Has fashion lost its sex appeal?
Introducing the new wave of gender-bending style.
Last spring, London department store Selfridges conducted an experiment: They launched an alternative to the old-fashioned convention of men’s and ladies’ clothing departments and opened up a temporary space called Agender. Agender, as you would expect, was a gender-neutral shopping space. It proposed unisex “kits” that served as foundational wardrobes for those who want to escape the tired old gender categories of he and she. Among the labels Agender showcased were Comme des Garçons, Ann Demeulemeester, VFiles and Rad Hourani.
Hourani, especially, is a pioneer in genderless clothing and calls himself the “first unisex designer in history.” He started out making clothes for himself nine years ago, and it led to his developing a namesake line that neatly sidesteps his-and-hers distinctions. In 2013, his spring/summer Paris couture presentation was the first-ever official unisex runway show. “I took a full year to understand the different shapes of bodies and how I could assemble all genders in one to create a unisex canvas that can make them longer, slicker, new and comfortable at the same time,” he explains. “I don’t understand who assigned these codes of dressing by gender. It doesn’t make sense to me that a woman should dress in a different way from a man or vice versa.” While Hourani has stayed true to his philosophy for the past decade, other designers have only just begun swinging around to his unisex way of thinking. The fall/winter runways were dominated by a monastic silhouette that references Pope Francis and that other religious showstopper, the Dalai Lama. The shaman-like outfitting marked the advent of a new kind of wardrobe–one that is not only gender-free but also sexuality-free. While unisex is by no means synonymous with non-sexual, this season’s non-denominational high-priest look is. It’s an ascetic aesthetic that has been the mainstay of designers like Hourani, Rick Owens, Damir Doma, The Row and Haider Ackermann. But now it has spread to more mainstream (for lack of a better word) or, at least, less sexually ambiguous labels.
At Ann Demeulemeester, Narciso Rodriguez, Vionnet and Valentino reigned a robed, tunicky, Oracle of Delphi vibe that strikes the same tone as ceremonial vestments. The all-white monastic dress at Valentino ready-to-wear, the griffin-embroidered caftan robe and gold medallion at Valentino haute couture, the draped, cowl-necked priestesses at Vionnet and the long tunic vests at Narciso Rodriguez all possessed a serene, ritualistic, above-the-fray quality. Modern, minimalist, mystical and modest, the vocabulary of sashes, cassocks, hoods and ankle-length robes is not so much gender-spanning as asexual. “It’s evident how much Rick Owens has indeed influenced this trend,” admits Marcell Rocha, a Paris-based stylist. “I’ve definitely noticed for a few seasons now that it’s becoming prominent among other designers.”
The preamble to men and women dressing the same is men dressing like women and women dressing like men. There has been a slow leak between his and hers over the past decade and a half, since Madonna and Nicole Kidman wore Christian Dior men’s suits in the early 2000s. During Hedi Slimane’s tenure in menswear there at that time, women in the know headed straight for his asphyxiatingly skinny suits. Meanwhile, Jean Paul Gaultier has been trying to get men to wear skirts for as long as he has been in business. Ironically, it was just about when he announced his departure from ready-to-wear that feminine menswear started to take off. Gucci’s first collection last fall by new creative director Alessandro Michele proposed pussy-bow blouses and red-lace tops for men, while J.W. Anderson has made a menswear staple out of bustiers and drapey T-shirts.
Genderless clothing is the natural evolution of all of this his-and-hers mingling, but it also creates a third, neutral category all its own. “It’s a very interesting time we’re living in,” says Nicholas Mellamphy, buyer for The Room at Hudson’s Bay. “Five years ago, it was the ‘boyfriend jeans’ and ‘boyfriend jacket.’ Now it’s just ‘your jacket.’ It’s just oversized. We’re not talking the same way.”
The result of boyfriends and girlfriends having been subtracted from the equation is the undeniable asexuality that underlies the gravitas of this season’s monastic garments. What happens when the absence of sexual desire encounters an industry that is saturated with it? Mellamphy thinks it elevates fashion to a “higher plane.” “A lot of older women love this look because it allows the fashion to showcase you rather than you showcase the fashion,” he says. “It’s so stripped down and free of embellishment that I think of the women who wear that type of collection as almost anti-fashion. It’s intellectual chic.”
The mood, however, is not minimalist, despite the monochromatic colour palettes and gender-effacing silhouettes. Everything from the long asymmetrical sheaths at Damir Doma to the Mayan geometry and “doors of perception” seaming on Rick Owens’ peplum tunics has the enigmatic gravity and elegance of ritual. They make the compelling case in fashion that less–less gender, less sexuality, less embellishment–is, simply, more.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ELLE Canada.