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Judging by some of the visual puns on the catwalk, April Fools’ day seems to have come early to certain labels. Given that many people find fashion a ludicrous enterprise to begin with, cracking a sartorial joke can be a risky business. Yet there are designers such as Jeremy Scott, now at the helm of Moschino, who make a career out of putting tongues in cheeks. And right now, novelty is all the rage.
Although only the most kitschy of pop stars (Katy Perry, for one) may want to look like Coco Chanel cross-dressing as Ronald McDonald, next season’s red-and-yellow twinsets and “golden arches” jumpers at Moschino caused a sensation on Twitter when they were shown during Milan Fashion Week. And when was the last time Moschino made the news like that?
“Fashion is just ridiculous!” says Belgian designer Bernhard Willhelm, whose spring line features oversized graphics of scissors cutting along dotted lines. “I recommend at least one laugh a day.”
While some of Willhelm’s new collection smacks of gimmickry, there is still plenty – in his sheer, unstructured dresses and sportswear – that is as chic as it is spirited. As is often the way in fashion that there’s bread-and-butter saleability beneath the showmanship.
Milliner Piers Atkinson is known for his hats with Minnie Mouse ears but alongside this season’s inflatable pink bows and rainbow-striped headgear with scrunchies are feathered berets worthy of an Avedon muse.
Andrew Groves, director of the fashion design BA at the University of Westminster, says “humour is a very personal thing”. For his students, it can capture the holy grail of press attention. At the most recent graduate collection, student Philli Wood won praise for oversized trompe l’oeil knitwear prints on parkas and leggings.
It’s a delicate tightrope to walk. “When it works, it’s because it works on many levels,” Groves says. “Think of Moschino’s red jacket from 1991 with ‘waist of money’ embroidered in gold around the middle in place of a belt. It managed to be pointedly funny as well as undermine its own fashionability.”
Love or loathe Scott’s sense of humour at Moschino (one fashion blog headline read, “Jeremy Scott’s new Moschino collection has ruined fashion forever”), a printed rucksack that went on sale early online sold out immediately.
In the fashion industry, accessory sales are significant, and they usually carry a joke better than a head-to-toe statement. Take the example of Lulu Guinness’s transparent lip-shaped clutch bags – or Charlotte Olympia’s Catch of the Day heels, designed to look like fish. Then there are Marc Jacobs’ iPhone holders with cats’ ears and paws, and next season’s bags with cut-out handles at 3.1 Phillip Lim with “TOTES” stamped into the leather on one side and “AMAZE” on the other.
Scott – whose winged sneakers for Adidas have become a modern design classic – mixes pop with high-end. “I’ve always been inspired by the street, hip-hop, youth culture and sportswear,” he says. For his own-label collection this spring, entitled “Teenagers from Mars”, he worked with a retro colour TV test card graphic that looks wonderful on swimwear. He has also collaborated with New York pop artist Kenny Scharf.
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, whose oeuvre includes teddy- bear coats and cartoon sweaters, waxes lyrical about his rebellious earlier years. In the past he incorporated the imagery of Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and the Muppets into his clothing – but now he has toned his work down and the imagery on his spring dresses is more understated and Matisse-like. Yet he still sees it as art.
Some street fashion uses jokes for the sake of them. But in the luxury market, where buyers want classics, not playful novelty, irony, wit and pop imagery are trickier to pull off. Eyebrows were raised when Anna Wintour was photographed recently in a Prada fur coat bearing the image of a face, one of Jeanne Detallante’s “Beauty Masks”. Miuccia Prada may have used the artist’s work to make a serious feminist point, but its cartoon-like imagery isn’t for customers wanting something timeless.
Or is it? Seemingly ephemeral statements can sometimes become more enduring. Take Prada’s pleated lipstick print skirt from 2000 – now a design classic echoing Schaparelli at her surreal best. There are also some brands that department stores trust implicitly. “Those mural-emblazoned dresses and bags [by Prada] are this season’s must-haves,” says Helen David, fashion director at Harrods.
Some shoppers will find this season’s lip prints at Saint Laurent and Giles too much. Others will warm to them. As Scott says: “If it can walk down the runway, it’s wearable. That’s all the wearability I need to worry about.”
Fun fashion: More is more
Browse the spring collections in stores and you will be greeted by the retail equivalent of Babel, writes Libby Banks. Embellishment! Outrageous prints! Eye-frazzling colour! Fringes! Scream-out-loud fashion is everywhere. Since 2009 the accepted fashion uniform has focused on pared-down simplicity – but things are loosening up. “There is a shouting-out against minimalism and we’re seeing a lot of bold pieces,” says Natalie Kingham, head of fashion at MatchesFashion.com. “It’s about having a bit more fun.”
Ruth Marshall-Johnson of trend forecasters WGSN believes it is not just about cheap laughs: “It’s actually pushing the level of creativity. We have the production techniques these days to do incredible embroidery and great digital prints and colour – not just at designer level; you can see it on the high street, too”.
The outré mood was set by the spring 2014 collections – even Phoebe Philo’s hitherto understated Céline woman was free and easy in primary brights and graffiti prints. On the high street, this has been translated into quirky sweatshirts, tropical print two-pieces and lashings of embellishment.
Rather than being simply a reaction against minimalism, these show-pony pieces represent a natural progression. If you’ve got a closet full of austere black and navy, it’s easy to include a Sophia Webster speech bubble clutch bag or one of Peter Pilotto’s parabolic prints.
Colour, patterns and typography are also perfect for flat screens and for sharing on social media. As Marshall-Johnson says, “I’ve had conversations with big retailers who are terrified when things get really minimal because it doesn’t work on a screen”.
Kingham thinks the tentative shoots of economic recovery are partly responsible: “If you’ve got a bit more disposable income, you’ll go for something that’s more fun or bold.”
The recent round of fashion weeks built on the sector’s irreverent mood. For her autumn/winter collection, Anya Hindmarch presented intricate intarsia leather handbags that celebrated household branding, with clutches featuring digestive biscuits or Tony the Tiger.
“There is a misconception that women with serious jobs only want serious fashion,” says Hindmarch. “But I think the sophisticated luxury customer has enough confidence to not always wear an obvious brand and stick to a uniform.”
Marshall-Johnson agrees: “It’s not about being silly – it’s actually quite powerful,” she says. “We increasingly hear from consumers that they don’t simply want to be stylish, they want an individual sense of style.”