Images of the Avant-Garde

_LLL1999The press have received New York’s ‘New Guard’ with an unconditionally warm embrace, or so the stream of glib praise that has been flowing unstemmed from around the middle of the decade would have you think. Show write-ups have heralded the arrival of a long-awaited revolution, lead by an army of emerging designers and their refreshingly diverse entourages. They are not wrong, the contribution made by this new generation to the on-going shift in fashion’s status is not to be downplayed. A closer listen, however, reveals old habits murmuring beneath the platitude-heavy hubbub, colouring their whoops and cheers with doubt.

If fashion week is a tournament, Gypsy Sport stands high on the victor’s podium: A/W18 was a leap forward in the development of a queer-inflected bricolage that creative director Rio Uribe has fast made his own, an exhibition of sultriness, compositional flair, and a shameless lack of compromise. Look 6: a rough-hemmed dinner jacket, silk-lapelled, has its sleeves switched out for those of a three-stripe track jacket – the gaudy white thread tacking them on at the shoulders lends an air of self-referential kitsch; appliquéd to the crotch of a pair of cycling shorts is Granny’s crocheted doily. Look 8: the ragamuffin kink of a patchwork pup hood is complemented by allusions to prim lingerie, a matte-silk bodice and sleeves in delicate black chiffon. Look 35: ten-year-old Desmond Is Amazing wears an oversized black blazer, the logo-peppered ruff and makeshift cincher over the top giving a vision of a dowdy choral smock in drag. This is not a collection that invites join-the-dots deciphering, but rather an iconoclastic whirlwind that breaks and recasts the fashion mould for those disbarred by fascistic industry standards. This was a collection that proposed a manifesto for the Gypsy Sport family, a nuanced examination and loud celebration of life at society’s fringe.

While coverage of the show was plentiful, it more often resembled tabloid-style clickbait than it did the robust critical appraisal that it had earned. A Dazed bulletin astutely observed that “the collection was mostly black and white and featured everything from tailored looks to sportswear,” sported by an “amazing variety of models and personalities[,] […]10-year-old drag kid Desmond Napoles and social activist Munroe Bergdorf” among them. That the fashion press institution now celebrates and gives space to a representational diversity of race, gender and bodies is worth a customary round of applause — let’s not forget that one of the industry’s most cherished brands, Comme des Garçons, had until this season only cast five black models in its shows since 1991: little has been made of this until very recently. But, in failing to place due attention on the actual fashion at stake, the technical nous it displays, the telling of new queer histories, the gaze that alleges to uplift quickly turns to one of blinkered objectification and otherly fetishisation.

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This season, Eckhaus Latta spoke once again in their distinct sartorial accent, as impossible to situate as it is not to recognise – but there was something more clipped in their pronunciation, more rounded in their tone of voice. The brand’s key design motifs, – slashes, hotchpotch knits, inverted seams, muffled felts – were neatly arranged in line with a markedly restrained template, while the high-neck column silhouettes and wealth of silk presented an at-odds sleekness that one might expect of The Row. A constant was the mix of agency models, friends and ‘non-models’, a crucial tenet of the EL universe – the brand is an original champion of representing and giving visibility to bodies that are typically overlooked.

The collection was Mike and Zoe’s most ‘refined’ to date, the culmination of seasons spent polishing a diamond in the rough. Anders Christian Madsen’s eye was drawn to the brand’s “[adoption of] the appetite for haute couture currently on the rise around the fashion landscape”, while LOVE lauded their “[focus] on classic lines, softer shapes and body-hugging looks. Clearly, Eckhaus Latta are becoming a very important fixture within the fashion industry.”

But why is it only now that Eckhaus Latta’s importance is so officially and unambiguously recognised? Where were these exclamations when attentions were fixed more firmly on their scandalous casting of ‘nodels’? And why has this swell of praise so neatly coincided with the arrival of a collection that, for all intents and purposes, aligns far better with a view of fashion reinforced by tradition? This is no surprise. In a 2017 piece for Flash Art, fashion curator Matthew Linde reflects on the value of ‘refinement’ in current fashion discourse stating that it “generally translates as greater buyer applicability”. The applauding of a designer’s refining then becomes less of a celebration of their technical or aesthetic development, but rather a cold pat on the back for their participation in a broken system.

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The world Eckhaus, Latta, and Karolinski exhibit is somewhat alien yet still always friendly, a near-future maybe.”
– Fiona Duncan on Eckhaus Latta’s A/W14 video, Guest, Dazed, 2014

The show closed with a gorgeous striped zippered corset that was paired with a printed take on their trademark carpenter jeans, the kind of thing you could imagine Marie Antoinette wearing if she were an art-school dropout living in Greenpoint right now.
– Chioma Nnadi on Eckhaus Latta A/W18, Vogue, 2018.

Even a lazy comparison of the two citations above would imply that, with the taming of their look, their ‘alien’ threat has been neutralised, the brand rehabilitated and woven into a canonical tapestry. However worthy of celebration this tapestry may be, we must not forget that the history it documents is a received and homogeneous one, one that presupposes narratives of ‘successful’ design. Rather than encouraging and fostering the plural development of new histories, the narratives that frame success in popular fashion coverage effectively bar their forging with tyrannical force. The result? A spurred-on appetite for clothing faithful to a monolithic history, an appetite that designers must then sate.

The cynically commercial nature of fashion is a given – collections are near-invariably designed with their viability on store hangers well in mind. This is, of course, no crime. But what comes close to one is that sincere endorsement hinges on a one-dimensional notion of success, a one-track conveyor belt feeding a corporate beast. Fashion has always relied on the romantic daring of the avant-garde as a means to cloak its mechanics; as the commercial potential of its social signifiers earn recognition, what were once opposing complements have begun to coincide. With the line separating convention and avant-garde more blurred than ever, the key lies in the full embodiment of this age-old dichotomy, in the presentation of a flawless image of artsiness that masks a commercially compliant core. That the seriousness of the press’ coverage of a brand increases as it progresses towards this new ideal only demonstrates the extent to which it adheres to the nebulous ethics of the system on which it claims to report. Today’s designers are producing work that actively challenges received ideals, going beyond the slogan-tee-toting pseudo-politics with which we are all too familiar. As they blaze new trails, it is the press’ duty to chronicle and promote the dispersion of harmful norms, rather than implicitly reinforcing them. The progress made in recent times may be cause for optimism, but if any success is to be had in altering the system’s very fabric more must be done to integrate alternative genealogies that celebrate difference and promote new modes of success.

Words by Mahoro Seward

All images courtesy of Vogue