26 November 2010

A Uniform Image

Rick Owens
A Personal Uniform

When it comes to fashion the main focus of the observer is invariably centered around what is produced for the catwalk, and how those ideas, images and garments are disseminated through the media and the individuality of the consumer.  However for this post I would like to shift the view around, in a way, to that of the designer rather than the designs they create.

It is no secret that one often finds a disconnect between what a designer wears and what they create, whether that simply be due to gender differences, or more often, as a result of the story-driven collections that change dramatically from season to season.  Indeed it is often at labels where the look changes entirely each season that there is the most jarring visual disconnect between runway and the designer.  That is not to say that designers ought to dress according to what they create, or create according to how they dress, rather I simply mention such labels as the most striking example. 

Oyster Semi-Sheer Sleeveless Jersey
Black Paneled Swing Pants
Monochrome Hi-Top Sneakers
All pieces by Rick Owens
Available via oki-ni

I have always been fascinated by the idea of uniform, no doubt due to a schooling career spent in uniform from the age of five.  However uniform does not necessarily have to mean a suit and tie, or company overalls - we all have a uniform of some nature, even if that uniform may shift eclectically from season to season, or from weekday to weekend.  At the most basic level are those garments, or indeed entire looks, in which we feel comfortable and confident, and so find ourselves falling back on time and again.  It is impossible to dress in an entirely new way every day, even with the largest of wardrobes, for we all have personal preferences and sartorial habits unique to us that come to characterize our individual styles.

Fashion designers, including the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Riccardo Tisci, Michael Kors, Hedi Slimane, Thom Browne, Yohji Yamamoto, Carol Christian Poell and Rick Owens, often have very strict personal uniforms which may remain consistent over a number of years if not decades.  The most interesting example for me is that of Rick Owens, who for a number of years now has essentially lived in the same style of tank top, swinger pants and sneakers, all of his own design.

Owens is perhaps also one of the most extreme examples in that he only ever wears his own designs and quite consciously wears a strict "uniform".  His collections have a strong and now almost iconic personal aesthetic which are a clear reflection of his own personal style.  He is one of the few designers who designs expressly within his own aesthetic, and has really profited from the sale of a personal style.  Although independent designers such as Yohji Yamamoto or Ann Demeulemeester create within a highly individual and powerful expressive framework, in terms of personal style Owens is interesting for the strictness of his uniform.

Of course where personal style and uniform overlap is also something interesting to consider, for a strong and coherent sense of style would no doubt produce a highly recognizable uniform, even if the style and colour of individual garments changed on a daily basis.     

William Chase Merritt, Whistler, 1885
(James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an artist who placed a high importance on the cultivation of a personal image as a form of advertising and expression of his art.  And heck was it a cool image.)

On a commercial level cultivating such a recognizable personal image is no doubt highly useful to the fashion designer.  Karl Lagerfeld's style is so iconic that you can transplant his uniform to a teddy bear and everyone still recognizes it (...just think about that for a minute!).  For the consumer market the image of the author is often just as important, if not more so, than the work, just as the label can unfortunately far too often be more important than the clothing.  Being able to quickly identify the high collars and fingerless gloves of Lagerfeld or the blazer and jeans of Kors no doubt plays in well to the idea of brand recognition and trust in the voice of a designer regardless of the actual content of what they say.  To give a very current example we have the Lanvin collaboration with H&M - I do wonder how many people will buy based on the merits of individual pieces rather than simply buying based on the Lanvin label (hopefully the majority do the former).

I often tend to think of designer uniforms in relation to the historical cultivation of image by artists and the practice of painting self-portraits.  For an artist, of any kind, personal image is highly important for creating a client base, and even more so when that artist is exhibiting on the global stage.  Of course there are designers who belie this idea, for example the ever-elusive Martin Margiela, however he is a rare exception.  An argument can also actually be put forward that provided the label is well known the designer does not matter, hence Helmut Lang can still profit without Helmut Lang actually remaining at the label, or Jil Sander can profit without Jil Sander remaining, or Maison Martin Margiela can profit despite Margiela himself having taken a back seat.  In this way it is the image of the designer and/or the image of the label that is important.  The actual fashion being produced is still vital of course because no label could really survive without producing good clothing every once in a while (although I could actually name some labels that ignore that idea).

In the case of Owens I do not think the idea of the designer's image as a form of advertising or manufacturing recognition can be so easily applied, as it could for example be applied to the (insanely) strictly controlled image of Lagerfeld.  Rather it is the product of a highly edited and functional wardrobe.  Owens is obviously one of the most extreme examples of this, but consider a designer such as Yohji - he knows what suits him, he knows what he likes, he knows what he feel comfortable in, and he goes for it.  Vital to the creation of a uniform is really knowing your tastes, your body and your self.  It is a not a result of simplification and loss or obscuring of identity, but rather a distillation of character, to create a highly coherent and strong image of self.

I am not sure I could be as extreme as Owens in the cultivation of a personal uniform, but I think we all have some form of uniform that we adhere to, however tightly or loosely.  What I would really like is to have a highly edited wardrobe that I feel truly reflects me and the expression of myself that I would like to make.

Currently playing: I Don't Need Love, I've Got My Band - The Radio Dept. 



  1. I'm always fascinated by what people define as "uniform".

    In a way - and I think you've highlighted this, though perhaps not explicitly - personal style is no different from uniform, people just tend to connote 'uniform' when someone's personal style is particularly honed or limited, pared down to the absolute essence of what they want to convey visually to the rest of the public.

    As for designers, their personal style(s), brand image and their overall interconnectedness, I think it works both ways in that the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte, for example, aren't both typically 'fashion' in the image that is conveyed to us via their personal style and dress size, and yet, in a sense, I feel this influences those forming opinions on their work insomuch as their label is judged almost exclusively on its merit, as the girls are coded as true artistes, not bothered by the trivialities of dressing up for formal fashion events.

    On the other hand, then, for mega-brands like Chanel and designers like Lagerfeld, Lagerfeld's instantly recognisable, singular style aids in the construction of an overall brand image which encompasses both the heritage of the design house and the celebrity of the designer currently at the helm.

    Fantastic post!


  2. Such a rich history, you've brought up. I hadn't thought of it so much as "uniform"..but perhaps the essentials of the new native look.

  3. hi. glad to know ur out of the hosp. be well. :)

  4. For me, going to private school and being forced into a uniform made me completely rebel against the idea of one in any way. I guess I never thought about the fact that the fashions that I cling to have become an informal "uniform" I've adopted.
    I think the idea of uniformity is definitely one of the reasons why I love fashion so much.
    I love that you can see a designer through their style - whether through runway shows, or through their designs (which is one of the biggest reasons why I love Lagerfeld and Galliano so much). When designers move on (like Marc Jacobs, etc), they leave their legacy, and someone else comes and brings their own personal style to the new collection.
    I also adore the first set of pictures - I love the choice of model, the designs - everything.
    I do hope you're feeling better, dear! Thank you for providing constant inspiration through your beautiful posts.

  5. brilliant post, a really great read. uniform is a really interesting subject. one of my gf's parents friends always wears a blue grandad collar shirt, cords, desert boots and a blazer and you can tell he feels comfortable and in charge. does make you think this one

  6. That's a killer post! Always delightful when bloggers take their time to really share some thoughts beyond "this is cool". Two thumbs up!