A fashion show is a strange beast. Part high-concept art show, part pantomime, it can be simultaneously filled with pieces of exceptional craft and impractical frivolity – things that you’d wear to death and things that you wouldn’t wear for a bet.
The recent round of shows at London Collections: Men and the following events in Florence, Milan and Paris ran the gamut of menswear. In London, the sublime was represented by fantastically wearable collections from Christopher Raeburn and Richard Nicoll, while the seemingly ridiculous was embodied by Craig Green’s extravagant headpieces, made from the smashed remnants of shipping pallets, and J.W. Andersons’ frilled short shorts.
Outlandish elements in fashion shows are usually dismissed on the grounds of impracticability. In reaction to Craig Green’s DIY headwear, the Daily Mail ran an article asking if the celebrity poster boys of LC:M – Gandy, Cumberbatch, Tempah - would wear the “bizarre plank hat”?
The answer is an obvious and resounding “no”, but the question wilfully misses the point. The purpose of these visually provocative pieces is not to sell units but to offer a captivating visualisation of the show’s guiding aesthetic.
In fact, many pieces that you see as part of fashion shows are simply not for sale. In this context their wanton peculiarity is not a flaw but part of their purpose. These so called “show pieces” may be un-sellable because the production costs involved make them prohibitively expensive, or because they act as window dressing for the collection. An example of the former would be the extravagant sequin jackets with embroidered whales from Thom Browne’s SS13 show (with a cost price of over £2,000), while the latter walked obediently beside a model in the recent Agi & Sam show in the form of a forlorn looking basset hound.
To say that a fashion show is representative of a collection is only partly true. It represents the collection’s conceptual tip, thrust up above the waterline like the point of an iceberg. What you don’t see are the basic t-shirts and simple sweatshirts that hide below the surface. These are the pieces that Tiny Tempah may indeed wear - they are also normally the piece that buy designers houses and pay their tax bill - but they would be as out of place on the runway as one of Craig Green’s pallet hats would be on your local high street.
In the world of the fashion show, impact and intrigue score highly. Yet, while these show pieces serve a particular purpose, designers should ask themselves an important question: how much is too much? In many ways it’s like seasoning a meal: the right amount will enhance and draw out the existing flavours, too much will overpower and distract from the essence of the dish. It’s all a question of balance.
For an example of perfect balance, as with so much else that is good in menswear, you need look no further than Raf Simons. Going back to his AW12 collection, the innovative Belgian decided to garnish models with strands of long, dip-dyed hair. Taken at face value this might appear odd, but for Simons it was a powerful articulation of the collections central theme, which ran through every element of this show like words through a stick of rock – from the location to the music and lighting. In this instance, this word was "change".
“People change the colour of their hair often” he said in conversation with Dazed & Confused. “It's an easy way to change something about yourself quite quickly." Coming at a time when the designer himself was making a significant switch, from Jil Sander to Dior, this small and seemingly frivolous detail was carefully orchestrated.
Thom Browne is perhaps the current menswear designer who utilises stagecraft most obviously. Each Thom Browne show plays out like a grand opera, complete with elaborate sets and props. Talking to him after his space-themed SS13 presentation, Thom suggested that the purpose of this was to surround the collection with “a fantasy and a story - to entertain, to make that grey suit more interesting each season, and to let people leave with a smile on their face."
Smiles are welcome, but fashion shows can leave you with a frustrated frown; the old idiom about the empty vessel makes the most sound does occasionally ring true. However, in the hands of a master such as Simons, each component element of a show, no matter how apparently odd, rings with revealing echoes.