach, for example, where Stuart Vevers has made a signature out of PG-rated wardrobes for a wannabe Kerouac road tripper (with the occasional guest appearance by Disney), the designer roughed up his usual souvenir basics with more interesting results.

Striped Cat in the Hat long knit dresses with bubble-gum iconography — the Big Apple, Superman, Mickey Mouse — were made from recycled and upcycled yarn complete with runs and pulls, as if they had been snagged over time. Jeans were shredded and faded, worn with big 1970s shearling coats and jackets — Mr. Vevers is a dab hand with outerwear — in cracked leather that seemed as if it had been baked in the Dust Bowl sun. A skinny low-waist pencil skirt and matching cropped jean jacket were patched together from scraps of leftover hide, salvaged from the cutting room floor.

The clothes looked as if they had been put through the wringer and emerged, victorious, on the other side — scarred, sure, but tough enough. Ready to keep going.

If Mr. Vevers is consciously smudging the postcard version of Americana, though, Elena Velez is blowing a hole right through it.

Ms. Velez, recently crowned emerging designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, works between Wisconsin, where her mother is a ship captain on the Great Lakes, and Manhattan; between the steelworkers in the shipyards and the garment workers on Seventh Avenue. She’s unconcerned with the pretty and the palatable, offering instead a primal scream of a collection about the caricatures of the Midwest, trucker culture and what exactly glamour means.

Her clothes are ripped, raw, bound and salvaged; her hero fabrics are canvas, cotton and metal — the “radically plain,” as she said backstage. And the bodies on her runway are human-scale messy. A strapless sheath dress ruched down the front had what looked like hammered metal hub caps over the breasts. A corset top seemed to have been plastered into submission. An evening gown came with a skirt made from swags and billows of fisherman knit.

One of the models stomped down the runway brandishing Ms. Velez’s C.F.D.A. statuette like a weapon, “as though she had just bludgeoned her husband with it,” Ms. Velez said. She was joking. Sort of. She refuses to sugarcoat the narrative.

The result is weird, often discomfiting, sometimes too much. But also original, technically proficient (buried in the mayhem was a simple linen shirtdress, the sides just enough out of alignment to suggest complications) and always thought-provoking. Learn her name now. On one level, she’s telling the story of us.

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