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Saint Laurent’s Mystery Tour

Saint Laurent headed north for its A/W 2021 collection. About the exact locale, nobody knows other than – as a scouting and modelling exercise – it can’t have been very cosy.

The ouvre of the collection video is reminiscent of the 2012 Tom Cruise movie Oblivion: sweeping shots across grandiose plateaus and charcoal vistas and climbs. Anthony Vaccarello’s explantion that, “It’s the idea of a girl in a landscape where she doesn’t belong” partly matches themes from said film. But where Olga Kurylenko and Cruise pursued a return to Eden-like innocence via sci-fi action, Saint Laurent‘s girls are anchored in the secular terrain, no matter how damn cold their steel capped toes may be.

As a fashion ideal, the sparse/nature narrative runs counter to the likelihood that only very wealthy ladies in manufactured environs will wear these clothes (Kurylenko had a jumpsuit and a spaceship).

But muted colours and slivers of texture are where YSL usually takes off; metallic and muted hues [chartreuse, daikon green, burnt amber] that intergrate with and bleed from the landscape as they would a modern city, with enough suffused shine and edge that it rubs against the zeitgiest or the wilds.

Perhaps a return to the elements or a simpler ‘Eden’ is the less-is-more conclusion. YSL has always been skinny and cropped but here it’s more bare bones. Vaccarello talks about fun, but this is skimpy as deconstruction of the superflous.

Even existenially stripping is still stripping though; Vogue‘s Mark Holgate posited the look somewhere between [rock] goddess and post-punk disrepute, but is doesn’t take much imagination to see Mika Schneider in underpants as a provocation on France’s new consent laws, or at least an aggravation of the politics of sexual power.

The line is fine: these ‘runaway’ girls – none of them beyond a size six, with miniscule busts – look like they want to challenge the Lolita paradox: that they are nothing more than desirable, and nothing less than all powerful.

Or maybe they simply want to do their own thing. Tailleurs are a middle finger push-back at any prude criticism. YSL’s eternal combination of the ‘debacle’ with the sophisticated teases us with models who may have eloped sexual or polemic definitions, but those jackets let us know who’s running the show. Layers of necklaces and other jewels consolidate the sense of grabbing what they can before they escape. Cold weather makes short thrift. This scene is only temporary

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NYFW – Towards a New Kind of Fashion Show

In the absence of conventional shows at NYFW, a number of alternative presentation models have been adopted with varying degrees of success: film shorts (Christian Cowan), runway shows sans audiences (Jason Wu, Raisavenessa) and capsule-like videos in static locations (Epimonia, The Blonds).

What most of these shows highlight is the extent to which – under normal conditions – the full show adds value. We generally think we’re at the show for the clothes, but lockdown challenges this presupposition; most attempts at something like normality fall short now. What’s needed (and only been partly attempted) is a new visual medium.

C+ Plus Series attempted a digitally enhanced techno fest that matched the sci-fi garb of its Asian models. Christian Cowan broke the mould (and the fifth wall) with a comical sketch featuring Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman that seemed part camp send up and only part fashion show.

Marcell Von Berlin just sounds serious, and the show (at an abandoned Malibu pad with panoramic views of sky and ocean) was also (ironically) weighted. But with a heavy duty techno soundtrack you got pop sultriness, even if none of the models turned out to be Dua Lipa. Outstanding colours, fine materials, a lack of compromise or toning down. It even verged on vulgarity (if not actual ugliness) from time to time. This is what I want in a fashion show – fusion with film to provide a visual feast that can stand without a crowd.

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NYFW – How we Dress and Who we Dress For

NYFW has been noticeable for a number of reasons this season, some of them obviously related to the pandemic (the utilization of big, empty spaces) and some of them corollaries of it: irrespective that bigger designers and fashion houses always have more money to spend on lavish shows with impressive locations, what’s interesting now is how much difference the lack of a huge crowd makes in neutralizing ambience, ‘importance’ and a sense of occasion.

Other art forms have suffered similar modifications to the platforms and environs in which they are presented (film is the most obvious case in point – it was exclusively absorbed as a recorded medium and premiered in the public sphere) and pandemic restrictions have affected the communal aspect of much ‘artistic’ appreciation and validation.

The obvious point to take from this in fashion is that the ‘show’ experience is lessened, but also that the lack of an audience creates a more level presentational playing field, and draws the online viewer’s attention more directly to the clothes being presented.

Of course, a crowd, music and good lighting can help embellish and clarify themes that the designer wants to draw attention to. A lack of a crowd is also detrimental to those designers who don’t have a fortune to spend; smaller intimate venues (like studios or converted shops) need a throng of onlookers to create atmosphere in the absence of pricey production.

There’s also the argument that some designers –  like Prouenza Schouler – are better suited to a pared-down presentation because their clothes have an austere or simple vibe and/or because they’re more work-oriented. This is actually the case with a lot of New York designers.

Elsewhere this week, Bronx and Banco delivered a black-and-silver take on a girls-night-out that a Las Vegas Raiders cheerleaders’ party would envy. There was a sexy glad-rags element to the whole affair that would have been missing had a crowd been present.

So in general, I think that crowd-free egalitarianism is a good thing. But the absence of ‘external stakeholders’ (the press, buyers and public) poses additional questions about fashion in the digital, pandemic and environmentally conscious era: We’re moving into an era when many forms of travel for business and pleasure are becoming undesirable or unecessary; If we’re staying in more, and if nothing but a camera is physically present when we dress, then who are we dressing for? Eventually designers will grapple with this question through their clothes; until then, enjoy the show.

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Spaced Out at NYFW Feb 2021

NYFW is very concerned with space this season. The shows are already notable as much for their choice of architecture as much for the clothes – Raisavanessa utilized post-modern metal and glass while Jason Wu opened his own ‘General Store’ in Noho. Both shows sans guests, of course. This emptiness only advocates a sense of iconography – models walking uncluttered catwalks (or in Wu’s case a showroom laid out like a vegetable market) have the effect of placing more emphasis on the clothes and of taking us back to a time when buildings in New York could be traversed – door to escalator – without having to turn to avoid someone coming the other way.

This works especially well at NYFW because the city matches – better than any of the other major fashion week –  its locations with its ideals. New York creates clothes for women who choose to work (why else would you be in Manhattan?) and Manhattan is physically, geographically right for fashion shows. Why use a purpose built gallery space or disused church when you can wheel the clothes hangers out and use your own studio or (during Covid) politely ask the cleaners and security to vacate and use an old bank.  

There’s a lot going on with designs too, of course. At RVNG the whole idea of bohemianism plays up the idea of having lots of time and money without needing to do anything. You could quite easily imagine these gorgeous creations being worn to a party in a time since-past or equally to the owner’s spare room. Of course people are still working, just not in their workplaces just yet and seeing beautiful people strut their stuff around Manhattan is something to behold.

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Customization provides opportunities for brands/fashion

The art and craft of customization is, of course, nothing new. Clothing – the choice to wear what you want – is a form of personal customization that distinguishes you from the crowd or helps you to fit in with your friends, workmates or team.

Logo-embossed work dungarees, Scottish tartan and your favourite band T-shirt are all forms of customization for a given time and place, and so are the tweaks and tucks we make – to a tailored prom jacket or a pair of Levis – that alter fit, determine the level of formality or simply give (alternative) life to an otherwise tired look.

The New York and European catwalk is also a shop window for customization. It should be – most budding designers begin penniless with a bag of cloth and tailoring tools, and a vision that informs their later, famed designs based on the need to cut, fold and sparkle on a budget.    

T­­he need to design great clothes that stick to changing but respected shapes and materials – but show originality and panache – is the essence of good fashion.

And culture has now become more important to the way fashion operates. The immediacy of current media pushes brands to be constantly on their game in terms of innovation and customization – Nike’s sneaker template is the prime example: collaborations with sports and design stars and the option to customise. Likewise Ralph Lauren empowers customers to customize its signature looks with tools inspired by cut-and-paste sites like ShopLook.  

These changes (and the increasing popularity of casual and sports apparel) have affected the aesthetics of all fashion presentation, even at the couture end. Vivienne Westwood’s Spring 2019 Ready to Wear collection has a distinctly casual feel that – like Comme des Garcons – incorporates pop- culture commentary as an audacious riff on the state of the world.

 

At Le Fruit Defendu customization is complementary to the brand’s unisex approach. Differing from the approach taken by Chitose Abe’s Sacai label -where male and female silhouettes are offset to create new definitions of the role of the sexes – Le Fruit Defendu aim to quench sexual parameters, thus promoting the simplest but most radical form of customization: the ability to change yourself.  

Personalisation is at the heart of this approach, including the inclination for fashion brands to work with other businesses. What began as a fashion-only affair (big brand collabs with upcoming or progressive designers via pop-up events at Dover Street Market, for example) has blossomed into events like the Beyonce/Coachella/Balmain charity project that is an opt-in for consumers. Customization and collaboration pieces are a way for brands to counter fast fashion by offering one-off items with a shorter, more exclusive run, or by letting customers tweak the look to make it their own.

 

Stella McCartney’s designs for the British Olympic Team in 2012 or Le Fruit Defendu’s work with XY Gaming Electronic Sports Team for the recent PUBG Games in Asia are examples of fashion taking the template beyond its own world. LFD utilizes the letter X featured in both the sports team’s name and its own unisex approach for a sport-casual vibe that is clearly gamer friendly.

Whatever the future of customization, this much is clear: brands aren’t about to hand over all responsibility for design (a move which threatens the loss of brand identity and loyalty), but they do have to be in tune with the the customers’ desire to be different, which lays at the heart of customization and fashion itself.

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Expression as Camouflage in Japanese Fashion

                   (Main image Vogue.com: Comme des garcons Spring 2019 )

   出る釘は打たれる – “The nail that sticks out get hammered down.” (Japanese saying) 

As many Western fashion followers will attest, the catwalk can provide inspiration and ideas. And yes, technology makes the high street even better positioned to mimic catwalk looks. However, the practicalities of daily life mean that designer-informed asthetics are difficult to maintain for those with day-to-day concerns, especially in a melting-pot culture like Europe where being truly different is a harder game to play.

In Tokyo, street fashion practitioners have long looked to and also past the runway for ideas. The historical and modern feed into each other and are useful reference points for those looking for inspiration or an understanding of how (old and young) Japanese dress, and how designers are also influenced by these factors.

Lets begin with the idea of costume, an inherently (though not exclusively) expressionistic concept in the West, wrapped up in modern/existential notions of individuality, revealed through metaphors and motifs that tell us – through a scrutinizing critical community – much about the artist her/himelf. 

A classic example in Europe might be Jean Paul Gaultier (“I like when dreams become reality…”) for whom costume and characterisation are central tenets of an approacch that helps embolden the individuals wearing his creations. Yes, his clothes are highly stylized, but they are created with the intention of framing and eroticizing the female form – to make what is present more pronounced.

Not all of Gaultier’s creations are as such (his Spring 2019 collection even embraced aspects of Japanism) but note below the tight waist anchoring a v-shaped bust area to create a revealing frame of the chest for neck and face.

By contrast, the Japanese sense of costume, while equally pronounced, is undertaken with a different set of values and cultural expectations. We’d have to go back to Japan’s interest in Noh theatre (where masks and elaborate costumes are worn) and Kabuki (where heavy makeup is worn by a male playing the female role) to understand that camouflage, while expressionistic, is one of the main roles of this form of dress.

The Japanese proverb 出る釘は打たれる best illustrates a way of thinking in a culture – still partly parochial  – where adherence to accepted social codes is paramount. In such an environment, where expression becomes only superficially tolerated, greater gravitas is placed on visual transgressions and (paradoxically) the need to hide.

Japanese couture and street styles are highly influenced by this sense of ‘masking’ – designer Chitose Abe’s Sacai label frequently incorporates camouflaged army fabrics or pieces that appear (from the front, for example) to be one thing, but are completely different from the rear. The melding of incongruent colours and patterns and male/female silhouettes is another way she creates a sense of unity and visual beauty by shifting attention away from the singular self. 

Likewise, fashion’s street-elite on Tokyo’s Omotesando Dori use hyper-realised concepts that hide their ‘true’ selves (see below):

In conclusion, Western enlightenment culture has helped create beautiful garments whose role is to frame and accentuate the best in the individual. In Japan, where people are often expected to hide their true selves, beauty can be found in the layers that lead to but also temper identity.