Fashion's avant-bland: The new everyday aesthetic is far from banal

Fashion’s latest obsession is rather flummoxing. Some find it intriguing, others infuriating. The current fetish of the fashion industry is 'normal'

Everyone knows the tale of the emperor’s new clothes: a couple of swindlers convince a vain monarch that they can weave cloth that’s invisible to the hopelessly stupid. Their charade is picked up by all bar a young child, the only one with the chutzpah to state the simple fact that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all.

The story often chimes with fashion, which frequently walks a tightrope between the ridiculous and the sublime, and less frequently stays the right side. That isn’t necessarily a snub at the catwalk – Buffalo trainers; baggy cargo trousers with flaps and straps; nu rave neon. They saturated the high street rather than high fashion, and are now cringeworthy in retrospect.

Fashion’s latest obsession, however, is rather flummoxing. Some find it intriguing, others infuriating. The current fetish of the fashion industry is “normal”, in its various forms.

For some, that’s anathema, akin to the “poverty balls” of the 1930s, when aristocrats dressed in rags and ate from chipped plates, aping poverty. When a Dior haute couture show in 2000 explored those balls as inspiration, it caused riots in Paris. The idea of “normality” is less immediately incendiary, but certainly as complex. Surely, the idea of cleverly designed fashion pretending to be dull is as paradoxical – and potentially, as insulting – as expensive clothing pretending to be beggar’s rags?

'Normcore' is the word being thrown about a lot. Dissect it, and the term is a straightforward amalgam of hardcore and normal 'Normcore' is the word being thrown about a lot. Dissect it, and the term is a straightforward amalgam of hardcore and normal “Normcore” is the word being thrown about a lot. Dissect it, and the term is a straightforward amalgam of hardcore and normal. You could just say boring. Normcore is a construct, created by a trend forecasting company called “K-Hole”, to describe a bunch of people self-consciously dressing in mass-manufactured, suburban clothing. Normcore denotes a wilful opting-out of the fashion system – but many fashion journalists simply saw it as a pithy new description for the kind of straightforward, fuss-free clobber being designed in the wake of Phoebe Philo’s work at Céline.

Even if normcore is anti-fashion in the truest sense of the word, the reaction against contemporary over-design it can be seen to represent has been reflected on catwalks. “Avant-bland” was the term JW Anderson coined for his spring/summer 2014 collection. That collection, all topsy-turvy layering of textile and texture, pleats and flaps, fabrics influenced by cleaning rags and kitchen work-surfaces and origami folded fabric inspired by take-out boxes, took elements from the everyday, and made them extraordinary.

Raf Simons’ spring Dior collection did the same, twisting plain cotton shirt dresses around the body at extraordinary angles, while his couture collection exploded everyday high-impact sports shoes and applied their structures to entire garments. Come winter, Mary Katrantzou was transforming road signs and boy -scout badges into embroidered Swiss lace, and sloping butchers’ aprons into asymmetrical chain-mail dresses.

All of the above could be interpreted as avant-bland. The moniker suggests something beyond the banal, something deeper, or more meaningful. It can seem like mere toying with semantics, but ultimately, avant-bland and normcore convey two very different ideas. Normcore is about the emphatically, intentionally nondescript; avant-bland about garments that seem commonplace at first glance, but actually have hidden depth or meanings.

“I like that idea of finding something interesting in the everyday, because it was very much a part of my upbringing,” says Thomas Tait, the  winner of the inaugural LVMH prize. Tait’s trademark is a rather unassuming navy coat – a coat so beautifully cut you hardly even notice. He’s done clever stuff with nylon anoraks and poplin shirts, too, and the much-maligned down-fluffed puffer jacket. “I had a very boring childhood, when I didn’t really do much… I quickly started to notice the beauty of boredom.”

That was the fundamental focus of Nicolas Ghesquière’s debut winter collection for Louis Vuitton. Here, it was only upon touch that the garments yielded an entirely different experience. Ghesquière recalled, backstage, that he had set the knitwear designers to work on fabric development, while tasking his textile team to come up with knits. The results were satisfyingly skewed. His cruise collection continued the idea – people decrying the simplicity of the prints missed the point – that they were actually inlaid textile, or intricate ramage embroideries.

If we have the plain-speaking sense of the kid who decried the emperor’s unintentional exhibitionism, then we can make a connection between that and fashion’s current peccadillo for the pedestrian. On the one hand, it’s difficult for the high street to copy painstaking, crafty detailing. A digital print is easy to rip off; custom-woven lace and multi-layered embroidery less so. On the higher level, if you have to get a frock on to understand why it’s quite so fabulous, chances are you’re already halfway to buying it. With the advent of e-tail, even getting the customers into the shop is a success.

Ignore what your mother said: look with your hands, not with your eyes. With the right brain behind it, “boring” fashion is never dull.

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