The Future of American Luxury Wrestles with Past at The Hollywood Bowl

Washington Post photo by Robin Givhan
Models walk the runway at the Fear of God show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on April 19, 2023.

LOS ANGELES – Fear of God is helping to change the nature of aspiration. Over the past 10 years, the fashion brand has grown from a collection of casual basics cut with an eye for both comfort and style into a broad statement about American luxury: how it’s defined and how its worn – and by whom. Founder Jerry Lorenzo has done this not shyly but discreetly. But on Wednesday evening, Fear of God took over the Hollywood Bowl, one of this city’s most prominent stages, for its first runway show, a spectacle of music and fireworks and history with thousands in attendance.

Lorenzo is part of a generation of aspiring entrepreneurs that includes Virgil Abloh and Kanye West, now known as Ye, who revel in music, style and the self as both inspiration and brand. He isn’t a classically trained designer. He collaborates. He drops. He ignores fashion’s seasonal schedule. He is a biracial, African American man, a former DJ with a business degree. A religious man and family man. A friend of celebrities. He has the sort of experience that has become, perhaps, even more valued by consumers than the ability to drape fabric on a dress form.

He chose the Hollywood Bowl, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, as the setting for his show because for him, it’s one of the few remaining iconic venues in the city. It’s only a few minutes from his home, and the breadth of performers he has seen there ranges from Christopher Cross to Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. The show’s location was grand, inclusive and personal, and so is Lorenzo’s vision of what Fear of God can be.

As the sun set, the clear night turned chilly, and guests filled the boxes and bleachers – industry folks for whom the show was a data point in the growth of a business and Fear of God die-hards for whom it was a testament to fashion’s shifting ground. They had gathered early with anticipation. Waiters offered glasses of champagne. Ye, wearing a mask, was among the last to claim a place – his recent antisemitic tirades trailing him like a dust cloud.

Fashion has always been a form of personal expression, a way of both publicly proclaiming your identity and privately luxuriating in it. People wear Fear of God’s minimalist and roomy wool overcoats to announce their allegiance to quiet luxury. An excessively priced, limited edition hoodie serves as proof that they’ve risen above the suit-and-tie grind and have a certain tribal knowledge.

But fashion’s capacity for fuller, more nuanced storytelling is most evident on a runway. Lorenzo used his first show to acknowledge that people are shaped by their history even when they successfully break free of it – no matter whether that history is something learned at a parent’s knee rather than experienced firsthand.

After a plaintive live performance at an upright piano by the British singer Sampha, the stage went dark, and a soundtrack echoed with tambourine and clapping hands pounding out a rhythm behind a series of monologues in the cadence of the Black church. The words were from the prayer meeting in the Civil War film “Glory” – when Black men prepared to go into battle to help save the very Union that oppressed them. Their speeches are about hope, something that has been tested and thwarted, and occasionally validated, over time: “If tomorrow is the great getting-up morning, if that tomorrow we have to meet the Judgment Day . . . we want you to let our folks know that we died facing the enemy. We want ’em to know that we went down standing up. We want ’em to know, Heavenly Father, that we died for freedom.”

And then, in the lingering darkness, a door at the top of the runway opened, and a light cracked through as if it was a gateway to generations of promise. The diverse cast of men and women walked the runway to the haunting lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” a song full of the searing imagery of lynchings, a song made famous by Billie Holiday, a song for which she was terrorized by the U.S. government because they didn’t want to face the truth in its lyrics.

The juxtaposition of lithe men and women in luxurious trappings strolling a catwalk to such a devastating song was jarring. They moved unhurried and with ease in roomy trousers in shades of midnight and cream, loose-fitting jackets in butterscotch and extravagant furry overcoats in marigold. The complexity was in the story of how those clothes came to be. The pain of the past was embedded in their beauty.

As Lorenzo noted backstage after the show, his goal for the evening was to tell the full story about how he arrived at this place of success and privilege. His father, a former baseball player and manager, would “tell me stories about his grandma picking cotton,” Lorenzo said. And now the designer has people sending him fabric swatches from Italian mills so he can choose the cotton – or wool or cashmere – for his collection.

The show underscored that journey. And it did so at a time when many in the culture would prefer to ignore the uncomfortable details of the past.

“With the music, I wanted to share a part of the Christian journey, the Black journey, and not the parts that people just like to pick and celebrate,” Lorenzo said. “It’s a beautiful journey, but it’s even more beautiful if you pay attention to every part of it and understand why it is what it is.”

For Lorenzo, the clothes are not the story. They are the result of it.