Here is how you know you are in Paris, far away from corporate Milan: one of the hottest menswear designers chooses to put his label on pause for a season, and instead show a collaboration with an artist. Finally, someone daring to do what they want.
The designer is Raf Simons, the artist Sterling Ruby, an American known for his multi-discipline work of great complexity and inexplicable gravity, and their label, for one season only, will be called Raf Simons/Sterling Ruby. This was a decision made as the result of guts and passion, rather than a meeting in a conglomerate boardroom, and it was one of the most extraordinary menswear shows I have ever witnessed.
The clothes were still Raf Simons, but with a new freedom. A jacket came adorned with patches rough-sewn rather than factory-perfect. One said, in capital black letters on red, the word “FATHERS”. This motif was repeated over and over, once even as the back rib of a cropped bomber jacket. Fashion is often a means of escape, and to use “FATHERS” with such insistence had a psychological effect not usually found at a fashion show.
While advanced, it was also very saleable. Prints included creepy manicured hands clawing at a sweatshirt, a cut-out of a shark’s mouth about to bite, or a tight crop of the globe accompanied by a plain red circle. There were so many great ideas, I will just list a few: coats of differing styles with horizontal stripes of colour attached; little chunky rib knit sweaters with diagonal panels of a different stitch and colour yarn; a knit that was a static blur of red, white and blue; splatter dye effects on shirts and trousers that looked astral in nature.
And then a puzzle: inside some coats, and eventually on the outside too, were the words, in capital letters, “ABUS LANG”. Apparently this stands for abusive language, another psychological trigger. But for the seasoned fashion viewer, the word Lang on clothing has other connotations. The lettering looked similar to the old Helmut Lang font. When Mr Simons took his first bow on the Dior ready-to-wear catwalk as creative director, he did so in a Helmut Lang denim jacket. Was this a more blatant tribute?
The catwalk was dominated by four huge stuffed cloth vampire mouths by Sterling Ruby, larger versions of the ones he showed at his gallery Hauser & Wirth in London last year. I had to walk through one to get to my seat. Can I, like, touch it? To do so at Hauser & Wirth would probably get me liquidated. Yet here I could bang into the artwork all I liked.
Mr Simons, too, seemed freer – maybe because he did not have to explain himself. Go round a department store and you expect to understand the clothes; spend a day at the Frieze Art Fair, and the most gripping work has meaning that is intentionally illusive. It was a pleasure to see the untethered thought of the art world applied to fashion; art loosened up, and fashion elevated.
Mr Simons and Mr Ruby were not the only individualists at work, however: three seasons into designing for men, Haider Ackermann has shown how he can make quality work of both matte and sheen. His collection last summer was of extraordinary luminescence, with jewel coloured layers forming an eloquent whole.
For autumn/winter 14, however, none of his cloths reflected light. This was about his way with tweeds and wovens, particularly long coats in herringbone, or drop-crotch herringbone trousers cut disrupted by horizontal stripes. Most eloquent was a woven cloth made up of various zigzag geometries, which was used for a neat jacket and longer coat. Though I must confess, I prefer his pieces that shine, there was no question: within three seasons, he has succinctly defined his own menswear world.
There was also no question the buyers looked happy at Valentino. Here were what have become next season’s standards, presented in the house’s now identifiable youthful silhouettes. I say “youthful” rather than young, because this is one of those canny houses who create young-looking menswear that can be worn by older men who want fashion to knock a few years off their age.
Winning looks here were soft unlined coats, particularly with a raglan front; little tweed suits; double-faced herringbone coats, and of course their wildly popular studded trainers.
These pieces are of the neat definition that looks particularly great photographed for online stores. Many of the other looks were purely there for editorial, like the eagle on the back of a coat with wings folded around the front. Some looks could have been cut entirely, like the camouflage that was printed on to herringbone, or the pyjamas rendered in pinstripe, in an attempt to bring sleepwear to the city. But visible throughout was an interest in ideas and possibilities. After the caution of Milan, it was more than welcome.