rebels with a cause
18th century punk, sexercise, and the mother of the Rhythm Nation. It was all in a day as Comme des Garçons, Haider Ackermann and Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood got rebellious at Paris Fashion Week.
Reflecting the presence in the past has been a recurring theme this season. From Miuccia Prada and Alessandro Michele to John Galliano and Dries Van Noten, it's been a way for designers to deal with the state of their world without sounding like a charity pop song from the 80s. We can predict the future by looking to the past - that's no great revelation - but right now, it's about finding solace in the events of our mutual European history. On Saturday in Paris, Rei Kawakubo didn't just look to the past—she rewrote it. "Punks in the 18th century," was the reference for her Comme des Garçons courtwear collection of larger-than-life creations in saccharine pastels, which would surely have raised eyebrows at pre-Revolution Versailles. If Kawakubo had lived in the late 18th century, she would no doubt have dressed its court, creating out-of-this-world gowns to complement the haute coiffure of Léonard Autié, slyly infusing it with her own irreverence.
Her collection wasn't about monarchists and republicans, but about an era defined by change for everyone in it—much like the 70s with its punks vs. conservatives, or indeed today where you only need to look to the American primaries happening right now to see the stark political contrasts that embody our time. Mirroring the spirit of society right now in the French Revolution and those rebellious 70s, Kawakubo's message seemed to be the idea of similar interests generated by enlightenment. (Her unusually brightly lit runway could be seen as the very symbol of that.) In the late 18th century, the working classes rebelled against a governing system, which was already in the process of re-educating itself, high on Rousseau and a new understanding of freedom of the individual. And like her men's collection in January where Kawakubo turned armour into fabric and covered it in florals, this collection flew the flag for peace through mad and majestic individual expression and the recognition that we are all one, punks and nobles alike.
In her broad frame of reference, you couldn't help but find nods to her industry, too, and the changes currently happening in fashion where young brands like Vetements and Hillier Bartley are revolutionising the system by going against the show, sales and promotion cycles and doing it their own way. Kawakubo, of course, invented doing it her own way: to this day, the entire setup of her business works in ways unique to Comme des Garçons because the independence she always valued above all allows for it. Kawakubo marches to the beat of her own drum, just like those 18th century punks, who walked her autumn/winter 16 runway this season, a simplified version of Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy scoring it with adequate optimism. Over the past two years, Kawakubo's grand collections (in all senses of the word) have been like an emotional rollercoaster going from one peak to another. This one went through the clouds.
Last week, gathered at some show in Milan, the mobile phones of the congregated fashion press buzzed with news that Vivienne Westwood's Gold Label would change its name to Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood. A recognition of her husband's brilliant work for the house over the past 25 years, the announcement was indicative of said changes in fashion where established brands as well as new ones are breaking with the traditions of the industry. (Just look at Sir Paul Smith, who is currently restructuring his entire business after fifty years in fashion.) Kronthaler's first Vivienne Westwood show as headliner instantly felt different. Gone was the typically dark venue, in its place a bright space at Palais de Tokyo. The collection, although unmistakably Westwood, felt stripped down, cleaner, and perhaps more deconstructed than before. It was called Sexercise, but while there was plenty of sex in there it was more like Kronthaler was exercising his talent for multiple genres of clothing, from the very historical - the top of an 18th century dress - to the very modern: a rave-y oversize bomber jacket with super long sleeves, the way fashion likes them right now.
The collection also marked the first time in a long time that a Westwood show hasn't come with a written statement from Dame Vivienne about a social, political or environmental cause close to her heart. This was Kronthaler's season to shine, and in a time when designers around the fashion landscape are taking a leaf out of Westwood's book and speaking up about the world they live and work in, it was okay for fashion's most prolific political voice to take a moment to herself and her husband. "You know, it's a tough world outside, and I wanted to have this kind of gracefulness and brightness and peace to show the other side of what we are confronted with every day," Haider Ackermann said after his show, which echoed the regal, sparkly opulence of his men's collection in January—and its sentiment. He was, of course, referring to the political situation in Europe, twisting military influences into something positive rather than hostile, much in the vein of Kawakubo's floral armour elements, which also in appeared in her women's collection on Saturday.
In a soundtrack recorded for Ackermann's show by Joana Preiss, the singer called out the names of each model as they stepped onto the runway. "Aymeline, come to me!" Preiss panted dramatically as Aymeline Valade floated past the audience, which - epically - included Janet Jackson, who is a friend of Ackermann's. (Fact: his favourite song is Let's Wait a While.) Considering Jackson's legacy, her early message of a Rhythm Nation, songs about Control and her uncompromising statement of the individual's right to self-expression and freedom of choice, Ackermann couldn't have wished for a better spectator for his celebration of peace and individuality. Rebels unite!
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Mitchell Sams