Brexit: Did Fashion Predict Politics?
Can designers act as bellwethers of the future, producing clothes that challenge the status quo and foretell dramatic changes in the wider world?
You might have thought so at the recent shows, where Vetements and its way of emphasising - rather than enhancing - reality has changed attitudes about what “fashion” means in the 21st century.
At the recent menswear collections in Florence, Gosha Rubchinskiy, the Russian designer supported by the Comme des Garçons group, took the same line: norm-core, deliberately unremarkable clothes - but with a sharp edge, as in sweat tops and pants with logos of long-forgotten football clubs.
I have interviewed Georgian-born Demna Gvasalia, founder of Vetements and newly appointed Creative Director of Balenciaga, who trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp and has been defined (but not by himself) as the “spiritual son” of Martin Margiela, one of the first designers to challenge the glitz and glamour of the extravagant 1980s.
Come 2015 and there were Demna and his younger brother Guram challenging all the codes of the “what, when and why” of fashion. The very word “Vetements” in French suggests the anonymity of mere clothing. The brand has made hoodies that became cult items and shown its collection in places such as grubby Chinese restaurants, to challenge the status quo of Paris fashion.
Now Demna has infiltrated high fashion, showing womenswear and menswear for Balenciaga, the Spanish couturier whose peers in the 1950s called him “the master of us all”. The Gvasalia duo has also become deliberately disruptive, moving the Ready-To-Wear show to the beginning of the Paris Couture season, which opens next weekend.
Demna presents himself as a parody of high fashion, wearing his “security guard” T-shirt design as a uniform. “Young people want a change; there is a certain Zeitgeist that we feel everywhere - not people of my generation, but under us, people who are 20 now,” the 35-year-old Demna told me. “Even in Paris, which is a very conservative city, the young generation is hungry for change.”
I thought of his words as the Brexit results came in, pushing the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Even though youth voted mainly for the status quo, the resulting financial upheaval offers a path to change.
Fashion has so often been ahead of the curve. I think of women in the early Eighties, dressed in mannish trouser suits with broad shoulders, who became the superwomen who finally broke through the glass ceiling to enter male-dominated boardrooms. Two generations before them, women who had stood shoulder to shoulder with men during the war turned their backs on tailoring and dressed in feminine frocks as they returned to house and home.
Are all the current uncertainties in fashion - the questions about the timing of shows and the prospect of selling to customers online - really a harbinger of wider social disruption?