First Responders

Raf Simons for Calvin Klein (l) and John Galliano for Maison Margiella (r), Fall 2018. All photos: Marcos Tondo/ via

Where are the bricks being hurled through storefronts? Where are the marches and manifestos proclaiming insurrection? The glowing effigies of political aristocracy set alight?

You wouldn’t have found much of a protest in this season’s international fashion shows. As justifiable as it would be to surf the rage, designers in careful step seem instead to be questioning how to find one’s moral compass and live amidst the rabid discord of the culture wars and diminished promise. If you are someone who takes their cues from fashion (hey, why not?) it appears to have been decided and for our own good that we should take a deep breath, exhale and look away from the ravages that surround us. Designers tend to feed upon cultural tensions, yet those with the sharpest senses have veered from confrontation, prudently recognizing no one needs an extra serving of indignation or cynicism. Why pay for it when you can get it for free? Neuroses are the battle injuries we’ve suffered in the trench warfare on truth and so the recent designer shows seem firmly intent on offering us solace from the front lines.

Not every designer is given the mission nor should bear the responsibility of shaping a statement on the times, but it is interesting to see what they do with it when they do. Fashion is driven by unexpected forces and by and large those that trade in this currency offered coddling recognition that we’ve become the media war’s internally displaced — in need of soul-nourishing reassurance and firm ground of the kind one should find when one looks inward. So rather than diatribe or escapism we are led through a coaxing existential examination and couched attempt to unite us in our manias. Down the runways, a costumed moral tale to remind us of our innate permission to self-define in every glorious human variety.

Shows are an intoxicating parade of creative impulses and wandering storylines, highly orchestrated attempts to shock, and plenty of empty tries. But now and again among the outré provocations, there are rays of artistic light that stand (or at least stagger) as a commentary against an ethical void. More than usual, the current wave of fashion elites has assumed the role of healer, their shows a cathartic unpacking that intends to reveal something we’ve intrinsically felt, but couldn’t quite summon the capacity or sensitivity to describe — a force that nags at your senses, but is reluctant to surface and prefers enigma.

Sensation sells well to starved eyeballs, but fashion shows and presentations of all magnitude are only good if they find the buyers. Luckily for the industry, it also now happily accepts Instagram impressions as if they were a freshly mined bitcoin. As one wades through the feed of presentations what rises is a subtler theme — an ethnographic examination. Hard to decipher and even harder to find relevance until we are shown the code they are written in. There was no light reading this time around, no talking down and in fact we are all asked to enter a higher plane. When Rei Kawakubo winks at Susan Sontag’s ‘On Camp’ as her inspiration, even if it comes across in earnest it succeeds in pointing to a state of awareness. Don’t we all have an interest in deciphering human rituals? Are we not more connected in having our cultural truths disarmed and handed to us?

General public: Gucci FALL 2018 collection

Not to be outdone by philosophical reference dropping, Gucci’s show solemnly cites the work of Michel Foucault and notions of “fixed identities” in its play for substance. Demonstrating itself as it hopes to be seen: both smart and beautiful in what amounts to be a defining and superlative show etched for the moment. Hinted bibliography aside, the show delivers a prescient post-postmodern storybook of pre-2000 New York outer-borough street style in an allegorical lesson. Each look signifying an archetype from a neighborhood long since gentrified from an era not long ago, but rather far gone. A mimed performance that one is predisposed to interpret. A runway impersonation of a gliding sidewalk and its pedestrian characters. We brush past a realtor stepping outside for a smoke, the girl emerging from a curtained dressing room in her prom dress at the dry cleaner, a Dominican church boy in Sunday-bests. All a stream of innocuous passersby that evaporate after a silent glimpse. A cast of tender characters — ordinary deviants — unremarkable and thus remarkable. One of millions.

Fashion and self-identity are deeply intertwined and designers typically do well stoking superlative versions of the idealized persona we are meant to strap-on to be a better version of ourselves, but in Alessandro Michele’s world self-identity is a state of otherness and what he crafts is a declaration of our innateness. His most recent show, a now growing series that pines for collective self-affirmation in an atmosphere of demagoguery is a running intimation that seeks to expose and circumvent the blinding strictures that imperceptibly, yet slight by slight transform us, codify us and enter memory as norms. A collection set to counter power relationships, ordained meaning and mannered expectations. It is a quieter call to resist and hold firm — more far reaching and beyond a reactive punching back at errant ideology. A stand against something more insidious — the diminishment of human potential that forms when the individual is defined by anything other than itself.

Nothing says ‘keep out’ the way a ski mask does and so as an emblem of resistance models don jewel adorned and crocheted balaclavas. The removal of the face both identity obscuring and emphasizing. A quite literal message that if you don’t know me you can not use your tools to affect me. Not in time, not in heart. A clandestine example of something that behaves more like true freedom.

Identity underpinnings aside, Michele works in both parody and homage of fashion lineage to construct a way of dressing that layers metaphors upon symbolism to create paradox. Snubbing class distinction yet embracing Edwardian rigor as his work mines the deepest corners of fabrication techniques and luxe material. Purposeful vignettes and arching re-combinations of artifacts. Layered articles in a performance of clashing themes: ecclesiastic, noir, jazz age, secretarial, mystic. Idiosyncratic rather than uniform — the self-arousal of chastity over prescribed sex appeal. A purposeful distancing of previous Tom Ford-led Gucci conventions incriminated by their absence and not altogether missed. The show, a delicate dis-empowerment of the ordained — echoing and conducted to beautiful effect. The collection altogether sumptuous and challenging. A parable where the id triumphs and where our urges are permitted to matter in ways others might have us not believe. The clothes; armour for the rigors ahead.

Little hope on the prairie: Calvin Klein, FALL 2018 Collection

Blending both men’s and womenswear in the most recent Calvin Klein show it is easy to be distracted by an ankle-deep sea of popcorn laid out and ponder its origins. A drive-in movie show gone awry? The lyrical molecules and dust we are born from and swim through perhaps? Trying to decipher the signals a designer is transmitting benefits from a wider context and thankfully those working in an artistic mode allow wide speculation of intent.

Slowly we enter a post content world where everything we think we believe and enjoy lines neatly up in front of us and makes near perfect sense. The result of the growing adeptness of the mainframes that whiz away curating to our traced proclivities. Manufacturing a script so familiar it is as if we wrote it ourselves — overloaded with arousing input, but devoid of intimacy. Lacking balance, shielding us from contradiction and locking us into a world absorbed with technological stimulation that attempts to surpass the natural with bits and pixels. This is where we are and Calvin Klein’s designer, Raf Simons appears all too aware of the quandary. What has the potential to re-root us and fill the void of machined experiences? As we imperceptibly turn ourselves over to technology how will we retain who we are? What strengths will we need to last in this struggle?

A clever artist plays with objectives and takes you somewhere necessary. The more unexpected, the more awakening it is. Art is drawing on assumptions, creating sensations that reach out as statements of their beauty and as a view of our condition. What emerges in Raf Simon’s recent show and through a metaphor rich play is an echoing plea. The appropriation of reflective fire rescue gear — reformulated and blanketed over prairie dresses, overcoats, sweater breast-plates that are left unfinished, and once again, another take on craft loomed balaclavas. Each look intuitively combined the way a child would improvise a costume from their parent’s closet. Are we shown a way to protect from the elements (or nefarious acts) while maintaining our underlying innocence?

All things point west, as a place and reminder of something wistful and American. A set-piece that would otherwise be mistaken for sweet nostalgia except this is clearly a stage for irony. The cast — an alternating procession in glossy and acidic dime store dress boots or rubber hazmat wellies — bus stop cowboys, quilted puritan dames. The gathered effect is of a communal sect, innately good-hearted in their Sunday best — wandering and longing for a sign and a messenger to follow. A cryptic story built on foreshadowings. Where bad things could happen to innocents. The American story told once again. And yet we have what it takes to survive.

Along similar lines, John Galliano, now heading Maison Margiela sets a sharp tone in an apocalypse-chic collection that sums the season at its best. Fashion doesn’t think there is an emergency quite yet, but it’s prepared for the worst.



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