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.



  1. I love this post. There's been a lot of discussion around the increasing commercialization of some high-fashion brands, and different brands veering towards a kind of simplistic, easily-understandable kind of look. What you described about Kawakubo's collection is the kind of work that really interests me in fashion—when the garments articulate multidimensional kinds of ideas, and reward continued observation and thought, and aren't reducible to a single idea or impression. Thoughtful fashion doesn't necessarily have to be complex, but I thought your description of how the complex construction of the collection's garments contribute to introducing interesting ideas was very good.

  2. The link you've drawn between technology with the sanitisation of design is interesting. This is a great piece.

    It fascinates me how much business savvy Kawakubo has, having seen how the company's structure has expanded and produce lines that articulate such distinct languages. This is what made it possible for her runway collections to focus all attention to craft and ideas. If only it was possible for other designers like Hussein Chalayan, who we've seen struggle financially...