Dystopian futures at London Fashion Week: Men’s SS19
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.