Chanel may have put Scotland on the global fashion map after acquiring Hawick-based cashmere mill Barrie and showing in 2012 its Métiers d'Art catwalk show at Linlithgow castle, but the country definitely had its annus mirabilis last year with the referendum about Scottish independence. The latter was also debated on some of the womenswear runways, popping up quite often in interviews with designers of Scottish origins.
Scotland resurfaced on the Milanese menswear runways as an inspiration at Ermenegildo Zegna where Stefano Pilati took 25 tweeds from the archives of the Harris Tweed Authority and reworked them. Yet the strongest reference to Scotland - and to Glasgow in particular - unexpectedly came via a Japanese designer, Yusuke Takahashi at Issey Miyake.
Takahashi moved indeed from Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Scotland's influential architect, designer, water colourist and artist - for Issey Miyake's Autumn/Winter 2015-16 menswear collection.
The choice could be read like a fitting tribute to the Glasgow-based School of Art, a world-renowned building designed by Mackintosh when he was a 28-year-old junior draughtsman, and partially destroyed last May by a fire in which its library - the gem of the building - was sadly severely damaged.
While we could read this collection as a distant tribute to this loss, Takahashi's main inspiration is actually less unexpected than we could actually think. Mackintosh's designs were indeed influenced by Asian style: Glasgow's shipyards were exposed to Japanese navy and training engineers and, while Mackintosh was working in the city, Japanese design gained popularity.
The architect and furniture designer borrowed specific elements from Japanese arts, such as simplicity of forms and contrasts like light/shadow or smooth/rough, that he combined with a peculiar modernism, creating a combination of sweeping Art Nouveau lines and Japonisme motifs.
Shown at the Fondation Cartier, Issey Miyake's show opened with a series of linear suits characterised by an architectural grid motif that put a modernist spin on traditional checks, but that was actually a reference to the grid as a recurring concept explored by Mackintosh in his pieces of furniture like his graphically bold chairs, and architectural features (think for example about the stair screen at 78 Derngate in Northampton, England, or the façade of Scotland Street School in Glasgow).
Takahashi then included iconic Charles Rennie Mackintosh motifs on suits, long coats and accessories.
The subtle curves of decorative floral motifs like the Mackintosh Rose combined with soft yet linear geometries, at times evoking the works of "The Four" - Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret MacDonald, her sister Frances MacDonald, and Herbert MacNair - members of the "Glasgow School" movement.
Some references including Mackintosh's artist's shirt and bow were a bit too literal and didn't always work too well: the major faux pas of the collection included knickerbockers, and a ruby red dévoré velvet robe with wide '80s shoulders matched with velvet pants, both with an embossed motif of Mackintosh's stylised rose.
These were actually moments in which you doubted Takahashi had visited the School of Art, the Glasgow Herald Building (The Lighthouse), Scotland Street School in Glasgow, and Hill House in Helensburgh, but had stopped at the more touristy and posthumously built House for an Art Lover in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park or had been enchanted by the fake Mackintosh doors favoured in some residential areas of Glasgow.
There were also two dissonant elements in the collection: an Outlander moment with tartan weaves draped on shoulders (still Scottish, but not so modernist Mackintosh...), and a digital twist with the monstrously grotesque close-up pictures of bored commuters on a train in Berlin taken by photographer Satoshi Fujiwara and inspired by ''Code Unknown'', directed by Michael Haneke. Takahashi reprinted them on T-shirts and bags to maybe hint at more cross-cultural influences or at a sort of bored modernism.
The graphic patterns included in the collection were instead reinvented versions of Mackintosh's own abstracted flowers and geometrical textures in strong, vibrant colours. Purples and fuchsia shades for gloves, socks and assorted details also evoked the Mackintosh palette (it would be intriguing to see some of these designs photographed inside buildings designed by Mackintosh or surrounded by his works or by Margaret Macdonald's).
The interesting point about this collection is that in the current fashion industry there is a lot of talk about uniforming genders and combining male/female semantics. Takahashi did the same in subtler ways: his Japanese-Scottish dandies did not borrow their clothes from Oscar Wilde, but from an architect renowned for using feminine symbols (the oval, the rose...).
Mackintosh and Margaret Madcdonald envisioned indeed a sort of feminine Scottishness in Scotland's industrial centre, convinced that their turn towards the feminine was a turn towards the modern. In their works elements of the Scottish tradition such as the Celtic past were integrated in a Scottish present that they thought they could redeem via the rediscovery and veneration of a national femininity.
So, while for them modernism and femininity were a way to free Scotland from the past and its identification with masculinity, Takahashi may be suggesting that modernism (Fujiwara's images) and femininity (the Mackintosh inspirations) could be ways to free a man's wardrobe from conservative and masculine stereotypes.
Will this collection instead manage to free Glasgow from its badly designed Mackintosh-inspired souvenirs? Probably not, but what's for sure is that it falls in a very apt moment of time: the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) will indeed be holding at its headquarters in London (from 18th February to 23rd May 2015) a major retrospective about Charles Rennie Mackintosh that will features over 60 original drawings, watercolours and perspectives from the late 19th century until Mackintosh's death in 1928. Mackintosh may not have been a starchitect, but he is currently officially fashionable.
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