The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Last Wednesday, French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH hosted the award ceremony for their prestigious Young Designer of the Year Award at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Since its launch in 2013, the LVMH Prize has been a vanguard of forward-thinking and boundary-pushing fashion design, with previous awards going to the likes of Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air, Vejas Kruszewski of Vejas and Grace Wales Bonner of Wales Bonner.
In the 12 months that have passed since 2017’s ceremony, a number of events have turned the fashion world upside-down. Only days after French designer Marine Serre and Japanese designer Kozaburo Akasaka collected the 2017 LVMH Prize and Special Prize respectively, Louis Vuitton unveiled its collaboration with iconic New York skate brand Supreme on the Paris runway, kickstarting a hype machine that would send tremors around the world for months and penetrate virtually every corner of culture – even creating a limited edition co-branded Pudsey Bear doll for the BBC’s Children in Need charity drive in the UK.
Down the line, Balenciaga’s maximalist masterpiece the Triple S sneaker would dominate fashion week sidewalks, newspaper columns and countless op-eds and thinkpieces debating whether the influx of streetwear-tinged style into the fashion lexicon was an example of the democratization of the fashion world or simply Georgian memery at its finest.
Elsewhere, Raf Simons’ output as the new Chief Creative Officer of Calvin Klein saw the Belgian designer exploring demystified, trenchant renditions of Americana in the shadow of perhaps the most overtly-authoritarian leader the country had seen since Richard Nixon.
And then the departure of Kim Jones from Louis Vuitton only months after orchestrating one of the biggest fashion collaborations of all time (a hell of a swan song, when you think about it), followed by the appointment of Off-White designer and marketer-turned-aesthetician Virgil Abloh to replace him, signified to us that all bets were off as far as the natural order was concerned.
The fashion industry is going through rapid and unpredictable transformations, and there’s little point in trying to make grand predictions of where it’s going to take us next – best to simply kick back, ride the wave, and embrace the unknown.
No surprise, then, that the list of finalists for the 2018 LVMH Prize comprised one of the most diverse and unpredictable shortlists yet. From Abloh protegé and Bauhaus industrialist British designer Sam Ross, to the outlandish, logo-infused designs of Rushemy Botter & Lisi Herrebrugh’s label Botter, to the Warhol-esque, hyper-commodified streetwear-cum-concept art of Masayuki Ino’s breakthrough Japanese label Doublet, it was a year where things really could have gone in any direction; each one of the finalists possessed their own unique quality that set them apart from the rest. It was simply a case of which quality would appeal to the panel of judges most, and who would present the clearest vision for the future of their label.
Ultimately, the prize went to Masayuki Ino and Doublet, with the Special Prize being awarded to South Korean designer Rok Hwang and his womenswear label Rokh. It’s not difficult to see why Ino picked up the gong. His playful collision of pop culture iconography, streetwear sensibilities and absolutely bonkers gimmicks (plastic hologram shorts, button-up shirts shrink-wrapped in dry cleaning bags, and “just add water” compression T-shirts presented in plastic instant noodle cups, for example) perfectly capture the current fashion zeitgeist embracing all things weird, wacky and guaranteed to do well on the ‘gram – and fuck it, if Alessandro Michele can be applauded for sending disembodied heads and baby dragons down the runway as a means of helping Gucci dominate our Instagram feeds, why shouldn’t a lesser-known designer with an equally-firm grasp of the power of viral marketing get some shine as well?
But it was Special Prize recipient Rok Hwang who most caught my attention during the day. Born in Korea but raised in Austin, Texas, Hwang studied for his BA in menswear and MA in womenswear at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins University, leading to a career working at both Louis Vuitton and Céline.
In 2016, Hwang launched his label Rokh, continuing to operate out of London. In just a few short seasons, the designer amassed an impressive roster of stockists around the globe, and has been heralded for his uniquely vulnerable approach to womenswear. Words commonly used to describe the designer’s collections include elegant, fragile, vulnerable and, most importantly, feminine.
“I always try to focus on giving a fresh, different take on youth, but what I really like to project is different women,” Hwang explained to me when we met last week. “Women have this particular difference, a sensitivity. A rawness of emotion. When I first started Rokh, it was that which I really wanted to hone in on and create for.”
As you ran your hands through the rail, this sentiment trickled through in its own particular way. Positioned alongside the dazzling colors of pieces by Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY and the futuristic, dystopian aesthetic of Kwandai Editions, you were immediately struck by the muted palette Hwang had applied to his collection. Almost the entire rail consisted of shades of hazel, caramel, coffee and cocoa. Where each piece shone through was in its tones and textures; heavyweight panelled jackets pieced together with duffle buttons; wrinkled tan trench coats; glossy leathers and muffled velvet; checks, herringbones and houndstooth patterns. These were clothes that were difficult to simply look at – they asked to be touched, held, felt, and worn.
That physical experience of fashion is something at the forefront of Hwang’s mind when designing. “My focus has to be on the garment, the quality, how it fits, how it moves. I think that’s what makes my work a little bit different from other designers at the moment. I want to be really true to my customers what I’m selling. It has to be meaningful, and they have to love it. So I really just took my focus back to construction. Garment.”
That experiential element carries across to virtually every corner of Hwang’s business. Even his approach in retail seems to be, in many ways, a response to the overwhelming dominance of social media and digital culture in our current consumptive practices. When I mention the current perception of creative directors less as pure fashion designers but as curators, Hwang stresses his desire to return to the root. “Everything is so dramatic. Such a mixture of cultural experiences. I just wanted to go back to pure fashion. The editorials. How women would react to the garment. Even the visual merchandising, we work closely with the shops to create an experience where the women really can try the product on. Experience it. I’m really interested in this ‘offline’ experience of fashion. Something more real, I suppose.”
When you turned to the three models wearing Hwang’s clothing, that spirit that trickled from the clothes on the rails became a cascade. Draped in patterned fabrics that consumed their bodies, every pleat, buckle and crease capturing their form, each model’s look was truly holistic from head to toe; stood alongside each other, the effect only compounded. It was a breath of fresh air from the fashion that currently dominates the magazine columns, social media feeds and street style recaps. There was no cunning pop-cultural context. No algorithmic, influencer-endorsed leveraging of the latest “it” trend. It was just fashion. And the only word to describe it was beautiful.
Hwang has his own motivations for honing in on the fragility of vulnerability, informed by working with a team comprised entirely of women. “When I first started Rokh, that was something I really wanted to bring across. Everybody else had these really strong, fierce notions of the woman, but I wanted to counterbalance that. Not everything is about being strong and aggressive. There’s been a loss of that soft side, that sensitive beauty. Elegance. I really wanted to place that at the center of my work.”
A few weeks ago, when I was visiting London for the weekend, I attended the Azzedine Alaïa exhibition currently being held at the Design Museum in Kensington. Far from a household name when compared to the likes of Gianni Versace or Yves Saint-Laurent, the Tunisian designer is widely recognized as one of the most important fashion designers of the 20th century, and his death in November of last year sent shockwaves throughout the industry.
Walking around the exhibition and reading the accompanying notes, the thing that hits you hardest about Alaïa’s work is the underlying philosophy that informed it – a desire to make the women he dressed look, and feel, beautiful. As you entered and exited the exhibition, two quotes printed on the wall captured this perfectly – “I make clothes; women make fashion”, and, “My obsession is to make women beautiful. When you create with that in mind, things can’t go out of fashion.”
Alaïa’s passing at a time when the industry seems to be moving further from his particular understanding of fashion toward a more conceptual, esoteric and oft-baffling one seems timely, in many ways. And I don’t say that to be disparaging or pessimistic about the current fashion landscape; many of my favorite contemporary labels such as Craig Green and Abasi Rosborough bring conceptual fashion design to the table in spades. It’s simply that, walking around that exhibition, and seeing how Alaïa used fashion design to do nothing more than create captivating celebrations of the beauty of the female form, I regained my appreciation for designers that really do fashion for the sake of fashion itself. Creating beautiful clothing because it’s what they were put on this planet to do.
At first, I’ll admit I was disappointed to see the main prize go to Doublet. As much as I admire the brand’s outrageous, hyper-semiotic approach to clothing design, it felt like the judges had been distracted by flashing lights and party quirks, overlooking some incredible talent in the process.
But then, back in London again this weekend, talking to a number of designer friends, I heard the same thing said about Masayuki Ino and Doublet time and time again; “There are so many things in his collections that I look at, and I just think to myself, ‘Fuck. I wish I’d thought of that!’” And ultimately, when handing out the award for Young Fashion Designer of the Year, celebrating new and refreshing takes on fashion design, it’s sentiments like that which are arguably the most important. The fact is that Masayuki Ino is doing things in fashion right now that nobody else is doing (and the ones who are trying aren’t even coming close to matching him).
But if the award necessarily had to go to Ino, I’m glad the Special Prize was awarded to Rok Hwang. It was an acknowledgement. That even as the fashion week shows seem to transform more and more from fashion presentations to performance art installations feat. clothes, and as the brand of the minute becomes less about the clothing itself and more about the cool cultural lexicon it grants the wearer’s association with, there’s still a vital need for beautiful, captivating clothing for the sake of the clothing itself. Not so much timeless fashion, but fashion removed from time and place entirely. Simply existing, and being beautiful, and giving the person that wears it something that can only come from the tactile experience that tells you you’re wearing something truly valuable.
On the interior of each Rokh piece, the designer replicates the familiar indication of year and season that you see inside most high fashion garments. But where you would expect to find “Printemps / Été 2018-2019”, the label instead reads, “rokh, printemps / été 0000-0000, automne / hiver 0000-0000”. Whether an indication of timelessness or pure atemporality, it certainly feels apt.