life's a stage, dress for it
On the second day of men's shows in Paris, designers from Dries Van Noten to Rick Owens and Louis Vuitton tackled the gilded theatre of menswear right now.
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans
"What is reality, what is dream?" Dries Van Noten mused after his epic autumn/winter 16 men's shows, which took to the stage of the Paris opera. The invitation was a theatre ticket, but if anyone thought they had Van Noten down as a dramatist he wasn't going to welcome easy interpretation. Messing with our minds, he placed the photographers' pit on the actual stage facing the curtain, while guests were seated behind it, effectively making us a part of the performance—or the backstage crew? In the theatre of Van Noten you shouldn't try to determine when the performance starts and finishes. Life's a stage, dress for it. In his show notes for the collection, he unironically used the term "peacock peacenik" to describe the flamboyant military tailoring scattered with bullion insignia, which defined it. In menswear, the idea of peacocking is frowned upon at the best of times but Van Noten owns it without apology, setting the tone for the current wave of opulence observed on the broad menswear spectrum, which his unwaveringly anti-minimalist aesthetic has influenced and inspired so much.
In his typical messianic way, Van Noten managed to reflect the entire spirit of menswear and the male image in one sweeping show. The opulence level that's been rising in menswear over the past seasons has now reached a point so gilded and embellished it's almost grotesque (really, look at Milan, it's like Ivana Trump gilded) and all as a reaction against the equally as grotesque minimalism we all had to endure after the underwhelming Great Depression of 2008. Think about it: 'normcore' was actually a thing. Under-dressing became synonymous with pride. People wore Member's Only jackets, for God's sake! It's not in the nature of men to dress down—a quick glance at history will tell you that opulent menswear has always been related to power, confidence, and sex. Following our brush with regal abstinence, menswear is now on majestic overload and that was the message to take from the performance Van Noten put on, on the second day of men's shows in Paris. We were on that stage with those models because we're now so fabulously dressed we're virtually in costume, running around in Gucci regalia and couture for men courtesy of Valentino and Zegna mainline. Even Topman has gone all ornate.
There was something totally preposterous about the coat that closed the Van Noten show: a black military number covered in golden army insignia, military decorations on the back and all. Michael Jackson would have found it a little over the top, and he would have loved it. It wasn't fantastic, it was fantastical—magic dust all over the place, and a psychedelic undercurrent in some very fancy jacquards to break up the wonderment and enhance it all at once. "It was really good for me to be able to show here on stage and not in a room," Van Noten smiled. "Doing the world a little bit upside down." Indeed. At Gosha Rubchinskiy, theatrical subversion was in full swing, too. The young Russian designer took out the abandoned, derelict Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord near Gare du Nord for his show, and the contrast between the fashion circus of a show and the homeless people camping under the bridge outside couldn't have been more arresting. On the backdrop of that, Rubchinskiy continued his portrayal of Moscow's youth (with some very young boys to cement it), exercising his retro-Soviet muscle in awkward early 90s' denim trousers climbing up the torso and oversized turtlenecks, meant to look poor in an expensive way, half parody and half sincerity, half theatre and half reality—and therein lies the subversion.
Did Rick Owens feel a bit stripped down? "Exactly," he said backstage. "That's what I wanted it to be. I'm really not one for that much embellishment so when I do embellishment or flamboyance I want it to be kind of full-on, so that's why it's like voluptuous draping or face painting," he explained, referring to the two major components of the collection and the show's styling. "You either do it subtle or go all the way, for me. Just a suggestion, not as a manifesto." After seasons of theatrics, Owens' departure from that approach resonated loudly on the lower ground level of Palais de Tokyo, but this wasn't a statement on Owens' part against the opulence and drama that's currently happening in menswear. Rather, it was an alternative that kind of represented the same thing. "Those double-breasted coats were the JMF series and that stands for Jean-Michel Frank, because I always think of him when I'm making double-breasted suits," he said of the French minimalist interior designer. "Jean-Michel Frank supposedly had forty identical grey suits in his closet, which I always loved. Pure but extravagant." And there you had it: discreet opulence—theatre without theatrics. What did those painted white faces represent? "Whatever," Owens shrugged. "Just glamour. I thought it was beautiful and glamorous and kind of creepy, and I like my glamour creepy."
One of the white tops that closed Yohji Yamamoto's heavily padded show said "Help me, I'm too hot" on the back. It could have been the tag line for this menswear season so far, which has embodied that peacocking Van Noten highlighted to the extreme. Our runway spirit animals are prancing around in fur coats and jewelled jumpers, making sure all eyes are on us. That's why the self-protective padding at Yamamoto - which was awesome - spoke levels about the way we now want to dress: piling on the layers of expensive branded cloth, wanting to be seen but also protected from the attention that comes with such exposure. Peacocking is a strange thing: it takes over so easily and can leave you embarrassed with yourself, yet you can't stop. Another Yamamoto top read, "The only woman I know is my mum"—perhaps that's where too much peacocking gets you? At Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones paid homage to the peacocks that ruled them all: the dandies. Not the English fops that started the movement in the nineteenth century, but the Parisian gentlemen who kept the legacy going well into the 1900s. This was opulence in the shape of refined elegance, with all the berets, printed silk shirts, and furry belted coats it could take. His collection, which had the best cast of the shows so far, interpreted the season's penchant for a military vibe with louche panache, making for the perfect tribute to a Paris that's still on everyone's mind. Chic, c'est la vie.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans