Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Look And Lose Yourself

Spring/Summer 2015
[images via Style.com]

There appear to be two major movements at play in the world of fashion today. On the one hand we have the (supposedly ironic) resurgence of logomania derived from both the recurring fashionability of streetwear culture and the Tumblr-generation's kitsch pastiche. Juxtaposed to this we find many brands enjoying popularity for increasingly pared-back designs, from the luxury of Céline to mass-market COS, and the increasingly neutered designs of companies such as Apple. The more complicated technology gets, the more unassuming and sanitized its design becomes. People want a sleek and simple package that is perceived to speak of luxury. We are surrounded by disposable symbols that are somehow meant to tell the world of who we are, and are sold under the paradoxical guise of accessible and everyday luxury. 

It would seem that many people do not care about the objects themselves, they do care about the garments themselves, they only care about the status it is perceived to confer. Whilst this has arguably always been the case, we do now live in an age where everything about our lives is on display – through Facebook, through Instagram, through Twitter, etc. The pressure to create an image of good taste is higher than ever. We live in a world of either ‘Likes’ or indifference, where there is a constant stream of viral images/ideas/trends - here today, forgotten tomorrow (if not by this evening). Pair this with economic and political instability and it is hardly surprising that we find a deep-set anxiety in society today that gives rise to nostalgia. We have Great British Bake Off, we have Great British Sewing Bee, we have Mad Men, we have Boardwalk Empire, we have contemporary technology sold in retro packing. We hurtle into the future whilst looking back to romantic visions of the past.  

Fashion has always played into this anxiety. After all, at its heart fashion seeks to negate (or at least neutralize) the spectre of death (Leopardi even equated Fashion and Death). Fashion is the art of the perfect moment, but at the same time it is never truly new nor ever entirely old. Rather it is a combination of elements from throughout history reconfigured to present an idea that will hopefully seem new for the now. There must be a violent rupture from the immediate past, but that does not close off references from any period previous to the immediate past. Fashion recognizes our own historicity in the exact same breath that it seeks to break free from it. Of course this is easier said than done, hence we see the lazy exhumation of the past by designers such as Hedi Slimane, which flies off the rails simply because of the Saint Laurent label attached to it. 

Although I started by talking of two major currents in fashion today, the truth is that there are no dominant styles or trends like there used to be. There is no Molyneux, there is no Chanel, there is no Patou, there is no Yves Saint Laurent. Instead we have multiple fashions that are all seen as valid. Yet once everything becomes valid, it is then incredibly difficult to find something worthwhile without a detailed knowledge. Just consider the art world today - you are unable to simply look at something and say “Wow, that’s skilful”, like you could with a painting a few hundred years ago. After all, you put a general member of the public in front of a Rothko or later Picasso and they say “My kid could paint that”. Put them in front of a Martin Creed work and you do not even get that! The parallel with fashion is uncanny, except for the fact that with fashion the majority would not even be able to recognize technical skill as they would with a painting by a Renaissance master. We are so used to poorly made clothes that the very idea of a properly constructed jacket is suddenly deemed a rare luxury. This is not helped by the fact that anything and everything is called fashion today. 

But far from being cynical about the future of fashion, I am filled with excitement of what is to come. The worse things get, the greater the collective desire for a designer, or indeed designers, to come and shake things up and make us pay attention. My favourite womenswear shows for Spring/Summer 2015 were two old favourites alongside a relative newcomer – Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and Aganovich. Today I would like to consider the beautiful collection Rei Kawakubo presented in Paris a few weeks ago. Kawakubo is notorious for refusing to explain her collections, or even ascribing them any deep meaning, but hers are some of the most fascinating on the fashion calendar. She argues that the clothes ought to speak for themselves, and indeed it is fitting that her intellectually-driven designs leave it up to the wearer to complete the message. At even the most basic level she has released garments with multiple openings allowing the wearer to choose where to put their arms or head through. At a more cerebral level her clothes (like that of Yohji Yamamoto) question pre-dominant Western notions of beauty, fashion and the presentation of the body. In contrast to Yohji's more subtle displays, Rei tackles these ideas through shows that employ the full force of theatricality that fashion has to offer. With Rei it often appears as if the meaning is more important the medium used to translate it. You get the feeling that she could express these ideas through any avenue, however (thankfully for her fans) it just so happens to be through fashion. 

In her review of the collection for The Telegraph Lisa Armstrong rather disingenuously reduced the collection to a promotion perfume in the same breath that she linked it to the increasingly commercialized art world. Questioning whether fashion is art is a somewhat hackneyed reaction to collections that defy the wearability index by skipping over the actual clothes. Ignoring the fact that the majority of these clothes will actually be for sale on the rails at Dover Street Market, judging fashion purely on the basis of whether you would wear it down the street to do your shopping is to miss the point entirely. If that is what you are after, the Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons collection was a lovely display of charming every day clothes (no doubt a post about that in the near future). Here however was a collection that seemed to reference the unease felt by society today (even if Rei herself would comically dismiss such readings by insisting she was inspired by apple lollipops or something equally flippant). 

There seem to be a number of rather simple reviews that reduce the collection to “red is the new black”, which miss the complexity and depth of the collection. She said backstage that two inspirations were "blood" and "roses", and indeed we see the vivid blood reds and even what look to be printed blood splatters. This violent unease is married with the romantic reds of floral abundance and organic forms blooming off the bodies of the models. Here violence and romance, life and death, uneasiness and stability, are played against each other. Not providing an answer to the unease felt in society today, but merely reflecting it in an incredibly calculated manner. Fashion can never be viewed purely in a vacuum, because it is so very much a product of its time. But it is equally never merely a reflection of society, which is what makes it so interesting to consider. In never explicitly linking her collections to contemporary society or politics, even though she has had many collections that interacted with contemporary debates (Autumn/Winter 2012 vividly comes to mind!), Rei is arguably aiming to allow the clothes to escape that inevitable dating and historicization.

Rather than a neat reflection of the current mood, the collection seemed more like the Red Queen run amok, referencing historical Tudor and Victorian garments with the hair and make-up, as well as looks such as the exploded crinoline dress; the beauty of nature with the organic forms and floral elements growing around and out of the body (as well as what could be seen as intestinal forms); and the idea of the controlled madness of creation with sleek uppers giving way to disintegrated and deconstructed bottoms. The careful construction of the dresses belies the frenetic visual energy they so adeptly capture. As with most clothes, static imagery hardly does the pieces justice (even though they do photograph quite beautifully), and I am looking forward to getting up close and having a proper look once they hit the stores. Indeed looking at film of the runway I am struck not only by the shape of the garments from all sides, but also by how they must feel to wear and walk around in.

We see so many designers put out bloated collections with nothing much to say, but here in 22 looks Rei manages to ask a multitude of questions and offer plenty of ideas. It is one of the those collections you have to come back to from time to time, and no doubt more references and ideas will emerge with each new viewing. This is exactly what fashion needs, and it is why I enjoy Rei's work, because she forces you to have an opinion. It is all too easy to simply ‘Like’ or ignore something these days, but collections like this make you stop in your tracks and take a second look. Fashion, like art, is best when it invites you to look and to lose yourself for a moment. Let your imagination run wild.





Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Super Position

Y's Super Position spotted in Paris
Photograph by YoungJun Koo (I'M KOO)

Going anti-clockwise:
Birkenstock Boston Clogs
Adidas x Y's Super Position Trainers
Clarks Originals London Shoes
Dr Martens B1484 Shoes
Dr Martens 1490 Boots
Converse Jack Purcell Trainers

I remember choosing my first ever pair of "grown up" trainers. As often seems to be the case with my more memorable experiences, Summer was coming to an end. While I patiently waited for the conkers to fall from the trees at the end of the road, so that I could pick my prize fighter out from under a blanket of golden brown leaves, the back-to-school shopping had already started. Along with the excitement of picking out a new fountain pen for the year came the excitement of picking out my first pair of trainers. My father was, and still is, a stickler for dressing "respectably" - he is proud of the fact that he has never once worn a pair of jeans; but even he had to recognise the practicality of little children wearing trainers on the weekend instead of black leather derbies every single day. At school all the children were wearing either all-white Reebok Classics, or, for the cool kids, a pair of Nikes (I even remember boys coming to school with Nike swooshes cut into their fades at the back of their heads).

There I am in the shop, and I could go with the safe option of Reeboks, or I could try my hand at kicking it with the cool kids (...just reading that phrase should tell you how that would have worked out) with some Nikes. I walked around the shop running my hands across each of the trainers I could reach, feeling the leathers, feeling the meshes, feeling the shape of the toe boxes. It is something I do when I am out shopping even today - I like to touch and feel everything, after all, clothes are meant to be worn, so knowing how they feel is important to the experiential mode inherent to their design. I can still remember running my hands across the toe boxes in particular - all the trainers everyone at school wore were essentially athletic shoes, meaning that the rubber sole curved up at the front of the toe box. I felt pointed athletic toe box after pointed athletic toe box. But then something unexpected happened. I ran my hand over a shell toe.

These trainers felt different. Nobody wore these at school. As much as I wanted to buy something that would fit in with everyone else, I also knew that I wanted these trainers. I knew they were something special. Adidas Superstar - the name said it all. As a child, a name like that means something, you imagine yourself in shining lights. I tried on a pair of white leather trainers with dark blue stripes. Walking around the shop I found that the flat soles gave a completely different feel to my stride, and looking at them on my feet in the mirror, I thought they were the coolest trainers I had ever seen. There was me in a bobbly, scratchy acrylic jumper and hand-me-down corduroys, but those trainers were new and exciting. My father bought them, but waiting until we got home to try them on again seemed too long a wait, and I remember trying them on in the car and marveling at the shape.

I would later go on to wear Nikes (by then, not so cool, everyone wore them) and Reeboks like everyone else, but I fell back to Superstars regularly. The last pair I remember owning was when I was a teenager, and they were a white pair with red stripes. I still remember learning how to use a skateboard in them. They never really seemed to captivate the other children as much as they had captivated me, but to this day I still think they are one of the coolest trainers around. Heck, even Yohji owns a pair in black. Stan Smiths always looked odd on my long feet and I never liked the way the Gazelle toe box ended up looking after a little bit of wear. When it came to the round toes of other brands? I have never owned a pair of Nike Dunks, and I doubt I ever will, and as much as I like the look of Air Force Ones, they always looked far too bulky on my slender legs.

After a few years of only wearing canvas trainers, I thought it might be time to return to the realm of leather trainers. The main issue I have with canvas trainers is that they do not seem to last anywhere near as long as they should. I currently own a pair of Converse Jack Purcells, but after these give up on me, I do not plan on ever buying another pair of Converse. Where Vans are concerned, the Sk8 Hi is the only model I think I would ever consider purchasing again. However I have nothing but praise for Spring Courts - they are pretty much the king of canvas trainers as far as I am concerned. Anyhow, I had been thinking of buying some leather trainers for around two years, and whilst there were numerous Y-3 designs that appealed to me, the loud branding was something of a deal-breaker. I thought I would simply fall back to buying a pair of black Adidas shell toes, until I saw something that made me stop in my tracks.

I had already seen the photographs of the Y's Super Position when they were released, but I had yet to see any photographs of people actually wearing them. That is, until I stumbled across the photograph I have posted above of somebody wearing them at Paris Fashion Week. There were the Superstars of my childhood, but not as I knew them - Yohji had gotten to them. I was taken. These were the trainers I wanted. The design evoked all the personal memories and emotions of the Superstar, but those were combined with all the personal memories and emotions that I have connected to the work of Yohji Yamamoto. Of course by this time they had long sold out everywhere, but after months of searching, I found a brand new pair in my size, and snapped them up.

I have been wearing them for a few weeks now, and they feel exactly as I remember them feeling, albeit with a leather-lined interior rather than the mesh fabric of the Superstar. I left the strings uncut for some time, and although they did not impede me when walking, they did look a touch too messy in movement, so I cut them down to provide a sleeker look. I enjoy the smooth shell toe, as opposed to the ribbed shell toe of the Superstar, especially in contrast to the gentle creasing of the leather and the soft nap of the suede. Seeing them and wearing them feels altogether familiar and foreign. It is that feeling that I have whenever I wear Yohji's work - here is something new, but it greets you like an old friend. That is a rare thing these days.



Well, if you insist...


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Spectacle

Spring/Summer 2015

Spring/Summer 2015

As the dust of another Fashion Week settles, I am struck by the fact that the two designers with the most recognisably dressed followers had by far the most theatrical shows of the season - Thom Browne and Rick Owens. Thom Browne's influence is hard to miss, with the ubiquity of grey ankle-baring suits, suit shorts, and pebble-grained brogues with no socks. Rick Owens on the other hand is currently enjoying unparalleled success - you can see copies of his work everywhere you care to turn. Having already created one of the most recognisable womenswear uniforms of the past decade, it now seems that streetwear brands, eager to cash in on the all-black-everything hip hop trend spawned from a fusion of Owens and Tisci's work, are popping up quicker than you count them. The ongoing trainer collaboration with Adidas further emphasizes Rick's acknowledgement of the new audience he has gained (thus far them seem to be getting less interesting with each new design). 

Many hardcore Owens' fans lament the appropriation and reconfiguration of his work by the streetwear community, and the birth of (hopefully forgettable) brands such as Pyrex and Hood By Air. But it seems to my mind a natural progression for an aesthetic, lest we forget, originally inspired in part by hip hop culture (the baggy drop-crotch shorts, the elongated tank tops, the chunky basketball trainers, etc.). Indeed whilst Owens has created and refined his own clear aesthetic, these various diluted off-shoots are actually a testament to the power of his influence. Although we may currently be seeing a million and one streetwear brands ready to make a quick buck with their pleather and tacky printed t-shirts, the market is simply at saturation point. The very fact that it is everywhere means that it is by definition no longer a fashion, it is rather a diluted trend. Trends come, trends go, and thus, whilst waiting for the current vogue to boil over, I find myself wondering what will be next. The Rick fans will endure, but the majority will move on to something new, and it is that ebb and flow that fascinates me. 

As diverse as Rick and Thom's work is, there are still a number of recognisable uniforms to their canon - you can spot a head-to-toe Rick or Thom look a mile away. That is not to even mention the strict uniforms the designers themselves don. So how do catwalk shows, as both designers showed for Spring/Summer 2015, fit into this aesthetic framework? Thom Browne has long since figured that the catwalk is the place to make viewers think and to constantly examine the way we dress and consider masculinity. His work is artistic, it is creative, and although you can order some of the pieces, it is, for the most parts, unwearable costume. It is not the creative weirdness of Comme des Garçons, designed entirely to be worn, but rather an exercise in artistic expression (albeit still made with the same attention to detail and impeccable tailoring of the consumer clothing). After all, the designer sells the same suits season after season, so why not push the limits on the catwalk?

I do wonder whether Rick Owens is reaching the same point in his career. The staples sell season after season - at this point it would seem to be a leather jacket and trainer brand. For those who have been buying Rick for a number of years, they already have a perfectly serviceable wardrobe that does not really need frequent additions past restocking basics. So how do you get those consumers to buy more? Well Rick's answer would seem to be by continuing to sell the staples but introducing new colours - hence the likes of passport (dark blue). Of course the more complex pieces are still there for those requiring them, but in refining the basics with the introduction of new shades I think Rick is doing something quite clever. The very fact that he has such a defined range of basics means that he can go back to the use of colours in his earlier collections and reintroduce them to a newer audience who have only ever known him for creating in black. Spring/Summer 2015 was a prime example, with Rick pushing the boat with multiple colours, whilst looking back to older work, and thus shocking the newer audience (and of course it will be interesting to see how the streetwear communities react).

This self-referential style of design is central to Rick's approach (after all he is the designer who said that each collection is merely the continuation of the same story), but also one that I think is gaining traction amongst a number of designers in the contemporary sphere. With the rise of defined fashion tribes, propagated by the immediacy and prevalence of social media, it is no wonder that designers are beginning to look inwards. You already know that whatever you design will end up in H&M and Zara next week, so rather than starting from some external point, why not go back and refine? I personally think it is a far better way of designing, because in revisiting and rethinking, you create a coherent thread that allows you to pursue some idea of perfecting your aesthetic for the current moment. Self-reflexivity inherently allows for the formation of a clearly defined voice, and that is necessary for any designer wishing to be at their best (the difference between Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent being that Yves actually had a voice of his own, Karl never has done - I know I say this all the time, but Karl Lagerfeld is not a fashion designer, he is a stylist).   

The idea of a clearly defined voice returns us to considering the staples and uniforms. It is this that interests me most when it comes to my own relationship with fashion and dress. Although I am absolutely fascinated by the ebbs and flows of the fashion cycle, and the birth and evolution of trends, when it comes to what I myself wear, it does not really factor into things. Both designers provide ample choice for the creation and refinement of a small capsule wardrobe, and it is this idea that drives me - because in keeping my wardrobe intentionally small I am better able to examine my relationship with dress. The idea of having less may seem paradoxical to an interest in fashion, but I think it is actually intrinsic to my interest in fashion and dress. It is about constantly questioning and exploring the relationship we have, not only with the material object that constitutes dress, but with the idea of self-representation and social identity itself. In owning less it is easier to ask the numerous questions I have, because if it takes me two years to look for and buy a single white shirt, I am hardly wanting for more time to explore. But it is not simply enough to own less, you have to want less. Collections like these make me happy, because they force us to ask questions. But at the same time, you know you will see the usual variations of a uniform on the rails, and whilst that may bore others, I love seeing such focused design.