There are few things less interesting than people getting misty-eyed about the nineties. Generally, it’s people in their mid-forties (though I’ve known more than a few people in their thirties to wax lyrical about the nineties, despite the fact that they would have been around ten at the time). They’ll talk at you about The Face, and the early years of Dazed, and how cool Camden was. And, of course, they’ll tell you that nothing now is anything like as it was then. Music, fashion, design, and art: everything, apparently, has been on a downward slide for the last twenty years - in spite of the nineties being the decade that spawned the Baha Men, belly tops and Mr Blobby.
Over the course of the S/S 19 Paris men’s shows, though, I began to sympathise with that view. During the week, I’d visited the Margiela / Galleria exhibition at the Palais Galleria. Without question, it’s one of the best fashion exhibitions I’ve ever seen: it skilfully and simply showcases Margiela’s work, from his debut collection onwards (it’s rumoured that Margiela himself consulted on the exhibition). It also shows the profound impact he made on the designers who followed in his wake: you don’t need to be Diet Prada to be able to play ‘spot the reference’ as you walk around the gallery. But coming from the exhibition, which was so rich with design innovation, and returning to the S/S 19 shows, was profoundly dispiriting. Where have all the ideas gone?
It’s unfair, of course, to compare anyone to Margiela – he’s a once-in-a-generation genius and a product of a very specific moment in fashion history. But it did throw into relief that this season’s menswear felt flat. Often, literally, what we saw were clothes designed to resonate on Instagram, look good on Vogue Runway and stand out on e-commerce sites. Everything seemed designed to have an easily digestible visual impact: the shapes were straightforward to the point of generic. There was too much reliance on now-tired streetwear tropes – bucket hats, utility vests, dad sneakers, logos. The colour sense, across the board, had the sophistication of a child’s paint set: tomato red, grass green, cobalt blue. Above all, there was little sense of designers trying anything challenging; everything felt made to be shifted, quickly.
Much has been made of the impact of the digital world on fashion design. A few weeks ago, I interviewed Samuel Ross, the creative director behind the London-based label A-Cold-Wall. He told me that he believes graphic designers (including him, and Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh) to be the future of fashion. But graphic design, by its very nature, exists in two dimensions. Fashion shouldn’t. That’s why Margiela’s clothes felt so exciting: they truly considered the significance of proportion, and scale, and shape. It’s something that so few designers seem to have thought about this season.
There were exceptions. Raf Simons’ Spring collection, while repetitive and occasionally incoherent, marked a decisive move away from the streetwear-inflected fashion of the last few years, with a renewed emphasis on tailoring and a more forward-looking approach to a silhouette. Alexander McQueen showed its best men’s collection in as long as I can remember, ditching the sportswear and stack-soled trainers, and showing some of the most sophisticated and modern suits of the week. And Maison Margiela – now helmed by John Galliano – was a tour de force. Immaculately made, highly considered garments, enlivened by provocative and frequently challenging styling. It was the kind of collection that gave you a jolt of energy.
Those collections, and the others that worked – Comme des Garçons, Sacai, Lanvin – did so because they felt intelligent. The clothes they presented were more than merely merchandise; they were truly designed. They may not resonate as much on Matchesfashion.com or Mr Porter, and they might not have a snappy graphic or a post-ironic logo, but they were clothes that spoke to the intelligence of the person wearing them. Hopefully, next season, more designers will follow suit.