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The Gender-Bending and Cultural Appropriation of the 2015 European Menswear Collections

It was a fairly staid season with most designers showing a commercial prerogative rather than a conceptual one. Yet, if you read between the lines, there was more than meets the eye to the season's collections.

by Jeremy Lewis
30 January 2015, 12:00pm

Photo courtesy of Hood By Air

Across the Atlantic, the European menswear shows for fall/winter 2015 have just wrapped up. Beyond the usual parade of outlandishly expensive designer clothes and showman hijinks, there were a few curious trend developments. The fashion industry is fascinating right now, because it sits at a precipice. The impact of the internet, an oversaturated global market, and a weak economy have left many brands and designers disoriented. Many time-honored labels can't figure out how to play the game, since all the rules seem to have changed.

Last year Prada saw a 40 percent drop in profits. In contrast, Saint Laurent, a brand that only a few years ago was near the bottom of the relevancy pecking order, has become one of the fastest growing luxury labels in the world. New designers and names pop up incessantly, while others get flushed down the fashion toilet and quickly fade from memory.

With all of this clothing chaos, it makes sense that a lot of the big designers played it pretty conservative this season. The biggest outward statement on the runways were the wide and relaxed pants that will hopefully prod some fellas into finally tossing out their crotch-ripped skinny jeans. Other than that, on the surface, the whole affair was pretty staid. Most designers followed more commercial imperatives, as opposed to the whacked-out conceptual stuff that actually makes fashion fun.

A New Dandy Look

Unfortunately, this world is still filled with men who are so self-conscious of their own rigid masculinity they are filled with resentment and panic when they just see a guy actively challenge gender norms. So it was interesting to see that Gucci, one of the largest luxury brands in the world, would recast their brand with outrageously effeminate bohemian looks that might derogatorily be described as "sissy." This Gucci remodel comes by way of newly instated creative director and Gucci veteran Alessandro Michele. The iconic Italian brand's change in direction echoes a similar move made by Spanish leather house Loewe lead by fashion wunderkind J.W. Anderson. Both Anderson and Michele have discarded notions of conventional masculinity and are unapologetic for their non-heteronormative fashion. For Fall 2015 Gucci showcased silk ruffled blouses on long-haired waifish boys, while Loewe's lookbook suggested a gay couple on vacation. Make of it what you will, but the fact that two of the largest luxury conglomerates (Kering owns Gucci, LVMH owns Loewe) are giving so much visibility to a previously underrepresented type of consumer is a sure sign of society's progressive attitudes. For fall/winter 2015, the mantle of the "sissy" has become fashion's boldest statement.

East Meets West

Photo courtesy of Dries van Noten

In the new Netflix series Marco Polo, actor Lorenzo Richelmy plays the celebrated explorer who serves in the court of Kublai Khan. Dressed in quasi-traditional East Asian garb, Richelmy's wardrobe presents an interesting fashion proposition, one that hasn't been lost to menswear designers in London and Paris.

While Western clothing has reshaped the fashions and dress of Asia for over 150 years, the reverse has happened only on rare and isolated occasions. In recent seasons, menswear designer Craig Green has made a name for himself by appropriating traditional Japanese garments and interpreting them in a wholly modern language. His shows have become some of the most talked about on the fashion calendar. French designer and former creative director of Lacoste Christophe Lemaire has long since referenced dress from East Asia putting its styles in a contemporary and urban context. Belgian legend Dries van Noten has, for over 20 years, looked to ethnic dress from around the world for his collections. These designers, among others, converged this season and collectively made significant push for adapting and appropriating East Asian dress for menswear inspiration.

Perhaps now as we enter a more global oriented world, and as the fashion market broadens and expands its audience considerably, menswear looks to foreign and ethnic dress for innovations when Western tropes have been exhausted. Wrapped and draped jackets, soft fluid pants—it's a subtle and elegant means of dressing that is both functional and comfortable. And it's these traits that help any aesthetic shift become a permanent one.

Boys from the Hood

Photo courtesy of A.P.C.

In menswear you have the dandy, the jock, the rebel, the nerd, the military man—fashion archetypes that are constantly referenced and reiterated by designers each season. Hood By Air's Shayne Oliver is one of the few designers who have managed to author a fashion archetype completely of his own design. His is an urban identity derived from a culture made up of primarily, but not limited to, America's black and Latin racial minorities. Oliver has codified their style and swagger, bringing its themes and aesthetics to high fashion. It has been a noticeable influence on Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci, whose menswear collections share many common themes with Oliver's. So this season, as Hood By Air made its claim on the international scene with a presentation at Pitti Uomo, the men's fashion fair in Florence, Oliver's "hood" boy emerged as legitimate fashion template, inspiring scores of upstart designers from Milan to London who now pursue the same elevated streetwear niche. One noticeable addition to the fashion calendar is Marcelo Burlon County Milan, the new label by Tisci's own friend and collaborator. His presentation was reminiscent of Oliver's staging and design motifs and was one of the most hyped shows of the season.

This burgeoning archetype, however, had its oddest interpretation at A.P.C., maker of high quality classic staples, where its notoriously derisive creative director Jean Touitou chose the phrase "The Last Niggas in Paris," repeated throughout the presentation, as the collection's key theme. The lookbook sports a Caucasian model in Timberland boots designed in collaboration with A.P.C., that Touitou said was inspired by the "ghetto." The irony and inappropriateness of this appeared to be lost on Touitou who, according to the Style.com write up by Luke Leitch, justified his language and cultural harvesting by his friendship with Kanye West. Timberland subsequently and understandably nullified their partnership with A.P.C. and Toitou has since apologized.

In less than two weeks, all eyes will turn to New York City for the Big Apple's own Fashion Week presentations. Whether we'll see appearances from the hood boy, the fabulously flamboyant or more East Asian-inspired looks or something different altogether remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

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