speak up! five 90s fashion shows with something bold to say
Remember when McQueen hand-carved prosthetics for Paralympian Aimee Mullins, or when Margiela took his front row-seats from editors and gave them to 5-year-old children?
As the past weeks have demonstrated, Fashion Month has the potential to function as a political amphitheater as well as a sartorial one. Think of Karl's feminist rally for Chanel spring/summer 15, or the twin brides who closed Chanel's 2013 haute couture in an elegant show of support for France's legalisation of gay marriage. Occasionally, runways even become protest sites without a designer's consent: Rick Owens wasn't cheering when one of his models went rogue at his spring/summer 16 menswear show, pulling out a sign that read "Please Kill Angela Merkel — Not." In fact, he threw a punch backstage in response. Other times, the statements are made outside the building — in September, a topless protestor crashed Kanye West's Yeezy Season 4 casting, to protest his request for "Multiracial Women Only."
Whether highly considered or pulled off on-the-fly, fashion shows have long functioned as political forums. And while our minds are occupied with our present political furore, some of the boldest political statements in the industry happened 20 years ago. We look back over the decades, at the prophetic shows that brought politics to the runway.
Maison Margiela spring/summer 1990
In 1989, Margiela wanted to ask the world a radical question about fashion week: Who's it really for, anyway? His beloved shows were not just for the industry — elite editors, stylists and other designers — but for the public too. Or rather, for the fans. This 1989 presentation radically democratised fashion, signalling the beginning of the end of the closed, industry-only salon.
Martin and Jenny Meirens selected a derelict playground in the outskirts of Paris in the 20th arrondissement as the location for the show, inviting children around the neighbourhood to design the invitations. They drew them on cardboard and as a thank you, Martin and Jenny later took the children on a day trip to the countryside.
The presentation had no seating plan: the front was open to whoever got there earliest. Local kids who were already playing nearby snagged the seats usually reserved for editors. At one point, one of the model's boyfriend's began lifting children up from the front row onto the models' shoulders as they walked down the runway. It was mayhem. Kristina de Coninck, a model in the show, recalled last-minute backstage changes in conversation with the Gentlewoman. "Martin took one look at my wig — they used hairpieces on the models with shorter hair — and said, 'It's not wild enough.' So he took the hairpiece and ran it along the dusty ground." Raf Simons was there too — he gatecrashed. "There wasn't even a floor! It was like a trashy backyard." Critics panned the show, but we'd love to see more like it.
Jean Paul Gaultier spring/summer 1994
In 1993, it felt as if the world was opening up. Commercial flights were cheaper than ever before, PC computers were filling up homes and mobile phones had made it possible to talk to people on the other side of the earth while walking down your own street. Gaultier certainly felt excited by globalisation and his far-reaching collection, Les Tatouages, celebrated the new world. Each look he sent down the runway seemed to shout "Welcome to the Global Village!"
Pants covered in New York city subway graffiti were paired with tattooed-covered bodysuits — some were inspired by the Yakuza's ink, others were printed with colourful European bills, magnified until they were difficult to identify. The tattooed tulle shirts would eventually become one of Gaultier's signatures, but in 1993, they'd never been seen before. Stella Tennant (then a newcomer) had a crucified skeleton painted onto her stomach, and other models were covered in piercings. Most, of course, were faux. Nevertheless, the show convinced the fashion world that belly rings and nose piercings were in — and the body jewellery Gaultier chose for the show would come to define the 90s and early 2000s. The multicultural collection was a surprise hit with editors, and earned Gaultier big-ticket spreads in Elle Germany and US Vogue — establishing him as something more than an enfant terrible.
Alexander McQueen autumn/winter 1995-96
With a title like Highland Rape, there was no way McQueen — or this collection — could dodge controversy. But it wasn't a presentation that dealt with sexual assault, as the name would suggest. Instead McQueen sought to highlight the historical "ethnic cleansing" of Scotland by English forces. The countries fought through much of the 17th and 18th centuries, and many Scottish clans were entirely erased from history. McQueen, whose father was Scottish, wished to ensure the events were remembered.
Dresses were scratched and torn, models furiously walked the runway (some feigning intoxication) and many had their hair coloured red in tribute to the highlands. The collection was an early instance of McQueen using his family's own tartan in a show, which became a motif through his career. Highland Rape also marked the debut of his famous bumster silhouette: the low-rise trouser cut he created to elongate the base of the spine, which he felt was one of the most beautiful parts of the female body. Unfortunately the clothes were largely overshadowed by the controversy relating to the show's title. Critics considered sending distressed models down the runway poor taste and the designer was accused of glamourising violence. His fans quickly came to his defence, arguing the women were a metaphor for the battered Scotland. Nevertheless, it took years for the fashion world to conclude the designer's intentions were pure.
Chalayan spring/summer 1998
In 1997, Hussein Chalayan was on top of the world. With a string of critically well received shows behind him, the British-Cypriot did something unexpected. He made a collection that dealt with Islam, Niqabs, and full-frontal nudity. Perhaps Chalayan felt that his commercially successful shows had primed his audience for something more controversial.
Whatever the motivation, Chalayan's collection, Between, will never be forgotten — largely because of the finale. A group of models closed the presentation in unison, all wearing niqabs of varying length. Each model's garment successively shortened: the first niqab grazed the floor, while the final model was left with her entire nude body exposed. After the show Chalayan told the Times, "I'm very aware of cultural space, and I enjoy observing body language." The trope was one Chalayan would repeat many times in the seasons following: that is, closing a show with a group of models who would act out some sort of performance — just as famously, a group of five turned chairs into dresses for autumn/winter 2000. Yet few Chalayan shows were quite as emotionally potent as Between: the audience was, famously, brought to tears by the end of the performance.
Alexander McQueen spring/summer 1999
As we begin to reach the end of Fashion Month, there are certain criticisms that ring out loud and clear. The public calls for more plus sized models, people of colour and people with disabilities to be represented on our runways must be heard, and honoured. Though progress can feel slow, 18 years ago McQueen did exactly that. His show, No. 13, is perhaps best remembered for the Shalom Harlow moment when robotic arms painted her white dress as she spun wildly at the centre of the room, but there was another important model on the runway: Aimee Mullins. The Paralympic athlete had both her lower legs amputated at an early age, so McQueen carved prosthetic legs for her out of solid ash. In conversation with i-D in July 2000, McQueen explained, "When I used Aimee for [this collection], I made a point of not putting her in sprinting legs. We did try them on but I thought no, that's not the point of this exercise. The point is that she was to mould in with the rest of the girls."
Photography Maison Margeila by Jean-Claude Coutausse, McQueen imagery courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum