FASHION’S NEW TABOO? INDUSTRY REPUDIATES ‘TERRORIST CHIC’ LOOKS
Byline: Miles Socha / With contributions from James Fallon, London / Alessandra Ilari in Milan
PARIS — Six months ago, runways were awash in military uniforms, camouflage prints and even a few PLO head scarves.
But that was six months ago. This season, in the wake of the Sept. 11 catastrophe, the military trend and so-called ‘Terrorist Chic’ have become fashion taboos and references to them, even those designed before the World Trade Center attack, have all but disappeared. Designers, editors and retailers are describing such images, no matter how artistically presented, as horrifying given the current climate.
“I can’t even look at a violent image now without feeling sick,” said Raf Simons, the Antwerp designer whose last two men’s wear shows included models with hijab-like head scarves and utility belts adorned with bullets and miniature metallic skulls.
It was a look that influenced a lot of other people, particularly young women’s wear designers, and helped propel a spate of magazine shoots that flirted with military and Mideastern themes. Some of those features, given the long lead times of most magazines, are just beginning to hit newsstands now and are causing a lot more controversy than editors bargained for.
Before the terrorist incidents, word began surfacing in Europe that several top designers in Milan and Paris were planning to explore Mideastern themes next season – and perhaps even allude to political rebellion. In fact, a couple of days later, during London fashion week, the sound of screaming jets could be heard over the soundtrack at the Fake London show as camouflage-printed clothes stormed the runway.
Now, newly-sensitive retailers and editors, as well as most designers, say they’re steering clear of such images, even those that explore folkloric rather than militant themes. In Milan this week, where khaki and military themes were common in prior seasons, such looks are scarce, and Eastern moods have been limited — brocades at Prada, or Indian embroideries at Ferre.
“It’s just verboten,” said retailer Janet Brown, one of the few American retailers attending the European collections. “We all know that Islam is a religion of peace. But right now when you look at CNN and see pictures of Afghanistan and you see Osama bin Laden, it’s hard to look beyond that.”
For that reason, she said, she plans to buy spring 2002 clothes that won’t cause stress. “There are enough places in the world for these designers to focus on,” she said. “Of course, what could be more beautiful than ‘Lawrence of Arabia’?+.But we have to be sensitive.”
Even Simons says it’s time to show something peaceful.
“We’ve been asking ourselves a lot of questions since the tragedies in the U.S.” he said. “I’m very opposed to any type of aggression. I’ve been deeply affected by the attacks. But what I was trying to communicate in my shows, especially the last show, was a mood of peace and serenity. It was about individual protest, about the beauties of other cultures; not about terrorism. Summer was very light and serene. It’s true that winter was harder. But I hate violence. I always have.”
Simons cited Miguel Adrover’s recent Mideastern-flavored collections as exploring similar ideas about bringing cultures together. “That was a beautiful collection,” said Simons. “And I’ve heard a lot about people criticizing it now. But that’s painting the wrong picture. It was a hymn to the beauty of a culture. The way a culture dresses does not qualify it as terrorist. A terrorist can wear a suit, too.”
Still, given his spring collection’s reverberations, Simons said he feels compelled to explain his rationale. “We’re working on a text [to send out],” Simons added.
Since Spanish-born Adrover burst on the New York fashion scene in 1999 with a show referencing revolutionary war in Chiapas, Mexico, Adrover has made political and social commentary his subject, purpose and inspiration. His last two collections showcased Egyptian, Arab and other far-flung international images, including the one shown in Manhattan Sept. 9.
“To create grand, fantastical outfits out of sensitive cultural events can get tricky,” Adrover said. “However, to represent cultures and celebrate beauty and understanding of different places and peoples no matter where they come from can be quite respectful. I am concerned when I touch a subject. I am concerned about not making those people or events seem ridiculous or simply a trend.
“Clothing can have the power to open doors or the power to get you killed,” Adrover added, referring to the spate of violence in the U.S. against people wearing Islamic clothing. “People are often judged on how they look or dress, not on the basis of who they are.”
Gucci Group creative director Tom Ford, interviewed backstage moments before the Gucci show on Saturday, said he wouldn’t do any military styles, but warned it would be a “big mistake” to rule out Mideastern references.
“It would be racist and wrong,” he said. “Ethnicity shouldn’t be taboo because we’re not at war with Islam but with a small group of fundamentalists, a sect. Also, there’s great beauty and refinement about some of those clothes — plus there’s a peace about those clothes.”
Regarding military style, Ford said, “People in uniforms always look good, but if your city were swarming with soldiers, they would take on a different appeal. In any case, it’s our job [as fashion designers] to react to things by interpreting the times without offending people.”
As October fashion magazines hit newsstands in Europe, it’s clear that Simons’s collections, John Galliano’s military and Mideastern touches for Christian Dior’s winter couture, Adrover’s Egyptian styles, and the violent protests last July at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, have all had an impact on editors and stylists. The result: lots of clothes flavored with details from Eastern cultures and fashion layouts that suggest protest, anarchy and sometimes violence.
In the September issue of The Face, for example, a shoot by Terry Richardson entitled “Sabotage,” depicted machine gun-toting women dressed guerrilla-style, with their clothes covered in dirt and their faces obscured by printed scarves.
“It now is ironic to see how fashion reflects the world view,” Richard Buckley, editor of Vogue Hommes International. “The whole terrorist thing has been out there in fashion for a while.”
Vogue Hommes picked up on the mood of “rebellion chic” by focusing its current issue around the themes of rebels, outlaws and outsiders in various fields. Buckley attributes the trend to such things as Naomi Klein’s much-talked-about book No Logo. “People had been taking stock of the situation before Sept. 11 and assessing what was important and what wasn’t,” he said.
But while there now are certain fashion taboos, Buckley doesn’t believe these will last for long. “Fashion is fashion and it will get back to normal again very quickly,” he said. “But whatever is going to be next is going to reflect not only people’s feelings from the images [of the World Trade Center] but also directly related to where their businesses are. This is simply a red flag. The real influence will come from the economic downturn that is inevitable.”
French Vogue’s October issue also comes across as oddly prescient. It showcases Simons’s head-wrapped runway warriors, trumpeting the look as an accessory trend for next season. There’s also a fashion shoot in New Delhi, India, with a famous Bollywood actress wearing fall coats and head wraps.
Gardner Bellanger, president of Conde Nast France, which publishes French Vogue, points out that the woman photographed is Indian and Hindu, but acknowledges that there are new sensitivities attached to things like shrouds and such images could be misinterpreted.
“It’s clear that Vogue will be looking at the world and fashion in a very different way and with brand new sensitivities,” she said, making her comments in consultation with fashion director Emmanuelle Alt. “No question we’re going to steer clear of terrorist chic and Middle Eastern chic and anything that comes close to it. There’s a plethora of trends out there. There’s no shortage of things to chose from and pick up on.”
Karl Lagerfeld experienced the sensitivity of the ethnic and religious issue firsthand, when he was sharply criticized by Muslim clerics in 1994 for featuring script from the Koran on three Chanel dresses. Lagerfeld, who later apologized and burned the dresses in question, told WWD last week that he has never fancied Mideastern styles and considers the trend tired. He recalled that in 1984 Galliano showed a collection entitled “Afghanistan Repudiates Western Ideals,” replete with an illustration on his invitation depicting an Afghan man about to trounce on a bowler hat.
Since Galliano is never one to shy away from sensitive subjects on the runway, speculation has been building in Paris that he might reference world events at Christian Dior. But the house, while assuring that all its designers are peace loving, said it is not its policy to disclose details of the collection before the show.
Meanwhile, Lagerfeld said that now is not the moment to remind people of the crisis swirling around the region. “People play with war as long as war is not at their door,” he said.
Lagerfeld confessed he was taken aback by the Dehli layout in French Vogue. The model’s worried expressions and the journalistic style of the photos too closely resemble the news images the world has been seeing on television every night. “It looks like war on the streets of a Muslim country,” he said. “That’s not a subject for fashion magazines.”
Designer Alber Elbaz, who was born in Tel Aviv and recently traveled there to visit his mother, said the news events have left him empty. “When I’m watching CNN, I’m not inspired at all, not even to design a button,” he said. “Today, I have more questions than answers, and I feel that I am not alone.”
Ingrid Sischy, editor-in-chief of Interview magazine, said fashion designers and image makers should not avoid referencing the subject at hand, so long as it’s done “in a way that’s intelligent, critically aware and sensitive.”
Sischy described a recent fashion shoot in The Face depicting machine gun-wielding women with covered faces as “unconscionably unconscious.”
“It’s important to untangle the question of terrorism from the question of Middle Eastern imagery. It’s vital to realize that not every person or image with a shroud over their head is a terrorist or an allusion to a terrorist,” she said. “But mindless, childish, attention-getting references to terrorist chic, before, during or after all these horrifying events should be thrown down the toilet.”
Phoebe Philo, the creative director of Chloe, said she was “not feeling” a Mideastern trend in preparing for her spring show. But the power of the attacks to make previously innocuous images and subjects suddenly emotionally wrenching is far reaching. The prototype invitation to the Chloe show, depicting a scantily dressed woman in a firefighter’s hat, was pinned to a bulletin board as news programs chronicled the heartbreaking rescue efforts. “We all went, ‘Oh my gosh,”‘ Philo said. Of course, the invitation was scrapped.
Indeed, the terrorist attacks are causing lots of soul-searching in the industry about where fashion has been and where it should be going.
“Everybody is re-evaluating values and I think that we had strayed a long way from good taste, becoming very explicit in many ways,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “It’s time to go back to a softer and gentler time. So I think there’ll be more somber — not classic and dumb — mood in fashion. I think there’s been a lot of bad taste on the runway. What we need now is good value and design content. It can’t be outre. We’ll want more longevity and reality.”
Asked for her opinion on the camouflage theme that has coursed through fashion, she said: “Going forward, I think it would be in bad taste to do military looks.”
Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Barneys New York, said that the store had become very sensitive to merchandise that could conjure terror-related messages. “Camouflage and anything overtly military doesn’t feel right at this time,” she said, advocating what she called “subdued” clothes.
“I think we’ll be seeing a certain calmness in fashion,” she said. “Cheerful clothes are also appropriate. I think people will want something bright. All black doesn’t seem correct. We don’t want anything ostentatious or over the top either. Nothing should be aggressive or militaristic or too violent.”
Stephen Gan, creative director of Harper’s Bazaar and Visionaire, agreed, saying “now, more than ever, I want to see images of lightness and beauty.”
Rebecca Voight, executive editor of fashion and beauty for Dutch, a magazine that has been criticized for promoting so-called heroin chic and porno chic, did not run any terrorist-chic imagery on its pages. But she said fashion has been “flirting with terrorism” because images of “women and men in turbans, caftans, bomber jackets and sneakers toting machine guns is riveting.”
But after the terrorist attacks, “this dress-up does look frivolous. Middle-Eastern dress-up and military pastiche looks silly,” she said. “The costume party is over, the lights are on.”