Some people are spurred on by success; some are stymied by it. Last season, Richard Chai took home the CFDA's Swarovski Award for up-and-coming menswear designer of the year. This season, he delivered his finest work to date. Now we know which category he falls under.

"I wanted to go into Spring and have it feel a bit more eclectic," he said in his studio the day before the show. "There's all these different aspects of the collection, things that I'm always inspired by, all colliding together." He mentioned the Venice, California, surfing scene of yesteryear and young backpackers. Add to that military and nineties grunge. What pulled it all together was a deft use of color, in what Chai noted was his most colorful lineup to date. The outfits he showed were largely tonal—nuanced assemblages of bottle green, slate blue, and dove gray. Anchoring looks in families of related shades gave Chai (and his stylist, Robbie Spencer) the freedom to indulge in wild textures and layers.

Layering is signature Chai. Here, combinations were stratified almost geologically. It's a style the old grunge kids perfected—and they, like Chai, also loved a good fisherman's sweater. But they never had his attention to detail. You could see it in the painstakingly selected mineral washes on his new Original Penguin polos, or the enzyme treatments that gave his baggy trousers their lounge-y droop. Better living through chemistry, as they say. Or in this case, alchemy.