There are any number of qualities people tend to associate with high fashion. “Glamour” springs to mind. “Elegance”, perhaps. “Innovation”? Sure. These are virtues on which the industry depends and which it must continue to extol. But it is rare, and mournfully so, that “joy” or “fun” are associated with or even applicable to designer collections. “Glee” might be pretty far from your mind as another glaringly stony-faced model storms down the runway, leather-bound, to the accompaniment of some crushing techno.
That the fashion world takes itself too seriously is a commonly held stereotype, and there is undoubtedly truth to it: a glance along the front row of the average catwalk will make you sure of that. Shows usually try to inspire awe rather than to charm, perhaps understandably so. Even when we’re not dealing with the apocalyptic visions of a Rick Owens or the unerring monochromes of a Demeulemeester at one end of the spectrum, the desirability most designers want to lend to their garments tends to manifest itself in more restrained looks. Not that this is a problem, or, indeed, a surprise: most people (myself included) buy clothes because they look good, not because they betray any spirit of irreverence. And clothes certainly can have a great deal of character without being fun. The fashion industry is by no means unforgivingly austere, but it can sometimes feel like it lacks the ability to laugh at itself. Those designers whose work relies on that ability, then, are all the more refreshing.
“Fun” is a difficult quality to identify in clothing, more of an attitude than an aesthetic or a colour scheme, but a “fun” collection invariably conveys the personality of its creator with a rare candidness. It can be unabashed and in-your-face, as the designs of Walter Van Beirendonck have consistently been for the better part of four decades. Never one for the reserve of his famous fellow graduates from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Walter’s overblown madcap style is one of the most instantly recognisable in fashion: garish colour clashes are a must; bizarre proportions are the norm; untethered eccentricity is king. His description-defying Fall/Winter 2020 collection featured suits and shoes adorned with dinosaur spikes, sweatshirts with enormous teddy bears protruding from them, shirt collars reaching halfway up the models’ faces, and pattern clashes that would put any 90s Premier League kit to shame. It’s never forced or gimmicky or trying to be anything other than self-expression, and the rousing slogans bejewelled onto 15 cardboard cut-out t-shirts which closed the show feel like impassionedly personal statements rather than lame attempts at virtue signalling.
But perhaps Walter is a bit of an obvious pick for someone who “does” fun. He lies at the other extreme, one whose vernacular does not include subtlety and for which restraint never even enters the conversation. The most recent collection from Issey Miyake’s Homme Plissé line feels positively humdrum in comparison, with its interesting but not out-there cuts and simplistic colour-blocking, yet it was a consummate demonstration of how to make clothes that resonate a carefree spirit without attracting gawks. The colours were bright, the proportions relaxed, the patterns, when there were any, either pleasingly geometric or breezily abstract. The show itself was the most infectiously feel-good of this season’s menswear, more of the looks worn by the performing jazz band, who played something resembling a film noir soundtrack, and acrobatic dancers rolling around in Cyr wheels than by actual models, and even a good number of those models were grinning as they walked. It was a testament to how well a show can emblematize the mood captured by the clothes it exhibits, and in this case that mood was one of gaiety.
In terms of poking fun rather than inspiring it, none can be relied upon to step back and have a laugh at the industry as a whole like Demna Gvasalia can. His work at Balenciaga has provoked more widespread internet outcry that that of any other designer currently working, from F/W 2018’s infamous “shirt shirt”, a button-up attached to the front of a t-shirt, to his Bernie campaign rip-offs, to his £1,700 version of the 40p IKEA bag. This season, the first Vetements collection produced without him at the helm carried on his spirit, modelled by E-list knock-offs of the likes of Mike Tyson, Kate Moss, and Snoop Dogg, and featuring grungy tutus, leather takes on crumpled brown paper bags, and jeans with “CENSORED” plastered over the crotch. Yet one often gets the impression that Vetements might be trying to be a bit more serious than they let on, so earnest are their attempts at subversion. Their ridicule is tongue-in-cheek but quite consciously tries to find for itself a place in the pantheon of “cool” in a way in which a true eccentric like Van Beirendonck does not. That even those who mock luxury fashion struggle to do so without still conforming to many of its standards is a clear marker of its inhibitive nature.
But fun can feature in a more nuanced and playful way, too, as is the hallmark of much of Jonathan Anderson’s work. His most recent menswear collection for J.W. Anderson was unquestionably a sophisticated affair, full of memorable overcoats and compelling silhouettes, but nonetheless one shot through with quirk. Enormously blown-up gold link chains of varying magnitudes adorned the loafers and fronted much of the outerwear in a strikingly artisanal take on bling, while puffy paisley coats and scarves resembled duvets snatched from a retirement home and balloon-animal constructions respectively. Ruffles and pearls made for natural feminine flourishes, and baseball-cap leather bags were all the more covetable for their charm. That the collection was largely inspired the AIDS crisis as depicted in 1970s New York by David Wojnarowicz reveals that its spirit is just as much an exploration of beautiful clothing’s ability to betray the fear and horror of real life as it is an exercise in playful design. As Walter Van Beirendonck’s planet-positive sloganeering has already shown, fun and solemnity are not incompatible as fashionable bed-mates.
Anderson’s work as creative director of Loewe has proved that charm can sell, too. In the seven years since his taking over, he has transformed what was once a stuffy, past-it luxury house still pandering to its former clientele of geriatric aristocracy into one of the more innovative and desirable labels in fashion today. And how, exactly, has he done it? With elephant, panda, and otter-shaped bags which are more cute than cool, with the fantastic pottery designs of William De Morgan, and with gloves knitted into the shape of claws, apparently. The crossover of irreverent personality with sound aesthetic is one which can yield serious commercial results. Rick Owens, take notes.