By  on March 24, 2008

Designers create collections in a language all their own. But when it comes to the customer, what is lost in translation?

Fashions considered conceptual or intellectual are not always easy to wear. Just ask curator Valerie Steele, who says she can’t walk five feet down Sixth Avenue in her Martin Margiela skirt designed so that part of the hem is permanently hiked and attached to the waistband. “Someone always runs up to me, ‘Miss, miss! Your skirt!’” relates Steele, director of the museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Any fellow buying Prada this season might soon have similar travails to relate, given Miuccia Prada’s subversive propositions for her spring men’s wear, including trousers without flies, bralike waistcoats, peekaboo jockstraps and a tutu or two. (Figuring male designers have subjected women to difficult fashions for eons, Prada decided to turn the tables.)

Clothes and runway shows that challenge and confound—or at least get people thinking beyond skirt lengths and the colors of the season—have carved out a place in contemporary fashion history, from Rei Kawakubo’s infamous “humps” collection to Hussein Chalayan’s morphing clothes that are sometimes as compelling and collectible as contemporary art.

It’s fair to say thinkable fashions—yin to wearable’s yang—have taken a bit of a backseat in recent years, when surface decoration, bling and hype prevailed during the recent luxury boom—and in an age of tabloids, not Tolstoy. Yet provocative and thought-provoking ideas remain a vital part of the fashion landscape: influencing and inspiring other designers, stimulating and engaging professionals and sparking the change that is the engine of the industry, designers and curators agree. “Whoever approaches his profession in a deep way gives voice to social and political problems, besides his personal thinking,” reasons Prada, a maverick who might show Neanderthal furs one season, fairy-tale pajamas the next. “Design is the expression of thinking. For sure fashion has always contributed to deep changes. One of the best examples is the creation of the miniskirt.” Certainly, that garment both reflected, and accelerated, an era of sexual freedom, much like the pantsuit would later define and assist women in their quest for equality.

“I think that essentially, fashion is to seduce, to shock and, above all, get you to escape,” says John Galliano, a designer who has sent everything from cardboard floats and midgets to chain-whirling martial artists down his runway. “Clothes are the scripts to make you dream. You just have to decide what character you want to be that morning.”

Granted, designers that venture too far into thought-provoking territory risk flirting with tension, and even absurdity. Consider Margiela’s experimental clothes from 1997 intentionally infested with bacteria, yeast and molds, suggesting fungi can be funky. He ventured close to the edge for fall 2008 also, with exaggerated funnel-neck dresses and one-legged catsuits. Still, many creative types are emphatic that their mission is nothing less than floating ideas that can spark wide-ranging changes and influence the broader design world.

“Design is a counter-argument to society and flat thinking. It must have elements that make people react deeply, think and question,” says Yohji Yamamoto. “Fashion has given so much influence to everyday life in modern society. That is to say that people who consider something or move society must also understand fashion. In other words, people who don’t understand fashion cannot understand society and the world.”

“We have a role to change boundaries and to reflect on our society,” agrees Walter Van Beirendonck, manager of the fashion department at Antwerp, Belgium’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and a designer who has populated his runways with stilt-walkers, gas-mask-wearing ballroom dancers, bodybuilders in corsets and burly men walking hand-in-hand with young boys. “As a fashion designer, I do enjoy to react on a regular basis to our world and events of the day. I’m fascinated by new aesthetics, and I do like to fantasize about new ways of dressing, living, eating, loving…”

In a written reply to a questionnaire, Maison Martin Margiela notes that commercial and intellectual fashion each has its own audience, which allows “different brands, styles and periods” to coexist and complement one another. As for the heady kind, “time will tell if they have the power to change the course of fashion or not, but they are certainly playing a part in the evolution of the design world.”

Steele said intellectual fashions, like contemporary art, are a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining force in the early Eighties when Japanese mavericks like Yamamoto, Kawakubo and Issey Miyake began challenging accepted notions of femininity with their mostly black, often asymmetric, always avant-garde designs. In the early days, women brave enough to wear their dark designs felt part of an in-the-know clan, glancing at each other knowingly in the manner of a secret handshake. “Fashion, in a way, began to be taken seriously as an aspect of contemporary visual culture,” Steele says.

Later in the decade, a wave of Belgian designers threw their conceptual hats in the ring, joining the likes of Kawakubo in deconstructing things. Martin Margiela, a Greta Garbo-like figure in a lab coat, went further, inverting standard notions of the designer world with his no-label label—attached with four stitches visible on the outside of the garment—along with exposed seams, extreme lengths and, ultimately, stores with no window displays and every surface inside coated in white paint or white cotton.

Margiela celebrates his 20th anniversary this year, and according to Kaat Debo, creative director of Antwerp’s ModeNatie fashion museum, Diesel’s 2002 acquisition of Margiela was a watershed moment signifying that “intellectual fashion does not exclude commercialism—it’s not a dirty word anymore.” In her view, Margiela is the “greatest example of intellectual fashion filtering down,” both to major designers and to the street: inside-out seams being a preeminent example. “One of the biggest challenges that I have had preparing for the Margiela retrospective [at Antwerp’s Mode Museum in September] is to show people that his ideas were not normal 20 years ago. Now they don’t look so revolutionary, which proves it has filtered through.”

Chalayan is another out-there designer to have recently been absorbed into the corporate world, having been named Puma AG’s first design director, with the German activewear giant taking a majority in his business.

Steele argues that Japanese and Belgian designers pioneered the idea that clothes that are imperfect, intentionally damaged or frayed—suggesting both the passage of time and the hand of the maker—can also be beautiful. That ultimately cleared the way for the likes of Chanel, Lanvin or even Zara, to make clothes with raw, unfinished edges.

Occasionally, new ideas in fashion are greeted with outrage, and Kawakubo has been on the receiving end many times. For her 2004 show, models came out wearing only skirts to faint scratchy music, like a badly tuned radio. Journalists and retailers were perplexed. But “now we can’t get rid of the damn full skirt,” notes Michael Fink, vice president and women’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Steele recalled the angry press reaction to Kawakubo’s “humps” collection, whose padded shapes in gingham patterns some equated to deformity. While those looks might not have trickled down to H&M or Gap, they still opened a window of possibility.

“In a general sense, it’s the idea of alternative beauty: That’s had an impact,” Steele said. “Rei’s really been mining that concept: the idea that there’s no beauty without some strangeness in it.”
Dutch design wizards Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren agree, saying Kawakubo’s arrival on the fashion scene in the Eighties did nothing less than shift “the Western world’s view on beauty. Newness is what counts, and newness comes from thinking out of the box, experimenting. Nowadays, the focus is so much on the ‘trend,’ whereas we tend to look at our, and other designers’, work as an oeuvre.”

Horsting and Snoeren insist that creating a silhouette each season is not enough. “Sometimes, we try to be merely aesthetic, but we have noticed that without meaning, there is no beauty. This does not mean that something ‘intelligent’ needs to look ‘intelligent.’ We try to make something we call ‘conceptual glamour.’” For fall ’08, the duo assumed an antifashion stance with clothes exclaiming “No” or “Dream On,” like some glamorous protest.

Tattered, asymmetric clothes in all black probably represent the most common stereotype of intellectual fashions, but Steele notes that a new generation of Japanese designers who focused on the phenomenon of kawaii (or cute) are just as thought-provoking. “Even though it’s pink instead of black doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of idea behind it,” she says of a pack that includes Undercover, Dresscamp and Kawakubo protégé Tao Kurihara.

Despite his reputation as one of the most conceptual designers working today, and his conviction that fashion “can change people’s perceptions in the world as much as any other medium,” Chalayan balks at terms such as intellectual. “I guess we approach fashion in an artistic way,” he says. “I just think of it as inspiring people. We know that we’re making clothes that we sell in stores.”

Chalayan, who took on human evolution as the starting point for fall ’08, stresses that ideas in fashion are only as good as the execution. “There’s critical thinking in the work, but more so I’m an aesthetic person. I’m interested in the way it looks—otherwise, I would write,” he says. “If there’s no aesthetic power there, ideas fail anyway.”

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