As this year winds down we’ve recapped its highlights to bring you the best of 2017 in fashion, sneakers, music, movies and more.
When I started looking back on what happened in fashion this year, I actually started thinking about a trend from several years back – normcore. Started by Brooklyn hipsters and metropolitan types who were, at best, on the periphery of fashion, normcore was a trend that trickled upwards, starting with people in the street before slowly making its way up through the fashion hierarchy.
Phenomenons like this are a rarity in fashion – it’s why “that” speech about the blue dress in The Devil Wears Prada is so memorable. It acknowledged fashion’s perception of itself as the great dictator, handing down decrees to the rest of the world who would catch onto trends eventually, whether they realized it or not.
And if normcore was a mutiny of the people against the fashion world, 2017, in many ways, felt like the emperor taking back control. This year saw a number of designers around the world exploring fashion in its most mundane and un-extraordinary forms – normcore, but done properly, as if the fashion world saw outsiders taking control of the narrative, and responded by showing them what a mediocre job they were doing. Fashion houses heard a cry for the safety of banality, and decided to show the world just how banal they could be.
As we approached the end of 2016, the prevailing mood of the year was one of upturned expectations. Shock political outcomes both sides of the Atlantic – the United States’ choice of president, and the UK’s decision to exit the European Union – took (almost) everyone by surprise, not least the professional pollsters whose job is, quite literally, to accurately predict the outcome of things.
It’s difficult to speak for the mood of people stateside, but from a British perspective, 2016 played out a bit like four of the five stages of grief; denial that things seemed to be going in the direction they were; anger at the revelation that the UK had indeed voted for Brexit (or that America had elected a failed businessman reality TV star president); bargaining, clinging to the notion that things might not be so bad; and depression, gradually settling in as it hits you that the world you live in is closer to FOX News and The Daily Mail’s vision than The Guardian’s.
Few words describe the feeling that followed each of these moments last year, but the ones that do point to the sense that nothing was real anymore. If facts aren’t important, and you can’t rely on anything, and even the statisticians are wrong, then does anything even matter?
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, and later World War II, creatives in a number of fields struggled to reconcile society’s rapid evolution and prevailing intellectualism with the primitive brutality of war, leading them to found a number of artistic movements which turned away from the limitations of concrete reality, such as Surrealism, Absurdism and Dadaism. Between the Surrealists’ belief that true meaning could be found in the world of dreams and the unconscious, the Absurdists’ acceptance that life is meaningless, and Dada’s mantra that nothing means anything at all, one thing was in agreement – the real world could not be relied on to provide people with the answers they were seeking.
And now, almost a hundred years later, that same spirit of alienation and disconnection appears to have re-emerged. Between conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, the West Bank and countless other territories, not to mention rising tensions with Iran and North Korea, it feels like we’ve been living in war since the beginning of the millennium. Then, compound this with the rise of drone warfare and cyber-terrorism, and the knowledge that major world powers are battling each other with little more than some computers and an internet connection. Numerous studies in recent years have suggested we’re living in the safest period in human history, but news reports and our own governments have continued to ratchet up the tension. In this light, it’s not surprising this same sense of alienation has re-emerged.
This is no less true in fashion, where a number of designers seem to have turned their attentions to the trauma of losing faith in the world. In fact, looking back on 2017, it seems to have been the year where, once again, artists and creatives embraced the idea that nothing makes sense anymore, perhaps even that there is no meaning to anything. Many of them came forward with their own response to this realization, and for the most part, their work manifested as fifth and final stage of grief – acceptance.
Take Liam Hodges, for example. Back in January, the British designer, who has proudly expressed his political and ideological views in the past, revealed his Fall/Winter 2017 collection, titled Dystopia Lives. Laden with references to 20th-century science fiction films like A Clockwork Orange, Mad Max and Escape from New York, it was clear that Hodges was coming to terms with the realization that, unlike the movies, the real world rarely comes through with a happy ending.
Dystopia is defined by uncertainty and fear, the sense that maybe the world has turned against the people – how many of us can remember having felt that over the past 18 months? The only difference is that Hodges seemed ready to settle in and welcome the second coming of the cold war. After all, what’s the point in rebooting all these dystopian ‘80s Hollywood movies if it didn’t come with the creeping sense of existential dread that came with them the first time around?
Hodges wasn’t the only British designer to follow that path. Matthew Miller’s Fall/Winter 2017 presentation was equally solipsistic, the designer himself describing his generation as “a product of fear politics in a post-truth world […] a collection of individuals who are afraid to act.” Draped in black, with streaks of red running from their eyes and noses, many of them carrying heavy-duty backpacks on their shoulders, his models reflected a younger generation, beaten down and uncertain what will come next – only that they’d better be prepared for it.
Turning to Demna Gvasalia’s Fall/Winter 2017 menswear presentation for Balenciaga, we saw arguably a different vision of the future, at surface level at least. References to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, complete with essential merchandise/uniform designs such as polos, hoodies and T-shirts, proffered a more optimistic vision of the future – or perhaps even an alternate reality where the Vermont senator had enjoyed greater success than he had in our one. If Hodges’ collection was defined by dystopia, there’s an argument to be made that Gvasalia’s leaned more toward utopia.
Or did it? This was, after all, the collection that sent models walking out on the runway with Balenciaga shopping totes, hoodies decorated with the logo of Kering (the multi-billion-dollar luxury group that owns Balenciaga) and draped suits and jackets that almost completely covered the human form beneath. It was a collection that embraced the corporate culture beneath its creative veneer, and though distorted fits have long been a weapon in Gvasalia’s arsenal, there was greater significance to the notion of disrupted proportion and perspective when presented alongside the logos of Sanders’ proudly optimistic, but ultimately doomed, campaign. There was hope and optimism, but it was ultimately futile – especially when the presentation took place days before the 45th president’s inauguration.
By the time we got to Vetements’ Spring/Summer 2018 presentation in Paris this summer, it seemed like Gvasalia had thrown himself fully into the absurdist playbook. The world’s fashion capitals are cities like Paris and New York, but he relocated his brand to Zurich, the global capital of finance. Everyone else was looking for the hottest model of the season, so Vetements styled its collection on random people from the streets of its new home.
And as for the runway, it did away with that altogether and just printed out its lookbook and hung it on display. When it comes to subversion of the norm, it doesn’t get much better than a fashion show where meticulously-dressed fashion journalists are the ones walking around, looking at regular people in outfits and poses of their own choosing, in photographs that would be freely available to anyone on the internet only a few hours later. A lot of work to get right back where you started, in a way.
Martine Rose’s Fall/Winter 2017 presentation took a similar look at the aesthetics of the unremarkable. And though the collection was, at its heart, inspired by the mundane style of everyday life, one can’t help but look at the show’s stream of emotionless models in shirts, ties and slacks, and see references to the homogenous desk jockeys who populate our financial institutions and government think tanks. Rose seemed to embrace the banality of everyday style, creating in a way that hard-headed bureaucrats might be able to appreciate. Put another way, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
And it wouldn’t be a discussion about 2017 without mention of fashion’s self-proclaimed king of irony, Virgil Abloh. The American designer has been very unambiguous about his fascination with irony, and explains his love of quotation marks as underlining his desire to put an ironic slant on everything. Between his Pitti Uomo presentation and his mammoth “The Ten” collaboration with Nike, this was definitely his year, though it’s not clear whether irony was the trait that sealed the deal here – on the contrary, the popularity of “The Ten” seemed down to very genuine hype and very real resell prices. But in general, Abloh’s work, for whatever reason, feels much more earnest than the likes of Gvasalia and Rose. The one time he confronted politics head on, for example, collaborating with the artist Jenny Holzer on OFF-WHITE’s Spring/Summer 2018 presentation, the result was anything but tongue-in-cheek.
Throughout the year, countless other designers – Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY, Christopher Shannon and Rick Owens, to name a handful – appeared to explore this new age of uncertainty, whether through subtle symbolism, overt messaging, or just abandoning tradition altogether. Rick Owens, for example, has long been a master of shock and surprise, particularly in his presentations, but it can’t be a coincidence that since Fall/Winter 2016, his collections seem to have slipped further from his trademark draped, slim-line aesthetic, toward distorted silhouettes that jut out at angles and warp the wearer’s body. By the end of his Spring/Summer 2018 presentation, we could scarcely recognize the human forms hidden beneath layers of distressed, contorted fabric. Interpret that however you will.
The mood raised its head in less political contexts as well. Since Vetements first rose to prominence in 2016, people have been asking if the label is just an elaborate joke, parodying the fashion industry’s worst tendencies. The brand’s penchant for transforming everyday symbols into must-have fashion pieces – DHL, Rammstein, Snoop Dogg and, most recently, the logo of Berlin gay sex bar Ficken 3000 – arguably lays bare the reality that fashion, ultimately, is nothing more than a logo.
Much of Gvasalia’s work over the past few years has been informed by this attitude; presenting a tongue-in-cheek slant on fundamental concepts like trend cycles, traditional fashion calendars, or the art of selling product. But beyond the creeping sense that it all might be a joke, there’s a deeper, more nihilistic interpretation of Gvasalia that fits well into the zeitgeist – that nothing, literally, nothing matters at all anymore. That fashion is inherently meaningless, and existing, as it does now, in a world where truth and meaning are increasingly meaningless themselves, the only way forward is to disregard everything, and tear the whole thing down.
In this light, some of Balenciaga and Vetements’ biggest “hits” of 2017 start to make much more sense. Once you’ve accepted absurdity, and stopped trying to find meaning in a world that defies all definition, who’s to say a platform-soled croc sandal covered in badges and “pieces of flair” can’t be à la mode? If all the genuinely cool Russian kids are going out to rave in beat-up $30 running sneakers that you can find in any discount sportswear store, why not make an exaggerated version of that, scuffs and all, and sell it to the quote-unquote “cool kids” everywhere else? It’s this nihilism that made Vetements’ Spring/Summer 2017 presentation, loaded to the brim with collaborative product, such a subtle blow.
The British comedian Simon Amstell has a joke about meeting a cool guy who worked at a magazine that comes out twice a year, to which he responds, “Why not be really cool and not release at all?” In a similar vein, the 18 separate collaborations in Vetements’ collection hit on a similar question in fashion, where collaboration has become every second breath – if you can be cool and sell loads of product by just putting your name on other people’s product, why not be really cool, get other brands to make your clothes, then slap your name on at the end?
It’s common knowledge that many high fashion labels get their cashmere sweaters made at the same Scottish factory, source their leathers from the same supplier, and get their sunglasses made by the same Italian eyewear company. In many ways, Vetements has simply deconstructed the myth of luxury that we all choose to indulge in. In a recent interview with Vogue, Vetements CEO Guram Gvasalia outlined that the label’s goal was “to create the best possible product in its category”. Collaborating with a brand like Alpha Industries to create a bomber jacket was, therefore, the logical choice. But it also demystified the notion that high fashion product is the pinnacle of quality and craftsmanship. In giving you the best possible jacket, they underlined the fact that it doesn’t get much better than the one that sells for $100 in stores all over the world.
There’s an argument to be made that the trend I’m describing – a move away from opaque fashion towards everyday style – was already done three years ago with the rise of “normcore” and the art of dressing inoffensively, but I think this current phase is something different. Normcore, for all its comedic value, was relatively sincere in its embrace of all things average. This latest iteration is that same embrace on overdrive; if anything can be fashion, then the logical conclusion is that anti-fashion should be the highest form of fashion.
How do you create something “ridiculous” in the age of fake news and alternative facts? By creating something that even the people who’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid have struggled to process. Normcore was a pair of New Balance 990s. 2017 is the Skechers imitation, replicated and repeated beyond all recognition, on the feet of your favorite influencer, staring you down with a face that’s on the brink of either laughter or tears, if only anyone could tell the difference anymore.
The further you follow this line of reasoning, from the shattering of ideals and ideology in 2016, to the increasing madness of 2017, the more those single, “what the” moments that have occurred throughout the year start to make sense. Acne Studios’ criminally-hideous Manhattan and Sofiane sneakers. Italian sportswear brand Kappa’s unexpected return to vogue. Heron Preston making a fashion line out of the government department that, literally, processes New York’s trash. If the world is really in a race to the bottom, then fashion would obviously want to get there first.
Nevertheless, I think this year was much more about acceptance than aspiring to new lows. As an ostensibly creative field, fashion is full of artists, poets and creative types – people whose political views tend to skew towards left and progressive ideals. After successive decades of watching those ideals get beaten down and skewed by the crushing reality of the world we live in, fashion decided to play by their rules. Just as the Absurdists accepted the meaningless of existence and marched onward in spite of it, this year was one where many fashion designers accepted the impotence of striving for beauty in an increasingly ugly world, and embraced the art of giving up.
And love him or hate him, the mood of 2017 was undoubtedly expressed best by Demna Gvasalia, from product, to presentation, to business practice as performance art. Let New York, Paris, London and so on have their fashion weeks. Vetements will fuck off to Zurich, home of art collectors, tax avoiders and financial institutions. Let everyone else have their ostentatious men’s and women’s fashion shows umpteen times a year. Vetements will get it all out of the way in two shows, men and women lumped together. In fact, let them have the models, the venues, the press, the live-tweeting, the pomp and ceremony of it all. They’ll just put a few photos on a wall in a car park.
Because, at the end of the day, what’s the point?