So happy to watch a new Azzedine Alaia documentary by the stylist Joe McKenna. The short video, which has been released online, is intimately shot with footage of the designer in his showroom and studio. What is so inspiring about Alaia is the fact that he has never veered from making clothes the old-fashioned way: using fitting models and his own designs and patterns. The admiration of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere and critics Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn makes clear why Alaia is a master craftsman still working successfully outside of the fashion system. You can enjoy the video here: https://www.joesfilm.com
With the excitement of back to school clothes already come and gone and with Halloween costume season currently in full swing, I have been contemplating the question of how much men notice what women wear. It’s sometimes happened that women I’ve met while shopping, have lamented the clothing purchased for them by their special someone: brightly colored loungewear, patterned onesie pajamas, ankle length floral dresses, impossibly high-heeled shoes, and sexless architectural shapes. The main problem, from what I can tell, is that they are given clothes that don’t bear any relation to how they see themselves or to how they wish to be seen by others. I am not persuaded that such misguided choices, which women find dispiriting, are proof of men’s inattention to a woman’s individual style. I am not sure it is an indication of a blindness or of some kind of myopic distortion. And I think women would feel better about a man’s vision of the female wardrobe if they understood it most likely has its roots in childhood fantasies.
My introduction to how men see women’s clothes came when, unemployed and in my middle thirties, I arrived in Los Angeles from New York. Having left the East Coast for the foreseeable future, along with my job teaching Italian at The Fashion Institute of Technology, I decided it was an opportune time to try my luck as a middle and high school English teacher. Though students at FIT always took notice of whatever I happened to be wearing in class (usually with the intention of learning how it was made) it wasn’t until I taught thirteen and sixteen year-old boys that I got a true sense for how the opposite sex thinks about women’s clothes. I noticed right away that save for the occasional addition of a sweatshirt, the boys typically dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers every day of the school year. Though their clothes gave me no cause to suspect they harbored any interest in fashion, on more than one occasion, the boys looked upon my wardrobe as an object of fascination.
There is a fundamental contradiction in teenage boys: they are as direct in their observations as they are equivocal. It wasn’t uncommon in the middle of a lesson to have a student raise his hand only to ask a question about the logistics of what I was wearing. Could the two columns of buttons on a Dries Van Noten cardigan be buttoned on either column? Was my cropped black Viktor & Rolf utility jacket with large pockets on the chest a Soviet army issued military coat? Certain silhouettes and fabrics, I discovered over time, were associated in their minds with the things they had some familiarity with – historical figures about whom they were reading or classic films or individual cultural reference points, with a good dose of pop culture thrown into the mix. On one school day I wore a vintage Givenchy necktie dress and several of the boys remarked that I looked like Anne Frank. In a 1980s Cerruti oversized chartreuse sweater I reminded them of iconic rap stars they had seen on TV. Rather than shying away from their perceptions, I welcomed the chance to understand the mechanics behind male associations with women’s clothing. And, as though to bring things full circle, for Halloween I wore a silk YSL necktie blouse with wide leg trousers. Students had a hard time pinpointing who I was embodying but after a few broad hints, they eventually guessed I was trying my best to look like Jackie Onassis.
I’m not sure if the boys learned anything about a woman’s personal style from the outfits I wore that school year. But I came away with a solid belief, reinforced over the years by anecdotes and by personal experience, that men not only notice what women wear, they create narratives around clothes, perhaps as much if not more than women do: a graffiti print handbag reminds one man I know of Woodstock, while for another, a Margiela wool trench coat evokes images of captivating female spies. Almost every runway show by male designers from the recent Spring 2016 Ready-to-Wear collections is full of elaborate sets and fanciful themes, and Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton gives credit for his show’s inspiration to a favorite boyhood film, the 1982 “Tron.” Clicking through the runway images, I notice that the male designers far outweigh the female creative directors in their use of intricate concepts. Proof, I think, of what most women learn merely by evaluating the bewildering clothing gifts from the men in their lives: our projections are bound by the youthful imaginings of what we find familiar.
I am convinced women should not be so quick to judge; the sartorial fantasy men construct around their significant other is simply the look of love.
I can’t say for sure how many days I have been thinking about it, but recently, I have been thinking a lot about prints. I suppose it is the natural outcome of poring over images of spring and fall trends which have saturated my eyes with a print revival: gingham, floral, bohemian, 60s Mod, and 70s Ziggy Stardust. Prints used to belong to other decades, evoking powerful images of times gone by, but now they are unmistakably contemporary, worn as they are in a modern world where more and more people don’t have to get dressed or even leave the house to go to work.
In discussions about prints with people I know, I’ve observed some strong reactions that fall into the category of love it or leave it. For some, prints evoke a nostalgia for the glamour of past generations, serving to enrich the wearer. For others, prints are associated with heaviness, succeeding only in weighing down the wearer under a riot of color and patterns. In thinking over the question of prints, I keep coming back to one of the Italian words for pattern- fantasia– a word that anchors prints to the realm of dream or make-believe. Could wearing prints make you somehow less serious or realistic than someone who wears neutral solid colors?
Although I am no expert at summing up my style in two or three easy words, I have an image of myself as having a playful, classic look, with a wardrobe based on subdued pieces. And so, over the weekend I was stunned, when, while seeing my hairdresser, I heard myself singled out as a print wearer. I had never before regarded my wardrobe as welcoming of print, nor had I ever realized just how much print I actually wear until my hairdresser, a young man in his twenties, made the observation. Though recently I had gone so far as to try on various tops in gingham and floral, I hadn’t dared cross the line into actual ownership. But here was someone who had known me for several years and who saw me in a way I could not or would not see myself.
After returning home from my appointment, I looked for evidence of my excess, and there it was, plainly on display in my closet: the many brightly colored and patterned vintage blouses worn happily over the years, the recent acquisition of striped shirts, floral pants, the checked blue and white Balenciaga knit bought on sale three years ago, the 80s fuchsia and green floral dress purchased last year, the vintage Ungaro black and white plaid jacket, the multicolored vintage Missoni knit jacket, the tweed suit I got married in in 2000. Why had I refused to acknowledge my affinity with prints?
In the 1990s, minimalism ruled in fashion casting a shadow over the extravagance of 1980s’ shapes and patterns. After graduating from college in the early nineties, I got the message that standing out in a print could hamper one’s chances of being taken seriously in the professional world. Bold prints and exuberant colors suggested the free spirited unruliness of the wearer. And so, in an attempt to blend in, I hid my love of prints and embellishment in a restrained wardrobe full of brown, black, gray, and navy solids.
I have to laugh now when I think about how unaware I was of this attempt at disguise that apparently fooled no one but myself. What makes the return of prints so attractive to me today, is that it is unmistakably modern for both women and men to wear fanciful dress without the risk of being tagged unprofessional. At last, in my middle years, I’m at peace with my youthful attraction to fantasia and all that it connotes.
The other day, I got to thinking about the contemporary fashion designers whose vision I have consistently admired over the years. This list includes in alphabetical order: Nicolas Ghesquière for his past work at Balenciaga and currently at Louis Vuitton, Isabel Marant, Martin Margiela, Stella McCartney, Pheobe Philo, and Yohji Yamamoto. In trying to isolate why I’m drawn to these particular designers, a pattern emerged in my taste: natural fabrics, expert tailoring, a thoughtful regard for the past while looking forward to the contemporary moment – a knack for turning the classic on its head.
And so, it comes as no surprise that I happily watched the new short documentary about the Belgian designer Martin Margiela. An inspiring tribute to a groundbreaking moment in fashion gone by but not forgotten. Released with the support of YOOX Group, you can watch it here.