Socks appeal: Men's hosiery worn with girlish dresses, skirts with pinstripe trousers attached - it's time to get in touch with your masculine side, says Susannah Frankel

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In a world that prides itself on clothing that, while beautiful, may be bland, the work of Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo is idiosyncratic to say the least. But even by her exacting and passionately innovative standards, the garment pictured here is extreme, or 'strong' as the brains behind the Japanese label are wont to describe such things.

Part girlish sweet nothing that Grayson Perry might, not unreasonably, be quite proud of, part Perry Como cardie and with a Savile Row-esque, crisp, white shirt thrown in for good measure, it is the ultimate fusion of male and female dress. Then there's the hosiery to consider: industrial strength black opaque tights with a pair of perfect, knee-high Argyle socks attached, anyone? Marvellous. These are undoubtedly the leg-wear of the season, made all the more desirable by the fact that there's no danger whatsoever of seeing them in the pages of Hello! or Heat.

Such a play on gender might only be expected, coming as it does from a label which translates as 'like some boys', and which first captured the fashion world's attention back in the early 1980s with skirts that had tailored jacket sleeves hanging from the front of them and oversized coats for women buttoned from left to right: comme des garçons, indeed.

For her part, Kawakubo insists that she never approaches her work in such a banal manner. Whether she is designing for a man or woman - she produces twice-yearly collections for both - is entirely irrelevant to her thought process.

Instead, this autumn's collection is 'about persona, about the difference between one's real character and what one puts across to the outside world. The easiest way to express persona was to play on gender but there could have been other ways. What was important here about man and woman was the idea of what is in front, what one shows, not necessarily being what is behind. The idea came from there rather than a breaking down of gender stereotypes.'

Other designers have been less obviously conceptual in approach. Raf Simons' treatment of men's clothing designed for women for his first collection for Jil Sander is more straightforward, although still in no way simple. The narrow Jil Sander trouser suits which have been photographed everywhere, not least worn by Kate Moss on the cover of British Vogue, in recent months, are deceptively easy but that belies the attention to detail that goes into creating just the right proportions.

Of this determinedly androgynous take on women's wear, this designer says: 'I don't like things that are too easy to understand or too eye-catching, which is something I've seen a lot lately in fashion. Of course I respect the designers who do that but I prefer that a woman exposes herself in a less in-your-face way. It is very unlikely, for example, that I would ever include a pink bra in my collection.' This, it almost goes without saying, is a relief to all of those less than enamoured with the bourgeois, or even Barbie-doll, sensibility adopted by so many of the world's designers which, in the end, leaves rather less to the imagination than might seem desirable.

No one would ever accuse Maison Martin Margiela of adopting this mindset, either. Instead, this house has always reinterpreted a man's wardrobe for women - on one memorable occasion scaling the clothes up to a 'fictional Italian size 78' if you please.

And then there's Kawakubo's contemporary, Yohji Yamamoto, who equally started his career inspired by the working man's wardrobe and who continues to give women gabardine trouser suits and trench coats to this day. Closer to home, Burberry, too, relies heavily on the menswear tradition, with trench coats, of course, once again, but also, this season, beautifully cut, masculine tailoring for their feminine customer too.

After seasons and even years where wearing a trouser suit would have appeared dowdy to the point of drab, it is not insignificant that the referencing of male dress codes carries forward from this season to next. At the recent spring/summer 2007 collections, due to make their way in store by December, everyone from Balenciaga - men's trouser suits, men's smoking jackets - to Betty Jackson - revisiting the unstructured and roomy, mannish silhouette with which she made her name - is in on the act. It is, in the end, a kick in the teeth for the ubiquitous 'lady' who seems perilously dated just now. For now, according to Kawakubo, at least, we all have the potential to be both, and, with this in mind, her collection features pinstripe trousers with ruffled crimson flamenco skirts attached and ruby silk tea dresses with black, silk satin tuxedo lapels sewn on to the neckline.

'Dress is a way to express one's personality,' Kawakubo says, 'and I thought it could be liberating to be able to express through clothes various sides of one's character at the same time. It's up to each person to be free, how they feel each day, how they feel in general, what kind of person they are, whether they want to dress up or be themselves or experiment with something new.'

For this particular fashion creator, then, fashion should in no way be dictatorial. Instead, any desire to stand out in a crowd is a rather more proudly individual statement than that.

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