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WWD Scoop issue 03/24/2008

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

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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.”

In recent years, the fashion show has become a powerful, trenchant vector for designers’ high-mindedness, with some spectacles approximating performance art pieces. Chalayan is a master of the genre, and so is Belgian Raf Simons, famous for atmospheric men’s wear presentations, which have been staged on futuristic escalator banks or with a whirring modern sculpture as the centerpiece.

Viktor & Rolf are also consummate showmen. Their “Russian Doll” collection, featuring model Maggie Rizer rotating on a turntable in successive layers of finery, drew a standing ovation, while other spectacles—one with black-painted models, another with models bearing their own lighting and sound systems—were more controversial.

“In our case, the show is definitely inspiring the entire design process. We think of a show first and then the clothes,” Horsting and Snoeren relate. “This is not always well received by the part of the audience that attends to see clothes only and don’t appreciate the extra layer. Especially nowadays with an overload of shows and information, professionals have a challenged attention span. But then again, how many pretty dresses can you register as a journalist in four weeks of shows? We need and want to be different.”

Galliano, a professional mind-blower who stirred ire with a Christian Dior couture show in 2000 inspired by homeless people, insists his shows are not to shock, but to show that beauty can reside anywhere. “Beauty is what I look for in my inspiration and research trips: beauty in conflict, beauty in struggle, beauty in revolution and the unexpected as much as beauty in color, textiles and art,” he explains. “You have to keep the shows fresh, exciting and unexpected as much for those that attend as us working on them.”

Marc Jacobs, for one, has leapfrogged to become the most anticipated show of New York Fashion Week by ramping up the scale and content of his runway outings. The designer says he made a conscious decision to make them “somewhat autobiographical” and in tune with the state of the world. “It’s just a way to tie a lot of nonlinear thoughts together,” he explains. This season, however, he took a different tack. “I didn’t want to have a fashion show at all,” he says, a decision that led him and set designer Stefan Beckman to discuss “nonset ideas” for his nonshow. Still, his parade of clothes amidst a Sonic Youth concert struck a chord, and was a hit.

Londoner Marios Schwab, who showed only hobbling tube dresses for fall, allows that his collection was conceptual, playing on the theme of restriction by actually harnessing models’ legs to make walking difficult. In reality, the fabrics stretch and the commercial pieces are more forgiving. Still, Schwab notes that he received “a huge reaction from the art world.”

Some designers warn that overly intellectual fashions risk a hard landing in the land of pretension.

“Designers should make clothes that fit into the aesthetics, society and identities of the moment: the times they live in,” says Karl Lagerfeld.

“They should do clothes that express all that without them commenting too much. That can give an unbearable pretension—what some designers like as an image, I suppose. Do the right things in the right moments, that is what designers should do. Look ahead, but don’t comment too much. Great speeches can make the clothes not up to the dialogue once you see them.

“‘Intellectual,’ like ‘avant-garde,’ are labels to make designers feel like they are serious people. The same problem exists with art,” Lagerfeld contends.

Paris-based designer Andrew Gn stresses that fashion is meant to be consumed, not only photographed in magazines, and considers intellectual fashions somewhat out of vogue. “In a time like this, what we want is beautiful, wearable garments that inspire women to wear them,” he says. “The last thing a woman wants is to look at a garment and say, ‘How can I wear that?’….I think fashion should always stay something light, especially when everything becomes heavy. Fashion should be giving you joy.”

Galliano is of a like opinion. “There have been wars, rationing and much worse than recessions and still fashion and fantasy survive. The more the belt tightens, the more people will want the best, the ultimate and true luxury. If you are terrified by the news, depressed by world events and economy, rather than hit the bottle, isn’t it better to hit the shops? Fashion is intoxicating, escapist and indulgent.”

To be sure, observers agreed that intellectual and conceptual fashions struggle for airtime in a world of fast-fashion behemoths, which have democratized access to the latest trends, and in an industry increasingly obsessed with bottom-line performance.

Pamela Golbin, chief fashion curator at Arts Décoratifs museum in Paris, notes that when Kawakubo and Yamamoto came onto the scene in the Eighties, fewer people had access to fashion. “Today, fashion is so integrated in daily culture, it’s not a question of money anymore. There are no secrets anymore,” she says.

Von Beirendonck warns that marketing decisions are bringing a worrisome sameness to collections today, which might ultimately feed a new hunger for more intelligent clothes with more content. The designer made that rallying cry the theme of his fall collection, titled Sick of Easy Fashion. He says it’s “a reaction to the way we are bombarded with these ‘easy-cheap’ fashion copies by the chain stores. Ban copycats!”

“It is true we are all witnessing a vulgarization of fashion,” agree Horsting and Snoeren. “Fashion is definitely less groundbreaking than in the Eighties, but on the other hand, fashion has become omnipresent in the world. The mystery around it has eroded somehow, but it’s a new reality and not necessarily negative.

“Every designer nowadays is evaluating his relevance in the context of big groups, the Internet, new markets and high-street chains with superior marketing and distribution facilities,” they continue. “Does there remain an audience for intellectual fashion? Yes, it would be strange to think everyone will one day be dressed in celebrity-designed clothes. In the end, real authenticity is what counts, but this can as well be more emotional than something analytical and intellectual. Let’s say that there will always be a need for authentic voices, in any realm of our culture.”

Yamamoto couldn’t agree more. “We are in the worst moment in fashion now,” he says. “But there are, and always will be, designers creating with noncommercial notions in mind, even though there are very few. My company still exists without financial sponsorship—isn’t this the proof?”

“I don’t think people are as afraid of what’s unconventional,” adds Jacobs.

“In fact, I think they like it because it’s new.”