Uncovering the Undercover

Pitti Uomo, the world’s most important menswear trade fair, is in full swing in Florence. The city is literally brimming with energy. After attending the highly anticipated double fashion show by the avant-garde Japanese brands Undercover and The Soloist, Danilo Venturi seeks refuge in the Oltrarno. Here, in a quiet cozy bar – a rare …

Pitti Uomo, the world’s most important menswear trade fair, is in full swing in Florence. The city is literally brimming with energy. After attending the highly anticipated double fashion show by the avant-garde Japanese brands Undercover and The Soloist, Danilo Venturi seeks refuge in the Oltrarno. Here, in a quiet cozy bar – a rare find during the one-week-long fashion turmoil – he discusses the beautiful performance that he has just witnessed.

Undercover show

What do you think about the show?

To me it was an interesting philosophical exercise because it was retro and futuristic at the same time. Vintage because it featured concepts that I have already seen as a teenager but to a younger generation it might had looked futuristic because they did not live in the 80s and the 90s. I would also say that the collection is classic meant to be avant-garde

What do you mean?

I will give you an example. The last time I visited MoMA to see the exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? I expected to find couture, futuristic and avant-garde pieces but instead, I found basics such as the red flannel grunge shirt that I used to wear as a teenager and now has become a museum piece, a classic. Today the flannel shirt was featured on the catwalk styled in a way that for a newbie it might have looked avant-garde, but for me it was classic. This is a matter of perspective that changes in time and space.

You often refer to the game of time and space during your lectures on branding.

Yes, because playing with time and space is a fundamental exercise for successful branding. Think of today’s show: the setting was inspired by Kubrick’s Space Odyssey putting us in the context of the 70s, the peak of the space race era, while soundtracks by Joy Division and Kraftwerk along with grunge elements were referencing the 80s and the 90s. These three decades were marked by the excitement about space exploration, prospects of a better life on other planets as well as the anticipation for the fall of the Berlin wall and a peaceful coexistence of human kind. At the same time, there was a feeling of anxiety about a possible atomic war, raise of the machines and apocalypse, so the turn of the millennium was supposed to bring about a significant change leading us either into a perfect world or to the end of it. Today we look back at this period from a 2018 stance, where we still live on Earth, the Berlin wall was destroyed yet we are still divided by countless conflicts and wars, computers did not help us create a perfect world and the apocalypse did not happen. So the future envisioned decades ago never actually took place and we keep asking ourselves why. Is it because of “Human Error” or “Computer Malfunction”? Raising these questions makes collections by Undercover and The Soloist an existentialist exercise.

Undercover show

Did you get any answers?

Definitely. For me the key message was that humankind is essentially imperfect, that is why all our attempts to systemize a natural disorder are doomed to result in failure, and technology, being only an extension of human mind and body, is a powerful means but not a panacea. So we have to face ourselves and instead of fighting the disorder embrace it, understand that error is an integral part of the creative process. Marco Bizzarri and Alessandro Michele have embraced disorder and made Gucci become the most powerful brand because it reflects society.

Could you explain what key elements one must consider when analyzing a fashion collection?

You should simultaneously consider three or four elements, depending on a brand. First, you detect the silhouette by considering the relation between garment and body: how much space a garment occupies around a body and to what extent a body is covered or exposed. If you take Iris Van Herpen, the garment always exceeds the space of the body creating an aura around it while Rei Kawakubo tends to deform the body; Armani, the outmost classic today, started by introducing the iconic deconstructed jacket that altered the shoulder line.

The second element is the technical side and sartorial aspects such as materials, colors, shapes, cuts, etc.

Then there is concept, the most attractive part, at least for my generation, because it links fashion to society. The concept can be delivered coherently but also by contradiction and provocation. Vivienne Westwood used to provoke while Jil Sander did exactly the opposite: by simplifying the design she manifested the idea of reducing the superfluous to grasp the essence. In order to bridge sartorial and conceptual dimensions, you have to consider the relation between ethics and aesthetics that changes depending on time and space. For example, something raw and rough in the Western world has a negative meaning while in Asian culture it is positive. Or, in case of time perspective, being tanned in the 18th century meant being a peasant while today it means that you have time and money to get tanned, so there has been a total shift in perception.

Finally, for some brands you should consider the fourth element that is a relation between the current designer, the brand and its founder. Does a designer consider the brand’s identity or does he/she do his/her own thing and why? An interesting example to consider is Hedi Slimane; whatever brand he enters, it becomes Slimane.

Undercover show

Speaking about the relation between a designer and a brand, what do you think about the work of Gvasalia at Balenciaga?

I think that we should never expect that a new designer to show what has already been done. Instead, we should ask ourselves: if the founder were alive today, what would he be like? Cristobal Balenciaga was a constructor and a modernist, “an architect of Haute Couture” of his time yet we live in the 21st century, so fashion has evolved alongside history. How would Cristobal Balenciaga be today, having experienced Japanese and Belgian influences and witnessed the postmodern deconstruction of Martin Margiela? Once again, this is an exercise of thinking across time and space, considering possible futures that never happened or pasts that could have developed in a different way.

Working for Maison Margiela, Demna Gvasalia learned the idea of deconstruction, that is the B-side of construction, to further inject it into Balenciaga. Moreover, in his work Gvasalia makes remarkable comments on the current culture when, for example, at Vetements he takes Ikea or DHL, usually considered non-cultural and commercial, and makes them cultural by adding the right context and eventually returning them to a more commercial dimension because the pieces have to be sold. Wasn’t Andy Warhol doing something similar?

The Gvasalia brothers are so powerful in the fashion industry because, as well as Gucci, they capture the spirit of the time and reflect society, so whether you like it or not, you have to face it. Today there is no more difference between mainstream and commercial because there is no ideology, no culture and no subculture. This is totally fine and also fun.

So don’t we have any new subcultures today?

No. The new generations like to experiment with subcultures trying on various pasts they have never lived, which is positive. However, a subculture implies a certain set of rules. First, who comes now is better than the one before. Second, my subculture is better than yours. Third, subculture is not a matter of dress codes; it’s a matter of ethics and behavioral patterns. In times of true subcultures, if you were a punk and your girlfriend was a MOD, you were attacked by your peers and expelled from the group. They tend to take a zero tolerance approach because subculture reproduces the blood link of primitive tribes while Gothic Lolitas or Emos are styles spawned by punk subculture.

Undercover show

What is the impact of punk on fashion?

First, technique does not count, spirit counts. Second, ugliness can be beautiful, as long as it is disruptive. Third, go against the grain and be critical. These are the three punk principles that live beyond punk as a movement influencing our behaviors and aesthetics thus changing the parameters of societal behavior and eventually fashion that is the reflection of society. Designers keep using punk identifiers – for example Hedi Slimane was using perfecto at Saint Laurent. However, subcultures are dead and what you have instead is a “supermarket of styles”, like Ted Polhemus has dubbed it.

Why in your opinion did Undercover and The Soloist choose Pitti Uomo to show their menswear collections?

II see several reasons for this. First of all, Pitti Uomo is the best stage for menswear in the world. Secondly, the Japanese are attracted to Italy because it is the opposite of their culture. They are fascinated by La Dolce Vita, the pleasure of life, and appreciate good taste in clothes and food. Thirdly, I think designers have chosen Pitti because it is deeply rooted in Florence with its cultural and artisanal heritage and although in our Western mind Japan is very avant-garde, in reality it cherishes tradition a lot. So, there is a natural cultural attraction between the two nations.

What do you think about the business side of the collections?

From the business point of view, the collections were very smart, showcasing a simple yet efficient formula: while art directors create conceptual impact, merchandisers match pieces immaculately to make them sellable and commercial. In this context, commercial is a positive quality and I believe that merchandising is also a form of art. Visit the Gucci Garden that has just opened in Florence, a kaleidoscopic space that integrates the renovated Gucci museum, a boutique selling unique clothes, accessories and furniture not available in any other store; souvenir and book shop as well as the Gucci Osteria run by three-Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura. Same formula: culture and commerce next to each other, a beautiful chaos yet a genius business strategy!

Undercover show

Would you call Undercover a streetwear brand?

Undercover uses streetwear elements but it is not about streetwear. To me, attaching any kind of label, including “street wear”, is passé. Let me give you an example. When I was a young, the majority of records in the shops were rock, pop genre, techno or indie that back then meant an independent label while now indie indicates a specific type of sound. Today, if you check your i-something, the most popular genre is “other”. What is “other”? What is “street wear”? During his lecture at Polimoda David Fischer in response to the question “What is the next sneaker?” said: “Maybe it’s not a sneaker. Maybe it’s a moccasin”. So labels don’t make sense anymore because they don’t reflect the content. Undercover is not streetwear, it’s Jun Takahashi.

Should personal opinion be taken into account when it comes to actually evaluating a collection?

It depends on what your job is. If you are a journalist, you have to be as objective as possible. Yet objectivity is not a human feature because we all have different opinions, so a journalist should be able to draw a clear line where a scientific analysis ends and personal opinion begins, so that the reader can agree on the analysis and, maybe, disagree with the opinion. If you are a teacher, you should do the same. But expressing personal opinion is important because it sets the tone for a highly important element that we have lost today – a debate. When there is no debate, there is no progress.

Isn’t Facebook full of debates?

Debate means looking into the eyes of the opponents, expressing a point of view and then listening to other opinions putting an effort to understand them and eventually agreeing or disagreeing by providing counter-arguments. In this way you show respect for your opponents, see who is sincere and who is not. This enriches people’s mind and soul. On Facebook people are not debating: they are lynching each other. You express an opinion and then you are lynched and insulted in the comments, and another time it’s your turn to lynch someone and foster aggression. Moreover, I don’t know if my opponents are even people since I don’t see them, or if they are paid to write a certain opinion. This is anonymity. Aggression and anonymity are a dangerous mix because they create a fertile ground for manipulation that leads to techno dictatorship. And, what is worst, we don’t know who the dictator is.

Did you like the collection?

Scientifically speaking yes, I understand and appreciate the work. Personally speaking, it is a déjà vu but I understand that for a younger audience it’s all new. And fashion is young.

This article is an excerpt from Polimoda’s long-form publication Almanac, an expanded catalogue where courses and content collide to offer a comprehensive compendium of all things Polimoda. From interviews with cutting edge designers to essays on the future of fashion, we will be featuring a selection of the Almanac’s most interesting visual and reading material on our journal.