The global air is the most politically charged that our generation has ever seen, and fashion isn’t sitting by the wayside. Today’s most talked-about designers are tackling social issues through the reconciliation of high fashion and everyday urban styles. And a once little-known designer-turned-industry darling, Virgil Abloh, is leading the pack.
“What are those?” asked Melody, her kohl-lined eyes looking at me in confusion. “They’re skinny jeans,” I scoffed back.
It was seventh grade – a seminal moment in a young girl’s growing up. In those days, you were judged from outside in, and I wasn’t backing down from this one. Decked in apricot velour and my new Hudson jeans, I felt invincible, high on adrenaline as I had just told my 2nd period class that Ariel Miller had crabs. “You’ll see,” I advised her. “They’re gonna be huge.”
At thirteen years old, I was naïve. But damn, I was fearless. That fearlessness made waves, and by the end of the week, every girl in my class was scrambling to get her hands on a pair of skinny jeans. “They’re like tight all the way down,” said Melody, bragging as she twisted in her denim-clad waist.
In fashion, confidence and a willingness to take risks are a winning combination. And this year has proved monumentally successful for brave new talent. A cast of designers including Demna Gvasalia, Virgil Abloh, and Simon Jacquemus are shaking up fashion standards with thoughtfully ironic design and gaining cult followings along the way.
Call it what you will – a high fashion recycling of norm core or a phase of underground, edgy and arrogant fashion. But this change is much deeper than meets the eye. If fashion says anything about the current state of our world, it is that a social reawakening is in progress. The global air is the most politically charged that our generation has ever seen, and fashion isn’t sitting by the wayside.
Gone are the days of the old establishment. The industry was rocked hard when Demna Gvasalia, a former pupil of Martin Margiela and designer behind the scenes at Louis Vuitton, was appointed creative director at Balenciaga. His raw style and Soviet upbringing connected to an aesthetic that was of the people – of the youth. While Gvasalia found his stride at Balenciaga, the rest of the industry ran to match his pace. Vetements, the line he runs with brother Guram, rapidly developed a cult following among young street style stars and the new generation of editors. We’ve watched through the lens of Instagram as their pulled-apart and patched-together Levi’s took street style by storm. A silent, sartorial battle cry of change. No longer does tradition define and dictate fashion. The new order is here, and they’re not going anywhere.
The tough-meets-tender allure of rebellion makes the mood irresistible. And it wasn’t just the clothes this season: with the announcement of ‘See Now Buy Now,’ and many designers abandoning the traditional catwalk calendar altogether, the fashion world is being turned on its head. As the dust settles and the musical chairs of fashion houses slow down, we are faced with the industry’s new look.
The fast-revolving doors at designer houses have left many brands without an identity this season. While Dior felt more like Valentino, and Valentino less like Maria Grazia Chiuri, the new talent brought something unique to the table.
“Now more than ever, personal style is about being unique and putting things together in an interesting way,” says Lisa Aiken, fashion director at Net-A-Porter. “There is a reason that our top selling category is emerging designers. Women want something new, something different.” In their first year backing Vetements, the brand boasted an 85% sell-through rate. Similarly, Virgil Abloh’s Off-White sold out almost immediately after its high-summer launch with the luxury e-tailer in 2016. Surprisingly, the most off-beat, often unflattering and independent styles are what sell best. What makes these pieces so appealing to the customer is the confidence that goes along with wearing them – it’s sexy to break the rules.
Consumers are willing to pay a lot for this. Even $500 for a yellow DHL t-shirt? Absolutely. It’s tongue in cheek in a way that causes us to think a little harder about fashion. This ‘take no prisoners’ attitude is exactly on the beat of the social movements and political rebellion happening globally.
Social media has had a huge impact. Not only is the way we consume media changing, but consumers are changing as well. They are younger, more savvy, and more well connected than ever before. Social media has democratized fashion. And the audience has grown exponentially in result. Technology has also expanded fashion media’s reach; Instagram acts as a free platform for the world to communicate and share independent fashion movements. Designers are interested in finding those peripheral movements and bringing them to attention. “[It] has something to do with designers or image-makers reliving or revisiting their own adolescences – they’ll often use their platform to create things that [they] always wanted to be a part of,” says Lou Stoppard, whose focus on the subject inspired her fashion exhibition Mad About the Boy.
With this youthful nostalgia, the cuffed industrial Dickies and dad’s old Vans were revisited as a fashion statement – so far removed from their roots. It may nod to 90s Nirvana, and show hints of early Margiela, but this rebellion is not a recycling of decades past. Thanks to social technology, our generation operates differently than any others that have come before us. We’re phasing out the awkward phase and embracing teen angst with open arms.
Reiterations of Gvasalia’s Vetements spread like wildfire on this year’s catwalk. While Philophiles mourned the end of Celine’s long, lithe and minimal silhouettes, her urban counterpart materialized in low-slung, straight-legged blue jeans, crisp cotton poplins and sneakers. The Venice Boardwalk skater boy references were difficult, if not impossible to put behind us. At J.W. Anderson, experimentation came with punky, clunky accessories, the “Pierce” bag complete with barbell hardware. We saw that grungy youth in the loose, holey sleeves of plaid flannel shirts at Gosha Rubchinskiy. But this idea wasn’t just sewn into the garments, printed on the show notes, and pinned backstage on reference boards. It is anti-establishment and plans to break every rule along the way.
These designers have taken mundane clothing and made it exciting again. That’s exactly what we expect of fashion. To distract us, to take us someplace else. The interest is in how they play with familiar shapes – the trench, the straight leg jean, the bomber jacket – and with the smallest tweak make them into something new. It’s uncanny. Familiar, yet completely fresh at the same time. But the success of these designs would be nowhere without a kickass attitude to match. Teen angst is trending, get with it.