The line between creating commentary on social events and exploiting them as a commercial endeavor is dangerously fine in every industry. The art world, however, is often given a little more leeway; and yet fashion, unlike music, visual art and film, is consistently deprived of the space to grapple with social issues and to use art to communicate something deeper than which shoes are “in” this season.
When New York Fashion Week coincided with the anniversary of 9/11, most designers chose to keep fashion and world events separate; Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, however, was not going to let a day so pivotal to American history slip by unobserved. Instead he chose to use the opportunity to create a conversation about human connection and the universality of our experiences.
Held at New York’s Pier 26, in view of the 9/11 memorial, the show’s setting subtly underscored Tisci’s message. The set, in turns elegant and utilitarian in appearance, blended seamlessly into the background of skyscrapers, roads and bridges.
Art director Marina Abramovic used reclaimed wood and recycled metal to construct a world that was at once broodingly meditative and strikingly beautiful. Without overshadowing the models themselves, the set accentuated the themes that Tisci strived to bring to the surface and added to the somber undertones of the show.
The soundtrack incorporated Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and Latin music, and embodied a blend of hymns and prayers of an array of cultures and religions. A guitarist and a singer perched high up on the set, exemplifying the impossibility of separating art forms into distinct categories.
The show was open to the public, a rarity in the exclusionary events of New York Fashion Week. Its relative accessibility is a step–albeit a small one–toward breaking down the barriers that continue to exist between the fashion world and the “real” world.
The runway itself was anything but straightforward, both figuratively and literally speaking. The platform was punctuated with crudely built wooden steps, a subtle comment on the dimensionality of fashion that is typically disregarded.
But the show was not limited to the runway; the scaffolding surrounding the catwalk took on a life of its own. While the audience’s eyes remained glued to the catwalk, their surroundings continually shifted and changed, influencing the onlookers’ perspective of the show whether they were aware of it or not. A robed figure perched above the crowd, leaning on two olive branches; a woman stood motionlessly under a ceaseless stream of water; a man moved in slow motion through the crowd. Still others made vague gestures, played instruments or simply presided over the runway.
The collection was a blend of styles, introducing modern cuts and silhouettes while still remaining classic and elegant. As always, Tisci embraced juxtaposition: the clothes combined structure with softness, femininity with masculinity, formal wear with lingerie. There were stiff tailcoats worn over flowing slips, tuxedo pants with lace stripes up the sides, and sculpted suits left open in the front to reveal intricate undergarments. The neutral tones of the collection itself allowed the clothing to stand out without overpowering the show’s backdrop– both the physical set, and the historical importance surrounding it–that permeated the usually superficial tone of Fashion Week.
Tisci included a small preview of his menswear collection, further adding to the underlying ambiguity of the event. There were few distinct differences between the male and female models’ attire, a small triumph in a business that typically separates gender into two distinct categories.
Tisci’s presentation of his spring 2016 collection emphasized that fashion is intrinsically linked with all of us, a reality that is often forgotten in an insular world where couture gowns and diamond accessories are the norm.
Designers rarely dare to acknowledge the influence of world culture and events on their collections; stepping outside the realm of art for art’s sake has proven to be a dangerous move in an industry that cannot stick to a trend in shoes, never mind political views, for more than a few months. Tisci, however, managed to honor a pivotal moment in world history without causing further strife; his tribute had a unifying effect, instead of dividing onlookers along political lines.
The subtlety of the tribute spoke to the emotions and ambiguity that underlie the events of September 11. In addition to serving as a respectful reminder of the tragedy and exuding a sense of patriotism, which is true of most, if not all, 9/11 commemorations, the show offered a sense of harmony and spoke not only of one particular moment in human history, but of humanity as a whole.
That is not to say that Givenchy’s show marked a turning point in the diversification of the fashion industry. The usual aesthetic still prevailed: the models were, as usual, uniformly tall, slender, and predominantly white; the few exceptions that could be found revealed a meek effort to embrace world diversity. Although the acknowledgment of world events is certainly a step in the right direction, the industry undeniably still has a long way to go.
New York Fashion Week is inextricably tied with 9/11. In the past, the fashion industry has chosen to glaze over what is, to many, no more than an unfortunate coincidence of unrelated events, instead of paying tribute to such a momentous national tragedy.
By acknowledging the day’s importance, Tisci opened himself up to the recrimination not only of fellow designers, critics, and editors, but also that of the outside world, whom he alone dared to let in.