The Designers Challenging Gender Codes at LFWM

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Martine Rose, S/S18, Photography by Lucie Rox for Dazed Digital

As designers continue to blur gender boundaries on the catwalks, LFWM has us wondering: why the boy/girl divide?

It’s not unusual for a fashion designer to use the catwalk to confront the very purpose of a fashion show. London has always been a prime spot to do so – its playfulness and penchant for punk (not to mention world-renowned art schools) making it a breeding ground for hyper-creativity and an intellectual approach that follows in the footsteps of talents like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. As schedules and seasons are increasingly reshuffled and rejected and London Fashion Week Mens S/S18 draws to a close, yet more questions about the nature of the catwalk are left in the air. Designers blurred gender boundaries and threw orgies of inclusivity and self-expression, giving platform to hybridity and deconstructing the format of the show season we were watching. Here, we outline the codes of five of our favourite disruptors this season.

1. Martine Rose (above)

Last season, Martine Rose’s line-up of all-male looks – tailoring with a shantung sheen pared with 80s windbreakers – garnered fans across genders. Even her tie-pins were sought after by men and women alike (her consultancy for Balenciaga menswear can’t hurt her cross-gender appeal either). This season, set in the designer’s local climbing gym, Rose showed a collection inspired by both 80s/90s Toronto-based outdoorsy types, and the casualwear of Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Amid an array of oversized anoraks, technical fleece and ultra high-waisted trousers appeared two pencil skirt looks, and a third ‘womens’ look that was rendered almost invisible by its similarity to the other dad ensembles: a clear, while tongue-in-cheek, concession to Rose’s flexible customer base.

“Tailoring comes with connotations that other [clothing] doesn’t... aspiration… the class system… I’m not interested in being the next Savile Row tailor, I’m interested in what tailoring can be,” Rose told Another Man. Though in conversation the age-old conceptions dividing masculine and feminine tailoring don’t make it onto Rose’s list of suiting traditions to defy, her collection confronted them. Boxy suiting and sculpted outerwear was architectural, standing away from the figure and defying the expectations not only of clothing, but the body beneath it. Even those two assenting pencil skirts were obscured by their square shape, wrapped with rock climbing belts and resembling the skate shorts of their fellow 25 ‘male looks’. This blurring between male and female looks is exactly Rose’s point: gender is unimportant, she’s more concerned with expression and equality. “You know for a lot of people tailoring felt aspirational and out of reach. I’m challenging that. I’m making it new. Now being ‘off’, being ‘ugly’ is one of the only ways to express yourself in a new way!”

2. Wales Bonner

In just a few years, the 2014 Central Saint Martins graduate has become known for her academic approach to fashion design – at her graduate show, Grace Wales Bonner’s collection came complete with a 10,000 word thesis. This season meanwhile, each front row seat was cushioned with an extract from Hilton Als’ essay, James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children. This latter document was reproduced in an ode to “people who come through the lineage of James Baldwin and the space he’s created for other forms of black queer expression” – the basis of Wales Bonner’s latest chapter, which continues to explore of black, male identity and masculinity. “Me designing men’s [fashion] is me attempting to show a kind of masculinity that I’m familiar with,” the designer explained backstage this season.

Slim-fitted shorts, sheer and open shirts, luscious leather tunics with deep V necklines and softly fluted flares combined in a delicate rendering of gender codes and creating a space in between prescribed notions. On the topic of gender, Wales Bonner avoids the term ‘fluidity’ since she believes it to be overused, opting instead for terms like ‘openness’ or ‘hybridity’; unsurprisingly, her soft and sensuous menswear designs have bridged genders since the beginning. When’s typical womenswear customers started snapping up the Wales Bonner menswear offering, the e-retailer insisted that the young designer launch a womenswear-specific branch. Since her first solo catwalk show, she’s slipped a few female models into the mix, though gender boundaries are always kept slippery when it comes to hair and make-up, and not least the clothing itself. Though notions of masculinity are key to Wales Bonner – and still very much the reason she shows on schedule at LFWM – it’s their most mercurial nature that she is interested in. As such, her collection epitomises the fluctuating ideas of gender that are increasingly blurring the still divided menswear and womenswear seasons – an ultra-modern approach that no doubt yields her success.   

3. Charles Jeffrey Loverboy 

While at Wales Bonner and Martine Rose gender notions were delicately unravelled, at Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY they were smashed to smithereens and plastered back together in a bold and brilliant palette. “It’s the right kind of extremism: dancing in the face of threats to freedom; celebrating the beauty of queer hedonism. It’s not enough to stay woke – we need to be alive,” explain the show notes. For his solo debut, the designer, who funded his Central Saint Martins education with profits from his own club night LOVERBOY, put on a fantastical show. Mixing tartan clad punks with tudor street urchins and cross-dressing infants, the dress code was the kind of abundant free-for-all his faithful fans would have been hoping for.

Jeffrey’s trademark painterly make-up turned his runway of revellers into a full-on theatrical performance, while Theo Adams’ dance troupe brought the drama – wearing Gary Card-designed costumes from Japanese theatre wear to pink cardboard boxes covered in childlike scrawls. “The past is a different country and everyone is welcome,” Jeffrey extolled. In this clan, gender and fashion are of utmost importance, with the only rule being: there are no rules and everyone can play. 

4. Vivienne Westwood

Men wore dresses and women wore oversized suits, and vice versa. But this was no conversation about gender – or cross-dressing, for that matter. In fact, ideas of gender were quite obviously meaningless at Vivienne Westwood’s S/S18 show. Instead, Westwood’s subjects were more likely to be dressed as clowns, or acrobats, or wearing only aprons or body stockings. Fishnets stuffed with rubbish and knick-knacks were worn by both men and women alike. For Westwood, such staid ideas of masculinity or femininity are entirely redundant when there is a planet to save.

“No fashion theme – just half-dressed,” came Vivienne’s explanation of the look. Westwood’s circus troupe – a gaggle of strongmen, gymnasts, dancers and models – were emblazoned with her new playing card symbols. These four signs were scrawled across leotards or straight onto skin: hearts for “Love, free world and IOU”; diamonds for “greed, rot$ and propaganda”; a spade (really, a phallus) for “war”; and a triangle representing “giants like Shell and Monsanto who rape the earth”. Scrunched-up Evian bottles were worn as shoes, symbolising the planet’s waste and purporting the Westwood slogan, “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last”. There was little need, nor desire, to determine who ‘can’ or ‘should’ wear what.

5. Rottingdean Bazaar

Pooling inspiration from the garden shed, designer duo James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks of Rottingdean Bazaar held their first show as part of Fashion East’s menswear platform, MAN. Creating household tools – hammers, saws, scissors, garden forks – from polyurethane and glueing them to both mime-like black ensembles as well as body parts, the pair explored an ironic interpretation of the prosaic role of clothing in our daily lives. Their plaster-cast molds of jeans and shirts, stapled to sweaters and waistbands, took these notions to the next metafictional level.

Interwoven with these concepts of clothing, were representations of sex. Here, as well as at Westwood, men wore tights stuffed with debris – this time matches – though women did not. Instead, one female model wore a sweatshirt with two mismatched coloured balloons, one in front of each breast, their knots pointing cartoonishly outward as nipples. Male models were ladened with objects for DIY; a word on the oppressive nature of prescribed gender roles? A bare-chested Max Allen was speckled with scissors, spanners, pliers and coins, the hard metal and sharp edges adding a certain violence to a pair of thick-soled DMs. It was a wry play on our ideas of archetypal roles and objects – and a pertinent one nonetheless.