What does Giorgio Armani have in common with Steve Jobs, Karl Lagerfeld with Mark Zuckerberg, Anna Wintour with Mother Teresa? They are associated with wearing an instantly recognizable daily uniform. Jobs and Zuckerberg might be said to dress for the technology industry, Mother Teresa had little time for trends, but fashion designers and magazine editors? Aren’t they in the business of telling us what to buy and what to discard every six months? What gall, what sense of entitlement, what perverse elitism affords them the luxury of getting to stay the same?
“All change!” they decree from their ivory towers to us commoners below, then watch as we’re buffeted about against the waves: Get the New Strong Shoulder! Say goodbye to the Skinny! High waists are back! Embrace Fall’s New Volumes! Do as I say not as I do seems to be their modus operandi. But what is behind their abstinence? Are they lazy? Uninspired? Having a laugh at our expense? Is this the ultimate power play of master puppeteers tugging the strings of their colorful playthings?
Former president Barack Obama told Vanity Fair, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
The Trivia of Necessity
Yes, but with all due respect, Mr President, what constitutes trivia in the world of politics is the raison d’être of the fashion industry. Yet our most powerful sartorial leaders don’t buy into the magic and energy of their own runways, nor cave to the oppressive need for uniqueness, nor succumb to the sense of adventure they peddle each season.
While Obama might argue the idea of a uniform is liberating, there might be something else at work with our designers, as Giorgio Armani explains to The Guardian, “When I look at myself in the mirror, I am super-critical. I have to think of what I can wear that will look good on me. I can't wear stripes or bright colours because they make me expand. I like to wear navy trousers with a white T-shirt from Emporio Armani during the day, with white trainers. For evening, I wear black velvet dinner jackets and handmade shirts from Giorgio Armani, hand-made to measure. I almost always wear the same thing. I have an athletic body but am only 1m 70cm tall, sadly, and I know what suits me best.”
So instead of freedom, uniform dressing offers a form of damage control for figures who must represent their brand every waking moment. It becomes referred to as their “signature look.”
Shades of Black
From Riccardo Tisci’s casual separates and pristine white sneakers to Tom Ford’s immaculately tailored suit, from Thom Browne’s schoolboy knee-length shorts with shirt and tie, Michael Kors’s tonal blazer over t-shirt and trousers, Alexander Wang’s T-shirt and jeans accessorized with only his glossy dark locks, they all have one. But the focus of this signature look is even more honed: the only acceptable color of it appears to be black––unless it’s Armani’s equally neutral navy. Yohji Yamamoto delivered this assessment of their favored palette, “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy - but mysterious. But above all black says this: "I don’t bother you - don’t bother me".
But uniform dressing is not just for the male designers. Carolina Herrera’s white shirt with popped collar and monochrome skirt, Diane Von Furstenberg’s printed tunic, Donna Karan’s voluminous black with statement necklace, Miuccia Prada’s knee-length pleated skirt and blouse.
Uniform dressing represents consistency and is perhaps an attempt by the designer to remove themselves from the seasonal hue and cry of magazine editorials and trends, allowing them to remain in the background. Martin Margiela famously took this one step farther wearing a white lab coat and refusing interviews.
The uniform projects sobriety and authority, awarding designers the stature of lifestyle gurus who administer selflessly for the benefit of their followers. Their humble “regulation-wear” in the face of constant change may even ironically borrow from the idea of the blue-collar worker by evoking the tradition of a trade, a craft, possibly artisanal, which is under threat, and often passed down through generations.
What will I wear today? Whatever works.
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Images: All from Catwalkpictures