Men’s Fashion Is Headed for a Gender-Bending Moment Unseen Since the ’70s
In January, Gucci’s menswear runway collection was an eye-opener. It wasn’t because the brand had just fired its nearly decadelong creative director Frida Giannini in December, or even because new designer Alessandro Michele had pulled the clothing together in less than a week in his new role.
It was because the men on the runway looked ... like women.
In fact, some of them were women—an increasing trend in menswear shows. Models of both genders—waifish male models and boyish female models alike—were wearing silhouettes, fabrications, and items of clothing that traditionally appear in womenswear collections. Michele’s deliberately ambiguous outfits featured massive pussycat bow blouses, shrunken jackets, and low-slung, wide-leg trousers—on willowy models with matching soft features and lengthy, undone hair.
And just like that, this change in creative direction became symbolic of an industrywide trend—and Michele the movement’s unofficial leader. A shift toward androgyny has been building over the past two years, and with Gucci’s new experimental take, it has hit its stride. (It's worth noting that the recently slumping Gucci just reported its first sales growth in two years, a 4.6 percent increase for the second quarter of 2015—up from a 7.9 percent decrease in the first quarter.)
Gender-bending is nothing new in fashion or pop culture. But in large-scale, high-end fashion, the theme has not been conveyed as loudly or as frequently since, well, a young Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Marc Bolan toyed with feminized looks in the late 1960s. But today, thanks to a troupe of contemporary designers—such as Rick Owens and J.W. Anderson—this theme of gender-neutral dress has been reimagined.
“The concept of androgyny comes up from time to time in fashion,” says Nancy Deihl, director of the costume studies MA program at New York University. “In modern fashion history, two of the most notable examples are in the 1920s and in the late 1960s into the 1970s.”
Deihl notes that both were periods of social upheaval, which reflected an empowered youth culture.
“The post-World War I generation and the 'baby boom' that created the young population of the 1960s represent times when young people had a lot of economic and cultural influence,” says Diehl. Hello, millennials.
"Androgyny is certainly not a passing trend, but one that is going through another cycle with a new generation," notes Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for men's at Barneys New York.
Like Diehl, Kalenderian points to music subcultures as a source of unisex movements past and present, but also to a small cadre of before-their-time fashion designers. Rudi Gernreich, who after the turn of the last century began dressing women in men's suiting, was one such oracle. "Costume designers often appropriated Gernreich's vision when designing costumes for science fiction flicks, often proposing men and women in futuristic outfits that were quite similar, as an assumption of what was to come in the next millennium."
In the future, in other words, artists imagined that in the 2000s, clothes would just be clothes. Another pioneer in androgyny was Larry Legaspi, who designed space-age costumes for such musicians as Kiss and Patti Labelle in the 1970s.
The Mass Market?
These days, this mantle is carried by successful, high-end designers such as Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, who favor traditional feminine elements such as capes, skirts, and tights in their menswear runway collections. But does this translate to mainstream sales?
"Gender play on the runway doesn't just attract a customer who wants an androgynous look, but also a consumer who likes smart clothing with a forward-thinking story," explains designer Charles Harbison, who is known for showing his womenswear collection on both female and male models. (Beyoncé is a fan of the young line, having worn one of his creations to the Adidas Originals x Kanye West show in February—another unisex and coed-casted collection.)
Department stores are now toying with devoting floor space to unisex clothing; in January, Selfridges launched the Agender Project—a curated section of the store showcasing the retailer’s gender-spanning lines, such as Nicopanda, Comme des Garçons, and Gareth Pugh. The experimental floor closed its run in April.
According to Kalenderian, clients at Barneys New York have long followed changes in the market, as they are always "looking for the next thing." He also notes that the men's sales floor at Barneys has not shifted its presentation to make way for androgyny specifically, as the store tends to group by designer and level of formality.
The Challenge of Fit
Harbison, the designer, is a self-confessed "male customer [who] shops off the women's rack to find more interesting silhouettes and embellishments." He says that through his own collection, he hopes to offer more men that same experience. A large challenge is fit; as much as style might translate across genders, body shapes usually don't.
"Fit can make unisex apparel difficult for consumers, and the silhouettes can remain a bit fixed ... to appeal to the body shapes of men and women," Harbison explains.
Designers such as Baja East address this issue by creating androgynous clothing that is loose-fitting and comfortable, an offshoot of the high fashion "athleisure" movement. The quality of the materials, and the drastic departure from what men and women both have to wear to work, add to the appeal. It's an escape from the restrictive norm.
And consumer habits about gender traditions are getting broken down at younger and younger ages—a new string of startups are attempting to obliterate the barriers between clothes that are designed for young boys vs. those designed for young girls. In 10 years, a college student's idea of what is "masculine" or "feminine" clothing is likely to be drastically different.
In Pop Culture
As always, public tastes are dictated in large part by celebrities; movie stars, musicians, and athletes have a large say in how younger generations shop and dress. For every Bowie and Jagger in the 1970s, there is a Jared Leto or Kanye West wearing a skirt on stage in 2015. But don't expect to see NBA or NFL stars getting into the androgyny arena quite yet.
“The Kanyes, Pharrells, Jared Letos, and one of my favorites, Lapo Elkanns of the world are gents I love seeing push androgynous boundaries," explains Rachel Johnson, a stylist who dresses such pro athletes as Amar'e Stoudemire and Victor Cruz.
She notes that "there is an inner confidence that guys [like Elkann] exude. You see the blurred lines in the colors, silhouettes, accessories, and hairstyles they rock. If you are this kind of guy, I'm all for it. But if you have to ask, or aren't sure, then you are likely not this guy.”
The next two years will see this trend increase, according to Barneys's Kalenderian. "Clients are receptive," he says. "Ultimately it is more about beautiful clothes that are rare and special. It is more of a sidebar note that these clothes are stylistically less rigid than what we perceive to conform to a definition of masculine vs. feminine."
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