There isn’t always a discernible theme during fashion weeks, and happily so, it would surely be deadly boring if designers repeatedly worked on a shared theme. But when an overriding idea seems, genuinely, to bubble up from the collective subconscious it’s a different story and can be a compelling journey. For SS19 that theme seemed to be a dystopian take on science-fiction and that genre’s sometimes prophetic vision of the future. Dystopian is a word we have come to hear more regularly in our post-Brexit, mid-Trump world, as frustration gives way to dread and fear that the worst may still be to come, making stories like The Handmaid’s Tale feel less like fantasy and more of a grim parable for our times. In a way, this sense of the dystopian is not so new in fashion, certain London designers have been taking a confrontational stance for some time now (think Craig Green’s ‘fence man” for AW13, Matthew Miller’s ‘Born to Fail’ nihilists from the same season, or Christopher Shannon’s shredded Euro flag facemasks from AW18). But where does the interest in (a particularly dark take on) sci-fi come from? You could argue that the present is such an uncomfortable place that these visionaries are trying to provide an alternative, not in terms of escapism but by forcing a sense of the future now, demanding we get to the next stage, however uncomfortable the transition.
The most meticulously executed version of the menacing sci-fi theme was at Xander Zhou which featured a specially-commissioned soundtrack by Kraftwerk collaborator Emil Schult and “pregnant” men wearing prosthetic belly bulges. Zombie-eyed boys wearing a mixture of layered sportswear and cycling gear paced the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth hall with such determination that the audience seemed threatened, as though caught up in a ritualised cinematic event.
Later the next morning Samuel Ross’s A Cold Wall, presented a similarly theatrical spectacle over in Brick Lane, involving an entourage of clay-covered figures crowding the models, and a naked man being “born” from a box. Finally at Charles Jeffrey on Monday, prosthetic face details, silver foil wrapped spacecraft and mutating aliens competed for runway space with the models themselves to an incendiary soundtrack. Even at Berthold, where the focus wasn’t so obviously directed at fictional versions of the future, the functional bags and wipe-clean fabrics suggested survival in unpredictable climates and at Matthew Miller suiting cut from the kind of foil used to wrap shivering marathon runners and pointed hoods provided a sense of futuristic menace.
So, four paragraphs in and I have barely mentioned the clothes yet, and for some observers, there lies the rub. With London’s classic suiting brands and the big names like Burberry showing a low profile (i.e. not showing at all) at LFWM, a vacuum has been left for the capital’s more adventurous designers to take centre stage. For some, the performance art aspect that LFWM has become known for, and is currently pursuing with a vengeance it seems, is literally the Emperor’s new clothes. Amid the dance troupes, large-scale theatrical props, prosthetics and performance art, where is the excellence in fashion design it could be asked? Certainly there’s a lot going on, but if there was ever proof that fashion is the most exciting, relevant and cross media art form out there than here is the proof. And of course, look beyond the noise and there are great fashion ideas and artistry at play: the jewel-like colours and artful layering at Xander Zhou, accomplished prints, tailoring and knitwear at Charles Jeffrey and the focus on form and innovative materials at A Cold Wall.
And of course, there was more beyond these themes, London is simply too diverse to be dominated by a single idea, however persuasive. Looking back over the weekend, Iceberg opened the week with a joyful celebration of the label’s popularity during the UK Garage days, all vivid colours and scaled-up typographic logos, Daniel W. Fletcher provided a modern take on disco with scaled up Hermes prints and tear-away bootcut flares and Martine Rose’s show in a Camden Town cul-de-sac showed her signature play with proportion and a celebration of London subculture itself.
So, whether the dystopian sci-fi theme re-emerges in Paris and Milan and thus proves itself to be part of a wider consciousness or is left behind as a peculiarly British thing, the fact remains, that London’s fashion creative talent is alive and well, sometimes sharing in a bubbling undercurrent of shared feelings and sometimes not.
On Monday morning the David Hockney retrospective opened at Tate Britain for invited members of the press. It says something about this artist’s longevity and wide, cross-cultural appeal that the assembled crowd covered the gamut from renowned TV art critics to fashion commentators such as international Vogue editor Suzy Menkes (who was seen exiting via the gift shop, a large bag of Hockney memorabilia over her arm), as well as assorted oddballs like me.
The exhibition itself, starting with Hockney’s earliest experimental artworks, progresses through the most clearly biographical period of his early life in California, to preliminary landscape works, polaroid collages, drawings and Camera Lucida experiments to his more recent trials with video, iPhone and iPad painting, thereby covering some sixty years of the artist’s life.
On making my own exit, I was asked by a film crew to give a summary on camera of what had brought me to the exhibition and my personal highlights: aside from expressing the sheer joy of seeing such a display of vibrant colour on a drab Monday morning, I also mentioned Mr Hockney’s status as a fashion icon (still surprising to some), and the fact that he had lived and worked through such key moments in history, especially as a gay man.
This latter point feels particularly relevant at a time when both Britain and America are preoccupied with a sense of profound change, bringing with it concern about the implications for all minorities, particularly in the States where the hard-won equal status of gay people is being brought into question, only weeks after the changeover in president.
It was therefore especially moving to see Hockney’s record of his own transition from the drab grey of post-war Britain to the sunshine and (comparative) liberalism of 60’s California, as documented in the gleaming skin of his lover, caught in poolside sunlight or indeed in portraits of his friends.
In the second room, where Hockney’s early experiments with the form of painting are most evident, hangs the painting titled We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961), created at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. In this work Hockney creates a kind of collage of early queer culture using a combination of Walt Whitman’s poetry (the title comes from Leaves of Grass), together with an in-joke from then popular culture involving Cliff Richard (whom the youthful artist had a crush on at the time) and a misreading of a headline about two boys found clinging to a cliff.
In Room 3 a vast portrait of the British writer and fellow ex-pat Christopher Isherwood with his life partner, the portraitist Don Bachardy, dominates, even in a room full of ‘paintings with people in’. A video commentary by Bachardy himself, explains the context of this work (painted in 1968), commemorating as it does, the then virtually unknown phenomenon of a successful gay couple in the public eye (Isherwood and Bachardy had already been together 10 or 15 years by then, explains Bachardy in the clip). There was the notion that Hockney was documenting not just his own milieu but also a crucial transition in society, boldly presenting the lived experience of gay men as the subject of art, probably for the first time. Bachardy also suggests that his relationship with Isherwood may have inspired Hockney to find his own partner – personal and sexual revolution in action.
The biographical portraits also reveal glimpses of Hockney as a personal style icon, from his iconic bleached hair, big glasses and bold striped Rugby shirt to the reflected louche glamour of friends Ossie Clarke and Celia Birtwell. In one of the Polaroid compositions, titled Grand Canyon with Foot (1982), the said foot happens to be Hockney’s and he happens to be sporting a colourful multi-textured shoe, featuring a fringed kiltie, as recently popularized by Prada.
Constant experimentation with technique is what makes Hockney’s work feel so satisfying and so relevant: from painting and drawing, to Polaroid collages, Camera Lucida experiments and, particularly since his return to his native Yorkshire, exploration of natural forms and landscapes through such varied techniques as video, iPhone/ iPad paintings and photo printing. This is an artist who refuses to stand still but who isn’t being innovative for the sake of it, neither has he retreated into willful obscurity, thereby admitting that his message is no longer relevant. Recorded in person on the audio guide, Hockney’s voice is strident, rarely asking questions. In one example he argues that while photographs of sunrise may be clichéd, in nature this is never the case – the phenomenon of sunrise remains surprising and transformative. I like to think that Mr Hockney greets each day with a similar sense of gratitude and curiosity about what the day might bring.
Hockney – 60 Years of Work, 9 February-29 May 2017 Tate Britain
Following a press launch last night, the exhibition North, exploring the depiction of Northern England in art, photography and fashion collections has just opened in, appropriately enough, Liverpool. Curated by Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray, the exhibition includes iconic imagery by such celebrants of the Northern aesthetic as Raf Simons alongside profiles of Northern-born image makers such as Alasdair McLellan, Simon Foxton and Christopher Shannon, demonstrating that the impact of Northern England on our visual culture goes far beyond the familiar tropes.
Earlier today, I visited Duckie Brown at their studio in the West Village to talk about their bold move in representing a single look for SS17. In a nod to the troubled economic and political times we’re living through, the Duckie’s felt it was “a good moment” to pause, and made an active decision not to show this season (having shown the line twice a year for the last thirteen years). The resulting one look is a triumph; a Haiku poem in khaki, navy and white. The look itself is being shared with fashion editors who would normally attend their show as an exquisitely-produced monochrome poster and in the form of a film ‘The Essential Duckie.”
While Daniel Silver gave me his take on the challenges facing the fashion industry globally as the role of the traditional fashion show and the nature of selling fashion garments itself continues to shapeshift, co-designer Steven Cox talked me through the process of paring back a collection to a single look. As ever with Cox, the starting point was quite tactile and experiential: a combination of the influence of his wearing tight running gear as he trained for a recent marathon, a reference image of the slim outline of a British skinhead and an archive Duckie Brown blazer, which had been produced entirely in jersey. Having explored and pioneered oversized fashion shapes, for SS17 The Duckies wanted to pare things back, including the proportions of the garments themselves.
Duckie Brown SS17 consists of a pair of apparently traditional khakis (produced in collaboration with their Brooklyn manufacturer), where the waist has been raised nine and a half inches above the usual waist height, a simple white polo shirt: “100% polyester” Cox affirms unapologetically, “it’s the same fabric that Kawakubo uses for Comme”, and a super-slimline, softly tailored blazer in navy. Describing the transformation noted in their model when he put on the ensemble at the shoot, Cox mimes a traditional couture pose – hand on sinuous hip. Cox was fascinated by how the form of the clothes could inspire such a shift in physical attitude, from local basketball court to classical fashion outline.
Having titled their summer collection The Essential Duckie, the Duckies really have gone back to basics here – the design process touching on many of their trademarks; the exploration of form and shape, an awareness of fashion in context (including delving into their own extensive brand archive) and a wry nod to traditional American menswear, referenced in the polo shirt, khakis and blazer.
Having shown just six looks last season, and now just a single look, the future is yet to be determined: “do we show just half a look next season?” quips Cox, “or thousands of looks?”
Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that New York’s most expectation-defying menswear designers are likely to respond to the changing times by simultaneously embracing that change while still keeping us guessing.
Events for London Collections: Men SS17 got underway this evening on a bookish note, with the launch of a special ‘menswear library’ at the E.Tautz store in Mayfair. The exhibition, curated by Showstudio’s Lou Stoppard, is a special collaboration with Claire de Rouen, one of London’s most cherished art, fashion and photography bookstores. “You can tell so much about someone from their book collection and their favourite title”, commented Stoppard, “it was a real pleasure to chat to some of my favourite men in fashion about the menswear-related titles that they love.”
The eclectic range of photography titles on display (many being limited editions), spans topics from David Bowie (perhaps inevitably this year), to Disco and includes not one but two works by Wolfgang Tillmans. The books have been chosen by menswear influencers and commentators including Julian Ganio of Fantastic Man magazine, Gordon Richardson of Topman, Charlie Porter of the Financial Times, Stoppard herself and Patrick Grant, owner and creative director of E.Tautz, whose store hosts the exhibition.
Grant is well known for the meticulous research he puts into his collections, evident in the notes presented at the shows in the format of an inky newssheet, making the collaboration feel like a natural fit.
The odds are against the cerebral tone of this event being sustained as the week of LC:M SS17 progresses, but it was a perfectly paced opener, celebrating the quieter, more contemplative side of the fashion business, the flipside to all the noise and spectacle to come.
I’ve only come back to wearing blue jeans very recently, I’ve had a thing about black denim for quite a few years now, which has seen me go through various cuts of Acne Jeans and more recently, versions from Robert James on the L.E.S. in New York, whose black denims are blacker than black.
Interestingly, my first port of call on my return to the blue denim fold was to find a pair of Levi’s 501‘s, the looser cut (albeit in the newly-tapered ‘CT’ version), higher waist and general sense of deja vu creating a perfect counterbalance to more obviously contemporary pieces, like my beloved Common Projects low tops and Gucci knitwear and blouse-y shirts.
I say interestingly, because tonight I’m off to the opening of “The 501® Jean: Stories of an Original”, a three-part documentary film celebrating the 501® and its place in cultural history. With contributions from countercultural types like Henry Rollins and Lee Ranaldo, as well as US menswear heads like Scott Schuman and Mark McNairy, I’m looking forward to learning more about these iconic jeans, and suspecting that it might even lead to a spate of rare denim-buying. In other denim-related news, I picked up a copy of Denim Dudes at the (excellent) Gucci museum in Florence recently which is also feeding my newly-returned love of this faded, abused indigo fabric and the passion it creates.