In April, Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond appeared on our weekly fashion podcast The Dropcast. “The hardest thing for a designer to do, and be successful at, is to establish a silhouette,” he said. “Very few designers are able to do that shit out the gate. I would say the only one that’s successfully done it in the past 10 years is Demna [Gvasalia], and Thom Browne to an extent.”
He went on: “If I describe Vetements, it’s oversized. If it’s Rick Owens, it’s a sleeveless top, three-quarter shorts, and gray colors. Who else? YEEZY. [Kanye West] does not get the credit he deserved for coming out with a silhouette and keeping it, so much so that if you saw that shit in the window of ZARA, you’d be like, ‘YEEZY!’ Very few designers are able to do it.”
When it comes to designers showing memorable collections, silhouettes are everything. The immediacy of a garment’s outline is a counterpart to the subtle details that can only be seen up close or touched to be appreciated. For example, Yohji Yamamoto has made loose and flowing shapes in black part of his signature, meaning his work is recognizable without needing to check the label or see a logo. But silhouettes can signify identity beyond brand or designer.
“Probably not since the New Romantics has menswear been as creative, fluid, and diverse as it is today,” says Gill Linton, CEO and editor-in-chief of online vintage outlet Byronesque. “Rick [Owens], Gucci, Thom Browne et al have, in their own ways, shattered the norms of what makes a shape suitable ‘menswear.’ But men have always used clothing as ‘code.’
“Way back to the ’80s skinheads, shapes and lengths were used as signifiers of belonging, in this case to a certain class or gang. Skinheads showed their allegiance through the lengths of their jeans, for example. In the same way, albeit less organized or ‘official,’ men today show their allegiance to designers in drop-crotch pants (Rick Owens), cropped suits (Thom Browne), or masculine frills (Gucci). These silhouettes are codes of social belonging. More so in menswear than womenswear because these silhouettes are still relatively new and in stark contrast to the traditional ones.”
In the past decade, menswear has been dominated by heavy graphic signifiers and brand logos, thanks, in part, to the rise of social media and the fact clothes are often bought with the intention of being shot, shared, and liked than they are for being worn in the day-to-day, which is where a silhouette can really come to life. In that sense, it would be remiss for any menswear enthusiast to underestimate the value of a memorable and emphatic form.
With that in mind, and using Jean-Raymond’s examples as a launching point, we’ve examined six of the most powerful and enduring fashion silhouettes of our time.
As Jean-Raymond said on The Dropcast, Gvasalia is all about the oversized silhouette. It’s a signature shape the Georgian tastemaker experimented with at Vetements via too-big hoodies and later at Balenciaga with broad-shouldered suits and seven-layered jackets. Volume is everything, and we’re not just talking clothes: Balenciaga’s Triple S sneaker out-bulked the chunky sneaker market with its notoriously larger the life proportions.
That said, Gvasalia is only following in the footsteps of history. The oversized silhouette is a shape pioneered by Cristóbal Balenciaga. The brand’s founder was the crème de la crème of designers back in the day, with Christian Dior famously saying, “Haute couture is like an orchestra, for which only Balenciaga is the conductor.”
Gvasalia took Balenciaga’s large cocoon-like shapes and adapted them into his own aesthetic. In an interview with WWD in 2017, the designer spoke of his connection to the shape, relating it to his childhood: “My whole wardrobe was like this. My jackets were always too big for me because they were supposed to last for two or three years. I think the reason why I like those kind of proportions and shapes is very linked to that.”
Rick Saturnino Owens launched his label in 1994 and, since then, the Rick Owens outline has become synonymous with the crossover of luxury fashion and gothic sensibilities. With a cult of dedicated followers, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, Owens creates silhouettes at once sculptural, monastic, and apocalyptic.
The dark lord’s favored draping tends to mix a dropped crotch, although that has been seen less in recent seasons, with form-fitting fabrics, long sleeves, and provocative geometric shapes. Owens’ taste for the theatrical can be seen via SS19’s jutting tent poles or the literal flesh and bone of his “human backpacks” in SS16.
Owens’ creative collaborator and long-time partner Michèle Lamy is rarely seen not wearing one of his creations, favoring amorphous, cylindrical pieces that wrap and contort around the body.
Jean-Raymond was right when he said Kanye West is severely under-credited for the silhouette he developed with his YEEZY fashion brand. When Season 1 debuted as a collaboration with adidas Originals in 2015, the silhouette was undeniably athletic but with an oversized, slouchy shoulder, long sleeves, and multiple breaks in the pant line. Perhaps Raf Simons can be credited with the original idea of contemporary oversized clothing, which he put on the runway in 2001, but the cross-over to athleisure and muted tones of french terry cloth is pure Kanye through and through.
Over the seasons, the same silhouette has endured, becoming instantly recognizable. When Season 6 dropped, it came in bundles, encouraging a head-to-toe YEEZY look that leaned on the brand’s uncomplicated utilitarian aesthetic. Born in California, the YEEZY uniform caters to both hot days and cooler nights; it’s something comfortable to wear while sitting in traffic and can just as easily be worn on an early morning hike.
French designer Slimane introduced his signature razor-sharp tailoring while at Dior in 2001. It emphasized the skeletal, coltish frames of his models, bringing a rock star swagger to fashion and fittingly attracting the praise of the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie, who handed Slimane the CFDA International Designer award in 2002 and complimented the “smoldering androgyny” and “sensual allure” of Slimane’s work.
All these years later and Slimane’s skinny silhouettes have been frequently imitated (AMIRI springs to mind), but no one has matched his ability to cut narrow suits as elegantly as those Slimane is now pushing alongside tiger-print coats and leopard-print loafers at Celine.
Thom Browne created his signature suit by shrinking the proportions of classic men’s tailoring and adding shorts, a narrow tie, and removing the socks. When Browne’s first menswear ready-to-wear collection launched in 2004, it turned the suit from stuffy, conservative office wear into a must-have for every in-the-know menswear aficionado.
The silhouette is instantly recognizable for the way it positions shorts as a piece of tailored formalwear. They’re paired with a snug-fitting blazer on which the cuffs sit well above the wrists. The effect is replicated on Thom Browne pants, which sit just over halfway down the calf and are always styled without socks, exaggerating the cropped leg.
While Thom Browne suits might appear virtually unwearable to anyone who doesn’t have a slight frame, thanks to a made-to-measure service that tailors the proportions around the wearer’s body, the iconic Thom Browne shape is for everyone. To prove the point, among the American designer’s fans is LeBron James, who, along with the rest of his teammates, donned short gray Thom Browne suits before a Cleveland Cavaliers game against the Indiana Pacers in 2018.
Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto has had an indisputable influence on the fashion industry since the launch of his label in 1972. His main line for menswear is known for its ubiquitous black coloring and wide-legged silhouettes, generating a relaxed form of tailoring, exaggerated by the dark outline. When you limit to yourself to one color as Yamamoto does, the shape of the garment becomes everything.
A similar approach was apparent when Yamamoto started his Y-3 sportswear line with adidas. For example, the line’s SS19 drop was inspired by Yamamoto’s passion for sailing and parachuting, recalling the billowing shapes seen on his main line runways, albeit with different materials and a more athletic aesthetic.
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