In an age of hype, Y/Project wunderkind Glenn Martens proved that genuine fashion innovation begins with the way things are made, reports Angelo Flaccavento.
FLORENCE, Italy — It's hard to stay enthusiastic these days. Fashion is no longer a laboratory of progressive thinking. The profit motive killed the magic, and Instagram did the rest. Fashion is so last century. Influencing is the art du moment. Does anyone actually care about the product? Actually yes, but today’s product seems to need more and more storytelling to prove it’s not just stuff.
This is a dilemma that the Pitti Uomo trade fair, which closed today in Florence, makes more clear every season. On one hand, there is the product shown at the fair in the Fortezza da Basso: outstanding, but lifeless. On the other hand, there are the special events that take over the city: impactful yet, at times, pure entertainment. The balance is what makes Pitti, well, Pitti, but this season the ingredients did not quite gel.
There was a sense of fatigue at the fair, a rather grandiose operation that follows a specific theme for each edition, devised by Sergio Colantuoni. This season, it was boxes, as in: Are you in or out of the box? Groundbreaking? Hardly. These days convention masquerades as rebellion. More or less, we are all in the box, even when we believe the opposite. Pitti’s fashion tribes — with suited formals now flanked by neophyte flocks of streetwear nerds — made this clear.
And yet those boxes made for an impactful ambiance architecturally: cubist, modular and bold. What really caught my attention, however, apart from an infinity box that was the ideal backdrop for a selfie, were the little boxes where journalists interviewed the likes of curators to buyers as part of a programmed called “Talking Heads” that was beamed to the passing crowds. It was actually quite discomforting to see interviewer and interviewee interact as people strolled by. It looked exactly like the endless rants we broadcast on social media: more or less meaningful, but immediately lost in the vacuum of a hyper-saturated communications sphere.
“Pitti's most crowded, high impact event was a giant and brilliant but largely product-less exhibition-meets-underground concert-meets-art performance: the Slam Jam takeover of Museo Marino Marini.”
That's all we are left with these days: communication. And fittingly, Pitti's most crowded, high impact event was a giant and brilliant but largely product-less exhibition-meets-underground concert-meets-art performance: the Slam Jam takeover of Museo Marino Marini (a modern gem of a building, at odds yet perfectly mingled with the Renaissance architecture of the city) to celebrate, according to the press release, "thirty years of connecting tribes of like-minded people across the world." It doesn't get any cooler than this, because Slam Jam — Luca Benini’s streetwear distributor that’s a profitable business operation run with the panache of an alternative rock gig — has a grip on youth and the underground like nobody else.
The scene was perfect: tons of people queuing outside the museum, tons of people drinking inside, forgetful of the delicate Marino Marini sculptures; Oxyx Collective playing anthems; artist Ortamiklos sculpting brutally functional objects out of Styrofoam; billiard tables in the basement; and a tiny pop-up store selling customised, limited-edition pieces. There was a randomness to it all that felt energizing and liberating. But most of all, there was the precision of the plan: Benini knows too well that the appeal of streetwear is mostly in the aura — design-wise, it's just straightforward, functional stuff, at least in the case of Carhartt WIP, Stüssy and Nike, which were part of the exhibition — and the Pitti project was all about the aura.
Meanwhile, Glenn Martens, the Y/Project wunderkind and Pitti's special guest this season, decided to show his collection in pitch dark, with the models walking in the cloisters of Santa Maria Novella under the light of small torches provided to guests. It was a blast, visually and emotionally, with the inventiveness of shapes and patterns glorified rather than diminished.
The reason is simple: Martens is a designer of utter substance. Behind the opulent, chaotic layering that is Y/Project's signature lays, in fact, a rigorous mind of an architect: the brains of a thoughtful deconstructionist who's inventing a masculine and feminine iconography all his own, pushing the boundaries of taste and construction, mixing high and low, street and history with fearless bravado. The collection was a glorious summary of Martens’ vocabulary: bulbous cuts and sculptural layers meant to be interpreted and reconfigured ad libitum by the wearer giving icons like the argyle jumper and the trench coat a radical makeover. In an era of hype, Martens continues to prove that innovation can only start from the way things are made, because new construction is what generates new attitudes.
Compared to Martens' flair for formal experimentation, the catwalk debut of Haculla, the streetwear brand powered by Jon Koon and artist Harif Guzman, felt like deja vu, despite the authentic visual energy of Guzman’s graphics and prints. The posse of dysfunctional kids in freaky make up, the oversized shapes and layered looks are something we have already seen ad nauseam over the past few seasons and it was a pity, because involving a street artist in a streetwear label is actually a good idea — one that requires fine tuning a new language. But it takes time to do so and time, today, is the biggest luxury. When in doubt, however, keeping it straightforward and simple is always best. That's what Finnish designer Rolf Ekroth did, delivering a very interesting mix of functionality and bold design through slightly militaristic pieces equally aimed at concrete jungle dwellers and outdoorsy explorers.
Over the last year, Gucci has made its mark on Pitti, staging happenings inside its Gucci Garden in the Piazza della Signoria. The place is both a mini-museum, a bookstore and a shop for limited-edition Gucciphernalia: a hybrid space that reflects Gucci's hybrid approach to business, its way in using art for communication and merchandising. But there was a glitch in the system: high-brow culture inside a shop can feel contrived, and ultimately it was much ado about little. That said, Curator Maria Luisa Frisa did a wonderful job in devising the room — devoted to “Androgynous Mind, Eclectic Body” — and filling it with Gucci looks from Alessandro Michele as well as the brand’s archive, including the Tom Ford era, and adding surrounding wall art devised by artist MP5. Yet the conceptual scope of the ambition felt blocked because it was overly Guccified. Gucci, itself, is fluid and based on creative appropriation: why not open Gucci Garden to the same free approach towards other labels? Adding art to the mix is, of course, a step forward, but it would be interesting to see a reshuffling of the museum-like codes.
Of course, there is always the fair at Pitti, where product rules. Super classic product, innovative product, sustainable product, neo-artisanal product: you have everything, and the level can be quite outstanding. From Lardini's faultless industrialized tailoring to Ecoalf’s take on sustainability, channelled through an interesting collection designed by Ana Gimeno Brugada; from Barena's soft take on the informally formal to Atelier & Repairs classy take on upcycling, the offer runs the gamut. Yet, product like this, seen on racks, is quite difficult to review.
Still, it is from product that fashion revolution should start. Mere image-making is tired.
This is where newcomer Aldo Maria Camillo stepped in with the debut of his eponymous line Aldomariacamillo (one word). Camillo is no spring chicken: he held key positions at Berluti and Valentino, and was creative director at Cerruti for a fleeting, brilliant moment. With a fearless move, and thanks to the relationships with factories and ateliers built over the years, Camillo went solo, and it proved a winning choice. The offer was compact: a softly tailored wardrobe for the elegant man with a grungy mindset. The homage to Helmut Lang and Carol Christian Poell was evident and clearly expressed. Yet, it was not nostalgic, or derivative. Camillo designs the kind of soulfully straightforward pieces man of today might really want to wear. Real stuff, free of hype, full of energy. A reassuring proposition, in these dark, communications-saturated times.