Fluidity in the Idea of Gender

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2015 New York Times News Service

(Fashion Review)


If anatomy is destiny, Rick Owens’ show, held Jan. 22 amid a selection of provocative paintings by the poet John Giorno and the artist Chan Aye at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris’ premier contemporary art museum, is destined to be remembered for some startling glimpses of the male anatomy.

Phone cameras rapidly clicked and viewers began nudging one another when, roughly midway through the presentation, a group of models came stomping down the runway in tuniclike garments strenuously deconstructed and rearranged so what would be a lapel or collar formed a tube or keyhole near the crotch. Shifting in motion, the garments revealed that, beneath the tunics, the models were as nature made them.

Who knows why, but Paris uniquely provides for moments like this one, with more ideas often encountered during a day here than a week in Milan or New York. There were others in what was actually a fairly conservative show for Owens: one involving a series of somber double-breasted coats of wool or leather, deeply notched at the sides or billowing from the yoke; of unusually plausible, for him, bifurcated footgear; and of itchy-looking boiler suits knitted as if by some demented granny.

But it was the flashing that the show will be remembered for. By deliberately exposing a few pendant bits of flesh, Owens seemed to be suggesting how tenuous and vulnerable is the basis for what we think of as masculinity.

Others, like Miuccia Prada, have recently been toying with these notions, showing clothes for both men and women at the same time and on models of vaguely indeterminate sex.

Raf Simons did something similar for his presentation on a cold evening in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. Viewers crowded around a raised steel platform to view models wearing, mostly, sleeveless cotton coats or gilets of nearly floor length, many covered with slogans and cartoon graffiti, gliding past to an aural backdrop of Deep Purple’s “Child in Time.”

Though this was the first time the designer used women in a Raf Simons show, that particular novelty wasn’t the point he seemed to be trying to make. The pale, scrawny boy models, hair slicked down like geeks, looked fairly interchangeable with the pale, scrawny girl models like the Belgian Hanne Gaby Odiele. All had the same uncooked look of late adolescence, a time when everything to do with future sexuality still seems in germination.

And it makes sense at a time when transgender issues have moved squarely into the mainstream. Seated among the European heartthrobs like Luke Evans, Francesco Scianna and Louis Garrel at Valentino was Stromae, the striking-looking Belgian musician who became a viral sensation with videos in which his gender was so stylized as to be beside the point. Though now dating a woman, in early interviews Stromae, whose name is Paul Van Haver, maintained a deliberate ambiguity about his sexuality.

That would seem to make him an ideal customer for Valentino, whose collection last season — in which men’s suits were cut like pajamas and girlie butterflies were embroidered or printed onto everything — was an aesthetic success and also a commercial one.

Though referring to sartorial and not societal codes, the Valentino co-designer Maria Grazia Chiuri may as well have been talking about erosion of fixed social boundaries when, in a backstage interview, she said, “You have to know the rules, and then you can break them.”

With that in mind, she and Pierpaolo Piccioli delved into the history of Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to design a collection that also was a collaboration with Esther Stewart, a 26-year-old painter from Melbourne, Australia, whose color-block paintings the Valentino designers discovered on the Internet.

Despite everything we imagine we know about the Web, it still seems too little appreciated how powerfully it has affected every kind of orthodoxy. In the decontextualized and value-neutral ether, all things have a kind of equivalency. Piccioli and Chiuri referred to this as “contamination.”

Thus, when Piccioli said he liked to “go deep in our research so the work is a reflection of our times,” as he did this week, he meant perhaps that if you allowed your imagination to become infected with the atmosphere of 1920s Monte Carlo, added a dose of Dolce Vita Italy of the ‘60s, threw in some Josef Albers and abstracted imagery from the long, rich history of military camouflage, you might end up with a well-judged selection of beautifully cut and paneled coats.

Some reprised the butterfly theme, rendering them in nocturnal colors as moths. One recycled from a previous collection an owl that spread its wings over the yoke and across the shoulders. One was patterned with a planetary constellation. Throw any of them over the narrow trousers the pair also showed, or else slip into one of the capes they somehow made look plausible and you’re ready to go out into the world looking as chic as Stromae, a fine figure of a man or whatever else you feel like calling yourself that day.

“If you can change aesthetic values, you can change the values of society,” Piccioli said backstage.


And that thought echoed in mind the following afternoon backstage at the stark glass structure where Louis Vuitton is held each season, set in starkly unfriendly Parc André-Citroën.

There amid the usual mob of dressers, hairdressers, makeup artists, photographers, publicists, assistants and hangers-on was an assortment of the hairless éphèbes on which designers currently prefer to show their clothes. There, too, was Judy Blame, the celebrated British jewelry designer, whose aesthetic was forged in 1980s London at the same time as that of Christopher Nemeth, an obscure British designer to whom the Vuitton show was a frank homage. Judy Blame, for the uninformed, is a man.

“I first saw his work in i-D when I was 14, and I’ve been obsessed with him ever since,” Kim Jones, the Vuitton creative director, said, referring to Nemeth, who left England, married a Japanese woman and moved to Tokyo, where his finely crafted and modestly priced designs are still sold.

During his four years of designing menswear for Vuitton, Jones has accomplished something not seen since Marc Jacobs’ early collaborations for that label with Stephen Sprouse. He has taken elements that first influenced him as a street-savvy youth in ‘80s London and transformed them into goods sold as costly luxuries around the world.

No one in Judy Blame’s early days could have predicted that his random-seeming agglomerations of buttons, lanyards and dangling keys would one day be sold at the hundreds of boutiques owned by the venerable 160-year-old French fashion house. “I arrived with one piece of rope, and this is what I ended up with,” Blame said as he fingered a safety pin brooch that will be sold in limited edition.

Similarly, it is hard to imagine Nemeth, who died in 2010, envisioning that his elegantly gestural drawings of intertwined ropes might one day turn up as the dominant motif in a collection shown on a runway in front of guests like Marisa Berenson, Bryan Ferry, Michael Stipe, the French actor Jérémie Laheurte and a notably giddy Kate Moss.

Deploying the many resources of one of the world’s largest fashion multinationals, Jones turned out a collection notable for the deceptive unobtrusiveness of its techniques. A simple-looking car coat was, in fact, laser-cut shearling. A pair of what looked like printed hippie trousers had been created using a rare method of weaving paper into cloth.

Nemeth motifs were carved or embroidered or woven or printed onto everything, including a one-off carrying case wrapped and lined in blanket wool. “The more personal I make a collection," Jones said when asked how he squared influences like Blame and the outré performance artist Leigh Bowery with a Louis Vuitton aesthetic, “the more it sells.”

Use what’s there, in other words. Use what you know. Both Phillip Lim and Dries Van Noten did as much in their respective collections, one shown in a former convent, the other in a vast shed housing a railway service yard in a remote district of Paris. What was most striking about Van Noten, whose designs are consistently among the more covetable, is how the proportions and shapes he deploys instinctively reflect how many young men already dress.

Most designers are collectors and, as it happens, Lim collects, among other things, carabiners. These indispensable mountaineering tools inspired him when he was designing the current 3.1 Phillip Lim collection, he said. So, too, did a core tenet of climbing. “The minute you doubt, you fall,” said the designer, whose doubt-free collection of jackets, some sleeveless, and coats came equipped with utility straps and carabiners used as belt fasteners, as if urban streets were the Dawn Wall at Yosemite.