paris rhythm nation
On Saturday at the fall/winter 16 men’s shows in Paris, Dior Homme and Kenzo used their pop cultural pasts to look to the future.
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans
On Janet Jackson's new album, Unbreakable, the now 49-year-old singer deals with her youth and the ambitions of her career. "I had this great epiphany, and "Rhythm Nation" was the dream," she sings. "I guess I shoulda known better." For Jackson, who shared with her brother a devotion to making a change in the world, it's a sad but necessary realization that the optimism of 80s and 90s' pop culture failed. We all sang along to "Rhythm Nation," "Man in the Mirror" and "Heal the World," but just like generations before us, age replaced that dream with too much sense of reality and pragmatism. On the Saturday of men's shows in Paris, the designers at Kenzo and Dior Homme dealt with the mindset in which their generation, who grew up in the 80s and 90s, now find themselves. Their shows reflected the optimistic message of the pop culture that raised them, but renounced nostalgia in favor of hope and future prospects. This was Rhythm Nation 2.0.
Singers from four-hundred choirs around Paris filled the hanger space where Kenzo showed its collection, singing an a cappella version of "Rhythm Nation" while models presented Carol Lim and Humberto Leon's proposal for what a better world looks like. "It's a song that we grew up loving," Leon said. "I think that message is so relevant for today. It's truer than ever. When you break down the lyrics it's really just about people wanting to get together—and this was written in the 90s, but I feel like we haven't gotten there. Why hasn't everyone come together to do something good for once?" The collection was rooted in a Blur concert the designers went to in Tokyo in the 90s. Styled by Lotta Volkova -- a very hot name in Paris due to her current work for Vetements -- it riffed on the trademarks of Brit Pop and that look's fusing of style eras.
"In that moment it almost felt like decades clashed," Leon recalled of the concert. "You weren't in the 60s or 70s, and the 90s weren't even defined then, and it was just about what you found. There's a musical moment in how Brit Pop dressed"—"And how people put it together," Lim concluded. "It was really very much about individual style, so we really wanted to play with that." You could argue that the idea of the individual is where our times differ from the time when "Rhythm Nation" was born. Back then the message was one of a broad we-are-all-one kind of fellowship where today's social media-centric ego-culture has put much more focus on the individual. If Madonna's lyrics to "Music" from 2000 were rewritten for today, she'd have to include way more groups than just "the bourgeoisie and the rebel" to make those people come together.
"He was all about self-expression. This isn't a time to be shy about who you are, and I think it's exciting to show color and everything the house stands for," Leon said of the new Kenzo boy. For the pop cultural optimism of today, the biggest challenge is to consolidate our modern right to unapologetic self-expression for the individual with a mutual respect for fellow human beings. At her show last week in Milan, Miuccia Prada talked about the importance of learning from history. "If you look at mankind during bad or difficult periods, and if you look at the past and look at today, there are so many similarities. Reflect what's happening now in history and see if we have something to learn," she said. For Kris Van Assche, who belongs to a much younger generation, the message was similar, only his Dior Homme collection of 80s' New Wave morphed with 90s' skate style was strictly anti-nostalgic.
"Our times are very much pushing us to be nostalgic, because times are so tough. So people always tend to say that things were better before, which is what we hate our parents for saying," Van Assche commented backstage. Instead, the Dior Homme collection borrowed the best elements from the past and twisted them into something future-focused, with zero wistful glances at the past in tow. As always in the mind of Van Assche, it was about creating hybrids to come up with something more ideal. "It's taking the good things from New Wave - the elegance, the romanticism of the long coats, the long cuffs, the little bow ties, the red roses -- and mixing that with the baggy trousers of skaters," he explained. "Workwear becoming streetwear. All that blending in together makes for something that looks familiar in detail but looks fresh and new for next year."
Now on his tenth year at Dior Homme, Van Assche is becoming more fearless in his expression, both aesthetically and vocally. Where too many designers beat around the bush when it comes to tackling the issues of society -- something that is and will forever be the duty of fashion -- Van Assche now goes straight to the point. "People are talking about bad vibes in Paris," he said, referring to the mood in the French capital following the terror attacks of 2015. "I say, 'You need to fight darkness with black. You need to fight back.' You need to be positive, more positive, more hopeful, more sexy." His fighting spirit materialized in a sexy aggression -- all gloomy black and blood red -- which really suited him and the Dior Homme he's been cultivating for a decade. Whether or not people will get the underlying message of the collection is anyone's guess, but they'll certainly want to wear it.
And where will Rhythm Nation 2.0 go from here? In the lyrics of her new song, "Shoulda Known Better," Janet Jackson laments the downward spiral of society through her career, she calls for the same change reflected by designers in Paris this season. "Part of the revolution, ready for real solutions," she sings. "We won't accept excuses, we tolerate no abuses. 'Cause I don't want my face to be that poster child for being naïve." For the generation that grew up on her music and lyrics — and now reigns over parts of the fashion industry and its huge influence on society — her message was and is anything but.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans