Where Sporty Comes to Die

June 20, 2014 • Fashion

The sporty look is in its twilight. As far as trends go, it has enjoyed a relatively long life and broad reach. It’s similar to the explosion of lace about three years ago. Lace was on everything: denim shorts with lace, tee shirts with lace, sneakers with lace, etc. The athletic aesthetic seems to have spread equally as far, in Chanel couture sneakers and throughout Alexander Wang’s entire existence. It’s not just in the single item, though that’s where it started. For the past few years, “sporty” has been the most accurate adjective to describe entire collections.

But glory fades, and trends are no exception. In the late stages of a trend’s life cycle, looks become too abstracted, too literal or too boring. I got a sense of this throughout the past week as I kept track of the menswear collections in London, which ended yesterday. London has long seemed a stronghold for the sporty look. Young designers are its major proponents, and some of Britain’s subcultures lend themselves nicely to the consistently popularity of trainers and mesh. Nevertheless, with this week, the city has become the locus of the trend’s decay.

Let me take a moment to explain that the taste for an athletic wardrobe starts with good intentions. Sports clothes are determined by utility for the most part. Of course, the design of athletic gear has always been a deliberately aesthetic practice, but what separates my Nike Lunar Ballistec tennis sneakers from my gray Converse sneakers is how much use I can get out of them. This difference in utility creates a rift between sports clothes and “fashion” clothes. The value of the current trend, then, is that it draws a nice line between the two dots. At the Pitti Uomo menswear shows a few years ago, this is precisely what was so exciting. At Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli wowed with sneakers that matched sumptuous velvet and suede jackets, presaging Karl Lagerfeld’s sparkly couture kicks of last year. Donatella Versace showed the analogy in more blatant terms, plastering her models and clothes with neon Kinesio tape and, thereby, laying claim to both the gym and the runway in the same moment.

Glory Days of Sport, from left: Raf Simons Fall 2012,  Valentino Spring 2013, Versace Spring 2014

Glory Days of Sport, from left: Raf Simons Fall 2012, Valentino Spring 2013, Versace Spring 2014

What I observe in London is a situation in which designers get a bit too caught up in the moment. Indeed, at Astrid Andersen, the clothes indicated this as a possibility. The clothes took sporty too literally. Some commentators noted Andersen’s references to East Asian dress, in obi sashes and kimono silhouettes. Whatever these reference are, they were unfortunately mired by the collection’s insistence on looks more suitable for the locker room than your spring lookbook.

Moschino and Nasir Mazhar faltered for similar reasons. Ideally, there is a balance of sport and fashion. Fashion borrows from sport for a bit of aesthetic cred, as it might draw on such traditions as the Safari Explorer or Working Woman. But taking too much from source material waters down one’s argument. If anything a fashion show is an opportunity to say something that orients viewers in a new direction or reformulates an old idea; at the least, it’s a chance to show desirable clothes. Doing so means moving beyond the simple reproduction of “sporty” and into a more sophisticated representation of its dimensions.

While I don’t think these shows were convincing cases for the sport look, I do think they say something else more interesting about masculinity in its current state, whatever that may be. As London’s shows were starting last week, the word “spornosexual” became the hot topic in culture sections across the web. Last Tuesday, the New York Post asked, “Is ‘Spornosexual’ the New Metrosexual,” which is a terrifying question on par with, “Do you exercise regularly?” The idea of masculinity attempting yet another re-packaged comeback is a nightmare. That said, “spornosexual” seems particularly relevant to the inevitable decline of the sports look.

The British journalist Mark Simpson, who was the culprit behind “metrosexual,” coined “spornosexual” to describe men who want to be desired for their chiseled musculature and attractiveness, rather than simply good taste or high culture. As Simpson wrote in the Telegraph over a week ago, “bodies have become the ultimate accessory.” How desperate. Nonetheless, I sense that Mazhar and Andersen might’ve anticipated Simpson’s frightening wordcraft. Both designers create looks that show a lot of skin; without fail, runway ensembles are visually organized around a pair of glorious abs or strong legs. In this role, which was broadly reproduced throughout this past week in London, the clothes don’t do much, which is the great irony of this trend’s last moments. “Sporty” is precisely the suggestion of doing something. At their best, clothes in this trend promise that you’ll at least look like you think about the gym. With these athletic collections, however, creativity stands still.

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