Comme des Garçons Homme Plus jacket from the early Nineties. Photo: Jim Sim
By Ray Zhang
In a recent WhatsApp conversation about the men’s spring/summer 2017 collection by Balenciaga, my chat regular wasn’t spiteful when he said the collection “is quite vile”; he really thought so. I sense that in SOTD’s last post, rave was not exactly what the blog was communicating too. Similarly, GQ wasn’t so positive when their website said of the suits, “they were designed to look awkward as hell”. There was even the comparing of the jackets to the one David Byrne wore in the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme. Known simply as the “big suit”, the cream-coloured ensemble was designed by costumer (now mosaic tile artist) Gail Blacker.
As a Talking Heads fan, I saw that film back in the day when clothes were fast becoming less secondary to music. Mr Byrne’s suit was strange just as the band he fronted was sometimes odd. I still think so, which sees me agreeing with GQ and all of them above. It thus escapes me when Vogue.com says of Balenciaga’s strong shoulders—“They look fantastic”. We don’t always have to see what Vogue sees.
To be honest, I want to like Demna Gvasalia’s debut Balenciaga collection for men, but wanting is not strong enough. While I have a soft spot for heritage brands and I’m all for pushing design a little further, I am not sure I want it to go that far—or, in the case of the Balenciaga jackets, distended. So, how far? I can’t say for certain until I see what’s being done to the line.
The movie poster of Stop Making Sense. Photo: Cinecom/Palm Pictures
For sure, I have not seen the clothes up close. Even then, the exaggeration of proportion does not escape cursory viewing. The collection looks a little retro to me too. It is, of course, not the geeky-cool retro of Gucci. Yet, there’s a throwback—not to the ’70s with its social tribes such as the hippies, but to the ’80s with professional groups such as accountants. Therein, for me, lies the irony: Balenciaga Men’s suits, if built on the tailoring tradition of the house, should look anything but the less-refined mass manufacture of a past era.
The more I look at those suits, the more I see something familiar. In the outerwear section of my mostly disorganised wardrobe, I found a wool Comme des Garçons jacket bought some time in the ’90s. On me, then and now, it has the silhouette that is deliberately coaxed to not follow the contours of the body. It is clearly not Daniel Craig as James Bond in Tom Ford. Four years ago, after seeing an editorial spread in i-D magazine shot by Hedi Slimane (just before the start of his tenure at Saint Laurent) that featured a boyish model in an oversized Juun J blazer, I thought I might revive the CDG for a trip to Paris that December.
It was, on hindsight, a bad decision. The time wasn’t right as it is now (or would be in 2017). I remember that as I was walking down Rue Etienne Marcel, I was seized by self-consciousness when all around me guys looked like they had just stepped out of The Kooples ads. Sure, the CDG jacket I had on isn’t that big and its shoulders are not that pronounced, but it is loose-fitting, the way Japanese jackets are rarely ever tight. But there, with Place des Victoires behind me, it was not aligned with the prevalent slimness of silhouette that Hedi Slimane would continue to pursue with Saint Laurent. As fashionistas might have said, I did not get the memo.
A Juun J coat that was oversized back in 2012. Photo: i-D/Hedi Slimane
I have since retired the jacket, but now, after the Balenciaga show, I wonder if it’s time to give it another chance to meet the world. The thing is, I don’t wear such tailored outerwear unless in (far much) cooler climes. And a jacket has little appeal to me these days, let alone the suit, as I filter the admission of unnecessary items into my already bursting wardrobe. Layering, if required, does not mean a suit jacket when there are other more practical alternatives. As we become increasingly casual in our turn out, a jacket tends to encourage the annoying question: “why so dressed up?”
I understand what Demna Gvasalia is trying to do with Balenciaga men’s wear by way of tailoring. Not only has he aroused the interest of those curious about constructed garments, Mr Gvasalia has also debunked the rigid belief that a man’s suit—relatively unchanged for centuries—must conform to a certain shape that is aligned to formal swagger. In doing so, he’s also teasing (jacket with knee-length “pants”!) the suit’s intrinsic sobriety. But vaguely grotesque (or “vile”) today may be the seductive swank of tomorrow.
In addition, creating something blown up (or condensed) and different from what we imagine change could be speaks directly to the voyeurs of cyberspace (do we still call it that?), where there’s immense room for self-invention. Or self-promotion. We see it all the time, in different shapes and sizes, on the crazed and the quiet, for the charmed and the indifferent. The appeal of the exaggeration of Mr Gvasalia’s calculated silhouettes can, therefore, be discerned. Maybe now, if I wear the CDG jacket again, I don’t need to wear self-consciousness on my sleeve; I’ll just conceal it behind the roomy body.