Monarch butterflies, over the course of a 2,500-mile migration, rely on thermal cues and shifting air currents to reach their destination. A human en route to a fashion show in an unfamiliar corner of Brooklyn calls upon a similar set of tools: Google Maps and a squinting Uber driver and—if a fellow passenger is particularly prepared—a photo printout of the venue’s entrance, hidden behind a thicket of multi-lane roads and overpasses. It’s half-past four on Friday afternoon, the first day of New York Fashion Week, and Collina Strada has summoned its effervescent crowd to the Naval Cemetery Landscape, off Flushing Avenue. Metaphors abound. The site, formerly a graveyard adjacent to a 19th-century naval hospital, is now a pollinators’ hangout. A wide, wood-planked path wends through pleasingly unruly foliage. Milkweed is the main attraction. The plant, known for its fuzzy, oblong pods, is the only thing monarch caterpillars will eat: the buttered noodle of the butterfly kids’ menu.
Behind a white curtain, a different garden of kaleidoscopic flora and fauna is unfolding, at a gentler pace than the usual backstage grind. A head of broccoli, transformed into a tiny handbag with a metal chain and rhinestone fringe, passes by on a model’s wrist. Powwie, the gray Pomeranian belonging to Collina Strada creative director Hillary Taymour, relaxes on a friend’s lap. Hari Nef, in an eco-certified acetate slip dress that reads “Got Milkweed?” (the collection’s title), likens the runway to the Fire Island boardwalk: “I’m half-expecting a family of deer to come, but, no, just butterflies.” An ambient composition by Oyinda—a longtime friend and collaborator, also walking in today’s show—casts a balm-like spell, effectively muting the neighboring car rumbles. “Right now, with this music playing, I feel so relaxed,” says hairstylist Evanie Fausto, responsible for the fantastical, pastel-tinted braids soon to trail down the runway. “I kind of feel like a cloud fairy from the sky,” Aaron Rose Philip says in a chrysanthemum bra top and skirt, “and also a mermaid at the same time.”
That incongruous feeling of serenity, even as the fashion-week machinery cranks into gear, drives home the feeling that we’ve collectively arrived at a threshold: of time and place and existential catastrophe. This pocket of wilderness is one such liminal space, a quaintly scaled refuge pushing back against man-made sprawl. It’s a fitting site for a designer bringing a trippy sense of whimsy to the conversation around sustainability. This season’s knitwear, in collaboration with Vitelli, repurposes cotton-acrylic scraps. There are 3D-printed jeans with Unspun Denim, billed as zero-waste for their one-of-a-kind fit, and Viron boots crafted from upcycled rubber and apple leather. The idea of fruit with wearable potential resurfaces elsewhere in the collection. A photographic assemblage—banana, pear, orange, and apple, each carved by artist Justin Hager and arranged into a smiley face—decorates a fringed T-shirt; orange-fiber organza brings a diaphanous quality to the structured gowns. “The looks take us from funky caterpillar era to full butterfly glow-up,” the show notes explain, acknowledging the “reality that we are all in that mysterious gooey in-between place in our journey to do better by Mommy Earth.”
Collina Strada, which Taymour launched in 2009, reached a new level of visibility a decade later, when the emerging label was named a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. For last September’s Met Gala, Taymour dressed musician Kim Petras in a panniered gown, pairing the brand’s Sistine Tomato print (a mashup of roses, putti, and late-summer fruit) with a 3D horse-head bustier—an instant entry in the out-there canon. (Gucci sponsored Collina Strada’s attendance; a couple weeks later, the Italian powerhouse welcomed the brand into its online concept shop, Gucci Vault.) Taymour’s work returned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring, this time on display in the Costume Institute exhibition, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” The Cardio bodysuit, from the fall 2019 collection, showed off her commitment to deadstock materials—here, lace printed with a sunshine-yellow daisy motif. Not exactly activewear, it’s for the person who cares deeply about the planet while managing to float above, or frolic around, the downbeat news.
Such buoyancy is the mood backstage, where the tiniest model, Madeleine Mun, wearing a slip dress, fingerless opera gloves, and jelly sandals, is engaged in a guessing game about favorite Disney princesses. Ella Emhoff has already made fast friends. “She really loved my little piñata horse,” Emhoff says, holding up her runway handbag. “And I am weirdly good with kids, despite my thoughts on having them.” Photographer Bella Newman, wearing squishy lavender sandals made from sugarcane bioplastic (a collaboration with Melissa Shoes) and a citrus-hued slip dress, is leaning into the Collina Strada fantasy: “Even the fabrics, they just incite joy and this childlike comfort.” Over by the clothing racks, I spy Rustee Engman, the resident matriarch of the cast. “We are a family—I can’t cry because I’m already, like, all in my stuff,” she says, gesturing to her makeup. Her son, Charlie, is the art director for the runway show and a longtime brand collaborator, as seen in his photographs, hand-drawn prints, and last season’s The Collinas, a fashion video disguised as a reality TV spoof. In turn, Rustee has been a familiar face in the Collina Strada lineup, not to mention a transfixing presence in Charlie’s portraiture. “To end up here, walking for this work, really just means so much to me,” Rustee says, her short hair caked with slime-green clay. “The world is shit, but we are the shit. We are making it happen.”