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Perverting reality

After years of opulence, AW14 saw fashion's pendulum swing back to banality – we unpick the season's obsession with the mundane

TextKin WooPhotographyCharlie EngmanStylingEmma Wyman

Taken from the Autumn/Winter issue of Dazed:

If there was one abiding image from AW14, it was this: a giant supermarket installed inside the Grand Palais for Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel show, filled with over 500 different products (repackaged and relabelled in Chanel speak – ‘Eau De Chanel’ mineral water and ‘Mademoiselle Privé’ doormats) and repurposed signage (‘PLUS 30 per cent’). It was like one of Andreas Gursky’s painstakingly detailed large-scale images brought to life – equal parts arch satire and celebration of consumerism. Or as Lagerfeld himself puts it: “The supermarket is an expression of our times, the pop art of everyday life.” With “freedom as the spirit of the collection”, he sent out models wandering through the aisles in moth-eaten leggings and onesies, accessorised with luxe Chanel sneakers, a continuation from his spring couture show. “Today, the sneaker is no longer linked essentially to sport,” the designer explains. “It evokes everyday life – the street. The sneaker is like jeans for the feet. Women wear sneakers everywhere these days. In France they always talk about parity; if women wear this kind of shoe, like men, they are equal.

The surreal, mesmerising mise-enscene conjured by Lagerfeld and co. that saw the humdrum and throwaway turned into the most lavish, extravagant production also consolidated a feeling running through some of the best AW14 collections: a perverse sense of heightened reality. It was there, in Miuccia Prada's evocation of late-80s girls in Northern England at Miu Miu, with their poker-straight hair, nylon rucksacks and quilted bomber jackets layered over pencil skirts. Christopher Kane – a designer who’s always insisted “there’s no such thing as bad taste” – paired PVC with baby pink fur, turned black nylon into detailing on skirts and bodices and covered the models’ feet in abattoir shoe coverings. And at Céline, where Phoebe Philo first lined Birkenstocks in fur three seasons ago, she paid tribute to artists Hannah Höch and Lee Miller with a bricolage of materials and silhouettes – she might have called it a paean to the everyday woman but this was an altogether rarer, more fabulous creature. “There’s something exciting about being bored right now,” says The Independent’s fashion editor, Alexander Fury. “There’s definitely been a fetishisation of normality, which I think is something quite interesting. When everything’s so elaborate, embellished, designed almost, the most interesting thing you can do is pull back away from that and do the opposite. That’s what feels different.”

The fashion website VFiles summed it up even more succinctly in a tweet, “Chanel F/W ‘14 so #normcore”. Normcore was the great internet meme of 2014, coined by the New York based trend forecasting agency K-HOLE as part of their trend report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” In it, they state, “In Normcore, one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging. To be truly Normcore, you need to understand that there’s no such thing as normal.” K-HOLE trace the origins of Normcore back to Cayce Pollard, the logo-phobic hero of William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition described as wearing “a small boy’s black Fruit of the Loom T-shirt, a thin gray V-neck pullover purchased by the half-dozen from a supplier to the New England prep schools, and a new and oversized pair of black 501s, every trademark carefully removed.” For K-HOLE, Gibson’s novel serves as a cautionary tale because “no matter how hard we try to delete all the symbols around us, new symbols appear, which is what Normcore is about.”

By the time New York Magazine published Fiona Duncan's story, ‘Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion’, the term had caught on. At last glance, there were a million articles on the topic, crowned with its own entry on Wikipedia. Everyone from Seinfeld to Steve Jobs (and hilariously even Kate Middleton and Samantha Cameron) have been held up as icons of the movement. “There are two main reasons why it caught on,” K-HOLE explain. “The way it is a linguistic construction – a contradiction that means nothing, which makes it a sticky and delicious signifier for anything. And everyone was in need of a new vocabulary to talk about the relationship between style, identity and class and a new set of words beyond a hipster debate to talk about anxieties about fashion.” Duncan, for her part, quickly grew weary of being held up as a prophet of the new movement, “I think it’s opened up space for debate for people that aren’t just fashion people. I can get an idea of Normcore being this blank canvas to project a lot of things upon, and I am limitlessly interested in that. But I am tired and exhausted of people asking me whether the trend will die.” In the ever-accelerating pace of fashion, there is the sense that Normcore has played itself out. DIS, the subversive cultural website, has arguably been pushing the concept of twisted reality since its inception (shoots where socks are paired with sandals, or nipple clamps pushed as items of desire).

"It reached saturation point as a concept the minute it was born,” say K-HOLE. They gripe that their original definition of Normcore got conflated with another of their concepts: ‘acting basic’, where “having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness.” If not Normcore, how else could we sum up the warped realities we saw played out on the catwalks this season? “Call it avant-bland!” says the influential writer and editor Jo-Ann Furniss. She invented the term 13 years ago in a piece she wrote for i-D magazine called “Being Boring”. Then, she made the link between the rise of Big Brother and the increasing fascination with the most mundane events being played out for national consumption. “Things were constantly being screened on the internet and the more boring it was, the better it was. It was that idea of the weirdness and strangeness of reality, and I think that’s built up over the years in the fashion industry.” In today’s new vanguard, people like J.W. Anderson and Jamie Hawkesworth, Furniss sees a nostalgia for the movies of Alan Clarke and the late-90s documentary-style imagery of Juergen Teller, David Sims, Nigel Shafran, Alasdair McLellan and Corinne Day, as well as the stylists Anna Cockburn and Melanie Ward. “But it’s fashion, it’s never just reality. It’s kind of a stylised, perverse reality and it almost seems more rebellious to do that at times, I think. It just felt like it’s the right time to pull it back a bit.”

For Furniss, seeing the Miu Miu AW14 show sparked a chemical reaction in her. “It was all the things I’ve been obsessing over. When Mrs Prada looks at the real and when she looks at that idea of normality, it’s never really that real or normal. There’s always an underlying thing there that is so strange, always perverse.” For Prada – remember, it was the humble nylon rucksack that put the brand on the backs of teenagers in the 90s – the tension between the high and low, chic and ugly, camp and serious is one Miuccia Prada has constantly examined over the years. Her contrarian approach has made a virtue of elevating the mundane, turning scrubs and aprons into high-fashion items and championing gaudy prints and off-kilter proportions. She once created an entire men’s collection out of golfing attire despite proclaiming simply, “I hate golf.” Fittingly – for a woman who obtained a doctorate in political science before taking over her grandfather’s company – she has had a sometimes ambivalent relationship with her own industry that is often played out in her work, telling The New York Times, “The investigation of ugliness is, to me, more interesting than the bourgeois idea of beauty. And why? Because ugly is human. It touches the bad and the dirty side of people. You know,this might have been a scandal in fashion but in other fields of art it is common: in painting and in movies, it was so common to see ugliness. But, yet, it was not used in fashion and I was very much criticised for inventing the trashy and the ugly.”

The AW14 Prada and Miu Miu shows were a case in point. At Prada things took a distinctly filmic twist – influenced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Miuccia Prada, with an accompanying live orchestra, paired the “sophisticated and the vulgar”, matching a boxy jacket with a sheer dress, revealing 30s-style underwear worn underneath. She then took a distinctly opposite approach for Miu Miu, focusing on synthetic fabrics and utilitarian shapes (this time to an ominous soundtrack of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”). “That’s what I love about Prada,” says Duncan. “With Miuccia, she’s trying to reorient our gaze, trying to show us things we are used to seeing in a new way and I think that ties into her politics. She’s trying to subvert things that she thinks are ugly, which I think is a really ethical way of approaching visual culture.” “The idea of luxury is no longer there and therefore we look to reality. As a designer, you’re meant to pick up on a feeling and there’s something in normality that feels off-kilter,” declares J. W. Anderson.

Part of a new generation of designers who have absorbed the lessons of Prada, Anderson fittingly started his career in fashion assisting Mrs Prada’s right-hand woman Manuela Pavesi on visual merchandising. At his own label, Anderson has become known as something of a provocateur, playing with the masculine/feminine dichotomy. His runway propositions are deliberately challenging and thrillingly awkward. For AW14, he took a trip to the St Ives studio of the British post-war sculptor Barbara Hepworth and ended up being inspired by her work: “It was a reflection of boredom and of human life.” The muddy colours and raw, organic shapes of his AW14 collection evoked a farmy, deep-rooted elegance and Hepworth’s “symbolic form of human beings and of showing the body in a new way.” He also continued his experimentation with the female silhouette, this time creating an elongated form that had an inventive sinuous quality to it. “Every designer wants to find something new – a new outline, a new proportion. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about contorting something and elevating it on a pedestal.” 

“Sometimes, I am drawn to things that I hate; it isn’t just because I hate it, but because it represents something new to me” – Miuccia Prada

Conversely, as Anderson’s success skyrockets – he’s recently revamped Spanish luxury brand Loewe as its new creative director and witnessed LVMH invest in his own label – the more willing he is to take risks in his designs. “It’s about challenging yourself. Collections should not make sense right away; you need to make sure there is always something you’re not comfortable with. If you’re comfortable, it’s stale.” Call it ‘Normcore’, call it ‘avant-bland’ (or even ‘banal plus,’ as touted by W magazine), it’s something we’re likely to see evolve in seasons to come. As we get increasingly obsessed with the minutiae of strangers’ lives – their Instagrams and 24-hour webcams – it’s no wonder that designers seek to reflect that, looking to the mundanity of everyday life, but refracting and warping it through their own sensibilities. Whether as a reaction to overfussiness and extravagance, a sign of the times we live in or designers’ perverse sense of humour being played out for public consumption, it’s a reminder of the potency of fashion – the initial weirdness of seeing familiar things in a new context leads to a sick thrill then stokes a manic desire. Perhaps Miuccia summed it up best when she said, “Sometimes, I am drawn to things that I hate; it isn’t just because I hate it, but because it represents something new to me. Once I work on them, then they become exciting. This can open up a lot of new possibilities.”

Hair Shingo Shibata; make-up Kanako Takase using M.A.C; model Esmerelda Seay-Reynolds at Next; photographic assistant Jonathan Hokklo; styling assistants Ellie Sikes, Cassie Walker; production Beth Mingay; casting Noah Shelley