When it comes to fashion, we often talk about beauty and desire. But the industry is really about inspiration, provocation, and constant reinvention. Fashion is, more than anything, an engine of innovation. This is why its success should be measured in terms of the passion—positive or negative—it incites in people, versus its loveliness.
“Think of the Commes des Garcons look of the 1980s. When people first saw this big, black clothing, some people wondered, ‘Why are people wearing those damaged smocks?’ But they were a new avant-garde style,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, in reference to the boxy, monochromatic, and arguably unflattering clothes designed by Rei Kawakubo for the Japanese brand. “Those clothes represented a new attitude toward beauty at the time,” Steele said. “Some people interpreted the clothes as a feminist statement. And when you wore Commes des Garcons and saw someone else wearing it and they acknowledged you. It was like a secret handshake. It was like you knew each other … and that you were cooler than other people.”
Innovation in any field, particularly fashion, means leaving the public’s comfort zone. In clothing design, that often means moving away from traditional “prettiness” or “handsomeness” to arrive at something new, as Rei Kawakubo did. Consider the shared strategies of legendary designer Elsa Schiaparelli from the 1920s-50s, and Miuccia Prada of the Italian fashion house that bears her family name, who both tried to present garish colors and patterns in ways that were attractive. Their approach will soon be featured in a new exhibition, “Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: Impossible Conversations,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Opening on May 10, and on view through August 19, it includes a section called “Ugly Chic,” which is devoted to the concept of using unappealing aesthetics to distinguish their clothes from others. Or think of the “cult of the ugly shoe,” as Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley described the heelless footwear designed by Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and designers at Nina Ricci in the past decade. “When people saw those new takes on platform shoes for the first time, some said in horror, ‘How can you walk in those?’ They seemed shocking or strange, simply because they were new,” Steele observed.
But Jacobs and McQueen were redefining women’s shoes with cantilevers, just as Frank Lloyd Wright had reinvented the house and Verner Panton had reimagined the chair. None of their footwear designs followed the aesthetic or engineering popular at the time; their shoes were initially considered by many to be odd, even ugly. The shoe designs jarred the eyes and minds of observers because they didn’t fit into any tried-and-true form. However, over time, the shoes transcended the shock of their newness and inventiveness, to become fashionable—even haute couture. All of these designs are considered classics today.
McQueen, who died in 2010, once said that he often found inspiration in “even in the most disgusting of places.” A retrospective of his designs, Savage Beauty, was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the same site as the forthcoming Schiaparelli and Prada show—May 4 through August 7, 2011. It received stellar reviews and became one of the most visited exhibitions in the Met’s history, with some 661,500 visitors. That the popularity of the exhibit, which opened with an evening gown made entirely from razor-clam shells (detritus often found on beaches or in garbage bins of seafood restaurants) suggests that his bizarre, yet alluring, designs ultimately resonated with many people.
To understand McQueen’s influence on future innovation, as well as the importance of his passion for transforming hideousness into beauty as a design strategy, one need only visit the Manhattan campus of Parsons The New School for Design, the epicenter of fashion training in the United States. Alumni include current industry darlings Alexander Wang, Thakoon Panichgul, J.Crew President and Creative Director Jenna Lyons, and the team of Proenza Schouler. Fashion design icons Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, and Tom Ford, plus graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister and Chinese activist Ai Weiwei also attended Parsons.
During the most recent fall semester, Parsons offered a graduate seminar titled “Design as Social Movement: Steve Jobs and Alexander McQueen.” The course was co-taught by Bruce Nussbaum, a design guru and former BusinessWeek assistant managing editor, and Ben Lee, a Parsons professor of anthropology and philosophy. Its very title gave fashion as much power and cultural significance as computing technologies. On the day I visited, the 15 students in the class—who included the 2009 winner of China’s version of Project Runway (the prize was admission to Parsons )—showed up wearing T-shirts and hoodies, jeans, and sneakers or unremarkable black boots. No heelless wonders here. They could very well have been a group of twenty-something employees at Apple. Yes, one young woman wore stylishly clunky black-rimmed glasses, and another dressed in a pinstriped shirt buttoned to her chin, but mostly everyone was dressed comfortably, not stylishly–although their nonchalant looks still seemed impeccably put together. Yet they reflected a certain type of fashion, one that rejects conventional elegance.
Nussbaum asked the students if they thought that aesthetics, fashion, and even entrepreneurship may be affected by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. He quoted a line from The New Yorker’s review of the McQueen show at the Met: “McQueen was of a generation when ‘sex and death were in the same bed,’ for the first time,” which of course refers to the specter of HIV and AIDS haunting McQueen and his creative peers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nussbaum followed up with, “Do the economic crisis and the Occupy movements have the same effect to you? Are more people wearing T-shirts and jeans- sweatshirts as a result?” The students collectively shook their heads and said “no,” even though that’s what they were wearing.
The conversation then veered toward “ugly” fashion’s influence on innovation. The students, who clearly delighted in the intellectual aspects of fashion, answered quickly, in enthusiastic voices, their eyes brightening. One student, wearing a prim vintage yellow cardigan decorated with crocheted flowers noted, “As McQueen’s colleagues said about McQueen, he wanted to provoke and stimulate people—whether it be fear, or a reaction to something ugly. That’s all he wanted; it didn’t have to be beautiful. Fashion is about stimulation, which offers a meaningful, powerful effect.”
“Fashion has a fantasy about it … a little more about pushing … more room for inspiration. It’s not just about practicality, like building a building or making a phone,” a student with a British accent remarked, clad in a slouchy T-shirt and denim. “But I have to add that design is all circular. Industrial design affects fashion and the other way around.”
For these future fashion leaders, the McQueen show offered more than an homage to an extremely creative, thought-provoking designer. The retrospective helped to explain, and perhaps even confront, the relationship between shock value and innovation. Shock, or the element of surprise, has played a philosophical and practical role in driving innovation since at least the Industrial Revolution. Practically, as Steele from the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum pointed out, “because of fashion, the power loom was invented [in the late 18th century]. It was one of the major events that set the Industrial Revolution in motion.”
A century after the power loom’s invention, and a century before today, poet and author Oscar Wilde wrote, “After all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months … from the point of view of science, it not infrequently (sic) violates every law of health, every principle of hygiene. While from the point of view of simple ease and comfort it is not too much to say that … there is not a single form of really fashionable dress that can be worn without a certain amount of absolute misery to the wearer.”
Wilde’s observation rings true when watching today’s highest-profile fashion plates: pop singer Lady Gaga and socialite Daphne Guinness, both of whom are known for wearing cat suits, outré masks, and outrageous makeup (not to mention the vertiginous unfeminine shoes made by McQueen and others), are named on international best-dressed lists from Vanity Fair and praised by bloggers at younger, hipper publications such as Nylon. Still, observers often perceive of Gaga’s outfits as plain ugly. Legendary fashion designer Valentino was quoted on actress—and fashion icon—Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP Web site that if he had to offer sartorial advice to young women today, it would be to “never wear what Lady Gaga does.” The fact that Gaga’s look elicits as much adoration as denigration illustrates her power to disrupt. Disruption is the key to her status as a fashion icon, someone whose look and creative vision is sought after not only by teenage fans, but by corporations. Polaroid, for instance, named Gaga as a creative director in 2010. And her design for earphones created for Beats by Dr. Dre and Monster, released in 2011, received very positive reviews from CNET for innovations such as a flat, tangle-free chord and the “unique look” of pointy, studded earbuds.
Yet recently, Gaga has appeared on a Thanksgiving television special for young children and on magazine covers looking familiar yet … safe, with traditionally pretty long hair, in a pink gown and Chanel sunglasses. And now fashion editors at Vogue are prescribing floral-printed dresses and elegant, feminine stiletto shoes—the antithesis to McQueen’s most daring visions—as what to wear in Spring 2012. Our eyes, coached in the past few years to interpret footwear without heels, Halloween-style makeup, or gowns made from clam shells as beautiful and, more importantly, innovative, will soon be assaulted by the over-the-top prettiness that promises, because of its “newness,” to disturb us.