If I had to summarize this past menswear season, it’d be the one of plenty of good product and few good ideas. It was neither weak nor strong, pretty much in tune with what I have come to expect of fashion as of late.
Men’s fashion has been now thoroughly splintered into parts that cater to the youngsters and to the adults, and nowhere has this been more evident than at Pitti Uomo in Florence, where the bulk of the trade fair itself is devoted to traditional menswear, and where three designers that are of interest to the young were showing – Gosha Rubchinkiy, Visvim, and Raf Simons.
Rubchinskiy’s awful show – a parade of meaningless collaborations with second-rate Italian sports brands like Fila and Kappa – underscored once again that today’s trendy fashion has discarded design in favor of the image. This is the Instagram era, where graphics and logos reign and subtleties of cut and construction are lost. Rubchinskiy’s universe is decidedly image-driven. Most of what he produces could hardly be called design at all – it’s simply tees and sweatshirts emblazoned with his name, silly logo appropriations, and empty slogans like “Russian Renaissance.” The post-Soviet youth thing that he mines is exotic enough to work well for the London and Tokyo hipsters, and that’s about it.
With regards to the above, I have thought whether, at 39, I am turning into a grumpy old man. I went back and thought about the designs of Raf Simons that I bought in the late 90s and early 00s, barely out of my 20s and still very much a kid, and if an older man would find those Joy Division patches silly. But, no, there was DESIGN in what Simons offered. He wasn’t simply slapping graphics onto tees, but experimented with cut and proportions. There was the razor-sharp tailoring, and his appropriation of the bourgeois métier for his own purposes. His rebellion was elegant. If revolution was to be televised, we might as well be dressed by Simons.
That night Simons reminded me why I fell in love with his work in the first place by scattering his archives through a scaffold parcour course to the sound of industrial and post-punk music. And then came the show for which Simons collaborated with Robert Mapplethorpe’s archive. It was touching, especially in the light of the recent Orlando shooting. And no, these were not just prints slapped onto standard-issue garments – there were Simons’s signature plays with volume and tailoring. It did get a bit repetitive by the end, but I did not mind.
Less than a week later I was in Paris (I don’t go to Milan) at the sublime Haider Ackermann show where he continued to mine his dandyist, devil-may-care fantasy. I was particularly taken by the blotchy, billowing shirts that looked like something a painter would inadvertently spoil and then wore out, pleased with the results of a happy accident. I’m just waiting for a film or theater version of The Picture of Dorian Gray where all costumes are done by Ackermann.
The next morning was the solid Boris Bidjan Saberi show, where he continued to slowly expand his body of work. Later, in the showroom full of meticulously built clothes, Saberi talked about his responsibility to himself and to his audience to make the best clothes possible. The gist of his train of thought was that there are so many imitators out there now, whose clothes might cost 30% cheaper than BBS, and it was up to him to prove that while you may pay a bit more for his work, you’d know what you are paying for. Looking around the showroom, I could not agree more. The proof was in the proverbial pudding.
The Rick Owens show, titled “Walrus” that happened right after Saberi’s left me scratching my head. I really don’t know what to make of Owens’s new silhouette experiments where a super short tight jacket borders pants of such volume that even the models had to hitch them up while walking. I will put aside the thoughts of how feminine and emasculating most of it looked – after all these things are a matter of personal taste. I am more concerned that Owens might be a bit lost as to which direction to take after his incredibly successful goth/streetwear run. There is a lot of discussion around whether his current offerings are wearable. But, the thing is the hardcore stuff he put on the runway as early as three years ago was unwearable by most people’s standards. And yet, he convinced men that mini dress-length tees, exaggerated shoes, and diaper pants are the things to wear. These clothes were unconventional, but they still belonged to this universe. I could not bring myself to make the same conclusion after Walrus. I did not like the fact that it took me all of ten minutes to go through the entire collection at the showroom. I looked forward to the precollection and DRKSHDW, and there was good stuff to be found there, but it all seemed a bit sterile than before. All I can say is, hang on to the Rick Owens garments that are already in your closet.
That night I went to the shows of the two icons – Yohji Yamamoto and Dries Van Noten. Yamamoto’s collection was sumptuous but melancholic. It ended with a slew of reversible tailored coats, some with Yamamoto’s early sketches, and some with the already familiar slogans like the miswritten “I’m a Slump” (it’s supposed to be “I’m In a Slump”) that showed, like the entire collection did, that Yamamoto is tired of it all. I am not surprised.
At Dries Van Noten, the show was an homage to Arts and Crafts, a reactionary movement of the late 19th Century against the soullessness of industrialization. This was very much on Van Noten’s mind when we talked the next day about the current state of fashion, in which mass-manufactured product across the entire spectrum of fashion reigns supreme, and where most consumers are drowning in meaningless stuff. Van Noten reincarnated the mood of Arts and Crafts in handmade fabrics and hand-embroidered calligraphy. The movement did not reject modernity but wanted to infuse it with meaning, and Dries Van Noten combined modern means of production with traditional ones.
The last show of the day was Julius, which I did not attend. I only mention it because some of you probably expect a reaction, but the best I can do in summing up my feelings about what this brand has become is with a line from Pulp Fiction, “I didn’t go into no Burger King.”
Friday morning I saw the Junya Watanabe show. It was all about male toughness, mostly manifested through exaggerated tattoo works on the models. I would not say that the clothes were tough though. Even the tailored jackets with biker and bomber jacket sleeves could be best described as “neat,” a word hardly associated with unbridled masculinity. But Watanabe is like that – he interprets things in his own way. There was plenty of good product, but as an idea the show did not go far enough.
Watanabe’s fairy godmother, Rei Kawakubo, is never short on taking an idea to the max. Like Van Noten’s, her show also seemed to comment on the current state of fashion, namely that the Emperor has no clothes. It was mostly transparent plastic coats with boxer shorts underneath. “The King Is Naked” was printed on some of them, and “Fashion Is Mine.” Oh, how I wish that was true, but Dorothy, we are not in the 80s anymore. Fashion is not ours – it belongs to the fashion conglomerates, the army of image-makers they employ, and the supplicant fashion media that they all but employ.
In between the two, there was the Ann Demeulemeester show that we’ve all been waiting for. Sebastian Meunier did everything – well almost everything – an Ann fan could wish for. It was romantic without being soppy and elegiac without being melodramatic. The only thing I wished for was Ann’s signature asymmetry. This was felt more in the styling rather than in the garments themselves.
Saturday’s Sacai show was partly and very loosely based on the novel and the film “The Clockwork Orange.” When I asked Chitose Abe after the show about this inspiration, she sort of shrugged it off, which was strange, because this would have made for a stellar inspiration. Japanese designers have a history of very loose readings of Western imagery, and the three shows I saw that week only confirmed that.
The one Japanese designer who has been able to import such imagery with seriousness and success is Jun Takahashi of Undercover. In his 25-year plus tenure, Takahashi has spliced, inverted, enlarged, distorted, and otherwise incorporated a wide array of cultural symbols into his work. Later that day he was singing the Rizzoli monograph at Colette. Coincidentally, Gosha Rubchinskiy was signing his book at the same time at the Comme des Garcons shop a ten-minute walk away. And, here I have to come back to the division in contemporary fashion that I began this article with. I remember on my visit to Tokyo one menswear editor mentioned that it’s become hard for Undercover to attract young kids. This sounded absurd at the time, but that night I understood what he meant. While Colette sold out of the 100 copies of the Undercover book, there seemed to be little energy at the signing. Part of it was Colette’s terrible organization of the event, but there was something bigger at play. There was no journalist under forty that I could spot at the Undercover signing. Actually, it was only Tim Blanks, Angelo Flaccavento, and I. All the journalists were at the Rubchinskiy signing. So was Tommy Ton, snapping away at the young kids with skateboards who were busy looking cool and insecure. It was sad to see that Takahashi, that trailblazer of youth culture as fashion, a designer par excellence was upstaged by Rubchinskiy, whose best work could not hold a candle to Takahashi’s worst.
My Sunday ended with the Lanvin show (I had no energy to go to Thom Browne, and it seemed like I did not miss much). It was a lively but relaxed affair, and you could sense that Lucas Ossendrijver is enjoying newfound autonomy after the departure of Albert Elbaz.
And now onto the showrooms of smaller designers. I know you are eager to hear what our beloved artisans have cooked up. You will not be disappointed if you are looking for product and you will be if you are looking for new ideas. That’s the best I can do for you. At m.a.+ there were short and long aviator jackets, and coats in beautiful fabrics, as well as nice pants and footwear. At Individual Sentiments the fabrics took center stage, especially good in double-breasted lab coats and blazers. At Forme d’Expression, the fabric again took center stage, and they were simply stunning. There were the subtle floral motifs in the lining and on the outer fabric, and best when the lining was fused to a semi-sheer outer, making the garments secretly yours. There was also the gray linen to end all linens – uneven but smooth, spun with the irregularity of a handloom. The fabric story continued at Geoffrey B. Small, whose suiting continues to defy gravity, and I mean that almost literally – that’s how light it all felt. There is a lived-in quality to Small’s clothes that make you never want to take them off, and he excelled at it once again.
There was also the trio of the Undercover, TheSoloist, and Yang Li showroom visits. I am afraid this was not the strongest season for any of them. Undercover had taken a step back from the last two stellar collections that have buttressed its menswear renaissance and offered garments that were surely quirky, but lacked that energy that Takahashi can turn on at moment’s notice. At TheSoloist, Takahiro Miyashita had David Bowie’s character transformations on his mind, but the end result often seemed as outré as some of Bowie’s costumes. And, unfortunately, Yang Li is simply better at incorporating youth culture references into his men’s clothes. Still, I watch these three designers with undying interest.