Back at the start of a cycle of menswear shows that began in Florence in early June, continued to Milan and Paris, and will end in New York this coming week, I took part in “The Florence Experiment”. This site-specific project by artist Carsten Höller and Stefano Mancuso, a scientist who studies plant intelligence, consists of two coiled and intersecting 20-metre chutes installed in the courtyard of the Renaissance Palazzo Strozzi.
After checking in my phone and everything in my pockets, I climbed several flights of stairs to a loggia, where an assistant strapped me into a belt with a Velcro loop for holding a potted bean plant, helped me into a sack that covered feet and backside, instructed me to lie flat, cross my arms and keep my head down, and gave me a shove.
Rocketing at crazy speed, I looped around inside the covered tube and came sliding out in 90 seconds. The experiment’s purpose is to test the effects of human emotions on plants. You deposited the plant after the ride with a white-coated biologist, to be labelled and observed.
It’s hard to know how the bean felt. But I came away from the experience somewhat giddy and also uncertain about what I’d just done. Something of the same could be said of the men’s shows this season, presentations that, even when they failed to produce clear guidelines for where menswear is headed – or, for that matter, indications of what is to become of that cultural performance we call masculinity – made for a fun ride.
And if the season so far has failed to hang together, some indelible moments emerged from the blur of 10 shows a day in three cities.
Whatever one thought about designer Paul Surridge’s likeable riffs on the exuberantly vulgar animalia that is one of the “codes” of this label (and his valiant attempts to torque the label in a more restrained direction) or the surprise front row appearance of the Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, the unsurpassable element of this show was its setting.
After a day of lightning storms lit up the Tuscan hills in dramatic chiaroscuro flashes and drenched the Cavalli show space – the open-air courtyard of a seldom visited 14th-century hilltop monastery south of Florence – the sun abruptly broke through and the skies above turned the celestial blue of a Mannerist altarpiece. Underscoring the effect, a white camera drone suddenly hovered into view, slowly descending toward the assembled like a digital-age angel of the Annunciation.
Heaven and the afterlife were on Craig Green‘s mind, and also angels – the everyday kind like nurses and home care attendants. He imprinted images of their uniforms onto shirts at a show that was among the more memorable of the season thus far, and ornamented the garments with rope lacing that could have been read as lifelines.
Reality is sometimes too scary to tolerate, Green told Vogue.com, possibly his way of explaining some gorgeous trippy patterns printed on rope-lashed blankets. Escapism does seem pretty attractive these days, and on that count, too, Green provided for his audience, staging his show at dusk in Florence within the confines of the green-walled, 16th-century Boboli Gardens, closed to the public for a few precious hours.
“If you want to know life’s highs, you’ve got to go low,” says the Countess Bryn Mawr, a character recalled from a long ago off-Broadway show. That countess comes to mind sometimes when on the fashion caravan, particularly when one begins the day in an underground garage below the 26-storey 1950s Torre Velasca in Milan, sitting on a Bosu balancing ball in a parking bay as an acoustic system pipes in the recorded sounds of a squash game (Marni), and concludes with a seat in the elegant courtyard of an 18th-century Milanese palazzo (Versace) lavishly ornamented for a nine-minute show with 3000 lilac-blue wisteria imported for the occasion from South America.
In Milan, weather once again colluded with man to produce Instagram transcendence. Golden evening sun reflected off an artificial lake outside the cathedral-like headquarters of the Mondadori publishing conglomerate designed by the Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer – and used for the first time as the backdrop for a fashion show.
Zegna remains among the most potent forces in Italian fashion, owning and producing clothes not only for its own labels but also for those of other big design houses; it is also a textile powerhouse.
For some seasons, Zegna’s creative director, Alessandro Sartori, has been charged with rescuing the sartorial style that is a cornerstone of Italian menswear, while simultaneously navigating the unnerving reality that traditional tailoring has effectively signed a Do Not Resuscitate order.
Sartori’s proposition this season entailed a new suit formula with paired jacket options: a traditional canvassed model and a modified bomber. That was the idea, and it is not a bad one. Still, for much of the show what he presented were sophisticated sports clothes in complex fabrications that, while admirably refined, only served to underscore the reality that couture sportswear is an oxymoron.
In fashion, as in art and music, we are entering a new age of Michael Jackson. On June 28, the National Portrait Gallery in London opened Michael Jackson: On the Wall, an exhibition featuring images of the Gloved One by more than 40 of the biggest names in contemporary art: Andy Warhol, David Hammons, Jeff Koons, Faith Ringgold, Paul McCarthy, Kehinde Wiley.
Barely a week earlier, the Balmain designer, Olivier Rousteing, who was raised in provincial Bordeaux, added his voice and talents to the artistic fray with a show filtering Jackson’s style through a wacky Gallic lens.
A fashion first in the gilded salons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the show was opulent to the point of giddiness and yet still a sincere homage to the influential performer by a young designer whose childhood anthem was Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us.
As sometimes happens in fashion, an unanticipated moment suddenly feels perfectly timed. Nearly a decade after his death, Jackson’s image seems ready-made for rediscovery not just by a designer who never met a spangle he didn’t love, but by a generation possibly primed to leave behind the backward ball caps to sparkle.
Rousteing’s was a show that made wearing white socks with your two-tone patent leather brothel creepers suddenly seem cool somehow, while also presenting a compelling case for dressing like a disco ball.
Seen and heard …
Random moments accumulate after the shows, odd stuff that turns up later at the back of the mental sock drawer. There, for instance, in the front row of Virgil Abloh’s Off-White show (preceding his triumphal debut at Louis Vuitton) is Christian Combs (known as King), son of rapper Sean Combs, sitting in the stiflingly hot Palais de Chaillot dressed in an emerald green vinyl tracksuit as a blizzard of artificial snow drifts down on his head.
Periodically, Combs’s bodyguard (personal security for even relative nonentities being the new status symbol) reaches forward from his second-row seat to fleck a snowflake from his charge’s head.
And there, backstage at Dior Men, stand Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell flanking Yoon Ahn, the designer of the cult label Ambush. Kim Jones, the Dior Homme designer is snapping phone shots of the three of them seconds before the start of his celebrity-mobbed show.
“That’s not my good side,” Moss says, tilting her head to deliver a proper right profile. “It’s not my good side either, darling,” says Campbell, who then swivels her head in some owl-like version of an advanced yoga move to get her best face into the frame. “We both have the same good side, darling,” Campbell adds as Ahn looks on, smiling impassively.