Over and Under: ruthless 'jungles'
“Madness is the most disgraceful thing that can overtake a wild creature” , The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (1894).
Like a modern Mowgli or a dystopian traveler à la Gulliver; with my body half soaked in the mild waters of a mysterious lake in the middle of the Indian Jungle; I found myself thinking: fashion is the perfect mirror of the world we are living in. Since the origin of times, humans wear a "costume" to defend from weather, to inform others about their status, to blend in... To disguise? Can I define then fashion as a reflection? Or rather as a distorted refraction? Am I in a faraway place full of beauty and colours or just under a bare tree in a late winter London-land?
Over - Maximalism
Truly enough, through the "lenses" of fashion we can look into different historical ages and trace quite precisely an evolution of aesthetics, cultural values and even political events. Sometimes, years of prosperity have brought society to ostentation and opulence: without travelling too far back in times, let's land into the '80s. After years spent in protest and rebellion, people of the western world have finally found themselves in a pretty good place, with some political stability and a little money to spend in the superfluous. Extravagant, "sexyfied", colourful: these are the main connotations of fashion at this time. Big designers' names start their ascent showing to the masses that you can easily buy lightheartedness off-the-rack. Gianni Versace breaths and lives in these years to present his first collection at the end of the decade. Fashion becomes a commodity, so do art and photography. In this stream we can place NY operating artists like Andy Wharol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Immediately after, photographer David La Chapelle - among others - proposes his subversive, surreal work offering his talents to fashion advertising. His work can still be considered as highly influential and extends consistently to current days, expressing very neatly the modern dichotomy between soulless materialism and spiritual longing with the final outcome of desecration of established religions and social annihilation.
*Gianni Versace, 1989.
*A new world, David La Chapelle, 2007-2017.
Under - Minimalism
Jungle is not necessarily a physical place but can also be seen as a place of the heart. In this sense, the jungle metaphor stands for resilience, the strength that comes from confidence but also from the awareness of human weaknesses. Perfection doesn't exist and not even money can buy it. By the beginning of the '90s, as a reaction to the excesses of the previous decade, fashion starts embracing a new essential attitude and aesthetics. Vulnerability becomes suddenly attractive and gender fluidity acquires the meaning of looking at a human body in its natural semblance. In 1992, the queen of Antwerp, Ann Demeulemeester, presents in Paris a collection made of deconstructed, asymmetric, mono-tone items. Bodies are like enveloped in shapeless blankets and seem to express an idea of unglamorous, bare beauty. Other famous western designers followed this approach making it desirable for the big market: Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein. Photography becomes an intimate and almost psychological process, more interested in showing the inner side of humanity rather than its exteriors. These are the years when Bruce Weber, nowadays quite unpopular for unfortunate events associated to his name, made his work renowned and sought for, depicting famous and unknown models with powerful black&whites.
*CK, Calvin Klein, 1992.
*Iván de Pineda, Argentine model, 1990's, Bruce Weber.
Everywhere - "Street Jungles"
As we read through Ruyard Kipling's iconic novel, it is assumed that different animals of the jungles stand for different human archetypes. Every human obeys to a specific role and order is maintained by respecting each of those. Fluidity across roles cannot be tolerated because it may generate anarchy. Freedom, as we know it, has here a very limited value. Contemporary societies contradict this strict principle of order and hierarchy by empowering individuals and marginalised groups. As a reflection, fashion adopts the new acquired emancipation by rebuilding new image canons. Although, it doesn't stop to the surface of appearance but tries to bring across a deeper, even political, message. Vivienne Westwood and the inglobation of the punk culture in her early collections, represent a corner stone in this direction. Background of the social, political changes are the cities. The street-style becomes, with the passing of time, the primary source of inspiration for all successful designers and brands. Younger customers becomes "warriors" bearing messages by means of their outfits, sometimes in a meaningful way, sometimes just to follow the mainstream.
At this point, it appears obsolete to reduce fashion to minimalism or maximalism trends. More appropriate would be to talk about syncretism. Several decades of fashion evolution, now accelerated by digital technology and social media, have gifted fashion makers with the ability to compound and resolve the opposites: maxi and mini, male and female, local and global, past and future. Vetements by Demna Gvssalia stands for the clearest example of fashion stemmed from the grey normality of the cities and the streets we inhabit. "Clashy", incongruous, contradictory and, at the end of the day, normal and even ugly: we are far away from the pompous beauty proposed in the previous decades. Brand Tome, following a similar process, marries minimalism with maximalism taking from the first silhouettes and patterns but giving in to the second by embracing uneasy colour juxtapositions and fabric textures. Japanese fashion and one of its most popular representatives, Rei Kawakubo with Comme des Garçons, has, quite obviously, inspired this approach combining deconstruction (minimalism) with dramatic surrealistic proportions of the garment (maximalism).
It seems, then, that the only important example closer to pure maximalism remains today Alessandro Michele's Gucci. Baroque, logo obsessed, mega-printed and grotesque: humans leave the lands of mediocrity to become creatures from another planet or made synthetically in high-tech laboratories.
*Gucci, FW 18
*Tome, FW 18
To respond to the initial question about the meaning of fashion: is it the latter perfect reflection of times and society or, rather, a deceptive refraction and escape from them? It seems now very clear the answer. Quoting the iconic essay by Malcom Barnard ("Fashion as communication"), fashion results as the first, most obvious form of expression for individuals. Each of us can find in it a mean of communication but also a powerful way of masking and transforming in order to face the world and sustain interactions with others.