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Menswear designers address the pandemic with both hope and despair in their collections

With last month's Paris Fashion Week held completely in the digital sphere, labels presented their latest offerings in pre-filmed videos or live streams.

After coping with long months of isolation and uncertainty, menswear designers such as Paul Smith, Jonathan Anderson, Virgil Abloh and Rick Owens have turned out collections that reflect their personal journeys as well as the global pandemic.

With last month’s Paris Fashion Week held completely in the digital sphere, labels presented their latest offerings in pre-filmed videos or live streams.

While Louis Vuitton’s Abloh addressed being grounded from air travel as well as his African heritage and the Black Lives Matter movement in his Fall/Winter show, Owens took an up-front approach by putting models in face masks, a familiar sight in the new normal.

Subversive design collective Vetements used the backdrop of hell and heaven for its edgy clothes, while also referencing the storming of the United States Capitol in its collection.

Veteran designer Smith, on the other hand, looked to the past for the comfort of the familiar, while at the same time remixing old favourites for a new future.

Looking on the bright side, JW Anderson’s presentation featured cheerful fruit and vegetables, and lots of handicraft, bringing to mind all the knitting and banana-bread baking that went down last year.

 

Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer Virgil Abloh evoked the nostalgia of travel and his African heritage.

Grounded by the pandemic after years of travel, Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer Virgil Abloh recreated a makeshift airport lounge to film his sixth collection for the French fashion house.

Titled Tourist vs. Purist, the collection evoked nostalgia for travel with its jackets with aeroplanes as closures, quilted silver suitcases, jumpers featuring three-dimensional cityscapes and even an LV Keepall in the shape of a plane.

Besides addressing the longing to travel, the American designer, whose parents were from Ghana, also explored his African heritage in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last year.

“When I grew up, my father wore Kente cloth, with nothing beneath it, to family weddings, funerals, graduations,” he said in an interview with Vogue last month. “When he went to an American wedding, he wore a suit. I merged those two together, celebrating my Ghanaian culture.”

Kilt-like pleated skirts were seen on the models, as well as artfully draped lengths of monogrammed fabric over suits.

Abloh added: “I have a responsibility. We said we want diversity, didn’t we say that in 2020?

“I don’t want to look back and say I turned a blind eye. But you know, I’m an optimist. The future is yet to be decided.”

 

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Rick Owens

Menswear Designers

Last year was a “very, very dark” time for American designer Rick Owens, who spent large swathes of it in lockdown in Paris, where he is based.

The angry and repressed emotional states he experienced made their way into his presentation, which was held in front of a World War I monument, Tempio Votivo in Venice, Italy, last week.

Black masks covering the models’ faces were a constant reminder of the new normal, while smoke machines spewed atmospherically in the background.

The collection was called Gethsemane, named after the garden in which Jesus prayed before crucifixion.

In an interview with CR Fashion Book on Jan 21, Owens described the collection as “a place of uneasy repose and disquiet before a final reckoning”.

“We’re all living in a tense period in history waiting for a resolution, be it catastrophic or rational, in a suspense that feels almost biblical in its drama – primitive and profane.”

Oversized puffer jackets, floor-skimming coats, skin-tight leather and knitwear with more arm holes than necessary added to the moodiness of the layered collection.

 

Vetements

Menswear Designers

Vetements went straight to hell, metaphorically speaking, with its usual provocative offerings.

Speaking to Vogue about the collection, Guram Gvasalia, co-founder of the Zurich-based design collective, said the opening section of the label’s lookbook, with models posed against a fiery backdrop, was a reflection of “the hell we’re all living through”.

Faces were ominously obscured by balaclavas, recalling riot gear worn by those who stormed the United States Capitol on Jan 6.

Meanwhile, a bare-chested model sported an anarchy symbol and ripped jeans.

But it was not all fire and brimstone. Things started looking up as the backdrop changed to Earth with greenery and rainbows – although there was a translucent white raincoat which brought to mind the full protective gear worn by front-line healthcare workers.

On a final note of optimism, the collection ascended to heaven, with fluffy clouds and rays of light bursting forth. The clothes similarly became more angelic, transitioning to evening wear with jackets and tuxedos.

But the ever-subversive label did throw in a slogan tee which proclaimed: “I like fairy tales and financial stability.”

 

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Paul Smith

Menswear Designers

Veteran designer Paul Smith spent more than four months alone in his London office last year, musing on his 50 years in the fashion business. There was no big show to celebrate the milestone. Instead,

it was a quietly retrospective time for the 74-year-old British designer.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to museums or travelling, but I do have all these things around me in this room full of bicycles and books and stuff I’ve accumulated over the years’,” he said in an interview with The New York Times on Jan 25.

Falling back on his memories and half a century’s worth of archives, his latest collection included mohair knits, preppy plaids and stripes, remixed paisley prints and his signature use of vibrant hues, such as a bright orange chore jacket.

Even as his country was under lockdown, Smith believed life would eventually go back to normal.

He coped by going back to the familiar, such as a modernised Hawaiian print which reminded him of the vintage shirts he stocked in his first Nottingham shop.

 

JW Anderson

Menswear Designers

“I spent a lot of the last year thinking about people making and doing,” said designer Jonathan Anderson in an interview with The New York Times last month.

The creative director of JW Anderson and Spanish label Loewe shuttled between London and Paris to produce two separate collections, enduring risky travel and constant Covid-19 testing.

“I think the world is starting to change,” he said to Vogue about his latest collection for JW Anderson. “I think this isn’t a time for shock – I think we want reality, honesty, to be stimulated in a way that isn’t sensationalised.”

The result was a collection – presented via posters shot by famed photographer Juergen Teller with nonsensical captions – which emphasised handicraft and, strangely, fruit and vegetables.

Radishes, peaches, leeks and more appeared as crochet, embroidery and knits, lending the clothes an air of innocence.

But it would not have been a JW Anderson collection without a play on proportions – in this case, rather extreme trousers. Taking the ubiquitous sweatpants of the work-from-home era, the designer exaggerated them to unnatural proportions as a statement: “Here, these are the most high-fashion baggy pants of the pandemic.”

 

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

 

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