Some call it “street couture”. Others refer to it as “the Vetements effect”. Naysayers bemoan it as the unfortunate evolution of the “normcore” phenomenon that emerged a few seasons ago and shows no signs of abating.
Whatever you call this back-to-basics mood in fashion, you can’t deny that glamour is out, at least if you look at the autumn/winter 2016 collections, where sturdy parkas, oversized sweatshirts, down jackets and barely-there make-up reigned supreme, and even more so in Paris, the traditional bastion of haute couture.
With the exception of a few labels that always stick to their signature aesthetic and have built a healthy business doing so – the fairy-tale glamour of Dolce & Gabbana, the maximalist eccentricity of Gucci and the ethereal grace of Valentino come to mind – the clothes reaching stores as temperatures drop (or rise, given that most of the autumn/winter collections will actually be available this month) look practical and utilitarian. They are the kind of pieces that at first appearance seem a far cry from the bread and butter of high-end labels such as Céline, Chanel and the instigator of it all, Balenciaga, whose newly minted creative director, Demna Gvasalia, is also the founder of the aforementioned Vetements.
In case you don’t follow the ins and outs of the industry, Vetements, the brand founded by Margiela alumnus and Georgia native Gvasalia, is the label to thank for those ubiquitous drab-looking raincoats, re-purposed hoodies featuring the company’s name in the font from sportswear giant Champion, not to mention those yellow DHL T-shirts that, depending on your opinion on the matter, are either revolutionising the industry or just fooling fashion victims who don’t mind spending a fortune on pedestrian pieces as long as they come from the latest designer du jour. Adopters of the trend may end up looking like college students fumbling around in their ill-fitting hoodies and light-wash denim, but fashion works in mysterious ways, and while to some the rise of Vetements is indeed a mystery, you can’t deny that the brand is having a great deal of influence.
The elevation of street wear is actually nothing new, and designers such as Alexander Wang are masters at creating desirable pieces that make their wearers look like they couldn’t care less about their looks and yet still have that extra element of polish that separates them from simple basics. This season, however, this utilitarian vibe is everywhere, whether you look at the down jackets in shows as disparate as Stella McCartney, Rick Owens and Balenciaga; the trench coats in dull hues at Céline and (gasp!) Chanel; and those bombers that originated on men’s runways a few months ago and are now invading women’s wardrobes.
When looking at this new attitude, you can’t help wondering if average luxury consumers those who just love beautiful things and are unfazed by the predilections of fashion insiders are ready to spend couture prices on items that look nothing like couture and appear to be instead quite average, at least before you inspect them carefully and discover their inventive construction and high-quality materials. According to Lisa Aitken, retail fashion director of Net-a-Porter, they are. “It’s about the power of the cult buy,” she says. “It may not be immediately obvious but these things have been reworked in a very special way; they’re very carefully crafted.
It’s the little details like taking a sweatshirt and putting a hugely exaggerated hood on it, or reworking a vintage logo, or doing an extra-long sleeve that gets pushed up, and you can’t get that in a sportswear store.
“One brand that has been working in this vein for quite a long time is Saint Laurent,” adds Aitken. “We’ve been carrying their parkas and military jackets for several seasons and they’re lightly distressed so that they feel very authentic. The reality is that we can all go vintage shopping, but finding that perfect vintage piece that fits you is a very hard thing to do, and you have to invest a lot of time doing it. So if a designer comes along who has done this for you ... There’s a New York denim brand, R13, which I’m excited about. It’s very New York, the denim is heavily distressed, they do amazing band T-shirts, which you’ll never find in vintage stores, and they’re brand new, so you don’t have to worry that they’ve been worn before in concerts. The production values that go into creating this stuff is very high. Take the Vetements jeans, which are actually two pairs of Levi’s jeans spliced together and come in limited quantities.”
Whether this laid-back luxury is here to stay or is just the flavour of the day, you can easily buy into it with a few key items that will still be relevant long after early adopters will have moved on to new and, we hope, better things. Stick to true long-lasting keepers such as one of those puffer jackets that will come in handy when it gets chilly or a well-tailored raincoat in a sorbet shade from a household name such as Burberry, which is a big improvement on the cocooning versions that are all the rage at the moment and are far from flattering.
And if the idea of splashing out on a garment that looks like a recycled item from the Salvation Army really makes you cringe, take a leaf from the Valentino autumn/winter collection, a virtuoso pas de deux between ballet and punk, offering delicate chiffon dresses paired with studded leather jackets and combat boots. You may not be ready to say goodbye to glamour just yet, but put on an embroidered bomber over a billowing pleated skirt (they’re ubiquitous, it’s true, but also look good, so get on the bandwagon and buy one) and a pair of Adidas x Raf Simons sneakers, or hide a pleated chiffon dress under one of those leather perfectos paired with biker boots, and you’ll get the best of both worlds while looking stylishly au courant.