When Meadham Kirchhoff showed outfits on the spring/summer catwalk in Pepto-Bismol pink and sky blue, emblazoned with hearts, rainbows and Care Bear-like animals, one word sprang to most viewers’ minds: kitsch. When Prada’s window display featured Hot Rod shoes, conjuring an image of arcane Americana last seen in Grease, passers-by thought: kitsch. And when Dolce & Gabbana created a series of gaily printed dresses and separates covered in giant red chillis, shoppers could not help but note: kitsch.
But what exactly is kitsch? Why is it making a comeback? And why does it provoke such knee-jerk disapproval?
The essential problem with “kitsch” is that the word is seen as shorthand for bad art, or badly manufactured copies of good art. Some consider the term pejorative – Meadham Kirchhoff, for example, declined to provide a comment for this article. It certainly encompasses art or fashion that has a sentimental bent, a misty-eyed, airbrushed, cartoonish feel. Examples include the JH Lynch “Tina” print that became a hallmark of working-class interiors in the 1960s, the work of French artists Pierre et Gilles, and the 1980 series of soft-focus photographs by kitsch master Jeff Koons featuring his wife, porn star La Cicciolina. Contemporary musicians who play with kitsch style include Nicki Minaj, who often dresses like a supercharged Barbie and Lady Gaga, whose conceptual ruses – wearing a lobster on her head, for example – come off as a cartoonish pastiche of Elsa Schiaparelli.
“Kitsch mostly refers to an object that is slightly tacky, over-the-top and bordering on tasteless,” says designer Markus Lupfer, who included pineapple and other fruit motifs in his summer collection. “It also often includes an element of surrealism, as well as suggesting things that are bright and fun and tongue-in-cheek.”
Those adjectives are integral to the spirit of jewellers Tatty Devine, whose current collection includes corn on the cob pendants (£120), maracas brooches (£28) and watermelon earrings (£30). “Kitsch is familiar iconography with the volume turned up,” according to Tatty Devine designers Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine. “Kitsch can exist in all things depending on how they are perceived and portrayed.” The two are comfortable with being called kitsch, and even take it as a compliment: a positive appraisal of their joyous, pop culture oeuvre.
“Tatty Devine has always referenced the familiar object, the icons of the everyday,” they say. “We’re repacking familiarity but with a twist. Our designs are full of nostalgia and pop, both of which are necessary for something to be kitsch.”
Unlike ironic fashion, which trades upon the “so bad it’s good” insider joke, kitsch style is more innocent and guileless. It is gently humorous without being scornful or derisive of anyone or anything; a sincere homage to good taste, albeit with a mawkish, saccharine or childlike flavour.
Fashion has toyed with kitsch before. Just think of Miuccia Prada’s hit banana prints from last summer, or the tourist postcard/tea towel motif collection she brought out early in the decade. “This summer’s trend started with the return of the novelty knit last season,” says Holli Rogers, fashion director of Net-a-Porter. “It was the antithesis of the sophisticated silhouettes and colour palette seen across the autumn/winter collections, and customers embraced this modern alternative to the traditional festive sweater.”
April Glassborow, womenswear buying director at Harvey Nichols, explains the kitsch tendency thus: “I suppose it’s a way of distracting everyone from the gloom of the economic climate. It’s something to smile about.”
Designers Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos of Peter Pilotto agree: “So many designers did it this season because it’s fun,” although their own work, they say, should not be described as kitsch. “We didn’t have kitsch in mind whatsoever. We just love opulence of colours and motifs. We were inspired by our trip to the jungle of Indonesia.” But, they claim, “We think it’s great if people go over the top.”
So, apparently, do consumers. Buyers report that Meadham Kirchhoff’s teddy bear T-shirts (£130) are selling out at Harvey Nichols and at online boutiques such as Net-a-Porter. “Visually striking pieces do extremely well for us,” says Rogers. “As our customer doesn’t get to touch the product before buying, strong imagery is important and blown-up prints work beautifully on screen.”
Such kitsch flourishes might not be a practical look for professional women, however. Eleanor Latham, a legal adviser at Goldman Sachs, says: “You can only wear such things if you are in a fashion-literate environment. To the eyes of most, kitsch prints scream ‘Midwest housewife on her once-in-a-lifetime Florida vacation.’ ”
The look is much more at home in the arts world. “Meadham Kirchhoff for me fits firmly into a contemporary Japanese art aesthetic,” says Francesca Gavin, curator of the Soho House Group, who associates it with “the kawaii [cute] pop of Takashi Murakami, the colour palette of painter Aya Takano, that Asian sense of play and hyper-reality”. Would she wear it? “I think you have to be younger and wilder than me to pull this off. Peter Pilotto, however, I would wear in a second. But I would co-ordinate with black. I don’t want to look like a popsicle walking down the street.”