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meme fashion designers aren’t trolling us, they’re saving us

Glenn Martens of Y/Project, Ksenia Schnaider and Christopher Shannon tell i-D why the importance of this season’s “ugliest” and “most ridiculous” fashion items offer much more that a quick LOL.

by Steve Salter
30 April 2019, 7:30am

Image via Instagram

Are Y/Project trolling with these denim panties?” i-D asked earlier this month. As fashion has moved increasingly online, from shopping to catwalk-watching, so has the way we understand it. Internet discourse -- from trolls and meme-makers -- has shaped our perception as well as consumption. Designers are increasingly creating work to stand out, be noticed, push something new.

Thanks to the digital revolution, the fashion insiders of catwalk’s past have been joined by an infinite scroll of influencers and commentators, and consequently, meme fashion culture is powering the latest seismic shift that’s widening the fashion world. Y/Project’s denim panties are just the most recent example of a high-fashion garment causing a wider media furore. They even ended up on the Ellen, and Glenn himself posted a screenshot with the caption “made it”.

“2018 was the year fashion went viral” Lyst proclaimed in its last Year in Fashion report. “When meme culture met internet-melting product design, the result was a series of internet breaking fashion moments that got the world talking, and searching,” they continued. So far this year, in addition to the denim panties, we’ve been treated to tiny bags at Jacquemus, asymmetrical jeans at Ksenia Schnaider and Viktor & Rolf’s ‘Go F*ck Yourself’ statement couture. “The moment you do anything different it becomes a thing,” Y/Project’s Glenn Martens explains. “I obviously don’t mind seeing some of my designs break the internet even if people freak out about it. In today’s fashion landscape putting a fat logo on a shirt is definitely more efficient than making a creative statement but I’d be so bored just sticking logos on basic jumpers... I prefer to have fun experimenting and designing.”

Glenn’s technical trickery for Y/Project, and his desire to push at fashion’s boundaries, leads to talking points, because what he creates feels new.

“With all its layers of Barthesian sign-signifying, fashion imagery totally suits the internet -- it's superfast pathways, obsessive screen time and over-saturated pixels,” fashion meme-maker turned Fendi collaborator @Hey_Reilly explains. “The digital age defines our time and defines our fashion imagery.”

In 2017, Reilly created a Celine Dion/Dior mash-up that left certain fashion publications questioning whether the house had collaborated with the singer and couture lover as Dior reposted the image on their own Instagram feed. Then Silvia Venturini Fendi broke the fourth wall by reaching out into the real world to snap up Hey Reilly’s reworking of their logo for their autumn/winter 18 men’s and women’s collections. “There’s definitely an art and a science to fashion meme culture but you risk killing the joy by over-thinking it,” Hey Reilly warns -- which is what we are about to do, sorry.

“I always design things which I believe are beautiful and interesting,” Glenn says. In this pursuit of beauty, intrigue and newness, he continually treads the tightrope of good/bad taste, the familiar and the otherworldly. “Most of the pieces are easy to digest but if I only created such items, I would get so bored,’ he says. If everything in fashion was a one-dimensional version of what people deem wearable or chic or pretty, fashion week would be very dull nightmare. “The starting point of every single collection is experimentation in cut and construction and as our offering is so diverse, some translations are pushed to the extreme and become fantastical,” Glenn says. “Some of these looks are not intended for everyday life. They’re not made to be a commercial success, they make you dream and laugh.”

Alongside this season’s cargo pants, sports coats, hoodies and trick-filled tailoring, sit one of spring/summer 19’s most talked about items: those denim panties. “This is the ugliest thing I have ever seen in my life,” someone remarked. underneath SSENSE's Instagram post when they launched online.

Glenn knows how to divide the internet. Every season there are a few standout pieces that remain lodged in our subconscious long after the fashion weeks have finished. For the autumn/winter 18 shows, one of these was very much Y/Project’s wild collaboration with UGG, which reimagined the iconic sheepskin boot as thigh-high boots and high-heeled wonders. “Uggs have never claimed to be pretty, they were invented for comfort,” he explains. “And we basically wanted to push the experience of putting on such a warm and comfortable boot, so we elongated them in order to have the full leg bathing in that comfy butter. I was very aware that there was no way a thigh high UGG could pass by unnoticed.”

“I like to challenge myself and challenge my customers,” Glenn says. “So once in a while we propose certain products that might provoke and these are the pieces most people remember. But I do believe they are very pretty -- during the men’s show the denim panties were styled with black stockings, pumps and a black mohair knit and the look was very elegant!” In fact it was only when the denim panties appeared on SSENSE’s Instagram feed that the masses stood up and took notice. “Obviously if somebody styles this piece with a sneaker it becomes a whole new thing but that’s exactly what we push with Y/Project: individuality. I want people to play with our clothes and own them. A jacket can be designed to be worn differently in order to become chic, street, fun, experimental, sleek…”

“You'd think that we now know the secret key to success -- do something unconventional and wait for people to react, but in reality, it's not about pure provocation,” says Ksenia Schnaider, the creative force behind another brand serving up catnip for the meme generator, specifically the Kyiv based label’s made-to-order asymmetrical jeans. “They were quickly turned into a meme, as people were customising their own jeans and tagging us,” design partner Anton Schnaider explained. “We push the limits of denim but you have to understand, we don't have a goal to provoke but instead we give people options for every day,” Ksenia noted. Everyday denim doesn’t have to humdrum. “We were conscious that it is not your regular pair of jeans, but our point is that they could be if you’re open-minded to it.”

Images courtesy of Ksenia Schnaider. Art direction Anton Schnaider.

The internet’s reaction, however, has left the pair somewhat frustrated. “They received way more attention than they deserved compared to other items in our collection,” Ksenia explains. “There are many very complicated pieces, pieces that took lots of time both to engineer and to produce, pieces that are redone from textile waste but everyone's attention was tied to this pair of asymmetric jeans.”

A few years ago London-based designer and must-follow social media provocateur Christopher Shannon designed his own pair of highly sought after asymmetrical jeans and he recently reissued the sell-out design. “I think they’re hilarious, but when they’re worn and move, they’re oddly chic,” Christopher says. “I didn’t envisage an asymmetrical jeans take over, they probably evolved from my annoyance at being ripped off so much -- I sometimes want to make a thing no one will copy. I only really care about ideas and seeing how far I can push something.” As for the reaction, he’s not fussed. ”People can get really worked up about the simplest thing -- that’s to do with them though and has nothing to do with me,” he notes.

“The best memes are shared instances of ephemerality, so are almost exactly antithetical to the time-heavy and process lead creation of design objects,” @hey_reilly told us. “To make fashion expressly in the hope of feeding into a meme seems to me to be missing the joy in both endeavours.” Which is why none of the designers creating this year’s most talked about meme fashion approach their designs in this manner. Instead, these love them/hate them pieces are borne out of a frustration in the studio, a desire to challenge the mundanity of the everyday and an encouragement to their customers to inject a bit of themselves into the process.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Christopher Shannon
hey reilly
ksenia schnaider