The ship has been asea already for some time. It has pointed its sharp-nosed prow toward Eighth Avenue since 2011, when it floated in from the nearby Hudson or, for all I know, down from space. It’s an odd-looking edifice — bulging on one side, flat the other, but graceful, somehow graceful. It’s Marni, adjacent to the meatpacking district but not quite of it. The telegraph click of needle heels doesn’t resound. Your brunch cocktails have no power here.
Marni is not new. The label was founded in 1994, and its founder and original creative director, Consuelo Castiglioni, raised it up from a counterpart of the family-run fur business into something richer and stranger: an oasis of the odd in the world of high-end fashion, offering uniforms for the working woman unafraid of color or shape.
But in recent years, fade and fatigue had set in. In 2016, the company was acquired by OTB and Ms. Castiglioni stepped down. In her place came Francesco Risso, a cherub-curled Italian given to nonsense pronouncements. (About his own men’s wear, and its disregard for tired conventions like fit: “His game of sizing is absent-minded!”)
A year and a half into his tenure, his sprightly take on Marni has made its way off the runways of Milan and into the stores. While the essential elements of Marni remain the same — color and print being two — it is now a reflection of its head and his childlike sense of wonder and play.
That makes Marni especially welcome at the present, when the reigning stance of luxury fashion is aggression, reared up on its hind legs: a mash-up of street wear — in the Virgil Abloh/Supreme sense — and finery, logo-spattered, grimly protective. You used to be able to play around with clothes — not least at Prada, where Mr. Risso spent years. But even Prada, where Miuccia Prada extolled bad taste as well as good and dabbled in fabrics she hated as well as ones she loved, seems stuck in a rut. Compared with dour neutrals and ironic casual wear, Marni is an antidepressant, the Prozac to the prosaic. Here, you still can believe that fashion might be fun.
The first day I went, a friend in tow, the ship was manned by two clerks in matching orange sweaters, wrinkled shirts and green pants with their hems undone. Tweedledee and Tweedledum, as I have come to think of them, were kind, laid-back tour guides to the woozy weirdness of the Marni world. (They had dressed identically, they confessed, not entirely on purpose, but not entirely by accident, either — the kind of admission well suited to Wonderland.)
Dee fetched us rumpled shirts like his own (the wrinkles are built in!); Dum chatted in Italian to a browsing tourist. We navigated through a floating maze of mannequins hanging from the ceiling, admired a sky-blue jacket hanging inside out, peered through the Swiss cheese holes of a metal partition. Maybe it was just the cartoon patches by the artist Magdalena Frimkess Suarez ($45 each, pin ’em on whatever!) of frazzled cats and screaming gents that hung on mannequins right about eye level, but I thought the shop seemed stranger than on previous visits.
“It’s a little different, but it’s still Marni,” Dee said cautiously. Then he left our clothes in a free-standing metal shack in the middle of the shop for us to try them on.
While Jon pondered a pair of carrot-shaped khaki trousers with (surprise!) an elastic waist ($530), I imitated my hosts and put on Mr. Risso’s hem-dragging pants ($600) and wrinkled shirt ($570). So much of fashion is about a thirsty quest to look cool. Instead I looked, I realized with a surprising pleasure, like a substitute math teacher at a local high school, or Marc Jacobs in his nebbishy, pre-gym days. An underappreciated style icon: the nerd.
In women’s wear, nerdery is less appreciated and, accordingly, less in evidence. On a subsequent visit, I brought my sister and her friend, who gravitated to dressier fare. A painterly printed cotton dress with cinched waist ($2,600). The foamy pink sneakers nearby: too nerd. The soft leather handbags with colorful ring closures: a hit, they decided. (At $2,200 and up, a very palpable hit.) A pair of giant pink plastic sunglasses ($595) got high marks; their frames looked like broken crockery.
I wondered whether I could bear dressing all Marni, all the time. The opening of a dressing room door sent the nearby line-hung mannequins spinning and I thought, “You know, I know the feeling.” But it’s a jolly dizziness Marni is trading in at the moment, and a fun one.
As I considered myself in my rumpled shirt and dorky sweater vest (trailing loose threads, $670), a fellow customer stopped to take me in. She was a lawyer, black clad, a serious working woman but maybe in need of a little lift. I knew the feeling. And, in the instantly chummy way of fellow travelers on a strange ship, she approved.
“Stay cute!” she said on her way out. Counselor, I’ll try!