For someone who writes about fashion, I own some really ugly clothes. Currently I’m wearing a giant egg-shaped shirt that swamps the body and comes pre-disheveled — very Worzel Gummidge. I’ve matched it with a suit jacket with Herman Munster shoulders. My jeans are some strange hybrid, fashioned, like Frankenstein, from various different cast-offs.
Heinous is so hot right now. My colleagues nod in approval as they shuffle by in their £500 Gucci gardening clogs.
Is it me or has fashion become incredibly ugly? “Definitely, definitely,” says the 74-year-old shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, whose delicate crystal-embroidered stilettos and rainbow-coloured court shoes exemplify the essence of loveliness. He blames big business. “I think these very big organisations put huge pressure on a designer to produce something of the moment rather than focusing on something that is beautifully eternal. My definition or opinion of elegance is completely different to the version of elegance today. Elegance should be enduring. It should transcend fashion and trends.”
Much of the clothing on display at the SS18 shows was deliciously horrid. It was warped and awkward. It wobbled and flapped its way down the runway: trousers puddled at the ankles at Y/Project; bulbous tumour-like creations prolapsed from seemingly normal garments at Rick Owens; Christopher Kane, the designer responsible for rehabilitating the Croc as a style statement last year, offered shoes that looked like cleaning mops. Every catwalk seemed to offer a giant, clumpy trainer, oversized fleeces or coats wrapped in plastic like wipe-clean sofas.
Menswear is equally difficult: think cycling shorts worn with ill-fitting shirting or jackets that might have been purchased from the outdoor specialist Millets. The style muse of the season was the “average dad” — a point made most explicitly at the Balenciaga show, where models wore ill-fitting blazers and carried children down the runway. It’s becoming incredibly difficult to tell if a man is really, really geeky, perhaps an IT support worker, or just exceptionally fashionable.
Paul Surridge, the newly appointed creative director at Roberto Cavalli, thinks the trend for ugly clothes is a reaction to a glut of artifice and “perfection” projected through advertising and social media. “Fashion thrives on provocation,” says the designer. “It thrives on novelty. This epidemic of deliberately ugly or awkward pieces is about challenging this obsession with the artificial lifestyle. It’s a sign of the time that what feels current is something that isn’t so perfect and isn’t so insipid.”
Surridge isn’t following suit with Cavalli, the Italian house known for sensual gowns and flesh-baring frocks, for which he showed his first collection in September. “I’m working for a brand whose ideas of a woman are very traditional — it’s celebrated for the femininity, the beauty and the body,” he explains. “I have a creative responsibility to respect those codes. Cavalli is a very sensual brand and ugly doesn’t feel sensual.” Moreover, he says: “I think the Cavalli woman wants to feel beautiful.”
Don’t we all? Maybe not. Beautiful is boring, say many of today’s designers. Alessandro Michele of Gucci likes his models to look like individual eccentrics rather than the Italian seductresses of yore. “I like my casting to be as diverse and unpredictable as possible,” said the designer shortly before a SS18 show in which he dressed women in Lord Farquaad-style helmets and chinstraps and men in snug 1970s-style track shorts, Chelsea boots and — wait for it — long beige socks. “I don’t care about a dress,” he added of his pile-it-all-on approach and devil-may-care styling. “I care about the person inside it.”
There’s a long-held theory that ugliness and innovation go hand in hand. As Miuccia Prada said in 2012: “Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting. Maybe because it is newer.”
Prada has always pushed the line of jolie laide, using prints and fabrics that play with themes of garishness or kitsch. She has also based collections on things she hates — she once did a whole collection based on golf-wear. Dries Van Noten works the same way, often starting a collection with a colour he loathes as inspiration. “I’m more inspired by things I don’t like,” he told the Financial Times earlier this year. “Nothing is so boring as something beautiful. I prefer ugly things, I prefer things which are surprising. It forces you to ask yourself questions.”
“Whenever you have designers who are exploring something that’s significantly new, it’s going to look, for the most part, strange and possibly ugly at first,” says the academic and fashion historian Valerie Steele. “When Poiret started doing his early designs at the beginning of the 20th century for the House of Worth, people were horrified by them. They thought, ‘What are these ugly experiments?’”
And shoppers do come round to more challenging looks. Let’s not forget that skinny jeans were once considered outré. “Our eye adjusts quite quickly to what might first appear ugly,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director of MatchesFashion.com. “Often it’s about comfort. Take the pool-slide phenomenon. The plastic slip-on shoe that was originally considered ugly is now seen as very luxe and wearable — and they sell well.”
Likewise, she points to the clumpy sandal, sock-boot, and exaggeratedly oversized coat as other examples of items with a challenging aesthetic that have become bestsellers.
For some, ugliness has been employed more strategically. In a fashion climate where it’s easy to become overwhelmed, a freaky shoe or a grotesque dress on the catwalk can provide a welcome jolt. But Christopher Kane finds it frustrating when ugliness is used for an easy headline. “I’m never doing something purely to be controversial,” he says. “It’s always because I like it. People just call it ugly because they don’t understand it. I was always brought up to think there’s no such thing as good or bad taste. They are just different.”
But what of his decision to work with Crocs, the manufacturers of clumpy foam resin shoes that have been compared to plastic hooves? “Doctors and lab folk wear them. That’s why I liked them,” he says. “The professions that wear them are full of the smart people who are shaping our world.”
Of this season’s mop shoes, his motives were simpler still. “I like cleaning up and I like mops!” He adds: “The collection was all about Cynthia Payne [the brothel-keeper who made headlines in the mid-1980s for entertaining members of the establishment] and the underbelly of the domestic space. I think the idea that she dominated everyone, she was strong and she was a bit of a monster as well — if that’s not beautiful then I don’t know what is.”
In contrast to many, Kane thinks fashion is too shackled by good taste. “Prada’s collections are great because she takes things that are ugly, and that she hates, and she finds a way to fall in love with it,” he says. “If we dumbed everything down to traditional ideas of beauty then we wouldn’t be where we are today. Nothing would move forward.”
Fashion should challenge conventions of beauty. And, as Kane points out: “It’s far more horrible to lift things from other people’s work or go to a vintage shop and make something exactly the same. Now, that’s ugly.”
Get alerts on Fashion when a new story is published