Creativity, commerce, and choking tradition: Dior Homme, Hermes, Loewe, Thom Browne in Paris

Alexander Fury
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Looks from Jonathan "JW" Anderson's Loewe debut

If you ascend Paris’ Eiffel tower – say, during a free moment during the spring/summer 2015 menswear shows – you can look out on a vista, relatively unchanged from the first day the tower was opened in 1889, of Baron Haussmann’s neoclassical façades and wide avenues. French law ensures that: Second Empire plans are in many cases more or less followed, with “alignement” law still in place to regulate a building’s height according to the width of the streets it borders.

It’s fabulous for a sight-seer who gets to step back in time, almost. But many argue it’s choking the development of the city as a whole. Personally, I see a parallel with much of Paris fashion, where tradition can often choke creativity.

On his show notes, Dior Homme designer Kris Van Assche quoted the words of Christian Dior who, despite making the world look new, was a reactionary fashion designer with a resolutely traditional view of fashion. His silhouettes were inspired by his mother’s Belle Epoque heyday, and the construction methods behind his clothes came straight from the nineteenth century. “In troubled times like ours,” said Dior, “We must maintain these traditions, which are our luxury and the flower of our civilisation.”

Dior’s troubled times were the atmosphere of a Paris immediately post occupation, with fabric and food shortages rife. You wonder what could be troubling Van Assche, and also what traditions he is maintaining. The slim Dior suiting was in place, innocuous in navy. But the denim dotted into their show didn’t look traditional at all, certainly not for Dior. Neither did the simplistic scribble graphics nor handwriting print. They didn’t feel luxurious, nor worth maintaining.

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Suits at Dior Homme, spring/summer 2015

The trouble with Van Assche’s Dior is that there was no specific, coherent message. The pinstripe suits and slack-crotched jeans worn with unappealing snub-toed trainers had no thread to link them, bar that stitching the label Dior into the back. Abstracted, individual garments had appeal. As a whole, it was a bit of a mess.

Contrast that with Hermes, designed by Véronique Nichanian for over 25 years. Nichanian offers a complete, concise wardrobe for her man. And there are plenty of them, you imagine. Because the appeal of her compact suiting, her printed shirts veiled in cotton voile, her easy silk chiné floral trousers in shades of sage or ochre, and a couple of chain-knitted nubuck cardigans, is plain to see. They’re expensive clothes that look expensive, but don’t shout about it. There’s nothing tricky about them, nothing complicated. But they’re well designed, with geeky details that blokes so often fetishise. I couldn’t get over the piecing around the zip and collar of a bomber jacket that allowed a slither os transparency, to give a hint of the skin underneath. It gave a feel of the body, a sly sensuality, an odd sexiness to an otherwise almost-utilitarian garment. It also just looked really good.

The appeal of Nichanian’s design is that she knows when to stop. Generally, there’s little that’s over-designed on an Hermes men’s rail, and nothing that feels unwarranted or unwearable. I’m sure even a crocodile hooded jacket will find a buyer or two somewhere.

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A look from Hermes, spring/summer 2015

Creativity versus commerce is a question that frequently crops up in fashion. The “versus” is the odd bit, as if designers always have to make a choice between one or the other. It is possible to be a creative designer and sell. In fact, it’s kind of vital. Jonathan Anderson, who designs as JW Anderson in London and has taken the reigns of Loewe in Paris, understand that. His Loewe was a triumph, not of either discipline, but of the marriage between the two. This was commerce with creativity, or even creativity facilitating commerce.

What Anderson is doing is very, very clever. He’s pulled out and reissued pieces from the Loewe archives – like a cuboid cushion from 2001, or a cross hatched suitcase from the 1940s – acting as curator rather than creative director. Basically, that’s establishing the history of the house, which has always seemed somewhat murky and buried in its own archives. Then, he’s re-activating that for the present. He’s redesigned the house’s Amazona and Flamenco bags, giving the former a clunkier, trapezoid shape and the latter satisfyingly chunky knots of leather in place of the pom-pom fringes of yore. He’s also designed a great menswear collection of knits, giant felted blankets, funny shoes and covetable leather jackets and blousons. There’s a new tote, and a great backpack called the “Anton”, which is a bit angular and feels like something you haven’t seen before. Anderson was ensconced at the new Loewe HQ to present it to press on Friday – he estimated he’d talked and walked through 87 interviews by the end of the day.

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Meccano-inspired shoes by JW Anderson for Loewe

So that’s the creative bit. The commerce? You want to buy almost everything straight away. And you can: a great swathe of that product is available to purchase online now, capitalising on the buzz around Anderson’s appointment and the collection’s unveiling which has proved entirely justified, and then some.

I never quite understand the balance of the creative and the commercial with Thom Browne. His Paris shows – and, in fact, the womenswear he shows in New York – are so blatantly weighted towards spectacle that they are quite unlike anything else in fashion. There’s often a sinister subtext, but it’s not really scary – more sinister like a Hollywood B-movie monster, or a Broadway villain. It’s PT Barnum fashion, with Browne playing it to the cheap seats in the back.

This season, Browne did so with a man-machine mash-up, a weird vignette of cyborg clones almost-identically dressed in idiosyncratic suiting, while models marched out in bizarre get-ups, alternating between anatomical swerves and curves and rigid tailoring pressed into sharp, prismic facets around their swollen biceps and barrel-chests, like C-3PO on steroids.

It doesn’t really matter what Browne shows, if we’re honest. His shows are fabulous, fantastical indulgences. They’re basically Homme Couture. Browne is the very definition of a cult designer – there’s a cultish throng of disciples who only wear Browne, thighs constantly exposed, shirts resolutely unpressed, feet forever clumping in hulking Herman Munster brogues, and they love everything he does.

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Looks from Thom Browne

That’s not to say they’re going to wear this, of course. But Browne has a clever way of watering down his catwalk capers into stuff to fill shops that nonetheless doesn’t entirely abandon its identity.

Browne can indulge himself like this because he’s a supremely talented designer. he’s achieved a rare, rare thing. His signature shrunken suiting – grey, taut across the torso, yanked up at the ankles and wrists – has affected the way an entire generation of men dress. The cropped ankle trouser that has been near-ubiquitous this season can be traced back to him. His clothes changed the proportions of contemporary male wardrobe. So let Browne have his fun and stage his spectacular shows and make everyone smile, or scratch their heads, or even get angry. Because that’s what fashion should do.

Hedi Slimane’s early, early work at Dior Homme – and before that, as menswear designer of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche – had a similar effect. Those early shows of Slimane’s changed things. Those early shows moved fashion on to somewhere new, and shifted the way we looked at modern masculinity.

Slimane is currently the designer of the rechristened Saint Laurent label, which also showed this evening in Paris.

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