The body always takes centre stage in fashion, but in some menswear collections for the next Autumnal season it also turns into a canvas on which to express thoughts, ideas and slogans.
Rei Kawakubo's Autumn/Winter 2015-16 menswear collection for Comme des Garçons could be interpreted as a revised modern version of Giacomo Leopardi's "Dialogo della Moda e della Morte".
In this short dialogue Fashion and Death were portrayed as sisters, born of transience and intent on transforming human beings, the former only exteriorly, by applying her skills to hairstyles and clothes, the latter radically, by killing them.
Entitled "The Power of Ceremony" the collection referenced indeed the death theme. The collection started with formal yet deconstructed Bermuda suits: in some cases traditional double-breasted jackets were made employing a series of diagonal panels that twisted around the body; in others, diagonal strips of fabrics formed asymmetrical cuffs, black jackets were slashed to reveal glimpses of white underneath, while black strips of fabrics decorated a random sleeve or the spine of grey suits, in imitation of mourning bands.
The suits were often matched with second-skin leggings with scribbled prints that peeked out of the Bermudas. As the collection progressed, the scribbled motif became a more prominent element: it appeared on close-fitted jackets and tailcoats, and was replicated on second-skin garments that, rather than tracing the contours of the body, morphed into the models' flesh, revealing as an assemblage of messages by Joseph Ari Aloi, a.k.a. graffiti artist JK5.
Yet, rather than looking like beautiful and sensual calligraphy decorating the flesh in The Pillow Book style, JK5's words turned into unsettling messages announcing "Born to Die" and "Fight Off Your Demons", and pointing towards an acutely conscious transitoriness of life.
On other runways we saw tailored military uniforms and young soldiers going to war and not coming back home, while in this case death was not declared but whispered. It was a more subtle and somber entity that silently resurfaced at the very end of the show in surprisingly elegant white trench coats overlaid with animal prints, but decorated on the back with prints of black-and-white stills by Roger Ballen.
The American photographer, who has lived in South Africa for over 30 years, has explored in some of his most poignant images the notion of asylum interpreted as refuge and prison.
The images included in this collection refer to his "Asylum of the Birds" set of photographs shot in a house in the outskirts of Johannesburg, and portraying people and birds in a nightmarish and psychologically stifling background.
As a result the clothes ended up having an unsettling theatricality that is missing in many of today's collections: in the same way as Ballen's images comment upon different issues linked with the human condition, Kawakubo's layered several meanings in her designs that became an exploration of a contemporary ritual like a tattoo interpreted as modern religious iconography or of the ceremony of death and mourning.
Well-received and told from a personal point of view, but somehow less profound, Raf Simons's collection featured some garments that interpreted the body as a canvas theme - long white cotton coats and gilets covered in graffiti, scribbles, doodles, slogans and cartoons.
There was actually an explanation and a "ritual" behind these designs: Simons was indeed calling back to mind a rite of passage from his college days in Belgium where third or fourth year students put the freshers through a series of (punishing) tasks while wearing a white coat that gradually gets covered in scribbles and messages.
Though echoing his early fashion inspirations - Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela - Simons infused in the designs not his direct personal experiences, but told a story about youth and the energy of young people and music, themes that were clear in the details as well.
Graphic print tops, cropped holey and tattered sweaters (at time with childish bird patterns) that may have been bought from a thrift-shop and the unfinished ragged hems and frayed edges of the coats and trousers referenced indeed the careless and creative style of students.
Further elements that pointed towards youth were the venue for the show - a cold warehouse on the outskirts of Paris with models walking down a raised runway - and the choice of including also women in a men's show, a nod not to the current trend for erasing boundaries and blurring genders in favour of a third and neutral sex, but at adolescents still unsure about sexual orientation.
While the freedom Simons injected in these designs was maybe a reaction to his edited and polished creations for Dior, there was also a grown up tailored element in this collection in the floor-length vests and trenches with belts in matching fabrics tied around the waist or left to hang down at the sides, and in cropped pea coats characterised by geometric patterns and an elongated silhouette.
These designs weren't actually made with upholstery-like tweeds, but with fabrics made for home furnishings and created in collaboration with Danish brand Kvadrat (the second Kvadrat x Raf Simons range of fabrics will be launched in Tokyo in March).
Yet, despite some fresh ideas in the collection, it remains to be seen if, rather than queuing up to buy these pieces, fashionistas will go down the DIY route (hands up who never scribbled a slogan on a shirt while at college/uni...), coming up with their own versions of the scribbled coat or of the coat in upholstery fabric (not to mention the tattered jumper...).
Beauty is a great healer and, at the beginning of his catwalk show, Walter Van Beirendonck seemed to be hinting at it as a way to react to the dramatic events that hit Paris in January.
The models opening his show wore indeed long see-through tops in transparent plastic embroidered with slogans such as "Stop Terrorising Our World", "Warning Explicit Beauty", "Demand Beauty" and "An Eye for an Eye Only Ends Up Making the Whole World Blind". The whimsical tops were matched with tailored trousers in beige, pink, dark green and light blue.
This juxtaposition of tailored Vs eccentric, conservative Vs crazy characterised the entire collection: traditional coats and jackets in mild pastel shades actually revealed on the back drawings and sketches of animals like a fierce eagle and a Walter Van Beirendonck-like dynamic superhero figurine.
Brightly coloured eyes, noses and mouths three-dimensionally exploded from Picassoesque graphic knits, while functional denim designs looked out of their depths next to the final pieces - jackets-cum-capes in plastic and fabric with an oversized ruffle on one side.
Yet the real message behind the collection wasn't hidden behind the slogans, but it had to be decoded from the 3D printed jewellery that at times included a conical pendant: Van Beirendonck wasn't indeed using the body as a canvas to refer to Charlie Hebdo, but to the butt plug-shaped Christmas tree sculpture by American artist Paul McCarthy, that, installed in Paris' Place Vendôme last year, was shortly afterwards vandalised and removed. The final message, though, was still about creative freedom and against politically correctness.
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