Fighting back with color

“Fashion week is like the playoffs, like a championship,’’ the musician Quavo said as he made the rounds here this week.

Dior Homme, fall 2020Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

By Guy Trebay

“There are some designers that don’t do well,’’ added the rapper, flashing a grill made from emerald-cut diamonds covering top and bottom teeth. Others, however, come out on top.

Asked to name some, the Migos member (who was born Quavious Marshall) handily reeled off his list: “Prada, Off-White, Rick Owens, Undercover,’’ he said. “They all had good pieces, great pieces you want to own.’’

Like advance scouts, Quavo and his fellow musician, Takeoff (Kirshnik Khari Ball), had been enjoying their status as favored guests as they tracked a men’s wear circuit that has lately changed almost beyond recognition.


As recently as five years ago, men’s wear was fashion’s sleepy minor leagues. You barely had to wait in line to get into most shows, let alone battle your way past mobs of fans screaming for rappers, ballers or Robert Pattinson.

Now the scenes outside shows — like those in Paris for Louis Vuitton or Dior Men, held in temporary structures set up inside the Tuileries Garden or on the Place de la Concorde — could have been lifted straight from “The Day of the Locust.’’

What was notable was not merely the spectacle of screaming bystanders at V.I.P. drop-offs mobbing the limos depositing K-pop sensations or musicians like the Colombian reggaeton star J. Balvin but that the composition of the crowds tracked broader demographic shifts the industry has shown itself eager to exploit.

The days of #fashionsowhite, in other words, are numbered. You can see it the streets outside the shows but just as notably on the runways, where often the clothes themselves are less memorable than the fact that they are being displayed on models who in the past, if they were cast at all, were stereotyped as “exotics.’’


In 1964, when the designer Emilio Pucci cast two black models for a fashion show in a gilded salon of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy, journalists questioned whether the gesture had been an act of courage, a scandal or a novelty.

Contrast dated observations like those with the clear and decisive statement that the designer Kim Jones made with his authoritative Dior Men show on Friday. An opening look is considered in the industry a designer’s concept statement. Here it was a billowing swing coat of pearl gray moiré taffeta with a rumpled rosette at the collar, worn over a turtleneck and pinstripe trousers and accessorized by a white velvet opera glove and a single pearl earring. The person wearing it was the elegant young Angolan model Guibu Bunga.

Consider that a writer for the Business of Fashion site declared last week on Instagram that the breakout runway star of the season was the Senegalese model Malick Bodian. Add to that the fact that when Nicholas Daley, an award-winning young British designer of mixed race, mounted a fashion week presentation early this month at a cavernous club in north London, he cast the show exclusively with people from what he called “his community.’’ Not one appeared to be Caucasian.

Comme des Garçons men, fall 2020Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

The designer Olivier Rousteing told a group of journalists before the Balmain show on Friday, “I think I can deliver messages that are beyond business or beyond fashion.’’ Balmain’s desert-themed “Sheikh of Araby’’ theatrics appeared to be as much Vegas spectacle as anything seen before on the runways of Paris.

Recently Mr. Rousteing, who was adopted in childhood by a white couple from Bordeaux, France, discovered the origins of his birth parents, and now describes himself as “Half Ethiopian, half Somalian and 100 percent French. Add to that the multicultural global citizenship conferred on him by an Instagram following of 5.8 million and you can see the power he has to upend the definition of inclusivity. The once yearly appearance of a black face on a fashion magazine cover (usually in February, a graveyard month for print publications) won’t pass muster now that the people whom fashion historically excluded are increasingly calling the shots.


“That script has already been flipped,’’ the designer Telfar Clemens said before the show he staged earlier this month as part of the Pitti Uomo men’s wear fair in Florence. Mr. Clemens meant the breakdown of hegemonies that pigeonholed people by sexuality, race or gender.

At shows like the opulent one Mr. Clemens staged inside a palazzo on the banks of the Arno — a posse of his New York friends had been flown in at Pitti’s expense for a night of eating and dancing and celebrating, at the conclusion of which models stomped across a littered banquet table — the point seemed to be the erosion of arbitrary boundaries of all kinds.

An emailed statement from Rei Kawakubo, the Comme des Garçons Homme Plus designer, described her antic rush of a show on Friday as “color resistance — fighting back with color.’’ She meant the vibrant strident clashing animal prints, tartans, stripes and checks worn by models who were sent caroming around the space, mosh pit style. It was a joyful thought from a most serious designer and, like many of her gnomic statements, open to personal interpretation.

Heron Preston men, fall 2020Credit…Kay-Paris Fernandes/Getty Images

Fighting back with color can also be read as an endorsement of embracing the whole human dispersion, the best imaginable thing that could happen within fashion and outside it. That the process is underway can be gauged by the fact that the creative director of a powerhouse multinational like Dior Men can now pay overt homage to figures once judged marginal or even less. The Dior show, in homage to the jewelry designer and gender provocateur Judy Blame, felt like an augury of a broader liberation as welcome as it was overdue.

When the American designer Heron Preston filled his front row on Thursday with friends from across the social/sexual/racial spectrum and talked about things coming apart and being reassembled in better ways, you could tell he meant more than camouflage-patterned jacquards or the cleverly reworked polyamide Gore-Tex workwear that has brought him success.


In a Nina Simone interview quote sampled on the soundtrack of Mr. Preston’s show, the singer spoke passionately of black power and black pride. “To me we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world,’’ Ms. Simone said, adding that her goal had never been to persuade the white world of a black superiority she considered self-evident but to encourage people of color to be “aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there, and just to bring it out.’’ Apply that thought to every historically oppressed group and you can start to see a future.

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