There’s been a lot of talk about what is believed to be a recent trend on the catwalks around the world: ugliness. Fashion seems to be immersed in a feeling of boredom, which is justified it with a simple “it has all already been done before”. It just happens that there’s nothing new in this ode to error.
Iris van Herpen
After finishing her studies at the prestigious ArtEZ Art Academy, Iris van Herpen (Wamel, Holland, 1984) interned for Alexander McQueen, in London, where she was introduced to the interlaced craftmanship we can see to this day in all her creations. We’d risk saying that being close to the “hooligan of fashion” (as the French called him) would have been enough to turn everything she produced into something groundbreaking, at the very least. Collection after collection, the designer guides the audience into new worlds no one’s ever seen before, that intertwine the latest forms of technology and the Haute Couture savoir-faire: van Herpen is known for her wild disinterest in all things mundane. In her presentations, we’ve already seen insect exoskeletons and Samurai armors of the XV century wandering around. And those same collections are idolized by equally eccentric personalities, such as Björk, Tilda Swinton and Lady Gaga. “Her interests are unique, but she has a very broad vision of the world”, Sarah Schleuning, the curator of the exhibit Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, which took place in the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, USA, between 2015 and 2016, told Fast Company. “There is a balance between having a singular vision and voice, while simultaneously, being open to cooperate and share ideas. And these are not the people you would expect – they’re scientists, great thinkers of many fields of knowledge”, she stated.
“I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited.” It was with this statement – timeless, yes, extreme, yes, but that sums up better than any other the purpose and intentions at hand – taken out of an interview for Time Out, in 1997, that Alexander McQueen (1965-2010) branded himself as Fashion’s “enfant terrible”. For McQueen, nothing was too provocative or too shocking. Or impossible. His collections, where clothes were never the main attraction but a way of conveying a message, are proof of just that. Since his first, in 1993, named Taxi Driver, where the now iconic bumsters were introduced, to the ultimate, Platos Atlantis, presented weeks after his disappearance. In total, they represent the notion that beauty often coexists with the definition of ending, of chaos, of terror. “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress”, he used to say. About his biography, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath The Skin (2015), the journalist Véronique Hyland commented how McQueen had adopted ugliness as a starting point, instead of beauty: “He wasn’t a designer that craved to be seen as beautiful.” On the contrary, some argued that McQueen was “dealing” with his inner demons through his collections – a thesis that raises some questions, since he ended up committing suicide in February 2010. Anyhow, there’s no denial that McQueen graced women with a necessary dosage of confidence and self-assurance. Even if to make it happen, he had to leave everyone else pale with fear.
To write and think of Martin Margiela (Genk, Belgium, 1957) is to write and think of an anonymous entity. And that is probably the most striking characteristic of the founder of Maison Martin Margiela, the house that he established in 1988, in Paris. Besides is invisibility, of course – his image has never been revealed to the greater audience. He’s never given an interview throughout his entire career – and that aura of mystery has made everything that revolves around him more desirable. His success, however, wasn’t sown in with mystery alone. Without taking any merit away from the aforementioned designers, if there ever was made any room for imperfection to shine, its big encourager was Margiela. It is often told that, since his yearly ears, the Belgian designer was particularly fond of women with prominent noses – something that was later verified when models whose appearance was as little conventional as possible strutted down his catwalks. Let’s just say the traditional beauty standards were never contemplated on his horizon. Named by the press as a “deconstructivist” (a term the designer himself rejected), his collections are invariably the result of an abrupt collision of materials. And ideas. And concepts. At first, it could all seem disharmonious, but for Martin, it was nothing more than a resurrection of pieces to whom he gave new and (a tad) unconventional shapes, through the combination of (very) unusual materials. An example of that “visible” imperfection would be how some parts of the clothes, like seams and linings, were placed very much on sight, a key trait in the brand’s collections today. It’s as if, by magic, the pieces became perfectly imperfect.
Firstly, you find them weird, then they grow on you. That’s the general feeling associated with the creations of Demna Gvasalia (Sucumi, Georgia, 1981). The iconoclast and founder of the Parisian collective Vetements (which he left), and current creative director of maison Balenciaga, a position he holds since 2015, didn’t come all this way to be just another designer on the block. In reality, he was this sort of catalyzing agent of a change the industry needed for quite some time. Firstly, he rescued the most basic pieces in our closets, such as sweatshirts and dad trainers, turning them into high fashion items, incredibly sought-after. Then, creation after creation – even when in front of a house as imponent as Balenciaga – his positioning in the industry was established. The thing is, all pieces that have the Gvasalia signature are, repeatedly, disruptive, “disoriented” (as Vogue US put it), but always – always – weirdly wonderful. “I find the definition of ugly very interesting. I also think it’s curious how one finds that line where what’s ugly becomes beautiful or what’s beautiful becomes ugly. It’s a challenge I enjoy. I think it is part of what Fashion represents and I like that people think of my clothes as ugly. I see it as a compliment”, he confessed in an interview. Provocateur as f***, Gvasalia makes us question our taste, our boldness, our very own style – or lack thereof. And that’s exactly what Fashion is meant to do.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even more so if we’re talking about the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto (Tokyo, Japan, 1943). According to his philosophy, ugliness is fundamental. Yamamoto, who idolizes black, worships the opulence of shape and holds the cut of pieces in the highest of pedestals – contrary to the trend system the fashion world imposes -, finds the true essence of perfection within the concept of ugliness. As he vehemently states: “Whenever everyone agrees that something is beautiful, I don’t like it.” This could be seen as a simple take on someone who enjoys disagreeing with everything. Except it’s not. Yamamoto, in all his talent and charisma, matches his rather distant attitude towards the industry with his appearance: long black hair and beard, effortless and uncomplicated, dark as the night. The collections presented by the designer are invariably imperfect, chaotic, deliberately flawed, and distorted. Nothing is crystal clear. It is all very intense and obscure – much like life’s very own complexities. His pieces will always be snippets of art whose significance is not grasped by everyone – again, like life also isn’t. Hence the definition of his creations as timeless, imperfect, unique and… ugly. Yes, if Yamamoto wants it so, that’s how we’ll report them: as ugly. Even if, in our humble language, that is the fairest and most honest synonym of what we call beautiful.
To talk of Yamamoto implies an immediate reference to Rei Kawakubo (Tokyo, Japan, 1942). If not, that in itself is already a mistake – a tremendous mistake – and one we are not willing to comply with. If there has ever been a designer that justices the concept of error, of the non-beautiful, of sublime imperfection, that artist is Kawakubo. The designer and founder of the French maison Comme des Garçons finds that “for something to be beautiful it doesn’t have to be pretty.” And she goes beyond her notion of beauty: “If I do something I think is new, it will be misunderstood, but if people like it, I will be disappointed because I haven’t pushed them enough. The more people hate it, maybe the newer it is.” And she finishes: “The fundamental human problem is that people are afraid of change.” The genesis of the mentor’s creations is, therefore, set upon the structure of the pieces she (de)constructs, as well as their (dis)proportions. As audacious as their author is elusive, the designer’s pieces explore the threshold where Fashion ends and art begins. As Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of art, once emphasized, “season after season, collection after collection, Kawakubo shifts our insight, she changes the way we perceive beauty.” Yes, Rei reigns over that challenge - and she overcomes it every time.
Dries Van Noten
We might be in the presence of a common trait among Belgian designers. Or maybe it’s just pure coincidence. However, Dries Van Noten (Antwerp, Belgium, 1958), much like his compatriot, Margiela, likes to stay away from the public eye. Again, he prefers the focus of his creations to be the focus, instead of himself. But there are other similarities between the two designers. For Van Noten, there’s nothing more boring than “something beautiful.” The vent was registered at one of his very few outings, in March 2012, at the French Insitute Alliance Française, a non-profit organization based in New York, during a fashion talk in which he was one of the guest speakers: “I prefer ugly things. I prefer things which are surprising.” The designer confessed that generally speaking, he began to conceive a collection by identifying the colors he didn’t like, and then putting them together: “’Here’s a color I don’t like’… And my assistants say: ‘Ok, if he doesn’t like lilac, that means that everything this season will revolve around lilac.’” Van Noten admits that unraveling the answers around these “question marks” he imposes is something that makes creating a very fun process. When admiring his collections, it becomes difficult to understand his love for ugliness – the way we see it, there’s nothing but beauty there. How is it that the imperfections and flaws of Dries Van Noten’s designs, the man who seduces critics and audiences with the same intensity, turn everything he creates into the most beautiful erratic symphony? Without the chance for a clear solution, we’ll wrap it up with the epilogue: just like art, Fashion is meant to be appreciated, and not necessarily understood.
The season was Fall/ Winter 2012, when Vivienne Westwood (Tintwistle, United Kingdom, 1941), queen of punk, minister of chaos, anarchist among the anarchists, and owner of the fieriest hair in the whole fashion world, presented her propositions for her Red Label line at London Fashion Week. What ended up happening was, contrary to what we’d expect from the designer, a pure collection, almost “put together”, where pretty much every look could be worn in day to day life. Was Westwood, whose career is a hymn to unconformity, diverging from her own philosophy? Where were the political messages, the manifests, the pieces so out of the box that the “out of the box” concept isn’t even applicable anymore? No. At the end of the show, the designer stated: “Fashion nowadays is very ugly.” And just like that, the grand dame of boldness was back in business. After considering these statements from Vivienne, we immediately start to question exactly what beauty is. Moreover, what ugly is (a concept a little bit more on brand). If there were any questions left, the queen of punk-couture would be the first one to clarify that Fashion and beauty will never be synonyms. Westwood, who multiple times in the past was self-entitled as “a mess”, has stood out from the crowd for every reason in the book throughout her career. Except for the immediate charm and obvious beauty of her creations. In the end, it doesn’t matter, when behind every ripped t-shirt or jeans there’s a strong idea, an influent message, or an imminent “attack” against the system. It’s safe to say: God Save Vivienne Westwood.
Originally published on Vogue Portugal November issue, "The Beauty of Imperfection."