Game Changers is Highsnobiety’s retrospective series highlighting the moments that changed fashion forever. From era-defining store interiors to Nike sneaker boxes and runway looks by Helmut Lang, Game Changers celebrates the things that we still reference to this day.
Out of thousands of fashion shows, only a few are remembered for creating a true fashion moment. In considering this list, stylist and consultant Karlo Steel and myself have looked at collections that were pivotal in how men dress or how they view fashion to this day. We begin with Giorgio Armani, the first designer to take that seminal men's staple — the suit — and change it forever. We end with Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton debut, which cemented the penetration of streetwear into the highest echelons of men’s fashion.
We tried to encapsulate shows as they went down in the history of fashion without regard for our personal bias, as much as that is possible. It’s also one of the reasons I decided to bring on Steel, who co-founded the trailblazing menswear boutique Atelier and whose knowledge of fashion is encyclopedic, to enhance this list and provide an informed counterbalance to my own point of view. All in all, we think we sketched out a good picture of how men's fashion changed from the gray mass of suits to the rainbow of styles we see today.
Giorgio Armani Spring/Summer 1976
Although Paris has been traditionally viewed as the epicenter of fashion, it was Milan where the modernization of the suit really took place. Giorgio Armani showed his first collection there in 1975 for Spring/Summer 1976. Initially structured and broad shouldered, his suits became increasingly softer and more relaxed with each new collection — literally taking the stuffing out of his garments. Sans padding, his suits took on an air of stylish nonchalance, as exemplified in American Gigolo (1980), for which he designed the clothing for the protagonist, played by Richard Gere. This new architecture of the suit allowed more freedom and experimentation for increasingly lightweight fabrics like wool crepe, which had been traditionally viewed as a “feminine” fabric. Armani’s apex for softness, however, came with his use of unstructured linen, kicking off a trend of rumpled chic that took hold of an unsuspecting public by 1985.
Jean-Paul Gaultier Spring/Summer 1985
It may come as a surprise to people of a certain age who think they are at the forefront of fighting for gender and race equality and championing body positivity that the French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier did it all decades before. Gaultier, who came to prominence in the early ’80s, was notorious for blending all types of models on his catwalks, black and white, thin and thick, tall and short. It is a great shame that his influence has been all but forgotten by contemporary fashionistas, because he blazed so many trails. So it was with his Spring/Summer 1985 collection Et Dieu Créa l'Homme (And God Created Man), in which he put men in skirts. "There is no difference between my men's and women's clothes," Gaultier told the Washington Post in 1984. “All things can be mixed. Everything can be beautiful, small and big — small girls, big girls, big boys, small boys.”
Comme des Garçons Homme Fall/Winter 1993
Rei Kawakubo's Comme des Garçons man was always too artistically intelligent to be bogged down by ideas of traditional bourgeois convention. Poetically unkempt, yet knowing and ironic, "bad taste" was a stylistic device he employed to intrigue. Rumpled jackets, untucked shirts, ankle-grazing trousers, mixing black and navy; all were big no-nos at the time of her Homme Plus 1985 debut. After seasons of rule-breaking, including a period of near aristocratic prissiness, Kawakubo’s Fall/Winter 1993 was a coup de foudre of radical menswear. Washed wool garments were irregularly dip-dyed on their lower half to a startling effect. The collection was so revered that Kawakubo revived the technique for the launch of her Evergreen collection in 2005.
If you are sensing a theme by now, yes, we are here to confirm that 1985 was a pivotal year in men’s fashion. When Rei Kawakubo made her Homme Plus Spring/Summer 1985 debut in Paris, she was already a star. With a slew of starkly modernist boutiques in global capitals, and riding high over having won critical acclaim as a cause célèbre, Kawakubo stepped confidently forward into menswear — after all, she did call her label “Like the Boys.” Short ventless jackets in lightweight fabrics treated to look aged and worn assumed the casualness of a shirt worn untucked. The artfully disheveled styling rendered the mood artistic, irreverent, and dandyish with its crew of long-haired models, artists, architects, and designers, all different ages and different shapes. This type of “authentic” casting would be copied by many. It was poetically radical. The cropped trouser and white crew neck T-shirt, worn nearly throughout, became house signatures.
Yohji Yamamoto Fall/Winter 1998
“I’m always singing the same song” Yohji Yamamoto is quoted as saying. "Sometimes it’s in a different key, but it’s always the same.” That “song" is black gabardine, remixed and remastered into a thousand different iterations since his stellar Pour Homme Spring / Summer 1985 debut.
Characterized by a generous cut that fell away from the body, his clothing suggested a languid sensualness, an idea usually reserved for womenswear. That approach found its fullest expression when he cast only women (different ages, sizes, and races) for his Fall/Winter 1998 men’s show. Vivienne Westwood, Charlotte Rampling, and Ines de la Fressange strolled down the catwalk in oversized coats and jackets, smiling and nodding to the attendees, like rakish chaps flirting on a boulevard. There was no need to shout about female empowerment; Yamamoto let the clothes do the talking. And talk they did.
Startlingly transcendent, Yohji Yamamoto’s masterful Spring/Summer 1985 Pour Homme collection let the silhouette do the talking. Unfussy, unstructured, decidedly unglamorous, clothes, some transparent, floated away from the body in a long line. There were no tricks and nothing was overstated. Coats, jackets, shirts, and pants were classically recognizable but elongated and devoid of the rigidity associated with menswear at that time. The clothes were austere but not cold or dry. They possessed a subtle sensuality with fabrications, their movement and shapes. The show was a total success, achieving a rare balance between modernity and romanticism and launching Yamamoto as the de rigeur menswear designer for much of the two subsequent decades.
Raf Simons Fall/Winter 1998
When it comes to shows that both define and are defined by youth culture, it’s not easy to pick just one from Raf Simons, the designer who cemented the idea that fashion is most exciting when it’s in dialogue with other cultural disciplines, especially music. Would it be the in-your-face Spring/Summer 2002 “Woe Unto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation…The Wind Will Blow It Back”, or the Fall/Winter 2003 collection titled “Closer,” after a Joy Division album, which kicked the graphic elements of menswear fashion into high gear — and for which Simons designed parkas that still resell for tens of thousands of dollars? Ultimately, the seeds for those shows were planted in Simons’ Fall/Winter 1998 debut. That collection was the bridge between the menswear of the 1990s and that of the next decade. You could say that every other menswear collection for the next 10 years was a footnote to this one, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
Helmut Lang Spring/Summer 1998
The 1980s ushered in the kind of unbridled glam fantasy — spearheaded by Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, and Jean-Paul Gaultier in Paris, and by Gianni Versace in Milan — that was so over the top that, in retrospect, a backlash seemed inevitable. First it was Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto with their somber, loose clothes that pointedly rejected glamour, but it fell to the Teutonic minimalists like the German Jil Sander and the Austrian Helmut Lang to put the last nail into the feathered boa coffin of 1980s excess. Their clothes were sparse but their proposition — to take fashion seriously — was radical. Lang’s Spring/Summer 1998 co-ed show was one of the pinnacles of such a viewpoint, especially the idea that fashion — gasp — could have a utilitarian value that presumed a life outside of the coked out confines of Studio 54.
The minimalist-with-a-hint-of-the-subversive pivot that made Lang famous began in 1994, when he brought on board the stylist Melanie Ward, whose pioneering work with photographers Corinne Day and David Sims ushered in a new “grunge” aesthetic, succinctly ending the 1980s fascination with broad-shouldered power dressing. Ward brought a new sensibility to Lang’s already experimental minimalism, infusing it with rockabilly, punk, and new wave. It took a few years to hone this aesthetic, of which the stark, black-and-white Spring/Summer 1998 show was the rightful pinnacle.
Dior Homme Fall/Winter 2003
When Hedi Slimane took the reins at Dior Homme, he did what any auteur does — he hammered a look into everyone’s consciousness without regard for whether they liked it or not. He went skinny and dark and young, and his awe-inspiring Fall/Winter 2003 show called “Luster” remains the pinnacle of his work. Though Slimane may not have been the first one to go that route (cough, Raf, cough), he was the first to do so on a scale that went beyond the fashion diehards and was catapulted straight into the mainstream. Slimane was the designer who got the Hugo Boss-wearing GQ guy into fashion properly, and, as far as menswear goes, no task is harder.
Number (N)ine Fall/Winter 2006
While Yohji and Rei cemented the avant-garde reputation of Japanese fashion, it was the youngsters Jun Takahashi and Takahiro Miyashita who infused it with the spirit of youth culture that often put its Western originators to shame. Miyashita’s Fall/Winter 2006 show, titled “Noir,” was a masterful exercise in black, and the rock’n’roll style that he proposed blended sophisticated tailoring and youth culture staples. It was both infinitely elegant and hardcore, and each piece from the collection has withstood the test of time.
Rick Owens Fall/Winter 2009
Few designers influenced menswear in the past dozen or so years as much as Rick Owens. He literally changed the silhouette, with elongated tops, drop crotch pants, and stomping footwear, which were taken up by rockers and rappers alike. What’s more, he convinced your average straight male with only a cursory interest in fashion to dress in this way, taking him out of his comfort zone; a nearly impossible feat for someone as daring as Owens. His Fall/Winter 2009 show “Crust” remains the signpost for the designer’s signature look.
Givenchy Fall / Winter 2011
In retrospect, it seems strange that streetwear on the catwalk was embraced not by an American designer, but by an Italian one designing for a heritage French house. But it was Riccardo Tisci who made a point of putting graphic sweatshirts on the runway and getting people to pony up 700 bucks for them, too. Tisci’s moment came after Kanye West wore a black leather kilt from the collection on tour, which caused a lot of homophobia-infused backlash, yet also put Givenchy in the spotlight.
Undercover Spring/Summer 2019
Perhaps no move is more symbolic in signifying the fact that men’s fashion has come into its own than Undercover designer Jun Takahashi abandoning his women’s shows in Paris in favor of men’s. He found new vitality and a new challenge in showing menswear, and for his debut, he stepped up and then some by reinterpreting the cult film about gang turf war in New York City, The Warriors. Takahashi created seven new gangs, replete with their background, flags, and, of course, uniforms. Each tribe had its own soundtrack, too. As far as fashion moments go, this was as good as it gets.
Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2019
Love it or hate it, Virgil Abloh’s impact on contemporary menswear is undeniable. When he took over the men’s side of Louis Vuitton (the first Black American designer to helm a giant European luxury house), he made his debut very much about not just the clothes — which, frankly, weren’t terribly exciting — but also about everything else in fashion that needed to be updated for today. The collection’s pointed title was “We Are the World,” to reflect the flattening effect of globalized, Internet-driven pop culture, which has made the interests of young male fashion fans in New York and Paris virtually indistinguishable. This was particularly reflected in the casting of 56 models of different ethnicities, in having the rappers Kid Cudi and Playboi Carti, the skaters Blondey McCoy and Lucien Clarke, and the artist Lucien Smith walk the runway for the show that dutifully cemented the overtaking of the highest echelons of fashion by streetwear, which is where we are today.