Tom and Montana did not have to think too hard about what to wear in order to be in perfect harmony. He wears a shirt and jeans by Uniqlo U, a vintage belt and socks by Pantherella. Montana wears two tops and a jumper worn as a skirt by Uniqlo U. Her socks and shoes are both vintage.
The fashion industry has enjoyed a certain status quo for as long as I can remember. Fashion weeks happen at pretty much the same times each year, producing the same old circuit of New York, London, Milan and Paris, the press (and bloggers), the buyers, the game we all play. Perhaps the last big shake-up that had a lasting effect was Martin Margiela’s show in a rundown playground in northeastern Paris in 1989. Before that, it was Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons’ arrival in Paris in 1981. And before that, you have to go back to Yves Saint Laurent’s debut in 1962.
But there is one event that arguably has more resonance today than any other: Helmut Lang’s Autumn 1998 show that he decided to show in its entirety online. Those were still the days of dial-up internet, more than a decade before Instagram. It was a time when fashion was suspicious of the world wide web, paranoid about copying, anxious about too many people seeing what they were doing, being allowed into the inner circle.
The year before Lang’s iconic show, a young Slovenian designer called Natasa Cagalj had graduated with a Master’s from Central Saint Martins under Louise Wilson and had gone to work at Cerruti. She spent her first pay cheque on a pair of Margiela boots and she avidly followed Helmut Lang. “I really loved his designs with all of my heart. Unfortunately, back then I never had the money to afford them,” she remembers. “I could just buy his jeans, which I wore religiously, and his T-shirts.” Cagalj went on to work at Lanvin with Alber Elbaz and then with Stella McCartney, before taking over as creative director at Ports 1961 two years ago. There, she is taking the brand in her own direction: clean, modern, sometimes masculine, but also gently feminine, functional and, most importantly, relevant. It speaks to women who love fashion but who do not want to look “done”. It speaks both to the generation who bought Lang in the 1990s and the Yeezy generation who may not even be aware of Lang’s influence on what they are wearing.
Today we are experiencing a moment of fundamental change (some might say chaos). The circus of the grand old fashion institutions picking new designers as a replacement for old ones is not enough to challenge the deeper transformations shaping the industry. Designers are creating new rhythms with their manufacturers and stockists, increasingly beating their own drum in the way that Azzedine Alaïa always has, the line between menswear and womenswear blurs further, and fashion shows – for the designers who continue with them – blend further into the customer’s shopping experience. Technically, the world has moved on in terabytes since 1998. But in a world of social-media previews, that Helmut Lang collection was 20 years ahead of its time. I was reminded of this in July, while in Paris during the haute-couture shows. There was the usual parade of overblown ball gowns, outdated codes and off-kilter references. Sure, Vetements has injected the whole thing with a shot of adrenaline, making up its own rules as it goes along, but fundamentally, really, who gives a damn about haute couture?
Certainly no one at Uniqlo’s brand-new, bright, white research and development lab on Rue de Rivoli was giving a second thought to the rarefied gowns on the runways. Especially not Christophe Lemaire, a man who is no stranger to the luxury world, but who is now focusing his attention on an altogether more mainstream challenge in his new role as artistic director of the Uniqlo Paris R&D centre.
Arriving there I was greeted by a bank of reception staff all dressed in clinical white, and shown into an open studio space. This is where Lemaire spends half his time (the rest of the time he is at his own brand) with a dedicated team, many of whom have also come to Uniqlo from luxury brands. I spoke to one designer who had previously worked at Balenciaga. “Has high-end fashion lost touch with reality?” I asked. She nodded, matter of fact. “I think so, yes. At first, it was a great fantasy of mine to get lost in embellishment or in advanced techniques, but the final product is so expensive that it’s out of touch with reality. Clothing is a product people are supposed to move around in, have a life with, so if it is something you can’t run in, you can’t wash, you have to dry clean and is too heavy to spend the day in, then it doesn’t really make sense.”
This seems to be the crux of the matter: while high fashion is having an identity crisis, the world has moved on, and it wants to dress itself with the same ease that it dresses an avatar in a computer game. From late September, Christophe Lemaire’s Uniqlo U collection will make this even simpler. It is a brilliant and concise collection, in a low key it’s-just-what-you-want-to-wear kind of way, just three or four rails of of what are now being called “elevated” basics for both men and women. The colour palette ranges from bright white through to various shades of concrete, plaster and a touch of mustard. There’s just one T-shirt – apparently The One, the holy grail, the perfect T. It is made from heavier cotton, the side seams slant to the back rather than going straight up the side. I notice one of the team wearing a sweatshirt where something indefinable but brilliant has been done with the shoulder seams. There is the archetypal A-line skirt in corduroy, two little pockets at the hips. And there are shoes, almost plimsoll-like in their simplicity.
“As a designer, I have always been interested in trying to bring quality to everyday life, always thinking of designing clothes that start from reality,” says Christophe Lemaire. We have been shown into a quiet meeting room, and I ask him why he is making this shift from luxury to everyday, from rarefied to universal. “I think there is a switch in the textile industry and fashion industry now where everyone thinks there is something a bit obscene about the circus – the demonstration of power – and that it does not really relate to people’s lives. I think Uniqlo is a democratic brand, made for all. Ninety-nine per cent of people do not care about the fashion shows.” He laughs.
Not that he is not taking this seriously – Lemaire really gets it. He is in tune with something bigger than fashion. There is, he says, a shift in the way people want to consume, the way we should be producing stuff, a whole new mindset. “I think it is just a moment in history where a certain way of life, of consuming, is being questioned. There is an ecological disaster going on. That is the truth. So I think everyone is interested in rethinking everything. For us, this line is proposing that we consume less but consume better.”
“There is this crazy version of the fashion industry that is about running after sensation and occupying the media,” says Lemaire. “It is completely disconnected from reality. Every morning I have to get dressed, and I ask myself: do I have the clothes that fit my body, my personality, and in which I don’t feel disguised and I feel at my best? This is what we are interested in.”
That is the generational shift: if you have grown up swiping at an iPhone, it is most likely that you have a different relationship to your clothes. You relate to brands, big brands with smart logos, whether it is a swoosh, stripes, or, for old time’s sake, a Juicy Couture crest. It is an approach and especially visible among some of the most recent graduates. You like your clothes to be fairly generic, like your technology, but you do not want to be bland.
New labels like Atlein mirror this trend. Antonin Tron’s collections are made in France at a factory that specialises in knitwear and jersey, and can realise his vision of clothes that are functional, sporty even, but glamorous and elegant. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, he has worked at Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Balenciaga (where he still freelances). His own collection has a cool eye on the future, and a sense of tradition, drawing on Jean Muir’s minimalism and Azzedine Alaïa’s craft, but honed into something affordable and easy that his generation will make their own.
For the MFA in Fashion Design and Society programme at Parsons New School in New York, course director Shelley Fox is on a mission to make sure that the next generation are as connected to the world as they can be. Her students leave with a strong sense of their own identity, and an understanding of a society outside of the fashion elite. One of this year’s graduates is the Siberian-born designer, Maria Lavigina, who describes herself as a visual artist, but whose medium is menswear. Under her pseudonym, Jahnkoy, she has redesigned the Puma cat as a Rastafarian lion for her logo and uses pieces of existing sportswear to create heart-stoppingly visceral collections. For her, fashion is an outlet to comment on everything from consumerism to economic, racial and cultural inequality, and what she describes as “the perverse effects of globalisation”.
In contrast she has created an ecosystem around her of friends and collaborators who share her values, work on the clothes with her, who bead, stitch, craft and graft together. She describes her work as “a bricolage of cultural heritage, today’s reality and an artist’s own identity”. Like Charles Jeffrey and LOVERBOY in London, Jahnkoy has created her own movement, her own subculture. While fashion is globalised, it is also becoming distinctly atomised as independent designers refuse to play the bigger game, preferring instead to build their own communities that they relate to – and which relate to them. It is part of the whole ethos of new London-based start-up ONEBYME. Founders Elsa Ellies and Miles Dunphy describe their start-up as “the birth of a new movement”. They work with dancers and krumpers who they cast from Instagram to model their clothes – and they often get involved in making them, too. Their clothes are made entirely from patterns cut from a single piece of cloth, a technique Ellies honed training with Rick Owens in Milan before she started at the Royal College of Art. It reduces waste and means people can either buy their clothes ready made or in the form of a kit to stitch, safety pin or staple together themselves. In July, the pair were accepted as part of the Innovation RCA incubator scheme, which offers investment and mentoring to young businesses that it believes have the potential, credibility and scalability to succeed.
The designers met on the RCA Fashion MA programme and graduated this year with their joint project. Their approach, they say, “addresses the ever-so-changing social, political and economic landscape through the rebuilding of a new fashion system”. Much like the designer John Alexander Skelton who completed his MA at Central Saint Martins with a collection that is so well researched and traceable, that he can tell you about the seaweed diet of the rare breed of sheep whose wool he uses. Sustainability is key for ONEBYME: the whole process from how the raw materials are sourced, to how they are made, and ultimately, how they are disposed of has been a part of their business model from the start. “As emerging designers, sustainability should be part of our ethos,” Ellies explains. “It should be embedded in our designs.” Do they think fashion has become disconnected from reality? “Completely!” says Dunphy. “Nike is fashion today, whereas ten years ago it wasn’t. It’s real people wearing real clothes.”
A similarly iconoclastic approach is seen at Chin Mens. The Taiwanese designer uses traditional tailoring techniques but is not constrained by the codes of menswear, using drapes, ties or cutting into business shirts to reveal previously unexposed erogenous zones – shoulders, navel, glimpses of skin through the side seams. For Chin, this is about sensuality, not androgyny – a mainstream preoccupation that he is far beyond.
There is a rawness – and a realness – to this new generation of which Helmut Lang might approve. It is an authenticity and a spontaneity that Natasa Cagalj relates to. “I grew up as a designer in the 1990s and I loved that raw approach,” she recalls. “Things were quite spontaneous, on the go, not so polished and this is a little bit how I like to work.” When she was approached in 2015 to take over the direction of the Italian fashion house, she agreed as long as she could do it on her terms. So Cagalj relocated the Ports 1961 design studio to London, to the building that was once home to The Face. “I think we have something really special going on here,” she told me when we met there. “I thought there was maybe a place for a brand like this that offers quite a wide range of something very high-end and then something affordable.”
Helmut Lang questioned the status quo of the system even if he did not change it himself. He knew that if the product was strong enough, it would stand on its own. Lang was powerful enough to turn the fashion calendar upside down – he decided to show his collection at the beginning of the season rather than at the end. He understood that truly great fashion was about the subtlety of the seams rather than the scene. Ultimately he was a free spirit untethered by the rules of the game. Still today, the clarity of his vision is like a laser cutting through fashion’s insular obsession with trends, superfluous detail, overblown concepts and its slavery to celebrity endorsements.
You can draw a line from Lang’s work to that of Cagalj, Yeezy, Uniqlo U, and in many ways, to ONEBYME and the raw tribalism of Janhkoy. The influence is tangible, and Cagalj is the first to admit it: “For me, he is one of the most important designers of our era. I don’t think he even gets enough credit because the brand is something else now. Lang and Margiela were my heroes. But I think he was doing everything that people are trying to do now. The kind of practical way of wearing clothes, the advertising he did, it was always different. It is fascinating because he was a male designer, but there was something so gentle and practical to his clothes. Even on the rails, jackets and coats were not separated as men’s and women’s – they were one thing”. He was, she says, completely revolutionary. And it is perhaps only now that the revolution is really happening. §
It is all about the elevation of basics. Montana wears a jacket and trousers by Ports 1961, which has recently been given a fresh start by Natasa Cagalj, with a T-shirt from American Apparel, socks by Pantherella and vintage shoes.
It is as much an attitudinal shift as a generational one. Under her mother’s watchful gaze, Montana wears a coat and shoes by Azzedine Alaïa – a designer who has always played by his own rules. Her mother, Karen, wears a dress by Azzedine Alaïa, socks by Pantherella, vintage boots and her own ring. Right, Montana wears a skirt by Atlein as a hat.
Left, Tom can change the world in his jumper and trousers by Chin Mens and socks by Pantherella, while right, he wears a jacket by Chin Mens with the very same trousers and socks.
Left, Montana wears a dress by Atlein and socks by Pantherella. Karen also wears a dress by Atlein, with her own ring. The dog wears nothing. Right, Montana wears a hat and vest by John Alexander Skelton with vintage earrings.
Montana calmly balances a plate while wearing a dress by Atlein with the same socks as before.
Left and right, Montana wears a top and skirt by Atlein with socks by Pantherella and vintage shoes.
Montana wears two tops by Uniqlo U and mushrooms.
Photography assistant: Alessandro Tranchini
Models: Tom A at Tomorrow is Another Day, Montana and Karen