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The boys had their turn traipsing down the runways of Paris and Milan last month for the major fashion houses’ offerings at the Spring 2012 Menswear collections. This season saw a lot of the standard trends and pieces in menswear; typically, seeing how hard it is to reinvent the wheel in women’s wear, let alone in the conservative arena of male dressing. However, instead of being bored to tears seeing the same old notch collars and back vents, the more one looks at menswear the more it can be seen in relation to another medium: sculpture.
With its sharp tailoring, heavy textiles and muted colors, the discipline of menswear design bears many similarities to the medium of sculpture. Both art forms depend upon and consider relations of form, texture and light. The crossover is also intensely interesting; a sculptor can create softness and humanity from a block of marble, and a designer can create angularity and sturdiness from limp wool. Plus, both traditionally have a fascination with the muscular male body.
Raf Simons, who says in another life he would have been an architect, created robust shapes and stark silhouettes, nicely emphasized in some pieces with pale pastels or linear plaids. The A-line topcoats in particular have a hammer-and-nailed together look (you get the feeling that they could stand upright on their own accord), but don’t seem overworked. Adding a bit of an edge, he included leather tank tops with zipper epaulets, which looked perfectly cast and molded to his skinny models’ torsos. Though the Brady Bunch florals off-put the pristine lines and masculine angularity, almost the entire collection reads as a kinetic sculpture show, with each model looking like a walking statue.
Sarah Burton continues to carry on the Alexander McQueen legacy with great flair, showing an updated punk rock-meets-Mary Quant look. Bold, graphic stripes in black, red and white, fine checks, leather and sheer fabrics are all balanced with sharp lines and expert tailoring, even when some of the jackets and pants are on the baggier side. Though, the tough leather shells and panne velvet blazers provide a counterpoint and balance to the more voluminous pieces in the collection.
Thom Browne was the vanguard of design this season, utilizing cut and fabric to create new silhouettes that played off the male body in interesting ways. While some critics derided the impracticability of his looks, he put on an interesting show, laying a variety of textures and forms, and using stereotypically female embellishments like sequins and fringe to good effect. His variations on the blazer, whether the hem was stretched to the floor or the sleeves were chopped off, tweaked the sartorial staple enough to elicit a response. In particular his black and white striped sleeveless blazer densely layered with mismatched red striped shorts, contrasting cummerbund and fringe work together in a kind of cacophonous harmony, pulling the eyes in different directions, suggesting both literal and figurative movement. His exploration on proportion, too, with highly contrasting hem lengths and asymmetry in styles, calls to mind pieces like Alexander Calder’s mobiles.
Domenico and Stefano tackled new silhouettes and materials for their Dolce & Gabbana presentation, outfitting many of the men in woven tanks, shirts and shorts. In an effort to pay homage to the Italian fishing villages of their ancestors, they created netted pieces that resembled cages welded to the models’ bodies, highlighting the curvature of their rippling muscles. They also utilized many lustrous fabrics, which illustrate a sumptuous texture when they move and wrinkle, mimicking the look of fabric rendered in Classical sculpture.
A conventional blurring of gender lines — a mainstay in men’s fashion — reared its head this year again, from the faux-Polynesian prints at Kenzo to the high-heeled boys at DSquared 2 ripped straight out of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” video. Male models sported skirts in a number of shows, notably Lanvin and Rick Owens. Famed fashion journalist Suzy Menkes tackles this ubiquitous, unpopular trend in an article for The International Herald Tribune and offers an explanation other than tired scandalizing:
Designers are looking at a global market that includes cultures — and not just Scotland — where male/female garments are fluid. And attitudes in the 21st century are so much more open to the idea that hard and soft can coexist in one man’s spirit and in his wardrobe.
That’s an interesting take on it, but we hardly ever see these skirts make it beyond the runway since their cut and drape (the “softness” as Menkes describes it) are, in fact, indicative of women’s wear. The real problem with men’s skirts is that softness; kilts are as meticulously tailored and structured as any three-piece suit, which is one of the reasons that they look like an article of men’s clothing. The wispy, flowing skirts stopping just short of hairy calves aren’t adapted to a man’s body; it looks like cross-dressing, which completely defeats the purpose of introducing new shapes to menswear.
Softness has a place in menswear, just as it does in sculpture, but it’s the execution and application that determine its appropriateness and aesthetic value. The flimsy fabric and flowing shapes are too much of a contrast to predetermined silhouettes and existing conventions. Rick Owens does the best job of creating cohesive, head-to-toe looks that drape beautifully, but all in all there’s no seamless (pun intended) transition between the hard and the soft.
Whether or not these pieces will end up in a man’s wardrobe, the whole idea that designers are trying to appeal on a multicultural level is ultimately bunk. Sorry, Menkes. Worse, if that is the case it reeks of the fetishism and commodification of other cultures (which, apparently, is code for anything outside of Europe and the USA.)
The imperialistic cultural appropriation on the runways doesn’t stop there, naturally. In fact, it gets worse. Dior Homme’s Kris Van Assche outfitted his models with hats lifted right out of a Mennonite church. Is it an affront to the lord to exploit traditional garb in the name of fashion and commerce? Most likely yes, but that didn’t stop him from trying to gussy up the boring clothes with some sacrilegious accessorizing.
Over in Milan cultural insensitivity was in the form of woven raffia, earthy colors and pseudo-tribal batik prints that lay beneath over-sized parkas in Burberry Prorsum. Safari jackets (sans pith helmets) came back in the Ferragamo and Yves St. Laurent shows, reminding us all of those fun fin de siècle Anglo-African adventures to mysterious lands with cannibals and witch doctors. OK, maybe it’s not fair to denounce a fashion staple (Ernest Hemingway and J.R. Ewing pushed it to the forefront of style), but it’s still emblematic of this Africa fetish walking down the runways.
Honestly, it’s true that the constantly forced creativity of the fashion world prompts designers to find inspiration from somewhat literal sources, and apply certain techniques lackadaisically with no reverence for their origin, but the bandying of watered-down traditions of dress, especially the oft-referenced clothing of Africa, can leave a sour taste in your mouth. And, what’s worse, it doesn’t even make for interesting clothes anymore.
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