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Narrative and Neorealism

In today’s “société du spectacle,” fashion shows increasingly resemble brutally concise theatre, sampling everything from war to the cult of the derelict.
Dries Van Noten Autumn/Winter 2016 at The Opera Garnier | Source:
  • Angelo Flaccavento

PARIS, France — Fashion's current fascination with storytelling ran through the latest round of men's shows in Paris. We saw Dries Van Noten's psychedelic peaceniks raiding the Opera Garnier in all manner of morphed, high-ranking uniforms and Raf Simons' angsty post-teenagers — think Breakfast Club meets Nightmare on Elm Street — meandering in a maze, wearing humongous, moth-holed knits and outsized coats. At Rick Owens, white-faced Mastodons swathed in drapes of duvet or goat fur stormed the brutalist cavern just below the Palais de Tokyo, while Haider Ackermann's distressed dandies counted their steps over the parquet of the Hotel de Ville and Thom Browne's sharp dressers pondered over the dialogue between past and present in a vast, dramatically-lit warehouse peppered with giant empty frames. It all made for some truly memorable spectacles that will surely go down in fashion's history books. But sometimes the narrative elements were so overpowering, it almost felt like some sort of brutally concise theatre, not fashion.

Rick Owens Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:

Over the last few seasons, the use of sets, music, props and general decor have become almost essential to contemporary fashion shows. After all, we are all denizens of Guy Debord's société du spectacle and fashion is leading the charge. A spectacular show can create an engaging, albeit deceptive, context — so much so that the clothes sometimes seem to have become costumes in the accompanying narrative. Should one forget this, many collections could come across as either absurd or obtuse. This is menswear, after all, and despite the blatant blurring of gender divides and a liberating blizzard of hyper-decoration, the codes are still quite limited. Theatre is good, of course. It is visually inspiring and highly entertaining. Yet, the on-going theatricalisation of fashion shows is also a manifestation of the industry's current malady: virtualisation. Or, to put it differently, the wicked misalignment between what happens on the catwalk and what ends up in stores, between the visual, Instagram-friendly stuff and the shoppable product. It has always been like this, of course. Catwalks and magazines need dreams; real life, on the contrary, demands practicality, even a tiny dash of it. That's a perfectly understandable dichotomy. Yet today's fashion shows often lose their balance, resembling carnivals staged with no shortage of tricks to create mystique around a label and its lukewarm product offering. Narrative, for designers who deploy it to jazz up a dull collection, is not part of the design process, but a mere afterthought. Kris Van Assche is a case in point. What he creates is ultimately just clothing, not fashion. The high-impact shows he stages are hardly memorable because there is no emotion in his creations. That's always been the problem with his work for the venerable French house: you may buy the pieces because of their precision and faultless execution, but certainly not because you want to be the Dior Homme, err, homme. Here, narrative does not drive you — it puts you off. Van Assche's latest outing, with its gritty nightclubbing-skateboarding vibe and heavy alternative youth tone was a potent blast, but left no echo. Alexandre Matthiussi of Ami falls in the same camp. Although responsible for some of the most seriously desirable albeit totally normal pieces, his use of storytelling feels a bit contrived, though it comes from authentic origins: he sends down the catwalk characters based on his real-life friends and clients. Not all storytelling is evil, of course. For a bunch of visionary designers, in fact, the narrative can be substantial, resulting in a natural cohesion between clothing and staging. It can be said of Comme des Garçon's hopeful and optimistic flower armour, of Dries Van Noten's military baroque galore, of Gosha Rubchinskiy's gang of Eastern Block outcasts. A designer who's always been ahead of the storytelling curve is Umit Benanm, but this season the show somehow lacked spark (the clothes were great, nonetheless). Effective storytelling is not a matter of budgets but genuine concentration.

Thom Browne Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:

This said, what were this season's tales about? War, in most of the cases. Judging from the Paris collections a new world conflict has just begun, but all we have to do is swathe ourselves in roomy coats and humongous duvets, party hard in frocks and frills (some of the best were those seen at Ann Demeulemeester), escape into the wild as proposed, notably, by Valentino, or revert to elemental primitivism with a dash of Art Deco, à la Rick Owens. In all seriousness, the moment we are living is frightening and designers are reacting accordingly, either opting for militarism and protection or abandon and frivolity. From Junya Watanabe's self-sufficient solar panel coats to Ackermann's rotting brocades, Berluti's tattoo tailoring to Yohji Yamamoto's layered padding, the gamut was wide. Amongst the newly cool labels, things have turned to the drab suburban landscapes of public housing estates, inhabited by Eastern Block lads and other assorted outcasts, clad in tarnished streetwear and tattered, decontextualised tailoring. It's a post-Vetements world and everybody wants to get a piece of the up-and-coming label's abrasive zing of rawness, hopefully capitalising on the same enthusiasm and rabid following Demna Gvasalia has generated in his fans. And since Demna is already where he is — at the creative reins of Balaenciaga — and fashion houses cannot get him, why not get his stylist Lotta Volkova, who seems to own the pulse of everything progressive at the moment. She even styled the Kenzo show and she is one of the driving creative forces behind the new Paris, which looks a lot like London in the early 1990s. Lotta, Gosha and Demna being guilty or not, with their insouciance and brutality, Eastern Block ravers and assorted stray cats were the pinnacle of freshness, from Maison Margiela to Dior Homme, heralding the rise of fashion as cinema verité. A dash of the raw made the Lanvin collection, the first signed by Lucas Ossendrjiver alone since Alber Elbaz's departure, feel intimate and emotional. Raf Simons, in what was probably Paris' best collection, paid homage to fashion's primo nouveau realist, Martin Margiela, even though, bizarrely, the stress on the oversize carried, again, a Vetement aftertaste (Gvasalia has appropriated the old Margiela idea, period). One way or another, fashion seems to have set the clock back twenty years or so, endlessly glorifying the raw, the gritty and the proletarian. Harmony Korine's Gummo, the director's seminal neo-dada, lurid flick, come to mind. Is this for real? Probably. Then again, the cult of the derelict is just another storytelling trick. In fashion it's only the image that ultimately counts.

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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
The State of Fashion: Technology
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The State of Fashion: Technology