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the rise of the co-ed catwalk

Prada’s been doing it for a year now, and this season New York Fashion Week followed troop in a big way. The age of women’s and menswear on the same catwalk is upon us.

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Whatever happened to the word ‘unisex’? From cK One to Buffalo boots, it was all the rage in the 90s but seemed to suffer a sudden deportation to the dictionary graveyard. Maybe the word just had too gross a cling to it, even if its intentions were good (it is a pretty awful word), or perhaps fashion just became too androgynous to maintain its purpose, what with the arrival of Hedi Slimane and all. Nowadays we don’t really seem to care if the clothes we buy were originally sewn for a woman or a man, as long as they’re worn well. People’s disregard for sex specific clothes labels isn’t just reserved for the amount of men in women’s Balenciaga and Lanvin, who frequent the fashion weeks of the world, either. It’s an everyday, mainstream occurrence. Go to a store like COS and you’ll see plenty of men buying knitted dresses passing them off as ‘long jumpers’, or flick through the pages of any women’s magazine and it’ll be full of so-called ‘boyfriend’ garments, i.e. menswear for women.

Maybe that’s why designers are taking to mixing up their men’s and women’s lines on the catwalk. This season’s New York Fashion Week saw plenty of cases in point. Lacoste and Opening Ceremony, for instance, who only put on one show a season, chose to show both their women’s and men’s collections on the same catwalk instead of showing separate men’s collections at one of the three European menswear weeks. For Public School’s first show billed as ‘women’s ready-to-wear’ rather than a men’s collection, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne’s catwalk had more than a few men on it, complementing their new Public School girl’s decidedly boyish look. And in keeping with tradition, Jeremy Scott effortlessly added male models to his show, illustrating the gender-bending versatility of his garments. At this rate, we might as well merge the fashion weeks altogether. But does the mixing of women’s and menswear on the catwalk express a desire for unisex fashion, or does it serve a greater purpose?

“With the women, I wanted to say what I wanted to say with the men but couldn’t,” Miuccia Prada explained to i-D after her autumn/winter 14 men’s show, which included several Pre-Fall women’s looks. “The women were the accessories,” she smiled. (“It’s a joke, eh.”) The show marked the second season in a row Prada has shown womenswear as part of their men’s show, much to the delight of the female editors present, who can hardly be blamed for slightly OD’ing on shirts and tailoring during the men’s collections. While Mrs Prada's comments might sound odd for a designer, who dedicated an entire collection to tropical floral prints for men the season before, what she meant was that the man she wanted to portray in this specific collection, which drew on the industrialism of early 80s Germany with hints of theatre, didn’t allow for the more spelled-out theatrical elements she added in the womenswear. And so, the women’s looks in Prada’s autumn/winter 14 collection actually played a very significant role.

Prada first added womenswear looks to her show for the men’s spring/summer 14 collection last summer, an idea echoed by Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and this season at Haider Ackermann’s second menswear presentation in Paris where Aymeline Valade and Kaitlin Aas casually walked out amongst the designer’s Victorian gentlemen, highlighting the strong femininity vs. graceful masculinity theme of his work. For designers, who show at both the women’s and men’s fashion weeks, using womenswear to underline a message in a menswear collection – and vice versa – appears to be the main function behind the new tendency, although promoting a pre-collection at the same time doesn’t exactly hurt the houses. But other designers have experimented with the idea and abandoned it altogether. Before Meadham Kirchhoff launched their menswear line, which is currently hiatus, the designers often sent out men’s looks as part of their womenswear collections, but eventually decided against it. 

“They’re separate entities. They’re separate brains,” Ben Kirchhoff told i-D last December. The co-ed catwalk trend is hardly the first brick in the early foundation of combined fashion weeks – the seating issues alone would cause heart attacks for PRs around the fashion capitals – but it does signify a clear change in the way audiences and consumers are viewing clothes. Meadham Kirchhoff, for instance, believe that any garment they make can be worn by whomever wants to wear it – female or male – and are even in the process of launching a unisex fragrance, Tra La La. And speaking of unisex, perhaps the co-ed trend will turn into a much bigger popular belief, which will create a fashion world that will no longer need words like that, 90s relic or not.