There's no question that Richard Chai is among the most innately talented of New York City's youngish designers: He is incredibly technically adept, his taste in materials is exquisite, and he brings to bear an intriguing, sexy set of references. So what's the rub? This season's Richard Chai Love collection was so mostly on-target, you could isolate the element that didn't work in his favor when it came to his womenswear. In essence, Chai was afraid of "pretty." Now, the tendency for commercial fashion to shy away from ugly is both unmodern and uncompelling, and so Chai's instinct to go in a counter direction was not, in and of itself, wrong. But the way he consistently introduced bracing elements cuts against his natural sympathy for the feminine. Chai is a designer who works with, not against, the shape of a woman's body. He's a designer who loves a floral. He mixes masculine and sporty elements into that very organically. It's the brash and acidic notes that don't typically succeed.
Again, this collection was so strong, it made the flubs stand out more clearly. As Chai explained at an appointment today, his main goal this time out was to find a way to keep the sense of texture in his Fall 2014 collection while stripping away the weight. He was also playing with the tension between restriction and volume, and with graphic expression using organic shapes. The collection felt exploratory, in those ways—it wouldn't be surprising to see these themes re-emerge for Spring. The texture was demonstrated both in materials like the chevron jacquard—particularly effective in a high-neck trench—and in those, like a spongy lilac technical, that had an almost clinical lack of texture. Chai's other great trench was cut from that fabric, and was drapey and oversized. Elsewhere, Chai scored with his trumpet miniskirts, shaped by godet pleats, and the standout jersey minidress in blue tones, which showed off the designer's affinity for the architectural and geometric without sacrificing his feel for the female shape. A more tailored version of the looks, a dress in burgundy curvilinear stripe, managed the same trick. On the other hand, the pretty leaf floral print didn't benefit from the introduction of a broad stripe, and Chai's short A-line skirts were almost blade-like in their sharpness. With those pieces, you felt like Chai was checking himself, trying to edge up the collection. It wasn't necessary. There was sufficient weirdness in that lilac technical material, or in the oddball color palette of the jacquard, and a teal cotton-nylon floral, to keep these clothes from falling into the trap of predictable prettiness. Chai should cut himself some slack. He knows what he's doing.