10 READS: SURFACE TENSION
There’s an odd moment in the current scheme of the fashion seasons. It has been happening for the past three seasons when, in the space of a car journey from one Parisian arrondissement to another, the entire season changes. Not only the season, but its entire crux: from ready-to-wear to haute couture, from men to women. Incidentally, the switch is more of a leap between the polar extremes of those two worlds, from the skinny jeans and indie scenes of Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent to the sexualised slalom curves of Donatella Versace’s Atelier line.
As a viewer experience, it’s somewhat discombobulating. That isn’t due to the incongruous fluidity of fashion’s always-out-of-synch seasons. There’s something to be said about the Darwinian notion of adaptation, and the ease with which fashion’s eyes have become rapidly accustomed to seeing entirely different but near-simultaneous collections of clothes pitched at a troika of seasons at once, even if they’re all from the same designer. And yes, if you count the increasingly important womenswear pre-collections, we saw three at the same time from many designers in January.
The discombobulation comes not from climate change, but from something even more fundamental: the battle of the sexes, male versus female. The switch from Saint Laurent to Versace is only the physical manifestation of a profound shift in mood.
That all sounds very heavy and metaphysical. It sort of is. The easy answer is that there are fewer shows during the menswear collections; fewer publications attempting to jostle and oust each other for exclusives; not as many editors vying for the important seats and kicking up a ruckus if they feel their placement is inappropriate.
There is, generally, less of a fuss around menswear. Traditionally, that is because the menswear shows have had far less pomp and circumstance attached to them than their womenswear equivalents, and made up far less of the international rag trade’s all-important bottom line. The global average today is a 60/40 split in favour of womenswear. But that gap is narrowing: men make up at least 55% of the luxury-goods sales in China, and the proportion – as well as that superpower’s stronghold on the world market – is increasing. As per its visibility, calendars are swelling with high-profile, high-budget and high-impact shows. Menswear is a bigger deal now than ever before. Nevertheless, there is still decidedly less stress around the shows.
If it isn’t them – the shows, that is – then we must face the fact that maybe it’s us. Us being the fashion press, buyers and assorted hangers-on. Is there something about womenswear that brings out the rabid animal in their audience? For some reason, I find it difficult to imagine a menswear show instigating the veritable riot that closed the last Chanel ready-to-wear collection in March, editors literally ripping apart shelves of ersatz branded product with the frenzied ferocity of a pack of hyenas tearing into a fattened Chanel gazelle.
That isn’t a misogynistic murmur about the hysteria of women, or anything like that. It wasn’t just female fashion editors laying waste to the “Chanel Shopping Centre”: plenty of blokes got in on the act and filched a high-visibility vest or a feather duster as a keepsake. Perhaps it’s the hysteria of womenswear that does it. I wonder if the Loco Coco Riot of Le Quatre Mars (kind of like 4 Septembre, when Napoleon III fell, only with better accessories) wasn’t just a giant, cathartic explosion of the pent-up stress of the entire season. It did happen on the penultimate day of the entire womenswear season – which maybe is a justification for those scenes straight out of Lord of the Flies. “I’m frightened. Of us,” intones the character Ralph at one point in the latter. Maybe Karl Lagerfeld thought the same?
In a sense, that’s an illustration of that earlier point: the womenswear circuit is infinitely more stressful than the menswear. Tension hangs heavy in the air. It’s especially palpable when you cross the threshold into that high-powered Atelier Versace show on the Sunday night of January’s menswear, when the womenswear shows for the year officially kick off.
I wonder if it all boils down to sex, like so much of fashion really does. Vivienne Westwood once stated that fashion is about eventually being naked. Without the corsets, crinolines and padding that still stiffen and stuff even modern women’s fashion shows (and, granted, quite a lot of Thom Browne collections), menswear is that little bit closer to nudity than women’s. It’s a step nearer the eventual goal.
Then, there’s exactly who we’re undressing. I’m hardly shaking your earth if I state that fashion is dominated by homosexual men and heterosexual women. Not monopolised, but certainly dominated. I don’t just mean designers, but every echelon of the industry. There are probably more straight men per square metre at the menswear shows than anywhere else at any other time in the fashion industry – press, models, catwalk photographers, and plenty more – yet they’re still a minority. Which adds a fresh frisson to the fashion mix: desire. Not desire for a dress, or a shoe, or a handbag. Desire for living, breathing flesh.
That isn’t something you get at the womenswear shows. Sorry if I’m debunking the biggest ruse of the entire industry, but womenswear is built around desire to get inside a dress, not inside a person. People want to wear what a given model on the catwalk is wearing. Some may even want to look like her – lithe, young, tawny skinned, and thin, thin, thin. However, there simply isn’t the red-blooded desire for skin-on-skin contact. Modern womenswear is abstracted from physical attraction. Jean Baudrillard argued that the loudly coloured clothes of contemporary fashion (he was writing in the 1980s, FYI) transformed women into objects with a purely flat, symbolic value, rather than living, breathing organisms. How right he was. Today, womenswear models are a fancy, attenuated conveyor belt. Kind of like the Generation Game, except less cuddly. Consider how few of those catwalk girls make it through to the likes of Victoria’s Secret – where attraction is a key part of the casting. It’s about sex appeal, not just hanger appeal.
Menswear, on the other hand, is still about flesh. It’s about men, and male models, on the whole, haven’t been completely abstracted from the rules of attraction. Take the furore over Hedi Slimane’s debut autumn/winter 2013 menswear show at Saint Laurent, and the denouncement of the skinny teenage boys he proposed as his ideal of masculinity. The fact that Slimane’s rake-thin silhouette was pretty much identical to the bodies of womenswear’s top models was ignored, even though among Slimane’s waifish boys there literally walked a smattering of female catwalk regulars such as Julia Nobis, wearing the selfsame clothes. It underscored the androgyny that is so quintessentially Saint Laurent. But it also made people feel uncomfortable because it undermined the fun of menswear: watching the guys rather than the garms.
Womenswear used to indulge in those kinds of tricks also. In the early 1990s, it was all about the supermodels – models who appealed to heterosexual men. In fact, models who had the kind of raw sexuality that oozed from every pore, regardless of the sexual proclivities of those in the audience. There was something rampant about the supermodels – you got a twinge of it at the end of the 1990s, with the Brazilian invasion of buoyant breast, butt and Bündchen. Despite her ubiquity and impact, what Gisele never managed to do during her time on the catwalk, contrary to the likes of Christy, Cindy, Naomi and Linda, was overshadow the clothing.
You don’t really have male supermodels. There are familiar faces (Arthur Gosse, Adrien Sahores or Clément Chabernaud, perhaps) and familiar bodies – those boys routinely trotted out with their shirts off, an interesting diversionary tactic that almost distracts you from the fact a designer has just paraded half a dozen pairs of budgie smugglers instead of a fifth of their collection. Yet that’s more down to weak design than the power of model over medium. Consider the fact that Naomi Campbell falling off her shoes overshadowed not only a Vivienne Westwood collection, but an entire era of fashion. Despite us being able to name the boys, they’re nowhere near that status.
Is that the simple answer to that shift in mood? Is it physical rather than metaphysical: namely physical attraction for something that isn’t dry-clean only? Probably. Fashion on the whole isn’t very deep. It’s all about the surface. And evidently things are far more pleasant when that surface belongs to something you fancy shagging rather than just bagging.
By Alexander Fury