Another menswear fashion week (fall/winter 2014) just came to an end here in Paris. As usual, there were lots of unwearable clothes, some really nice threads, glamorous dinners and of course, pretty boys galore. But this time around, there were some other, more interesting, things too. Among them, lots of confusing talk about racism, a welcome injection of gender-bending New York pizazz and a clear divide between small independent shows and the big brands’ mega-productions.
Saint Laurent, the label Yves founded and now controlled — from Los Angeles — down to the most minuscule detail by the rock-obsessed Hedi Slimane, closed the week with a big show that didn’t disappoint. The invitation to the show itself has become one of the most anticipated artifacts in contemporary haute fashion paraphernalia. What would it be this time? Would it arrive on time? The answer, sure to become a collectible, arrived the day before the show in an elegant secretive black envelope containing a little notebook filled with comic-style drawings by living American artist Raymond Pettibon. The location was another winner, a giant tent set up behind Les Invalides, the impressive domed landmark where Napoleon is buried.
Meanwhile, the runway paid homage to all of Slimane’s usual obsessions, including gangly youth, garage rock, and a super-attenuated silhouette. The soundtrack was a band Slimane just discovered in Echo Park, of course, and his front row was studded with assorted chisel-faced musicians as well as, less expectedly, K-pop sensation Big Bang. But this season there was a decided sophistication to his sartorial offering, evident in the superior tailoring of the skinny looks that evoked 1960’s London, as well as some seriously covetable coats.
Among the weekend’s other highlights were two other, smaller shows. One was the pre-fall presentation of Brooklyn-based Shayne Oliver, the designer behind ghetto-queer-chic label on the rise Hood By Air, held at the jewel-like left bank apartment of Scarlett Rouge, daughter of Michele Lamy, Rick Owens’ fabulous wife and business partner. With its pounding electronic dance music and fog machine, the noon presentation injected Paris — where propriety and good taste still rule — with a welcome dose of New York in-your-faceness.
In fact, it was as if an after-hours party by a crew of hedonistic downtown denizens had been transported straight from Manhattan to the hyper-bourgeois 7th arrondissement. The casting, by Kevin Amato, was sublime, and included an albino, as well as sexy boys of all colors and shapes, all lasciviously lounging around the small apartment, with its intricately adorned walls and ceiling. The styling was suitably decadent, with some of the boys wearing Oliver’s black-and-white, latched garments with nothing but hooker boots and white briefs.
And it was another outsider who brought some life to Paris the next day. Umit Benan, a designer of Turkish descent who until now has shown in Milan, held his Paris debut at the prestigious Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts. Yet, on Sunday, the venerable venue looked more like a baseball pitch. That’s because, a day before MLK day, Benan’s show was fittingly (or absurdly?) themed after Jackie Robinson. But if the theme was a bit corny and out of place, the clothes –luxe sportswear in rich brown and blue hues — and the casting by Martin Franck were brilliant. All models were black and non-professional, i.e. real people cast on the street and spanning several generations, a rarity in the highly ageist world of fashion. It worked.
At the end of the show, Benan came out bearing a banner that read “No to Racism — For the Love of the Game.” He was the second designer this week to use his runway to make an anti-racism statement. A few days before Benan, Walter van Beirendonck had some of his models sport Native American feathered headdresses painted with a similar ‘stop-racism’ message.
While the whole thing seems a bit disingenuous from an industry where overt discrimination is standard practice, another more subtle form of segregation was on rampant display throughout the week, one concerning a certain unrealistic ideal of male beauty within an ethnic group. At all the big shows, say Raf Simons’ collaboration with artist Sterling Ruby or at Dries van Noten, all models conformed to a robot-like ideal, endless iterations of the same, predominantly Caucasian face. Somewhat more fine-boned and aristocratic at Raf and a little more Russian-inflected stronger-featured at Dries, it was still an army of sameness. It’s the Prada school of casting, where uniformity rules. As does whiteness.
Kudos to the smaller shows by independent designers like Benan, van Beirendonck, and Oliver, who used street-casting to show their clothes on a panoply of manhood closer to what we think of as attractive in real life — boys that were far from homely, but that represent more faithfully the rich diversity of faces and types of hotness that make a walk to the deli interesting, and every subway- or metro-ride an opportunity for a little crush.