Gender, Lockdown and Really Good Outerwear

Fashion month may have gone all-digital, but the memory of live shows lingers. With the London collections winding down, our fashion critics traded thoughts on a shifting landscape.

Vanessa Friedman Well, you and I have just spent four days at our kitchen tables immersed in the “gender-neutral fashion week” also known as London Fashion Week. Personally, I think gender-neutral is a misnomer. It suggests collections that focus on the hugely contemporary issue of gender identity, and how that is expressed through clothes — which is, after all, one of the historical battlegrounds of what is male and what is female.

That would have been fascinating, if true, but as far as I could tell, only Harris Reed — he of Harry Styles-in-Vogue-in-a-ball-gown fame — actually addressed these questions, splicing tulle and suiting at the genetic level and forcing viewers to confront their own preconceptions and prejudices. All the other shows were primarily men’s or women’s (or men’s and women’s). Given that we are now all-digital and change should be a guiding principle, I was hoping for more.

Guy Trebay It’s easy to look at binary gender only in terms of pejorative clichés — it’s constricting, rigid, patriarchally enforced, etc. But it can also be subverted for social commentary (Willy Chavarria), silliness (Bernhard Willhelm), playfulness (Palomo Spain) or stealthy irony (Tom Ford). I’m aware there are no women in that string of names, and this may be one of the reasons fashion can feel stuck.

VF But London is full of interesting women at work! Even if what they are giving us is gendered clothing, they’re pushing those boundaries in very elastic ways.

Molly Goddard, for example, whose explosive prom-dress tulles blow up the whole idea of girliness into some sort of frothy power play, has been making them into a potent mixed cocktail by layering them over 1950s James Dean denims and 1970s Fair Isle sweater vests, plaids and striped scarves. There’s Victoria Beckham, sliding between dominatrix tailoring and floaty silk chiffons. Even Emilia Wickstead, one of the royals’ favorite dressmakers, whose clothes can get cloyingly “appropriate,” went a little subversive this time by chopping out the midriffs of garden-party frocks. Peekaboo.

GT Somehow we’ve misplaced — temporarily, I hope — the freedom for designers to explore a creative space between the exaggerated sexuality of, say, Victoria’s Secret and garments so neutered that people end up designing robes for Saturnian cults.

VF Speaking of alluring robes, Bethany Williams, who is nominally making men’s wear, did a capsule collection of wool coats all patchworked together from repurposed vintage blankets sourced from markets around Britain. I think any woman would want to wear them — and could, very easily. There was nothing specifically “male” about them: They were really about upcycling and history, both concepts that resonate equally with men and women. (And as an aside, the outerwear in London has been stellar.)

GT The reality is we were all dressing pretty much alike, even before lockdown. So just as you suggest, what’s fun is people vamping gender. Fashion is more than just clothes. These ritualized spectacles are not only economically vital but culturally compelling. Look how rapidly standards of beauty suddenly broadened once people started critiquing the system in earnest. Digital shows are fine for now. But can they compete long-term with TikTok? In fashion, as in politics, the game is attention capture.

VF One thing that kept me in my seat was the Roksanda minifilm, starring three generations of Redgraves: Vanessa, Joely Richardson and Joely’s daughter Daisy Bevan. Plus their dogs. It was filmed on an iPhone at Ms. Richardson’s country house, where the three women were playing cards, running in the garden — you know, lockdown stuff — while wearing Roksanda’s signature brand of color-saturated silks and generous trouser suits. If there was ever a compelling argument for ageless dressing, this was it.

GT The Yoox Net-a-Porter founder Federico Marchetti recently noted on Instagram that “the beauty of the shows and the clothes are enhanced by the beauty of the places, which often offer cultural insight into the craftsmanship and inspiration behind the product.” Would you agree? Perhaps it’s my inner Jane Jacobs, but I love how fashion shows put old buildings to new uses.

VF In Paris, that often felt like a competition. Who could be the first to show in X heritage building. Have you seen anything equally compelling in London? For me, what stood out was the Ahluwalia film, set in the Crossness Pumping Station, the extraordinary Victorian structure in Bexley that helped transform London’s sewage system and was nicknamed “the Cistern chapel.” That’s a visual metaphor if I’ve ever seen one, especially combined with Cktrl on sax and Priya Ahluwalia’s work, which is effectively a melting pot of cultures, sustainability and streetwear elegance. She just won the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, by the way.

GT With rolling lockdowns in London, there has obviously been less location shooting, although Grace Wales Bonner did assemble a look book with a typically quirky and restrained collection, photographed on what looked to be a university quadrangle. The shoot was inspired by Black scholars who traveled from parts of Africa and the Caribbean to attend Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s. Ms. Wales Bonner has talked about how “in certain spaces people create a language for themselves.” As a Briton of Jamaican ancestry, she has done a fine job of mining the resilience of immigrants maintaining their home culture while adapting to an often hostile dominant one.

VF Sometimes the look book is more successful than the show/video. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on with the sculptural encrustations in Matty Bovan’s film because of all the strobes and bleeding colors. If the goal was disorientation, to mimic the disorientation we are all experiencing — and his clothes do flout the rules of dress pretty engagingly — it worked. It was only later, when I looked at the still photos, that their cleverness came through, especially the graffiti greatcoats and titanic cable knit evening gowns and opera gloves. Or were they arm warmers?

GT On a WhatsApp chat, Riccardo Tisci talked about how he’d been inspired for his men’s wear show at Burberry by the obvious cornerstones of classic British tailoring, but also by eccentrics like Leigh Bowery and Michael Clark. He showed in the huge Burberry store on Regent Street and afterward spoke about his hankering for nature, the outdoors, escape (and about spending time in quarantine with his 93-year-old mother).

A singularly bold show, it deployed signatures Mr. Tisci has carried with him from label to label — assertive shapes, powerful graphics, offset by bullion fringe that hinted at ecclesiastical banners — styled here by Ib Kamara. If the codes were traditionally masculine, the attitude was not. Gender fluidity, as Mr. Tisci said, is much more than “a lace dress on a masculine boy.”

VF Ib Kamara! He’s the man of the season. The new editor of Dazed also styled, via Zoom no less, Erdem Moralioglu’s terrific show, which took place at the Bridge Theater and was inspired by the designer’s experience working with the Royal Ballet a few years ago. (Four of the “models” were actually dancers, including one in her 70s.) This one wasn’t about gender fluidity, but rather a sort of timeline porousness between day and night, home and event, historicism and modernity. I’m thinking especially of the ribbed gray knit shorts, cardigans and leggings that were interspersed with shimmery floral cocoon coats and white governess poplin shirts speckled with prima ballerina tutu gems.

Erdem collections can fall pretty easily into the costume trap, but they didn’t this time, just as Simone Rocha’s work got more powerful, I thought, thanks to the way she cut the phantasmal romance of her baby-doll laces and florals with sour splashes of leather and buckled harnesses. Both collections made me think that some of the minimalism of enforced lockdown may have had an unexpected effect. Did you see any fashion fallout from what we have all experienced?

GT It seems to me clothes looked looser in general, more frumpy and forgiving, and that what structure we saw often took blocky, monastic or Colorforms shapes. Watching the “French Kiss” video for Stephen Jones Millinery, in which the designer explains his lifelong fixation with “Frenchness,” you could not help but think about how dully Puritanical fashion has become. It’s as if we’ve forgotten the tools of seduction. I’m not sure a hat can be lascivious, yet some of those Jones designed — two interlocking tongues, say, one pierced with a pearl — were overtly sexualized objects.

True, he was designing for women. (Or, at least I think so.) Mr. Jones is a canny soul, though, and his appearance at London Fashion Week seemed like a pointed reminder of Vivienne Westwood’s observation that the point of fashion is eventually to get naked.

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