I'm notoriously crap at answering those formulaic fashion/style questions that get thrown at me on a daily basis.  "What's the one item you would never wear?"  I always facetiously answer with "Well, actually there aren't that many things that I wouldn't wear‚Ķ"  In actual fact, that's not true.  It finally dawned on me at the Junya Watanabe show that a feathered headdress is something that I absolutely would not touch with a bargepole.  I'm talking about the sort that grace countless girls in denim cut-off shorts, slogan tees and ironic war paint on their faces at festivals such as Coachella.  They can be as simple as a headband with a simple splay of feathers or a full-on headdress that is just about the worse thing you can don as a way of mis-appropriating native American culture.  

At the Watanabe show though, I was simultaneously struck by how much I hated feather headdresses and headbands but then backtracking as I watched this particular "tribe" stomp out in faux suede fringing and beading, a messy head of dreads, art gallerist homespun jewellery and yes, a head full of feathers.  They looked glorious, majestic and incredibly evocative.  Watanabe faced naff exotica and the all things "tribal" head-on.  They didn't feel like a cringing misappropriation.  These pheasant feathers that fluttered in all directions as though they naturally sprouted from the head was a visceral expression of globe trotting – a journey that went on in Watanabe's head that didn't deliberately try to evoke Africana/tribal/ethnic/any other word that often peppers these sorts of collections.  Unlike the "Oh-so-rad" feathered specimens that one might find atop of countless heads at a festival.  

Perhaps it's the scale that was most impressive.  These feathers spanned over a metre in length in some cases and almost looked predatory as they bounced up and down in motion.  Their naturalistic vastness also made them beautiful.  I knew there'd always be exceptions to the rule and I'm mighty glad that exception has fallen upon Junya Watanabe.  I can now answer that initial question with confidence.   "I kind of hate feathered headdresses.  Unless Junya Watanabe had a hand in them."  

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We clapped.  We cheered.  We whooped.  But did we fully understand the subtext of Rick Owens' S/S 14 showformance?  There was mild anticipation beforehand that Owens would come up trumps with a performance like his mens S/S 14 show where Estonian hardcore band Winny Puhh thrashed about  Owens described that at the time as "cheerful viscousness".  There was certainly much to cheer about at yesterday's womenswear S/S 14 show but cheerful would be the wrong word to describe what for me, was one of the most provocative and pertinent statements I've seen in a fashion show.  

Four troops of women, thumping their chests, grouped up by their attire into (white, sand, brown and black – well they are classic Owens' colours but read into that what you will) came out in perfect unison.  They were the Soul Steppers of New York, Washington Divas, Momentum and Zetas of Washington D.C.  This was stepping, rooted in African-American college sororities – described by Tim Blanks as a combo of "step dancing, cheerleading, and military drill".  They scowled, they growled and they looked like you would not want to fuck with them.  This was their "grit" face intended to scare competition.  They be stepping like mad in Owens' layered garb that allowed them to move – vaguely Grecian and draped – as a nod to sorority origins. 

Many just cheered it on as thought it a pure aesthetic and cultural showcase and celebration of what stepping is about.  And somehow, most that have written about it has skirted around the issue of what a performance like this means in the context of fashion at large.  These steppers were mostly black, not of the "ideal" body size that fashion puts on its runways, in its advertising, editorials and generally consider to be attractive and they looked vicious – they're not conventional "beauties".  A plaintive statement of diversity, that is sorely lacking in fashion across all areas – media, models and designers.  I was incredibly grateful that the steppers were the stars of the show as opposed to the bit part intro to the "real" models – that would have been a mooted statement.  Instead, most of us who weren't just thinking "Oh, isn't this FIERCE and exotic?" were invited to examine the state of fashion as it stands in its undeniably warped attitudes towards size, race and beauty.  If Owens' "outsiders" and "fringe figures" have always found solace in his clothes, then that feeling of inclusion could only multiple after this show.   

A quick search on Twitter immediately after the show already yielded comments such as "Elegance in Paris is dead #rickowens" and "WTF is this?  Ugly as fuck".  That saddens me, not because they didn't get it, but that they have been so numbed into a certain ideal of what a fashion show should look like that they felt they had to pass judgement immediately when they were confronted by something vaguely unfamiliar to them.  

There have also been accusations of it being a gimmick floating around on the Twittersphere that it was all a gimmick-y ploy.  Owens has garnered the sort of following that is second to none.  He could show shapeless hessian sacks on the runway and still get away with hordes of cheers.  He is one of the few purist designers around that doesn't really need a gimmick.  Instead, he chose to celebrate, and in turn to make a point.  One that needs making.  Where exactly have all the salient points gone in fashion?

For a louder, less polished view of the stepping, these are some of the clips I took… 

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Apologies for the warped chronology here as I contemplate The American Dream instead of racing through the blizzard of shows in Paris.  Normality will resume fairly soon but first, let's stand still and escape for a little bit back to what was a brilliantly enlightening trip.   

AmericanaTommy Hilfiger's icons of America

I don't think I ever totally understood the possibilities encapsulated in that phrase "The American Dream", until I went to Los Angeles earlier in the summer and felt all that space – sea, sand, desert, disjointed metropolis – spread out before me.  It seemed appropriate that the one of the premier kings of Americana in fashion Tommy Hilfiger, should facilitate this journey.  But not to connect with their own sprawling mass of fashion corporation and dominance.  Instead, we were driving to a fairly anonymous part of Orange County to meet George Esquivel, to discover that in amidst suburbia, palm trees and surroundings that I'd liken to gritty Chino (err‚Ķ sorry, O.C. references will perpetually pop up in this post), there's unique craftsmanship to be found on such a singular level that you wonder whether you imagined it all.  

Esquivel's tale is one that needs to be scripted up and directed as a biopic (he could probably call on his celebrity clients for help in that aspect).  A childhood hampered by homelessness.  A father who went to prison for murder.  Drug dealing in and out of his life.  Then Esquivel was in the thick of California's rockabilly/ska scene, yearning for shoes that fit his vintage-inspired lifestyle and happen upon Emigdio Canales, a retired shoe cobbler who helped realise Esquivel's shoe dreams, starting a small scale production in a garage.  Canales' skill combined with Esquivel's ideas and endless questions of "What about we do this?" led to Esquivel's name being bandied about the local LA band scene.  That was the early early to mid 1990s.  Since then his specific approach to shoemaking, combining European craftsmanship with Americana vibes has led to a starry celebrity and sportsperson clientele.  What is that if not the American Dream sprung into action?  

A quick look around his studio and Esquivel would point out an alligator doctor's bag given to him by Sylvester Stallone to see if he could cobble a pair of shoes out of them.  We saw massive lasts belonging to basketball players such as LeBron James, whose feet would require Esquivel's expertise.  There were sketches for a pair of patent brogues for Hamish Bowles for the Met Ball, a custom order waiting to be delivered to Taylor Swift and Emma Stone.  The list is endless as Los Angeles' custom made and bespoke shoe crown now belongs to Esquivel and Esquivel only.   

One glance at Esquivel's signature brogues and there's immediately a difference between the countless versions by European brands.  Esquivel likes to see wear and tear in his shoes as well as choosing colour combinations that aren't necessarily orthodox for his shoe shapes.  He deliberately rejects the uber polished in favour of a impeccably well-crafted shoe that looks like it could get roughed up at a gig or a party – the sort of places his shoes have frequented over the years.  That rough n' tumble attitude that is also rooted to California is exactly what attracted Tommy Hilfiger to Esquivel, when they met at a CFDA in 2009 at the Americans in Paris showcase.  Likeminded, but still inherently different in their design approach, Hilfiger thought it a perfect fit to collaborate with Esquivel on some twisted classics and vice versa, Esquivel was ecstatic over collaborating with one of his compatriot design heroes.  "There wasn't a brief.  The styles just evolved out of our conversations.  We looked at what Tommy does, he does preppy Americana and we explored what we liked and it reduced down to a brogue and a loafer.  It was then about making preppy but adding the soul of rock and roll, a little bit rebellious," explained Esquivel.  Details such as the perforated toe mimicking the Tommy Hilfiger plaid is Esquivel being a little bit playful.  

At the heart of it though, this collaboration is very much an equal coming of minds.  Esquivel's personality seeping into the hand-stained leather of the two styles of brogues and loafers and Hilfiger's shades of Americana-tinged navy and burgundy.  

As shoe operations go, I've not come across one that felt so bizarre and yet completely natural.  Such a workshop and production facility shouldn't really exist in Orange County but it does.  Esquivel has worked hard to gather up a group of cobblers who are now de facto craftsmen, and is looking to train people all the time.  The lack of shoe making tradition in the area only serves to highlight how amazing it is that a business like George Esquivel operates here.  And that these humble hands are creating shoes destined for the most upper echelons of Hollywood (Esquivel's shoes on a bespoke basis aren't cheap as pairs range from $650 upwards).  Esquivel's customers treat his shoes like old friends though, knowing that they've all gotten the seal of approval from the man himself.   

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When Steve and I finally got our pairs of the Tommy Hilfiger x George Esquivel shoes (hence why this post is popping up now in the midst of fashion weeks), we both did a collective "Ahhhh‚Ķ" as we slipped them on.  They felt good and look like they are the sort of shoes that we'll kick on and off regularly.  I went for the loafer shape because I've pretty much knackered my G.H. Bass ones (also a Hilfiger collaboration), from all the slipping on and off action.  Pairing them up with the other things I bought from L.A. – a cosy RTH tie dye poloneck and a skirt I got on sale in Opening Ceremony – only serve to remind me what a trip that was.  The first of many, I hope.  Not that we'll ever experience jaunts like going to spots like The Spare Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, with its exclusive two lane bowling alley (Brad and Angelina go there, don't ya know‚Ķ).  That was an Esquivel tip-off as he supplies the bowling shoes.  Every pair is different.  Much like most of his shoes.  Even the same style will be worn in a very different way by different people.  And they'll bear the marks of that specific journey.  

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Worn with RTH tie dye poloneck, KYE skirt, Marni shorts underneath and Karen Walker sunglasses

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"It
is a moment, an expression. My philosophy of fashion is humour, jokes and
games. I make my own rules,” said one of the last grand doyennes of fashion,
Anna Piaggi in 1978 in an interview with WWD.  As Milan Fashion Week, drew to a close, you wondered where the humour,
jokes and games were.  Fashion here is a
serious business – big textiles mills, big companies, big advertisers.  All of that bigness doesn‚Äôt leave much room
for the sort of whimsicality and eccentricity that Piaggi demonstrated in her
life as a fashion editor, muse and extraordinary style icon.  One year after the passing of Piaggi, an
exhibition entitled Hat-ology, feting Piaggi’s love of hats, which was curated
by Stephen Jones, just opened last week at the Palazzo Morando Costume Moda
Immagine.  We see a recreation of her office in Milan, where she created and
edited more than twenty years worth of Doppie Pagine double page spreads for
Vogue Italia, typed up on a red Olivetti Valentine typewriter.  Hats from all origins – Phillip Treacy,
tourist caps, Chanel, Prada, vintage Schiaparelli and Jones himself are dotted
around the space – a seemingly eclectic and crazed jumble that actually speaks
of consummate fashion curation and knowledge. 
Of her hats, Piaggi said in 2011, ‚ÄúMy hat is personal.  It is what contains the soul, the feeling,
the sensation that moves this little world around.”

Seeing
Piaggi’s hats on display in the midst of a slew of Milanese shows that were
precisely the opposite of anything crazed or eclectic was bittersweet.  Piaggi danced to the beat of her own drum in
Milan with her blue hair, penchant for Comme mixed with vintage Poiret, and she
stood quite alone.  What she represented
and believed in wasn’t necessarily being reflected in Italian fashion, with a
few notable exceptions (thank you Miuccia Prada).  The weird and wonderful is not the done thing
in Milan.  We‚Äôre here to see perfectly
well-made clothes, expressing conventional notions of glamour, sexiness and
femininity in big razz-ma-tazz venues.         

The
cracks are starting to appear though. 
Piaggi’s peers in fashion have begun to recognise the failings and weaknesses
of Milan Fashion Week and with grumblings about its lagging state behind the commercial
hub hub of New York, the grassroots creativity of London and the queen bee
status of Paris, changes are supposedly a-coming.  Board members of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana such as Patrizio Bertelli of Prada
Group and Diego della Valle of Tod’s Group are eager to usher in change and so
we’ve had a week where young designers have been given a bigger spotlight in
amongst the power brands.  Marco de
Vincenzo, Stella Jean and Fausto Puglisi have been touted as a “new wave” of
young Italian designers.  It‚Äôs hardly a
wave but it‚Äôs a start.  Freedom of
expression on the level of Piaggi though is still sorely lacking.  Some might say Piaggi was a persona rooted to
a particular time in fashion, when flamboyance and whimsicality, were de rigueur.   That‚Äôs the conundrum of fashion at present –
what exactly is left if our time in fashion
is defined by profit margins, marketability and pure product? 

Originally written for Dazed DIgital

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