How London Fashion Week Men’s AW17 revealed the fine line between utopia and dystopia
If there was one thing to take away from London Fashion Week Men’s AW17, it’s that the collective memory of raving is playing heavy on our heads right now. References to rave and club culture cropped up at numerous shows, and across the board we saw a preoccupation with hedonism, hazy nights and the enduring aesthetic of bright colours, baggy clothes and a distinctly-British take on sportswear.
Influences were clearer in some collections than others. Christopher Shannon’s flag face-masks, combined with his re-appropriation of three symbolic brands of 90s style, spoke to a spirit of universal culture. Cottweiler replaced their signature aesthetic of razor-sharp tracksuits, high-peak caps and washed-out colours with a 90s sportswear palette of greens and purples, while jackets now draped across the body, zips open, hanging off one shoulder, paired with long, baggy tracksuit bottoms.
Other labels made subtle nods to club culture, but contrasted this with a more sombre tone. Oversized fits and an abstract, patchwork approach to sportswear has been a trademark of Liam Hodges’ pieces for several seasons, but this time his collection was accented with camouflage patches and references to dystopian sci-fi culture. Topman hearkened to psychedelics and counter-culture with bright, swirling colours and wide-legged trousers, but juxtaposed this with pinstripe suits and drab, dark greys. Martine Rose, a designer better known for channelling rebellion and disruption into her collections turned to suit jackets, v-neck jumpers and slacks this season, while Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY’s provocative show presented everything from Georgian aristocracy to cyberpunk against a backdrop of mud-caked dancers and amorphous figures, one draped in a bastardised stars and stripes motif.
As a result, the return of rave to fashion felt less about the culture proper as it did a metaphor for the micro- and macro-cosmic ups and downs that young people have been experiencing in the time that’s passed since. From coming up after that first bomb to crashing back down hours later; feelings of friendship and unity on the dancefloor, and the inevitable return to work on Monday; the breaking down of tribal barriers that the rave scene (supposedly) sent through society, and the realisation that those divisions are stronger than ever in the present day; and the alienation we feel when a world that’s supposed to get better as time goes on feels like it’s moving backwards.
What is it that makes the rave revolution – whether the cultural moment of the early 90s or our own individual encounters with dance music and drug culture – such a pertinent reference point for British designers right now? Furthermore, how do we understand a preoccupation with the hedonism and hazy nights of club culture that feels gutted of its essential optimism?
Many of our first encounters with MDMA and raving immediately preceded our stepping out into the real world and a realisation that life isn’t all hugs, unity and everlasting love. Every come-up is followed by a come-down, and for all the pills and partying, the idea of utopia is inextricably connected to the dystopian reality that disrupts it. In 1994, the original rave revolution was brought to a violent halt by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which introduced legislation specifically targeted at shutting down raves and confiscating equipment. 20 years later, many of the country’s most iconic clubs are being pushed into closure to make way for redevelopment, and the wave of street food markets and brushed-metal architecture that inevitably follows.
But why stop at the clubs? If you look across the globe right now, it’s harder to think of a place further away from the ideal that the rave generation envisaged; the USA is days away from inaugurating Donald Trump; the European project, a 40-year pursuit of unity and co-operation, is on the brink of collapse, with right-wing political parties making gains in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and other countries; overseas conflicts and civil wars have culminated as the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, but world leaders appear impotent in taking action. A generation that believed it had found the secret to unity and togetherness is now knee-deep in a world where division and difference is dominating society, politics and culture. They’re a generation in trauma, and trauma engenders regression.
It’s in this light that the themes presented last week assume a deeper meaning. By disrupting his signature cocktail of bright colours, baggy fit and British style with camo prints and olive drabs, blended with the post-apocalyptic narratives of Hollywood cinema (such as Total Recall and Mad Max), Liam Hodges brought the utilitarian clothes we wore to dance in fields, basements and warehouses back to their original battle-ready purpose, while his overt references to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange make clear allusions to a youth that is hungry for disruption and anarchy. Shannon’s flags draped across models’ faces – such as the gay pride rainbow and the flag of Europe – are shredded to the point of transparency, juxtaposed with maritime flags for ‘U’ (‘you are running into danger’) and ‘Q’ (‘our vessel is free of infection’), while Hugo Boss, Timberland and Calvin Klein’s logos are translated into open declarations of trauma; ‘Loss’, ‘Tumbleweed’ and ‘Constant Stress’.
And perhaps Martine Rose’s adoption of the uniform of the suits – coloured slacks, silk ties and pullovers – is less an act of acceptance as it is one of rebellion. A statement that says, ‘You destroy the world we created, so now we’ll create for the world you desire’ – a reminder that without the idealists and free-spirits, those people wouldn’t have places to one day close down and turn into luxury flats. At the same time, Cottweiler debuted rave-inspired camping gear that also doubled up as apocalyptic supplies like headlamps, extra boots and in one case, a blow-up mattress.
As for Charles Jeffrey? His is arguably a vision of a distant future, where symbols that originally stood for civilization and free society have been so warped and distorted that they scarcely retain their human form. Though his collection looks far removed from the present day in style, the scars it bears speak to a culture that’s lost its way and is scraping the past together in search of meaning.
Pessimistic, perhaps, but if one word could capture the cultural zeitgeist, it’s melancholia. Up and down the country, people are upset, and angry, and disillusioned. And so it seems that the creative world has returned, in spirit, to the utopia of rave culture – the baggy clothes, the psychedelic colours, the military silhouettes and quilted jackets – the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you wear, who you love or what you have, you can come together, if only for a night, and be free, and dance. That there is a horrible world out there, full of people doing horrible things – but if we stay in here, and take care of each other, we can forget, for a while.
But still, it’s tainted by the knowledge that such ideals are precarious. Shannon, Hodges et al. are reminding us that right now unity and progress are being dismantled before our eyes. For every Woodstock, there’s an Altamont. For every rave, there’s a phone call to the police. For every drug-fuelled weekend, there’s the Tuesday blues. We can kick back, have fun and forget for a while, but on Monday we’ve got work to do.