This is Erdem Moralioglu‘s second menswear season, and his vision of the Erdem man becomes more refined and clear. Handsome, young men standing in an English country garden, against beds of succulent purple and yellow flag irises. With his cinematic eye for glancingly historical biographical references, Moralioglu almost conjured a reincarnation of an everyday scene from the country life of the painter and plantsman Cedric Morris. It was shot at Benton End in rural Suffolk, Morris’s home from 1939, where he created a microcosm of an artistic avant-garde bohemian life with his lover Arthur Lett-Haines, as well as founding an art school. Lucian Freud was an early pupil. Cedric Morris, it turns out, was a friend and supplier of the society florist Constance Spry, who designed the Queen’s Coronation and who had her highly successful shop a few doors down from where the Erdem flagship is now. Connie Spry and her aristocratic clientele are all over his collection. There’s nothing like a romantic coincidence to get Moralioglu going. This one was a pure gift in terms of the colors he loves, inspiration for his boyishly foppish sense of style all the way through to the floppy, blowsy bow ties which seem almost like blooming corsages picked from Morris’s iris beds. The idea for digging into this aristocratic alternative history had actually hit him a little while ago at a Cedric Morris exhibition at the Garden Museum. Even without knowing a thing about this artist, though, you can sense the spirit of the 1940s that Erdem picked up in photos and paintings: Englishmen in hand-knitted sweaters, tweeds, shorts, and silk dressing gowns.
For autumn-winter 2022, Erdem Moralioglu imagined the night lives of four extraordinary women from Berlin’s 1930s arts scene. As silence fell upon a black box inside the Sadler’s Wells, a pianist took to a grand piano and began to play a dramatic solo. From the ceiling, pillars of dusty spotlights shot through the blackened-out room as Erdem’s austere, androgynous, unsettling – and totally beautiful – collection meandered around the arena. “I liked the idea that it was a club, and maybe they were on their way out, like ghosts. It’s the end of the night and they’re trailing away…” he said backstage, before detailing the historical influence that inspired the collection. Following the launch of his second men’s collection in January, Moralioglu wasn’t done exploring its muse, the photographer Madame d’Ora, who embodied the free and alternative spirit of 1930s’ Berlin in a time of political unrest. Imagining how her nightlife might have been, he found another four muses to join her: the painters Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, and the dancers Anita Berber and Valeska Gert, who were all contemporaries of d’Ora and personified the cross-dressing, sexually ambiguity, and liberated identities of the time. “There was something about the effect of doing menswear, and the exercise of adding that masculinity into the collection, and maybe thinking of the extremes of femininity and masculinity mixed together,” Moralioglu explained, using Karen Elson’s opening look of a floral-embroidered black men’s coat with a black sequined evening scarf and big leather boots as an illustration of his intentions. It set a muted and reduced mood for the collection, which was mesmerising through an Erdem lens.
In his second menswear collection, Erdem Moralioglu goes for streetwear – something you never see in his often dramatic women’s offering. “Utilitarian romanticism” is how the London-based designer summed up his newest creative venture. He has a point: in a world where people wear couture-house joggers to dinner, and even Moralioglu surrenders to sporty dress codes, streetwear is really just daywear. “It’s a boiled fleece hoodie with a tailored, nipped jogger,” he said of the collection’s most informal look, describing those garments exactly like he would his ladylike womenswear. But unlike that womenswear Erdem’s men’s world has a relaxed, almost light-hearted quality about it. The designer has been living in the spring men’s collection since he received the first pieces, and, as he confirmed, “it’s very personal.” While the first collection only started to arrive in stores in November, his recipe of ravishingly-colored knits, corduroy, and printed denim has seen great response from the yet-to-be-defined Erdem men’s customer, and has gone down well with his trusty female clientele, too. This season, he took inspiration from the work of two women, who may as well have played muses to one of his women’s collections: Madame d’Ora, a Viennese portrait photographer and contemporary of Picasso, and Madame Yevonde, a portrait and still-life photographer who worked in London around the interwar era. Together, their subjects, grading techniques, and the latter’s use of color inspired a 1930s-driven collection, which borrowed from the women’s wardrobe of the time, and fused those references in Moralioglu’s contemporary “utilitarian romanticism.” What emerged through Moralioglu’s second menswear proposal was a men’s wardrobe of conventional contradictions: feminine vs. masculine, formal vs. informal, Old World vs. new world. Those dichotomies are hardly new territory in menswear, but through the lens of Erdem – with all its history and romanticism – this menswear brand already feels unique and familiar in a way that gives it a character of its own on a very saturated market.
Ever since Erdem Moralioglu moved into his new house in Bloomsbury during the pandemic, his work has taken on a more demure and sober character. Somehow, the fusion between that sensibility and the old-world glamour that underpins his oeuvre feels appropriate for now. Dramatic, but with balance. Erdem’s 15th-anniversary collection – and first runway show since the pandemic – captured that dichotomy in a purified and clarified ode to his own body of work. Presented in the colonnade of the British Museum (in Bloomsbury), he envisioned it through the wardrobes of Bloomsbury’s best: Edith Sitwell and Ottoline Morrell, whose spirits he could easily have come across on one of his evening strolls across Bedford Square. “I was really fascinated with these two women – both six foot – who knew each other, and donated to the British Museum,” Moralioglu said backstage, highlighting their independent and formidable approaches to life in the early- and mid-20th century. “Both women lived outside of the time that they actually lived in: Ottoline Morrell dressed in kind of Edwardian dress in the 1930s, and Edith Sitwell would wear something kind of medieval. They were displaced and disjointed in terms of time and pace,” he observed, with words that could have described the last 15 years of Erdem collections just as well. Throughout his own history, he has freely and defiantly traveled the annals of fashion history at large, spinning fantastical narratives around characters and events drawing on fact and fiction, and brought those looks into contemporary contexts. This collection was no different. While its silhouettes were carved from the first half of the previous century, Moralioglu twisted them out of their prim lines and switched opulent fabrics for “poor” ones, using instead embellishment as his richness factor. A delicate floral embroidery curled around dresses looked almost like an industrial chain print, quilted floral skirts were kind of wrong but cool, and lace dresses transformed into knitwear de-prettified that girly trope. Styled consistently with unfussy brogues – and showed alongside the terrific sturdy-romantic menswear he launched this summer – those tactics created a sense and sensibility that spoke to that post-pandemic appetite for the gentle grand gesture.
Erdem Moralioglu delivered a mesmerising collection. He is at heart a dramatist, forever living for theatrical moments. Conceived in the realm of ballet, his Erdem autumn-winter 2021 collection freeze-framed a dancer’s wardrobe between the stages of rehearsal and performance. “When I was working at the Royal Opera House, that was the moment I found so exciting: the dancers shifting around, criss-crossing, half-dressed in what they wear during the day and half-dressed in their costumes,” he said on a video call with Vogue, recalling Corybantic Games, the ballet he created costumes for in 2018. Incidentally, the contrast between a ballerina’s everyday dancewear and her ornate costumes served as a rather poetic illustration of our impending transition from domestic dressing to dressing up. The exquisiteness of feather-embroidered 1940s jackets, Swan Lake headpieces and plumed skirts, giant opera gowns daubed in night-time florals, and jewel-encrusted shirts came as no surprise. The gray ribbed knitwear fashioned into dramatic skirts that moved like pleats, into softly cinching cummerbunds, and body-conscious tops that had the elegance of eveningwear but the tactility of the comfort-wear of lockdown. With similar duality, he elevated ballet slippers onto stilted platforms that gave his silhouette an air of fetish. Perhaps that feeling was spurred by the narrative that underpinned his story: the relationship between Rudolf Nureyev and prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, whose on- and off-stage wardrobe also informed proceedings. “The contrasts, the dichotomies of a dancer… that Hitchcockian self-possession and drive for perfection,” Moralioglu paused. “I find the psychology of it interesting.” Perfecting a look – a sculpted sleeve, a nipped-in waist, a little plumed hat, a pair of neat red slippers – seems shocking in our home-bound reality. It was pleasant to be reminded of that feeling.