These designers are democratising what it means to get dressed to the hilt. Their ethos is simple: elegance should be for all, so flout gender norms and let the pendulum swing where it may.
Consider the cliche that money can’t buy you style. If the truism holds, then style is a feeling dictated by our gut or eyes and indulged by our wallets. When we drown out the noise (shop assistants, friends and family, targeted advertising), it all boils down to the law of attraction. We gravitate toward clothes that feel good on our bodies, snub the rest and suddenly we’ve managed to get dressed in an unadulterated fashion vacuum. Or so we think.
In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, American philosopher Judith Butler regarded gender to be performative: if we repeat expected behaviours often enough we’ll believe them to be normal and true. In fashion, this translates to slipping on boyfriend jeans to feel a frisson of supposed masculinity, or shopping in the women’s section, where we expect dresses and skirts to find their natural home, resulting in a gendering of style that short-circuits our own predilections.
Almost 30 years later, combined showings of men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections (led by Bottega Veneta, before it passed the baton to Gucci) and the embrace of gender-agnostic labels (see Vaquera, Palomo Spain) are inching towards a new, non-binary dawn. No, this is not the stuff of oversized hoodies and heavy sneakers, a look that swings towards the bulky and hides the physique. A new and inclusive style genre is bringing traditionally feminine signifiers into the fold, welcoming long trailing gowns, sparkling fabrics and frills happily into the mix.
For autumn/winter ’19/’20, Celine, Maison Margiela and Balenciaga crystallised a return to bourgeois tastes without the social politics. Call it egalitarian elegance. Following in their footsteps, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alessandro Michele and Grace Wales Bonner are tapping into their innermost impulses to rewire the way we get dressed.
“These are the times we’re supposed to be creating pieces that change the way people think, the way people feel when they wear them,” says London-based designer Harris Reed, 23, whose Victoriana blouses and millinery worn and loved by a diverse customer base have gone viral and earned Reed an apprenticeship under Michele at Gucci.
After stylist Harry Lambert commissioned the then Central Saint Martins student to create stage outfits for his client Harry Styles, for the singer’s 2018 arena tour, Reed’s opulent hats and shirting caught the attentions of Solange Knowles, Troye Sivan and Ezra Miller, all performers, Reed acknowledges, who are helping to normalise non-binary fashion in the public eye.
“I want to pioneer fluidity,” Reed says. To realise his vision, he balances old-world glamour with the flamboyance of costumes, designing flared suits with hand-sewn ostrich feathers or white French lace neck ruffs. It’s part fantasy and part countercultural resistance to the unsustainable models of fast fashion that have become de rigueur. “The idea of bespoke pieces, really luxurious, fantastic pieces that you can pass on… I’m hoping that culture is coming back, where [the mother] can give it to her son and her son to his trans daughter.”
A look from Harris Reed’s permanent collection. Image credit: Harris Reed
This passing of clothes between hands is also the premise of Art School, a London-based non-binary brand conceived by Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt, who are both 25, that emphasises collaboration and community. “Our focus is always: ‘How can we bring in queer artists, queer collaborators to work on the collections with us?’ It’s about trying to spotlight as many people as possible,” says Loweth, who developed the idea with Barratt while they were working on their university showcase and also interning for Wales Bonner. Starring in Charles Jeffrey Loverboy’s campaigns (“We came from a university generation below Charles”) also gave the designers a solid grounding in fashion’s new guard.
Friends are cast as models, clothes are fitted on trans women and stockists are given a guide explaining each collection (provided their stores do not have gendered changing rooms, or else Art School will not sell to them). It’s a 360-degree approach to maximise the power of the law of attraction. “It’s small steps to freeing people’s minds to shop in a more fluid way,” Loweth explains. “We don’t see clothes in a gendered way,” they add. “It’s about what that person radiates to.”
This instinct informs Art School’s attempts to disconnect identifiers of girlishness from the skirts or dresses to which they supposedly belong. They recognise that glamour doesn’t belong to any one group. Silver paillette dresses and corsetry without boning celebrate an inclusive decadence, informed through the queer gaze of nights out with friends. John Galliano and Isabella Blow are key influences. Loweth reflects: “Dressing in the mood of someone is really important; emanating those tropes of glamour and elegance is something that a lot of queer people will recognise.”
Non-binary designer William Dill-Russell, 24, whose work is included in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition, nevertheless appreciates that elegance has historically been twinned to heteronormative ideas of masculinity and femininity.
“When I think of elegance, it reminds me of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. I am embarrassed that it is something so contrived… [But] it’s important to understand what women have done to help queers understand themselves.” Dill-Russell locates the origins of elegance in the silver-screen era, but subverts them, formulating his own visual vocabulary of puff-sleeve blouses, voluminous gowns and tiered skirts.
To avoid becoming trapped in static tropes of the past, Paris-based designer and former Gaultier assistant Alphonse Maitrepierre, 24, designs by deconstruction. “I like to confront the polite face of haute couture,” says Maitrepierre, a practice he puts into play by tearing apart clothing and accessories and putting them back together again. This way, he says, “my pieces are never gendered; a man or a woman can act on their desire to slip into them and become a new version of oneself.”
Alphonse Maitrepierre autumn/winter ’19/’20. Image credit: Alphonse Maitrepierre
Other designers like Polimoda alumnus Ekaterina Voronina, 25, and Russian-born Roma Uvarov, 22, are demonstrating that fashion is a continuum of identities, not gender. “Clothes will always continue to augment individuality,” says Uvarov. “What’s important is to bring together a person’s world view and their wardrobe.”
But we’re not in a post-gender world yet. For these designers, gaining industry approval on the strength of their clothing and making good on their responsibilities as spokespeople is a balancing act. These desires can be mutual, Reed contends, as long as the message is clear. “I’m trying to take the clothes to a place where they’re speaking for themselves, so then I don’t have to do the talking,” he explains. “Then hopefully the glitter rubs off.”
This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia’s September 2019 issue.