How ‘street style’ lost its meaning and its power, appropriated by high fashion

Somewhere out there, far from the catwalks, remain some unco-opted styles, but everything that has been on the catwalks for spring 2017 is just plain fashion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 1:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 1:48pm

There is no such thing as street style. Not any more.

Oh sure, photographers still surge around the entrances to fashion shows in an attempt to capture style in its so-called natural habitat. The women (it is mostly women) traipse to and fro posing for the photo pack, sometimes feigning nonchalance. But very little of what is presented as “street style” is actually of-the-street, born and bred.

These looks have not been cobbled together organically. Much of what we’re seeing the fashion crowd wear on the street is simply well-placed advertising for brands – whether the clothing itself or the blogger wearing it. It is wholly domesticated.

Today, what we used to think of as street style – athletic, down-market, serendipitous, multicultural – is reflected in the looks offered by both the historic Christian Dior and the corporate Maison Margiela. It is in Off-White and Koché – up-and-coming, highly praised new labels.

Most notably, it is in Balenciaga. Designer Demna Gvasalia has been instrumental in erasing the lines between what had always been considered street style and the rarefied point-of-view of the atelier. As part of the Vetements team, he ushered in an era of ungainly, oversized silhouettes and helped to turn such mundane commodities as a logo T-shirt for express-mail giant DHL into a covetable fashion item.

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In 2015, Gvasalia came to Balenciaga as creative director and brought his subversive tendencies with him – as well as a deep respect for the craftsmanship of one of the most high-minded houses in fashion history. For spring, the jackets are oversized, with such broad and structured shoulders that they reach beyond the realm of hyperbole and into distortion. There are vests that resemble gussied-up flotation devices. And bold floral prints exquisitely teeter on the edge of garish.

The elements that once defined street style are now high fashion’s greatest source of inspiration. At Jun Takahashi’s Undercover and John Galliano’s Margiela in particular, they have been incorporated in dazzling ways. But sometimes the embrace of street chic comes across as a flourish tacked on to spice a bourgeois brand with a bit of danger, to make a woman with a coddled existence feel a bit more in touch. It is an attempt to buy cool.

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Laudably, Junya Watanabe took the hard-edge look of punk rockers and Berlin’s street-artist scene and combined it with the dazzling geometric construction that has long been part of his repertoire. It was a bravura presentation, mixing souvenir T-shirts with sharply tailored coats, leather shorts and tops that called to mind giant sea urchins.

Takahashi also used music as a source of inspiration for his Undercover collection, although he chose jazz. His collection paired loose-fitting trousers, wide-leg jeans and embellished jackets in a collage of textures worn with sneakers or Birkenstock-style sandals.

Such feelings recall the conversation around the earliest designer jeans. But consumers proved eager to pay a premium for their Calvins, and designers justified the prices with a vast assortment of fits and washes.

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Street style is not just a pair of jeans. It was an entire sensibility – a rejoinder to the formalised edicts of design houses.

Vetements’ DHL T-shirt was read as a searing commentary on what the culture values and why. But then its droll aesthetics became coveted fashion, Gvasalia landed at Balenciaga, and Vetements showed alongside haute couture – the most highfalutin’ form of fashion there is. What had ostensibly been subversive was absorbed into the ivory tower.

Virgil Abloh, whose Off-White label made a splash in menswear with graffiti-marked army jackets and pants, showed his womenswear line before an audience including Kanye West, Frank Ocean and various Kardashians. As one might expect, the collection included edgy sweatshirts and cool-girl trousers.

But Abloh also showed the sort of frilly, ruffled dresses that one might find in a dusty Upper East Side boutique. What do they have to do with the “street style” conversation he so ably led? Fashion is mutating. So pair the debutante skirt with a hoodie and call yourself modern.

And what do you call a brand such as Koché, with hoodies and T-shirts designed by Christelle Kocher, who is also the artistic director of Lemarié, Chanel’s haute couture feather house? Kocher roots her brand in the “real” Paris, presenting an earlier collection in a grubby passageway frequented by drug addicts. This season, she chose a chaotic mall where shoppers disgorged from escalators into the middle of her show.

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Look closely and you’ll see that her clothes are beautifully made, with fine fabrics and luxury embellishments. But from a few paces away, they look perfectly at home amid the food courts and sale bins.

This shift in fashion offers cause for optimism. If everyone is wearing sweatshirts, maybe the tribal walls will tumble. But in the meantime, it feels like fashion is being degraded into little more than poses, pretence and status.

Fashion has always been connected to status, but it was also about the unique, wondrous nature of the clothes. It was: I can afford this really extraordinary Dior. Now you can just show off your fancy Dior underpants.

Somewhere out there, far from the catwalks, remain some unco-opted styles, looks that have not yet been absorbed by the mass-market garment business or the fashion elite. The looks are personal – maybe even thoughtful or provocative. Call it subversive. Call it idiosyncratic. Call it serendipitous.

But everything that has been on the catwalks for spring 2017 – and Instagrammed from the circus that accompanies it – is just plain fashion.

The Washington Post