During New York Fashion Week we have seen celebrities and attitude prevailing over design skills; London was instead rife with derivative collections, while Milan is finally experiencing a Renaissance of some sort dragged by Alessandro Michele at Gucci, and supported by Anna Wintour (so, since Wintour is finally acknowledging such Renaissance, it must be happening...).
At the moment in Paris there is instead a cult and it's called Vêtements. Founded in 2014 by Demna Gvasalia (who previously worked at Margiela and Louis Vuitton, and is currently Balenciaga's Creative Director) and his brother Guram, the brand started as a collective project with seven designers who initially worked for other labels and therefore desired to remain anonymous.
Hailed as an extremely experimental, raw and edgy runway (considering the previous shows in the basement of a seedy gay club and in a Chinese restaurant in the Belleville neighbourhood), the A/W 16 show took place at the gothic American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Avenue Georges V.
The runway opened with a member of the collective, Russian stylist Lotta Volkova, in gym socks and an ill-fitting short child's dress with lace around the collar (wear your favourite frock from when you were a young girl and you may get the same effect...).
Then followed school mini-skirts, school ties worn as scarves, raincoats hanging from belt hoops, ill-fitting printed dresses at times with pinched-in shoulders, checked shirts with one sleeve missing (I mean, do we really have to buy a designer's shirt with one sleeve ripped off?), a barrage of hoodies (at times shrunken to give the wearer an elongated silhouette), trench and velvet coats, and thigh-high boots (one pair reproducing a sort of tattoo effect).
Quite a few garments ticked all the Margiela boxes, from the distorted uniforms to the androgyny, and, while a new entry was the gothic/satanic theme (read skull heads, red roses and the satanic pentagram), oversized tailoring prevailed and in some cases more than streetwear-meets-Margiela, the mood was "juvenile delinquent adopts the wardrobe of Lurch out of the Addams Family".
Commercially speaking the strongest points of the collection will predictably be the hoodies and sweatshirts with obscene slogans such as "Sexual Fantasies", "You Fuck n Asshole", and less obscene but equally bland ones including "Are we having fun yet?", "May the bridges I burn light the way", "Justin4Ever" and "Total Fucking Darkness", but the blue windbreakers with the Vetements' logo that closed the show are also destined to become bestsellers, especially with celebrities. All the garments were modelled by friends and girls and boys cast from social media.
The reaction? Well, the main collective reaction called to mind the opening of William Klein's Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? with Miss Maxwell pontificating at the end of the rather bizarre and useless catwalk show by fashion designer Ducasse.
Some critics tried indeed to intellectualise over a fine deconstructivist approach that destroyed classic tailoring; others praised the collective with grand words like Miss Maxwell, seeing a barrage of individualism in the designs, an injection of fun into the Parisian fashion scene, and a rush of outsider energy in a vacuum (a vacuum actually created by the fashion industry itself).
Yet, if you manage to take some distance from the cult, you realise that there are some serious doubts with the Vêtements offer, doubts that go beyond the mere passion of the collective for ill-fitting dresses that pass for deconstructivist and conceptual approaches to fashion.
The main problem with Vêtements' designs is the lack of a genuine revolution: the clothes on the runway could be assembled from a vintage market, and they weren't particularly offensive, even when they bore offending slogans; the poetical "May the bridges I burn light the way", rather than being lifted from an essay by a tortured writer bore memories of Dylan out of Beverly Hills 90210 quarrelling with Brandon; the gigantic silhouettes weren't new, but evoked in the minds of a few people traumatised by the '80s the horridly gigantic garments we used to wear then (I still have a designer trench coat from those times with shoulders as wide as the wingspan of an American eagle...) and no political stances were taken.
Apart from a lack of consistent revolutionary messages, the prices of Vêtements' designs are extremely high: there is for example a DHL red and yellow shirt (apparently the result of a licensing deal of some sort as the T-shirt is legal) that is extremely popular at the moment, but that also looks rather ugly and costs around $330, while the copies you may found online come at $30.
Apparently this is a strategy: making something in limited quantities, putting it on the market at unreasonable prices, and generating a buzz about it, causes a buying frenzy. This you may argue is a great strategy, but it is applied to something rather bland on a design level. Shouldn't you start producing something really extraordinary and unique design and quality-wise in limited quantities and at reasonable prices to really change things?
Vêtements claim they want to revolutionise fashion, but can you shake up the industry by playing the same game and by producing garments that mainly stand out for their prices and for the supposed aura of cult they have been given by the social media rather than for their real qualities (unique design, materials, etc).
The collective recently announced that, from January next year, they will show both their men and women's wear collections together, twice a year, in a catwalk presentation taking place two months earlier than the traditional international shows. To avoid high-street copies, the brand also announced it will show Spring/Summer (rather than Autumn/Winter) in January, and the products will arrive in the stores by February. Yet again how can they protect the uniqueness of a printed shirt such as the DHL one? Because if you really want to avoid being copied you must try and produce something slightly more unique than a printed shirt with a logo.
Besides, how can you destroy the conservative conventions of the fashion industry by making a very basic shirt pass for exclusive and for charging people $330 for it?
In a nutshell, while there is a lot of hype around this brand, this may just be a cult for wealthy fashionistas rather than a genuine change of scene. Somehow, though, the cult reflects the situation we are living in: fashion cycles have sped up, designers can't think properly, celebrities are sitting in the front row ready to copy (in this case Kanye West) and, to increase sales, we tell consumers that this is what they should own to be hip and achieve status and attitude rather than reminding them they should demand and acquire high quality.
How to react to the cult? Just wait for it to pass. But, if you want to cheekily play at being the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes", when you see somebody sporting the "You Fuck n Asshole" shirt at the next fashion shows, just remind them that it takes quite a bit of courage to tell people that to their faces, while it takes just too much money to buy a sweatshirt printed with those words.
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