I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but in the year since starting this column, I’ve written on all sorts of fashion-related topics except for…what’s in style. This month I’m breaking my silence. So some of you may want to quickly turn the page before this article makes you feel too old or just plain out of it.
In the 1960s, designers envisioned space-age clothes for the masses who would inevitably be tipping Star Trek-style into the next millennium. Designers like Courrèges and Cardin provided the first glimpse of these new-age garments: stark, A-line mini-dresses and sleek jumpsuits accessorized with short white boots and Mylar sun visors. That perception of 21st-century fashion seems as far-fetched today as the clunky spaceships that whizzed across the screens of sci-fi flicks in the 1930s. With the impending century just 81 months away, one would assume today’s designers would be busy cranking out thermo-sensitive bodysuits with radar sensors and laser guns. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Longing for the good old days of hippie dippie flower power, LSD psychedelia and “love-ins,” the rag trade (and I use the term literally) is trying to weather the current economic crisis by seeking solace in 1970s nostalgia, relaunching hip-hugger elephant bells, bare-midriff tops, crocheted sweaters, macramé shawls, acid-tone prints, platform shoes, Nehru jackets, tunic vests, hot pants, maxi-coats, midi-skirts, granny dresses and clogs. Like anyone old enough to have worn this stuff the first time around, I refused to believe such an ugly era could ever repeat itself. Who on earth would dress so ridiculously? Well, how about the people who weren’t around 20 years ago. Beginning with the teenagers in my building, I started noticing the kids on the streets wearing…bell-bottom trousers, crocheted tops, platform shoes and jackets cut from Naugahyde. (Once reserved for bar stools and car seats, the Naugas are now giving their lives for fashion.) Moreover, if some designers have their way, waif-like Twiggy types will make those well-rounded super-models as obsolete as shoulder pads, vamp dresses and Joan Collins. And that’s only half the story.
In short, “dress for success” is out. “Brother-can-you-spare-a-dime” is in. As with rap, hip-hop and heavy metal, there’s a movement in fashion completely foreign to adults over 30. Vintage clothes are recut, redesigned and recycled into a “new” look. In a soft-core version of this ecologically oriented style, designer Jean Colonna scoops up fabric remnants from his floors or swatches of sample fabrics stocked on his shelves and recycles them by creating multicolor, multimaterial patchwork trousers. And what if various materials fight one another within the same garment? All the better…the effect is even more desirable.
This is not, however, to be confused with “destroy” (invented in the mid-1970s by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren, and fine-tuned in the ’80s by the Girbauds), where new clothes, particularly jeanswear, were ripped, shredded, scraped, tortured, then sold for a few hundred dollars. Remember distressed leather? Stone-washed denim? Shredded jeans? Ripped T-shirts? (Where was the ASPCC – the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Clothing – during all of this, anyway?!)
Heading the recycled crusade is Martin Margiela, a young Belgian designer who scrounges through piles of well-worn costumes and past-their-prime garments at the flea markets in search for base materials needed to fuel his own design philosophy. Decades-old vests are frayed and slapped with white acrylic paint that cracks upon drying (a desired textural effect). Vintage jackets have their sleeves ripped away and on occasion, repieced and reset. Old army socks are split open, flattened, then stitched onto sweaters, 1950s ballgowns are slit down the front, embellished with ribbons and worn as waistcoats over T-shirts and dungarees. This artful reutilization of vintage garments, as well as a knack with scissors that can transform a supermarket plastic bag into a top with suspenders, has made Margiela a veritable cult figure in the world of style.
The artisanal production, however, represents only 20 percent of his collection. The impression of well-lived déjà vu found with old garments is meticulously copied industrially by an Italian manufacturer who pre-washes and wrinkles the fabrics, ravels the knits and fades the dye jobs…in other words, employing new techniques to create the illusion of old.
As Margiela’s fashion philosophy is offbeat, so are his fashion shows. In 1988, in a basement vibrating with acid rock, models clad in vests made from broken pottery and necklaces of chain wound with sprigs of branches or suspended champagne corks were ordered to trample in red paint with their bare feet and romp about on the canvas flooring. This drop cloth was later transformed into the following season’s line of clothes. Much to the chagrin of journalists, other shows have been staged in odd places: a garage on the eve of its demolition, a crowded Métro station, the Salvation Army, an abandoned hospital, any anti-chic back alley in the most obscure corner of Paris…all to get his point across.
Balking at fashion tradition, Margiela refuses to be photographed or directly interviewed and puts blank pieces of tape where designer labels are normally stitched into clothes. His anti-fashion gestures are designed to force customers to buy garments for the simple pleasure of owning and wearing them without the pomp and circumstance normally generated by the personality behind the label. Surprisingly, this trend is taking off. Margiela’s clothes are sold in stylish boutiques like Maria Luisa and Kashiyama in Paris, and Barney’s and Charivari in New York. However, dressing fashionably unfashionable will set you back 700F for a shirt and up to 5,000F for a made-to-order, reinterpreted antique jacket.
Following in the course of this movement, local design schools have worked “recycling” into their course study and a new generation of designers like Laminé Kouyate, the Malian-Senegalese young man behind the Xuly Bët label, has emerged. Though only three seasons old, Xuly Bët has quickly attracted attention thanks to word of mouth and a clever debut. For the first show, invitations were printed on Tati pink and white checked paper, individually cut with pinking sheers and distributed to journalists leaving the designer shows at the Louvre. Once the crowd had gathered at the designated site, a bus pulled up and Laminé’s models filed out wearing a tiny, yet impressive collection based on re-worked white cotton shirts.
In a tiny atelier in the 18th arrondissement, Laminé and company make and sell his creations on a piecemeal basis. Like Margiela, Laminé is an apostle of recycled style and often hits the flea markets or, better yet, the lingerie department of Tati for his base materials. Clothes are recut to make a unique item or small series of similar but slightly different articles. To keep his prices low, the designer keeps detailing to a minimum. Prints are avoided and cheaper fabrics (blends of wool-acrylic-cotton, sheer polyamides and lots of stretch) are the order of the day. Rejecting the notion of seasonal clothing, Laminé sees his garments as “onions”: lightweight, close to the body and worn in as many or as few layers as the wearer’s mood or the weather will permit. With prices stretching between 15F and 900F (300F on average), Xuly Bët hopes to attract sales points (there are already four, including one in London) like Tati. Speaking of which…
The gigantic Barbès store, with its grab-bag, bargain-basement atmosphere catering to the area’s immigrant shoppers, has just launched “La Rue Est À Nous” and “Tati Studio,” a 350-piece fashion collection designed by Gilles Rosier, former assistant to Marc Bohan at Dior and to Jean-Paul Gaultier; Claude Sabbah who has experience at Chantal Thomass and Dorotheé Bis; and Marianne Oudin, who’s worked at Lagerfeld, Chanel, Hervé Leger and Monoprix. “Sixty percent of our clientele consists of people who have a difficult time making ends meet,” says a Tati spokesperson. “From now on, the store with the ‘lowest prices’ will also provide a better look.” Easy-to-wear separates cut in simple silhouettes, the clothes are based on five themes: “Acidulated,” “Hip-hop” sportswear in ethnic-arty prints, “Sailor” topstitched jeans and striped T-shirts, “Citywear Grunge” and “Beachwear.” All are targeted for a young market. Prices start at 40F for a printed “les bonhommes” cotton T-shirt, rising to 189F for a ribbed viscose jacket with coordinating skirt.
So where does this leave you? Should you chuck your current wardrobe and go on a scavenger hunt at the Salvation Army? Pay ’80s prices for ’90s improvisational couture? Opt for Tati cheap chic? Me, I plan on joining the waste-not-want-not crusade by holding on to everything I’ve accumulated in the past ten years in preparation for the next big fashion trend. Experience has taught me that what goes around comes around. Why, in a matter of months, designers will be rediscovering the 1980s, padded shoulders, power suits, Ivana Trump and all!