Pharrell’s “Happy” could be the theme song of the spring 2020 season here in New York. Designers are responding to turmoil with bold statements of optimism. And they’re doing so collaboratively and theatrically, with music and dance performances in inventive venues that invite audiences to, as Pharrell did in his hit song, “clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.” Fun and games are fine, up to a point. But sometimes we need to move beyond our individual feelings and act, whether alone or as part of a community. Today, fashion must not only look good, it should do good—or, at the very least, not do harm.
Actor Rosario Dawson and fashion executive/Bottega Veneta alum Abrima Erwiah have been engaged with enacting change using fashion as their vehicle since founding Studio 189 in 2013. Their aim is to make great clothes and at the same time support women’s empowerment, preserve traditional crafts, and champion sustainability. The two are recent recipients of the CFDA Lexus Award for their work in that area.
Circularity is important to Studio 189’s day-to-day operations; this season it was built into their show concept as well, which was Heritage. “We really wanted to go back and see where we all come from and highlight that we all have a shared history,” said Erwiah. “And then figure out how we can work together to think about the future.” The live musical performances and dance sequences were about looking back to move forward. The opening, said Erwiah, “was kind of like calling on our ancestors and giving thank you.” Many of the looks that followed were shown on pairs of models, which was another way to highlight the importance of connectedness. Dawson was feeling it; at one point she was standing in the aisle dancing and singing along. When was the last time you saw a designer do something like that at their own show? It was a joy to see.
The clothes were similarly upbeat. There were many mixed prints, an explosion of glorious color, indigo dyes, embroideries, and patchwork. Ease is a keyword of Spring 2020, and Studio 189 achieved it in the liquid flow of wide-legged and high-waisted pants for men and women. It was also built into romantic ruffled dresses that were a welcome evolution from that Holly Hobbie look. These were maxi-length, with lovely sleeve details and full skirts that moved beautifully. It was easy to imagine how soft they would feel moving against one’s skin, whatever color that might be.
Studio 189’s work is informed by African and African-American experiences, but Dawson and Erwiah’s inclusiveness was shown by their diverse casting and their thinking. “As much as it might seem new to some people, I think what’s so important, and why we wanted to call this show Heritage, is that it’s a reflection and a recognition that so many things—from style influence to actual raw materials—have come from Africa,” said Dawson. “This was a celebration, a recognition of how interconnected we’ve always been. And it’s about time that we recognize that, so it doesn’t seem profound, and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, to see all of these different people coming together in celebration of our shared heritage. It is very normal.”
Like other designers this season, Dawson and Erwiah were also thinking about identity. A woven fabric in red, white, and blue stripes, said the latter, was a way to ponder the question, “What is American?” A triangular batik print referenced a motif associated with freedom quilts. At the same time that they wanted to bring symbolism to life, said Erwiah, she and Dawson also “just wanted to have a beautiful fashion show.” Studio 189 achieved both goals with clothes that please the eye and have, if you care to find it, a message of unity.