Northern Irish designer J.W. Anderson loves to provoke with his collections, which is generally a good and interesting thing for design, the UK fashion community, and cultural norms at large. However, his latest offering – a menswear collection which dressed boys in skirts, bustiers, and frills – is creating a much larger stir among the press and online fashion witnesses. Is the mutual hype and hate validated? It subjectively depends on whether controversial gesture alone is enough to be considered noteworthy stimulation. Conversely, some might demand more: what is the ultimate point Anderson is trying to make here? Is it about how men (and women) relate to clothes? Is it to challenge the fashion culture that currently adores him? Or is it actually neither, and simply a chance to ruffle feathers with a smirk? To retrace the tired emasculation ritual that so many others have explored with far more conviction? It’s insufficient.
Anderson claims the clothes are about the shape, not ‘the boy’, and these shapes are inarguably fine and well-executed minimalist wear. But by producing the concept as ‘menswear’, he knowingly enters a dialogue about sexual dynamics (in fact, the show is called ‘Age of Consent’ and deals with mother/son incest) without actually evolving that loaded-gun discussion in any direction. It presents itself as ‘direct’ and tantalizing but ultimately is evasive and unwilling to provide content to the shaky context. You can’t just put men in bustiers and call it art; that may be considered low-hanging fruit. Some may even find misogynistic AND misandric traits in the collection, as it presents both masculinity and femininity norms as highly unpleasant lines for both parties to cross. Does Anderson enjoy the idea of men being made uncomfortable in women’s clothes, and if so, what does that reveal about how he views women and their wardrobes? (Tellingly, he’s made no secret of hating dresses – ’til now). If you’re going to fire a pistol, you better be ready to account for your act. Anderson has people talking – which he clearly wants – but refuses to engage in the conversation himself.
Many designers – from Prada to Ann Demeulemeester to Jean Paul Gaultier to Thom Browne – have adroitly played with the idea of androgyny and gender erasure in their designs and presentation through a more defined and confident viewpoint. They can back their actions with authority; they’re willing to put their neck out for their views and go through great care to achieve that clarity of vision. There’s no such humor or insight in Anderson’s approach, only passive aggression. Surely, the young designer will claim that he’s not in the business of raising questions and has no responsibility to provide answers – an easy way out, some might argue – but even the questions (and audience they are targeting) are convoluted here. Deconstructionism has exhausted itself to the point where it can feel like a cheap shot and way to passively rebel through surface thrills alone. It would be refreshing if Anderson – and those who deem his work ‘brave’ – would use their considerable talents to suggest solutions to the problems they find in postmodern identity, instead of simply presenting an angry and empty ‘fuck you’ to the industry they work within. That would be real progress.