Fashion Is More Political Than Ever, But What Is It Saying?

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In a sense, fashion has always been political. Rising hemlines came with the Nineteenth Amendment. Chanel’s cardigan jacket was a form of liberation, no matter how chic it looked. In the ‘90s, Gaultier famously made statements about diversity, sex, and the freedom to love whom you wanted. Think of Hamnett’s stop-the-nukes T-shirts, or Westwood’s anti-Thatcher rants. There has been no shortage of fashion activism, and some of it has been quite acute.

The difference today is that while there is more political commentary in fashion than ever before, the intent of it — sincere, or commercial, or a strange mix of both — is harder to discern. The boundaries (such as they are) keep erupting, and not just in the sense that designers can’t even decide if it’s summer or fall. The PornHub hats at the Hood by Air show on Sunday were done in collaboration with the sex site, but they also could be read as a bid to cash in on the obsession with fan merchandise — just as the word wench, in fat letters on a shirt at HBA, could be taken either as a provocation or as a way for Hood’s founder, Shayne Oliver, to promote the name of his new side gig with the musical artist Arca.

Photo: Imaxtree

When I spoke to Oliver backstage, asking him specifically about the porn references in the show — the Vaseline-as-cum treatment on the models’ hair and faces, an oversize suit in pale blue plastic that suggested a sex game involving hazmat technicians — he said that the idea reflected feelings he had last year after doing the prestigious Florentine menswear trade show Pitti Uomo. “I came back from Italy feeling sort of overexposed,” he said, adding that the attention and the gazes of people made him feel “a bit like a whore.” He felt compelled, he told me, to dissect those feelings.

Now, when Shayne Oliver says he’s going to dissect something, he means it. One of the many, many things I liked about this show was how the cut of, say, a jumpsuit related to contemporary bodies and, more, to the self-involvement of a person imagining himself (or herself) peeling off the top half of the garment in order to seduce someone online. You feel — or I did — that the zippered jumpsuits were designed with an awareness of people used to looking at themselves in mirrors, or in selfies, and then seeking approval from a stranger on a screen. In case you missed the point, a male model in a red cheerleader skirt and a long, black quilted coat appeared on the runway staring at his cell phone.

Not everything in the show cohered as well as the Vaseline; indeed, the cum heads, along with bondage trousers, were stock porn jokes. But Oliver has a wonderful way of challenging your perceptions, and also mocking them, whether it’s with a corporate suit rendered in 3-D, or cowboy boots with toes at both front and back, or in the casting. I must admit I mistook the great German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who walked in the show, for an aging porn star, though perhaps Tillmans himself wanted to leave that impression.

In this tense election season, a “Pageant of the People” — the amusing title of the Opening Ceremony show, at the Jacob Javits Convention Center — seemed a natural. What’s more, the impresarios Carol Lim and Humberto Leon invited a host of stars, including Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who functioned as emcees, and Ali Wong, Rashida Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sarah McBride, a LGBTQ-rights activist who spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

But despite the best efforts of Armisen and Brownstein to engage the fashion crowd, mostly with jokes about the robotic models, the event — and, perhaps, the motives — felt shallow. There was conspicuously no mention of either candidate. In between speakers, who addressed matters like immigration reform and the importance of voting (as if this audience needed to be reminded), the models traipsed out in anodyne clothes that had little or no relationship to the political message. Reading later in the show notes that the designs — knit dresses, patchwork denim, and so forth — “celebrate the American immigrant” didn’t change a thing. But you could “shop the show” right after, on openingceremony.com.

Photo: Imaxtree

Pyer Moss, the label by the talented Kerby Jean-Raymond, also made a political statement — in essence, about our money culture. The theme was a little belabored, in part because the references were to Bernie Madoff (with his image appearing as photo prints on shirts). But I’m a believer in Jean-Raymond’s fashion skills and his nearly immaculate sense of irreverence — pitch perfect in a black wool lace top with the word greed spelled out in orange block letters, as if transported from a wholesome varsity jacket.

Photo: Imaxtree