Is it Possible to Innovate Without Being Absurd?

Following on from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago here on NOWFASHION.COM about whether men actually wear the clothes we see on the catwalk, it feels right to point out once again that there is a difficulty in the category when it comes to bridging the gap between innovation and absurdity. By which I mean: clothes people want to wear and clothes people can’t wear. For just as womenswear has its own constraints of feasibility and relevance (aka does it facilitate using public transport or not?), so does menswear. The parameters, likely, are tighter. It’s rather like the creativity versus commerciality equation that perpetually has designers and retailers searching to be in sync. Essentially: is it possible to innovate without being absurd?

Kiko Kostadinov Spring/Summer 2019 menswear show in London. Photo by Regis Colin Berthelier for NOWFASHION. 

There’s a fine line in getting it right. And over the years in which the London Fashion Week Men’s shows have been going, we’ve seen the traditional Savile Row names fade off the schedule to be replaced by a prevalence of sportswear and streetwear names, both new and established, as well as joined by the more boundary-pushing minds – for clothes that border on costume are sometimes brilliant for it, but not necessarily your standard wardrobe fodder.

Which designers got it right? That’s a question that is entirely subjective and can be answered by taking a look at the leanings of your own wardrobe. But on the broader commercial scale, a crass glance at what we know will sell or not, as well as feeling that “thing” in the air (which, so often is the way fashion is decided), there were some definite winners among this season’s collections.

Spotlight, then, straight onto Hussein Chalayan. He’s a designer that loves precision and innovation to the nth degree. It works best when it has real and wearable context as with his menswear collection this season – it was those details of design that made a trench feel renewed or a jacket refreshing, ruched as it was down the front, collars gliding together with cut-outs in between. These were suitably familiar, but different, too – calm, gentle, and not realised as over-designed elements, which made this a great offering (though the jacket inflated at the shoulder was less convincing) and one that stood out against a backdrop of tech-heavy wear-me-use-me fashion right now as menswear continues to hover in street-sport realms but adds to that with a utility veneer. It’s one that only really works when said tech elements are usefully functional. If they’re not, then that’s just faff. And that’s not innovative. So multiple bags and multiple pockets that appeared from Matthew Miller to Berthold couldn’t help but feel over-the-top.

CHALAYAN Spring/Summer 2019 menswear show in London. Photo by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION.

That said, Miller is a designer whose collections are most often anchored in his politics, in his disappointment with the world at large. Over the past few seasons, designers have, of course, played out Brexit and Trump discontent in their collections – with slogans of outrage, or designs of dystopian despair, mostly. Perhaps now, despite all of this unrest and discontent, millennial bleak futures and all, is the time, therefore, to create clothes with self-sufficiency and function, because the only one that can help you is you? And hence this is part of what pockets and tech, and gadgets and bags of bags can provide? It’s an observation.

Regardless, there is a lot of utility. And it’s not in the lyrical way that has so coined, created, and launched the career of Craig Green who shows later this week at Pitti. It is interesting that his train of thought has caught on, though; for a while there we were seeing too much of a Balenciaga power shoulder and too much of a long sloppy sleeve so belonging to a teenager. Which, similarly, is why Kiko Kostadinov, the Central Saint Martins BA and MA-trained designer, has made traction. Because he doesn't do that. A complex inspiration description in the show notes aside, the product spoke for itself and had an artful bohemian allure, despite the fact that workwear flashed up as an adjective buzzword and is a recurring theme of the designer’s work. But that may in part be down to his other role as working at the helm of Mackintosh’s relatively new 001 label. The gist, though, was that it was softer. And that feels innovative right now.

A-COLD-WALL* Spring/Summer 2019 menswear show in London. Photo by Regis Colin Berthelier for NOWFASHION.

Though it’s each to their own as to whether the performance put on by Samuel Ross of the Virgil Abloh-supported hyped new brand A-COLD-WALL* was soft or simply showmanship. Building on his streetwear-classwear sensibilities (the latter is an ongoing narrative), Ross framed a slick collection with an emotionally-charged display. The man in the box, naked and red: you know what we’re talking about by now; plus the procession of people in grey hoods. It hit the nail on the head in raising the question of innovation versus absurdity. But which part would one deem absurd and which innovative? I can’t help but think though the performance might seem the obvious contender for the absurd, this, in fact, was where the innovation lay: it brought a Paris level of sophistication to London and didn’t detract from the clothes, oddly, which you’re either a fan of (many people are) or not. In some ways, it seemed to frame them – and very literally with wooden constructions surrounding the models in some cases.

University of Westminster MA Spring/Summer 2019 menswear show in London. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

Fashion week this season was also a platform for fledging names of the student variety to try their hand at shining. The addition, one I also touched upon in a piece I wrote last season regarding whether students should show in league with the established names or not, ten collections that spanned the wardrobe-ready in Robyn Lynch and Maureen Kelly-Pain, as well as the intriguing in Christine Shangqian Xu and Roman Hoering. The former explored chainmail everything, keys draped and overlaid, chains dripping. If a fairy tale took the wrong turn, it made for the latter – sweet broderie anglaise aprons and pretty details combined with Victoriana gothic costume and nightmare masks to recontextualise the whole thing. Which was a clever balance, making it appropriately absurd for show-time value, equally innovative in that respect, too, because the clothes beneath were not.

Westminster is known for its fashion talent, Christopher Bailey the starriest name among them, and its reasoning for joining fashion week along with the rest of the industry was to prepare its students early on for that cutthroat world ahead (is that an innovative thing to do or an absurd thing to do so early on?). So often there’s this trap in thinking that students show the zany and the crazy – and that’s just how innovation and absurdity blur to become synonyms. It was promising to see here, though, that there were some solid propositions, innovative propositions – especially given the shift into an abundance of new names each season joining the schedule (it would be interesting to compare it now to when it began), some of which will no doubt again crop up again soon.