“Men’s wear” is starting to sound like an antiquated term.
This story first appeared in the August 26, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Silk blouses, knit skirts and hip-hugging tunics are all part of the picture for the spring 2016 season, accentuating the ways that men’s collections are becoming more gender fluid than ever.
Designers Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent and Jonathan Anderson were among those flying the flag for a new young style inspired by Millennials — a generation that appears to have cast off gender labels like last season’s Zara duds.
And all this coincides with a moment when the transgender community — thank you, Caitlyn Jenner — is experiencing unprecedented visibility.
“We are living in a transgender moment,” said Riki Wilchins, a transgender activist and author of three books on gender theory. “Gender roles are being challenged, and they’re being challenged in fashion. Fashion isn’t just reflecting it, fashion is helping to lead it, it’s profound and it’s here to stay.”
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June, a revolution was playing out on social media. “I think Millennials are definitely pushing this change. Millennials are much more comfortable with gender nonconformity and gender queerness,” Wilchins said.
Celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne are rejecting what they view as outdated definitions of sexuality. Though Facebook now offers a smorgasbord of gender options, they prefer to write their own script. As Cyrus recently told Paper magazine: “I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”
The boys have been less vocal in staking out the “New Neutral” of gender politics.
That doesn’t mean it’s not happening. For one thing, men are moving on from the classic button-down-and-pants combo and adopting brands that profess a gender-neutral aesthetic — cult labels like 69 Worldwide, Baja East, Eckhaus Latta and Vejas, whose fashion shows often take on the air of underground art happenings.
Streetwear’s elevation to luxury status, in particular, has been instrumental in moving fashion forward.
Harlem-based label Gypsy Sport captured the zeitgeist with its guerrilla-style fashion show in Washington Square Park last September, in which androgynous models in ethnic-flavored garb took over a public space.
Designer Rio Uribe said the brand’s Haturn planet logo — consisting of two baseball caps turning on each other — reflects the principles of Gypsy Sport. “The idea is that it’s a planet where everyone is welcome — anyone of any race, ethnicity, gender, color, size,” he explained.
“I just started it as a men’s line with the idea to make stuff that might be pushing the envelope a little bit for men, but never to make it an androgynous or unisex line. But as time went on, more people started to give me that type of reputation, and I realized that it was actually working and selling that way, so I just went with it,” Uribe recounted.
Shayne Oliver, whose luxury streetwear label Hood by Air cleared the way for genderless brands, likes to challenge gender stereotypes head-on.
He summed up his Paris runway debut during men’s fashion week in June as “extravagance without a filter” — think off-the-shoulder tops, zipper-adorned maxiskirts and fetish accessories including dental retractors and padlocked pacifiers.
“I do men’s Paris because I enjoy causing friction,” said the designer, who also shows in New York. “It was a ‘f–k you — we don’t need to sell you anything,’ because a show is about a mood and an archetype. It’s about something that doesn’t necessarily have to sit on a rack in general for men or women.”
Not that HBA spurns the commercial aspect. The collection is carried in more than 220 points of sale worldwide, including Barneys, Colette, Printemps and Lane Crawford.
“The point is not to just put heels on someone and have them walking the runway and be like, ‘Oh my God, that was genius!’ It’s more about the modern-day take on what that means for someone to do that,” he said. “I’m not doing it to be shocking — it’s because I want this person to actually wear it.”
The establishment is taking notice.
This year, Oliver scooped up the Swarovski Award for Menswear at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards and has been mentored for the last year by a team from luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, after coming in as runner-up in the inaugural LVMH Prize competition for emerging talents.
And Gypsy Sport has been selected as one of the 10 finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. Crews from Ovation TV have been shadowing Uribe as he gears up to present his first women’s collection on Sept. 15.
So does this spell the end of the guy’s guy as we know him? One thing’s for sure: Androgyny is the new gold standard in magazine editorials and advertising.
Amid news that Apple Model Management, a leading Thai agency, is opening a Los Angeles branch dedicated to transgender talent, modeling agents are scrambling to sign fresh faces, with a premium on the kind of wan, bespectacled guys who walked the Gucci runway in pussy-bow blouses and Seventies thrift-store chic.
Actress and model Hari Nef, a trans-fashion muse with an avid Tumblr following, recently joined the women’s roster at IMG Worldwide and is set to appear in the second season of Amazon’s groundbreaking series “Transparent.” Brooklyn-based artist Michael Bailey Gates, whose work explores gender identity, is on the men’s board at Ford Models.
“In my modeling career I’m shown as a white male model who can play the masculine and androgynous parts. I have felt beautiful in both a dress and a suit,” said Gates, who recently did a shoot with photographer Terry Richardson for Vogue Hommes in which he switched between the two.
Nonetheless, Gates is somewhat guarded about fashion’s flirtation with cross-dressing.
“The idea of a trend worries me because trends die off,” he said. “I think there is a danger in sensationalizing any identity. In mainstream men’s fashion, dressing feminine has been provocative in the past, or sometimes even used as a party trick. This doesn’t feel right to me.”
Ed Burstell, managing director of specialty store Liberty London, is also skeptical when it comes to the growing embrace of feminine stylings on the runway.
“There were an awful lot of people who were on the bandwagon, particularly in those men’s collections — without naming any names. If it wasn’t in the cultural air, it never would have made the collection, so to me, some of it did look quite fake,” he said.
“And then there are brands whose DNA, like Hood by Air, is just born right out of that,” Burstell continued. “For me, it would just be about the integrity of the brands. If this is part of their DNA and it’s genuine, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have longevity.”
Burstell pointed out the androgynous look has been around for a while.
“That it dovetails with as big a cultural moment as Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has just made it snowball, but there have been a lot of people that have been working this vein for a really long time — Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh, Ann Demeulemeester, Comme des Garçons, Haider Ackermann,” he noted.
And then there is Slimane, the patron saint of androgyny, who started challenging conventional notions of masculine beauty in the late Nineties as head of men’s collections at Yves Saint Laurent, and went on to revolutionize male — and female — wardrobes with his skinny suits for Dior Homme.
Almine Rech, whose galleries in Paris and Brussels show Slimane’s artwork, sees his current reinvention of Saint Laurent as no less exciting. Since taking over the brand in 2012, Slimane has shown his men’s collections on male and female models, with items like trenchcoats and leather jackets becoming staples for both sexes.
For his spring 2016 “Surf Sounds” collection, inspired by the California music scene, Kurt Cobain and others, male models wore flashy satin jackets and colorful granny cardigans with the same nonchalance as black leather jackets.
“It’s very transgressive,” said Rech of Slimane. “He hasn’t been afraid to lose a whole segment of customers, presumably in order to win another.”
She noted that while the legendary house’s founder was the first to dress women in tuxedos via Le Smoking, Slimane is breaking new ground by imposing a youth-dominated unisex aesthetic at a luxury brand. To wit, he photographed his spring 2015 collection on models seen from the back, making gender identification redundant.
“Calvin Klein did it with jeans, but nobody has dared to do it with a brand that had haute couture and luxury ready-to-wear aimed at a wealthy, bourgeois clientele,” Rech noted.
“Hedi’s attitude toward genders has always been challenging the preconceived ideas about masculinity. Hedi was always about no gender, but rather a generation, and an allure,” according to the house of Saint Laurent, also noting Slimane changed the look of models by street casting young, androgynous “indie” types.
During his first tenure at YSL, Slimane dressed women in men’s wear, starting with Madonna in 1997, foreshadowing his belief in a unisex wardrobe. He introduced Saint Laurent’s new “permanent” collection in 2012, offering for both sexes masculine tailoring, peacoats, duffel coats, trenchcoats, leather blousons, skinny jeans and duffel bags.
In a uniquely upscale manner, Slimane is mirroring the shopping habits of the boys and girls who camp out on the floor at his shows to watch their peers — indie band members and celebrity offspring like Jack Kilmer, Dylan Brosnan and Charlie Oldman — walk the runway.
As retailers have noticed, too, Millennials are not shy about crossing into departments dedicated to the opposite sex.
“This cross-division shopping pattern is increasingly significant to the way we buy, merchandise and retail product,” said Judd Crane, director of women’s wear and accessories at Selfridges.
The British department store chain earlier this year hosted Agender pop-up stores at its flagship on London’s Oxford Street, as well as in its Manchester and Birmingham stores and online. “He She Me,” a fashion film starring Nef that was commissioned as part of the project, was viewed more than 300,000 times.
Agender offered more than 40 men’s wear and women’s wear labels, in addition to five new-to-store unisex labels, including Canadian designer Rad Hourani’s made-to-order designs.
“The concept of unisex or co-ed dressing is increasingly accessible and works well commercially for us,” Crane said. “What we learn from our creative projects, and from Agender in particular, could really impact the way our stores look in the future.”
Hourani has been selected as one of the ambassadors for a similar initiative by luxury online boutique Thecorner.com, set to launch in mid-September.
“The No Gender section stems from an observation of how an increasing number of people buy clothes — beyond seasonal trends, beyond gender divisions, toward a timeless and genderless aesthetic,” explained Katherine Yoo, head of merchandising at Thecorner.com, which belongs to Yoox Group.
The section will feature more than 30 brands including Rick Owens, Lemaire, Lucio Vanotti, Gypsy Sport, Études Studio, Giorgio Armani and Yohji Yamamoto.
Hourani said he was pleased to see the concept catching on, but he was keen to make a distinction between his approach and the androgynous trend seen on men’s catwalks.
“For me, unisex is more about neutrality than making a man look like a woman or making a woman look like a man,” he explained. “I’m not trying to limit people into being only androgynous or only transsexual or only feminine or only masculine. I’m creating a canvas that can be adapted to any style.”
Damien Paul, head of men’s wear at Matchesfashion.com, said that approach is gaining currency.
“We’re definitely seeing a shift — increasingly, designers are creating clothing with a more universal appeal. It feels like a more modern approach than any clichés about gendered dressing. I thought it was really interesting that when Craig Green introduced women’s looks into his runway show this season, the girls were dressed almost identically to the boys — he kept his focus on the silhouettes that he’s already gained a following for,” he noted.
Burstell said “gender flip” would be at the center of Liberty’s fall campaign.
“It could be an entire bank of windows where all the female mannequins are in men’s wear. We’re deciding just how far and how deep we want to go. You need to change a consumer’s eye, and it takes a little while for your eye to change,” he noted.
It all adds up to an exciting time for retailers.
“The future really is just going to be about the acceptance of choice,” Burstell argued. “At the end of all of this, isn’t it just what you’re comfortable in? If you want to wear a men’s suit or if you want to wear a dress, why not?”