Suits aren’t just for the office
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The return of the suit is a recurring concept, but it’s also a misnomer. Suits never go anywhere, really — they certainly hang in shops, whatever the weather or fashion’s mood — but their hyper-visibility on the Autumn/Winter 2020 catwalks spells a renewed feel for formality as we enter a new decade. It’s especially compelling when three entirely different designers, none of whom are obviously the suiting sort, propose their own twisted takes on what Raf Simons termed, in his thick Flemish accent, a ‘garderobe’ for men. The other designers were Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino. For Piccioli, tailoring could be romantic; for Abloh, progressive; for Simons, transformative. But they were all tailored.
Virgil Abloh was talking about business attire the day before his Louis Vuitton menswear collection; and also commuters, which was ironic, as his show took place on the 43rd day of French strikes over pension reform, with Paris crippled by public transportation disruption. The commuter stuff came in the bags, curved and crushed as if remoulded during a pressurised rush-hour Metro journey, with lots of pockets to be picked on the outside. They looked great. Now in his fourth season of business at Vuitton, Abloh’s stated aim was “to challenge myself to have a dialogue with the tradition of the house.” Tradition means suiting, and Abloh decided to disrupt it. He broke some into 30 pieces, a complex web of cracks and fissures mapping their surface like tectonic plates (with one of the quatrefoils from the Vuitton monogram worked in for good measure). He did also put the pieces back together into subtle, slick suiting, just as he made some shirts in the normal fashion and collaged others from two or three different ones, an extra collar on the shoulder or nestled in the small of the back. “I was interested in the establishment,” he said. After all, you don’t get more establishment than Vuitton.
Tradition at the Vuitton establishment also means craft: his show set, a surrealist haze of blue sky, was littered with oversized tools, like sculptures by the pop artist Claes Oldenburg. Abloh’s interpretation of Vuitton is pop — populist, easily read and readily consumed. LVMH does not break out the financial performance of individual brands, but his creations have been singled out for praise in company reports and have been reportedly doing brisk business. In October, the brand opened a factory in France to accommodate 500 employees, “to meet growing demand and to limit stock shortages”. Famously — or infamously — it also opened a 100,000-square-foot facility in Texas last October, with Donald Trump in attendance. He’s unlikely to wear Vuitton’s suits — which means they got the balance between establishment and innovation just right.
Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino was also keen to reinvent the suit, cutting it apart to give it an easy freedom. He slit the back of the collars — quite simple, but it meant each lapel could be independently popped up. It probably won’t catch on across the board because it’s difficult to do anything new in tailoring without scaring the horses. But it looked fantastic, and will resonate with the brand’s consumers. Valentino is a success story, turning over €1.2bn in 2018: industry paper WWD reported last week that its success means current CEO Stefano Sassi may be moving up to an overarching role at Mayhoola, the Qatari group that owns Valentino and also Balmain, the buzzy brand which show its menswear on Friday. The two labels appeal to wildly different consumers: Balmain is bold, brightly-coloured, often a little brash; Valentino a quieter offering — although it was still filled with bags bearing a brassy oversized ‘V’, for consumers who want you to know they’ve spent a lot. But that wasn’t Piccioli’s story this time — even the abbreviated VLTN logo he’s been splashing around for a few years was now repeated, ad infinitum, blurring to become almost a houndstooth.
Playing with softly draped and scissored-open jackets and coats, Piccioli described the approach as “a new sensitivity to tailoring — a new sensitivity to a uniform, which is kind of oxymoronic.” He drew breath. “I don’t think streetwear is over. Tailoring and streetwear can live together. It’s about tolerance.” What a recipe for living, let alone dressing. In the clothes, it translated to fluid pieces with high slits in luxurious fabrics, some embroidered or appliquéd with flowers. What could be more romantic than that? And indeed, they were quite lovely. “It’s about taking tailoring out of the office,” said Piccioli. “It’s about a new man.” Will people really wear Valentino suits to rock concerts, as Piccioli theorised? That may be as idealised as a world of tolerance and love in the current climate. But a fashion designer can dream.
Raf Simons is a dreamer par excellence. This collection was him in an optimistic mood: “Romantic Futurism,” he said, pointing out buried references to modernists like the French couturier André Courrèges, whose clothes dressed fashion for a fictional space race. There were also allusions to films like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Simons, somehow, sees as positive. Dream on, Raf.
“It was a take on the literal idea of transforming through tailoring,” he said after his show, bathed in yellow light, models progressing from a sharp void. “Tailoring gives you a certain strength.” And the tailoring here was strong, featuring long, elongated coats with forceful shoulders, sometimes wrapped with plastic gilets that seemed to shrink and distort the garments underneath. Simons frowned, thinking about the sustainability that has so preoccupied everyone else. “Plastic is something we pick up everyday, 20 times a day . . . why not make something to keep?” He added, “I like the beautiful side of things that are not so beautiful.”
Simons’ ideas make you think — one thought being that, if you’re making something out of plastic to last, isn’t that better than the biodegradable whatevers that may still end up in a landfill? Simons is thinking about clothes having a longer life than a single season — which is in marked contrast to his Spring collection, which contained garments printed and overprinted but made of paper that began to disintegrate as soon as you put them on. These clothes, by contrast, will last a lifetime: in hardy wools, canvas-lined, they were substantial. But they also changed, mutated — zips on sweaters meant the arms could be opened and attached to make them into capes. Capes occurred again and again. “Cocooning” was the word Simons used. Because, perhaps, these are times we all want some protection from. Especially if you’re walking the streets of Paris, looking for a taxi.
Simons is transforming not just garments, but our perceptions of tailoring into something that feels simultaneously old and young, borrowed yet new, timely yet strangely timeless. It was a powerful reinvention of tradition, including Simon’s own. “My own things, in the past, have been extremely sartorial,” he allowed. Here, he pushed that extreme to the extreme, and ended up with something sublime.
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