Back in Black (and white): Return of the monochrome look

The retro monochrome look returns for spring but some designers are giving it a decidedly modern spin, writes Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 10:38am

Spring style usually conjures up ideas of dreamy florals and bright, colourful prints. But this year, graphic black and white emerged as a force to be reckoned with.

Fashion's love affair with the '60s mod scene and tuxedo dressing is experiencing a second wind, with a look that is chic, bold and precise. A glance at the recent fashion week shows reveals the trend is still strong for autumn-winter 2013.

Hollywood stars such as Jessica Alba and Kristen Stewart, who are usually decked out in feminine dresses on the red carpet, have embraced this look. But for those of us not armed with a phalanx of stylists and beauticians, shape and cut is of upmost importance when doing monochrome. It's easy to slide into cartoony looks if pieces are too slouchy, bulky or sloppy.

"Globally, our analysts saw a 44 per cent increase in black and white shown on the catwalk for spring-summer 2013 versus the previous season," says Catriona Macnab, chief creative officer at WSGN, the industry's premier trend forecaster.

"This manifested itself in graphic print, with bold stripes, chequerboard effects and playful spots. Stripes actually saw a 62 per cent increase for spring-summer 2013, which illustrates the influence of this trend. Moving forward, we are seeing animal print and florals gravitate towards a more monotone palette."

Many spring collections take inspiration from '60s icons like Jean Shrimpton and fashion's first loveable waif, Twiggy. The '60s have been influencing design for some time, Macnab says, but this spring "we are seeing the most literal interpretation."

Our analysts saw a 44 per cent increase in black and white shown on the catwalk for spring-summer
Catriona Macnab, WSGN

Catwalk looks championed the dramatic make-up of the era - think long, flirty lashes, generous flicks of black eyeliner, big hair, and that big doe-eyed look. Moschino's fun and flirty monochrome outfits drew hemlines scandalously high in bold graphic lines and playful patterns. We'd leave those raised hard hats at home, though.

Monochrome in thick bold stripes, checks and prints, as at Louis Vuitton and Moschino, evoked retro sophistication, while Ralph Lauren did posh classicism. Hedi Slimane's debut at Saint Laurent suggested a more romantic '70s take on the slim black pantsuit and wispy white shirt, with wide-brimmed hats and pussy-bow neck ties topping off the look. There is something most definitely timeless here.

Stylist Cheryl Leung's favourite looks this season are: "Nicholas Ghesquière's body-con bodices. Ackermann, who is usually a colourist, managed to make it jolly with monochrome polka dots and stripes, and Slimane with the whole spirit on the Le Smoking jacket and tuxedo bow. I am a huge fan of black and white."

Perhaps referencing the legend of Yves Saint Laurent, black-and-white ensembles on runways from Lanvin to Jean Paul Gaultier and Costume National touched on sleek tuxedo styles with masculine-feminine tension. Designers such as Gianfranco Ferrè worked the simple tone combination to sophisticated and elegant effect, with short hemlines and razor-sharp cuts.

We've come to expect a healthy lashing of monochrome from Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. We've all seen his own black-and-white fashion staples, and it was Coco Chanel who historically helped turn women's fashion on to this combination in the '20s and '30s. Before then, graphic monochrome was still largely considered too severe and masculine.

Miuccia Prada, Jonathan Saunders and Olivier Rousteing at Balmain unexpectedly took a shining to graphic monochromes, to a pop art effect. Prada's was childlike white florals on black fabrics. Saunders punctuated with disco foils, which recalled '60s futurism. Metallic- and foil-effect accessories work wonders to break up the repetition of a monochrome outfit. Leung suggests adding a third colour to mix it up, suggesting gold, red or nude.

Rousteing's extreme '80s power silhouette and overworked outfits this spring are examples of how not to do monochrome. In contrast to the workmanship of those exquisite crochets for last winter, the big shoulders and busy black-and-white patterns came off too aggressive.

For women who see themselves as more ethereal, there's no need to forgo this spring trend. Look to those at Valentino, who have made graphic black and white feminine and pretty with delicate white peek-a-boo laces, sheer panels and tuxedo details on sensual, flowing black dresses.

"Showing some skin will cancel the severity and any retro references," adds Leung. "Go for a statement accessory such as a wide-brimmed hat. It will create more drama and give the wearer a fashion edge."

Marc Jacobs' ultra-modernist collections have a sense of assuredness this spring. Jacobs is no stranger to indulging in retro. But he has cleverly stripped down shapes and silhouettes to keep things modern. Unfussy and confident, Jacobs emerges as the trend's biggest champion.

The man with monochrome on his mind did meticulous minidresses and long column dresses in oversized black-and-white check for Louis Vuitton. The simple boldness of the pattern, which referenced the famous French house's damier pattern, was a refreshing statement rendered in a sharp silhouette. It's a look that will be copied onto the high street and one that works well on Asian physiques, too.

Marc Jacobs' own label reflected a similar, but more rock'n'roll, take on graphic monochrome. Edie Sedgwick in The Factory days becomes muse and master. Big, fat stripes in black and white on low-slung knee skirts, tops and matching jackets all make a powerful statement. But it is the high-neck gowns with an almost optical-illusion pop art effect that stand out.

"Playing with proportion is important if you are doing a full, head-to-toe black-and-white outfit," Leung says. "Try experimenting with different fabrics such as leather, patent, black perforations and black sheer overlays on white. But avoid white opaque tights with a black skirt. That's a major faux pas."

The key to using this trend to its full potential is a delicate balance between the strength that contrasting monochrome gives, with a subtle feminine vulnerability - something '60s model and "It girl" Penelope Tree embodied in her heyday, when she was photographed by the likes of Richard Avedon.

But for all the retro influences, the trend also played out in urbane sportiness and sleek city looks at 3.1 Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang and DKNY. Trust the New Yorkers to keep things fresh, wearable and modern.

Wang, the newly crowned head of Balenciaga, stayed urban, rendering the look fit for his tough, New York City girl archetype. And for his much fêted debut at Balenciaga, it was a well-received show featuring, you guessed it, mostly black and white.

The look is already rushing into high street retail, Macnab says, so it is affordable at all prices. "Due to the wider cultural awareness and influence of the '60s, it is a very commercial and accessible trend for high street retailers to tap into.

"We see the black and white trend continuing beyond this season," says Macnab. "The recent monochrome Balenciaga collection will have a lasting impact as modernist simple items become the byword for timeless feminine elegance."