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by Karl Smith

Exploring the polar opposite collections from AW21.

By the end of the day on Thursday 21st January, the AW21 Fashion Week had – via digital presentation, as seems to be the custom for the foreseeable future for the obvious reasons – presented viewers with two radically different perspectives on contemporary menswear. 

Like many (many) people, I’m talking specifically about Virgil Abloh’s latest menswear collection for Louis Vuitton and about Rick Owens’ most recent work for – well – Rick Owens, naturally. 

But, while Twitter found itself predictably sounding the meme klaxon at full volume over one or two particular looks from Abloh’s presentation – as well as a certain controversial sneaker collaboration from the Owens offering – there was considerably more to offer from both than the early headlines about square toes and wearable cityscapes suggested. 

While Owens describes his latest collection as taking its inspiration from “OUR TENSE PERIOD IN HISTORY,” to read it as such is to do a disservice to the veteran aesthetic misanthrope’s darker, more future-facing tendencies. That is to say: yes, cues may be taken from the present day, but those observations have been spun through the centrifuge of a sentimentally pessimistic eye, extrapolated, and used in order to forecast the vision of a possible future. 

Ominously titled “GETHSEMANE” after the garden Jesus Christ is said to have prayed in the night before his inevitable crucifixion, the collection is a warning of sorts; a kind of “two minutes to midnight” alarm clock in sartorial form. We are, the name suggests, teetering on the brink of major cataclysm: our present day is the eve of change. 

What exactly that change might be is up for interpretation. But, with its ripped-and-torn cyber-punk fabrics, technical materials, silhouettes that recall post-apocalyptic Blade Runner aesthetics, a presentation filmed on the streets of Venice – a city already partially underwater on a bad day – and cloaked in a veil of smoke, the overarching message is far from subtle. 

The “TENSE PERIOD IN OUR HISTORY” to which Owens speaks is more a period of precariousness – a tipping point, so to speak: GETHSEMANE is what our future might look like if that balance tips the wrong way. Which, to be honest, isn’t necessarily the stark warning we all need. As tends to be the way, an artist has rendered our dystopian future with the subtext of a deterrent and given us something to aspire to, rather than avoid. An alluringly dark, high-fashion aesthetic fit for the Anthropocene

Elsewhere online, however, Virgil Abloh made his own statement with the first of several Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2021 menswear events, choosing to focus not on the problems we might face in our immediate future but on those which so powerfully afflict our society as it stands today. 

With a presentation taking James Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village as a central reference point and which TJ Sidhu in their review for The Face aptly called “a clear message of humanitarianism and a stark reminder of the inequalities produced by Euro-centric ideals,” Abloh picked apart ingrained notions of racial and gender stereotypes – an interrogation of the unconscious biases which pervade through and preside over so much of our daily lives. 

In essence, this was a collection focused not on the possibilities of what might come to pass in a not-too-distant future, but rather an acerbic study of what passes for acceptable modes of thought and action in the present day. 

To that end, where Baldwin’s 1953 essay focused on the author’s time in Switzerland two years prior – finding himself a perpetual outsider and all-too-frequent talking point on account of a Blackness entirely unique in the village of Leukerbad at the time – Abloh’s latest collection, too, focuses on concepts of Insider/Outsider and Self/Other dichotomies. Here, they are expressed succinctly as “PURIST” and “TOURIST” – a less than gentle rebuke to those who have criticised the designer variously as a fraud, copycat, and culture vulture since well before he took the helm at Louis Vuitton and a scathing take on establishment values, in both high fashion and in the world at large. 

A coruscating bricolage of sorts, the collection takes stereotypical sartorial tropes – tactical vests, cowboy Stetsons, skirts, cuban-link chains and other supposed signifiers of race, sexuality and gender – and deliberately mismatches them. Reimagined as characters or “neotypes,” rather than as singular looks, in order to dissect and dissolve those associations. 

Where Owens steps back and takes an aerial, more macroscopic view of this moment in time and its possible domino effect on the future, Abloh chooses to root his collection firmly in the reality of here-and-now. A viewpoint both telescopic and microscopic: societal minutiae, seen through a glass darkly. 

And, yet, in many ways, it’s Abloh’s approach – which even goes so far in its commitment to the present day as to take design cues from the very imminent reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as robes and sardonically placed travel motifs – that seems to have more depth, breadth and sincerity in what it has to say about our world. 

Perhaps it’s that the collection is clearly personal to Abloh and his position within the fashion industry. Or, perhaps it’s indicative of a certain hopefulness on the Louis Vuitton Creative Director’s part: a less cynical, less skeptical narrative arc which tells us that things can change. If, and only if, we make them. 

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