Towards the end of the press preview of this sumptuously progressive show, Grace Wales Bonner mentioned Sankofa. This bird-looking-backwards symbol of Ghana’s Akan people, she said: “means’ ‘going back to go forward.’ It is not about being nostalgic or historical. It’s about taking something from the past in order to pass it forward and make it useful for the future. And that’s the spirit of this collection.” Wales Bonner was speaking in the central courtyard of Florence’s Palazzo Medici Riccardi, a space where one Pitti Uomo executive mentioned in passing that there had never before been a live fashion show. It was as if the Palazzo had been waiting 485 years – the time since it was once home to the first Black head of state in modern Europe – to become the outbound runway for this evening’s Sankofa flightpath. Its starting cipher was Alessandro de Medici, who until his assassination in 1537 at the hand of a cousin ruled here as the first hereditary monarch of the Florentine Republic. His mother was named Simonetta da Collevecchio – aka “Soenara” – and was Black. She, history a little shakily relates, was a house servant who became mother to Alessandro after an encounter with either Duke Lorenzo (the official father) or Pope Clement VII. “I wanted to acknowledge that presence but also think about the idea of arrival,” said Wales Bonner. The building also held an additional layer of resonance relevant to her practice of excavating multifaceted manifestations of cultural intersection through garments. The palazzo was commissioned by Alessandro’s ancestor Cosimo in 1444, around the same time that he hosted the 17th ecumenical council, a global gathering of Christendom which according to historian Paul Strathern included: “Armenians and Ethiopians… other entourages included Moorish, Berber, and black African attendants.”
All of this context served as evidence that the building around us has played a role in the history of Black agency and participation in Renaissance Italy. It was leveled by the intervention in the Palladian architecture by the artist Ibrahim Mahama, who clad the space in a huge patchwork of hand stitched jute sacks originally used to export cocoa from his home country of Ghana – where Wales Bonner met him several months ago – into the global markets. “It was important to have an equal representation within the space,” said Wales Bonner. The opening look featured the reproduction of an artwork by Kerry James Marshall. This was another pointer towards Wales Bonner’s intention to rehang the display of menswear in Florence just as one would rehang a gallery – in order to shift the visitors’ experience. Just as effective was the slow coalescence of menswear forms – some sourced from the previously mentioned binary of contemporary European tropes of formality and informality, and others from a broader array of traditions whose boundaries were broken down by adjacency. Paris’s Charvet provided handsome robes and day-pajamas in jacquards whose patterns were drawn from Wales Bonner’s research into West African tradition. The macramé womenswear dresses were set with hand-made glass beads by Ghanaian artisans, and the heat-dryed hand-dyed jersey had been fashioned in Burkina Faso (Wales Bonner was building new trade routes between Africa and Italy, and Savile Row too). In menswear there was genre-busting back and forth between futuristic sportswear (which included a hand-made adidas shoe whose trefoil looked lacily artisanal) and Wales Bonner-directed, Anderson & Sheppard-cut tailoring in cashmere and camel hair that was de-conventionalized through emphasised shoulders and small sly acts of sartorial ‘wrongness’ that looked incontrovertibly right. So back to Sankofa. What was the backward-looking-bird returning to, in order to pass forward for the future? Said Wales Bonner: “It’s about bringing an Afro-Atlantic spirit to European luxury by honoring these traditions wherever they are. And making something hybrid or integrated through working with different people.”
For the autumn-winter 2020 season, Lucie and Luke Meier presented their men’s Jil Sander collection at Pitti Uomo in Florence. In the complex of the Santa Maria Novella, where the show was staged (accompanied by three huge heaps of marigolds), stands an ancient pharmacy dating back to the 13th century in which balms and salves have been concocted from calendula for generations. This created a connection to the fine silk tassels – confession box Catholic, but here mostly in monochrome – that sparked thoughts of local historical attire, as did a carefully roughened white habit that passed in the collection. Still, the Meiers don’t need references to stand behind their clothes. Lucie spoke of wanting to make garments with lifetime appeal (“cherishable clothes”). The Shetland knitwear, the fantasic, over-sized tailoring, the ornamental, yet subtle beaded details on the coats – those are clothes that will stay with you forever and never get out of fashion.
It’s just the beginning of 2019, and we’re already talking about a fashion week. While men’s London fashion week simply seemed to be there, somewhere in the background – with such exceptions as Charles Jeffrey Loverboy’s phenomenal spectacle – the new season takes a more interesting path in Italy, in Florence specifically. Pitti Uomo invited Y/Project, the Paris-based label nailing modern-day nonchalance, to present its collection in Tuscany’s magical capital. Glenn Martens took his guests to the Cloister Grade of Santa Maria Novella, and the result was… fire. Indeed, Martens mastered his distinct touches, like distorted proportions, too-short-here-too-long-there volumes and texture clashes to a perfection of its kind, and we know it looking at his previous collections. But the autumn-winter 2019 outing for guys (and pre-fall 2019 for women) goes darker than usual, even slightly dramatic I would say. And we’re not speaking about couture-ish embroideries and ball-gowns. No. But the way the designer tailors a trench-coat, shapes a velvet jacket or elongates a chunky knit is extremely vivid. Those garments leave and breathe! And Glenn evidently experiments with that feeling of clothes in motion. I also loved how Martens injected this flea-market edginess to his new season offering: (faux) fur stoles and floor-sweeping coats looked like stolen from your grandma, while hand-picked Persian rugs were worn as belts and scarves. The vocabulary of Y/Project grows, but you’re well aware that it’s the same soul. Whether it’s in a off-beat, Parisian location or in one of Florence’s most exquisite churches.
Looking back at J.W. Anderson‘s memorable man-skirts or heavy boots covered with studs and flowers, you would never believe that the designer might suddenly do something so… simple. “No-fuss fashion basic-ness. Trying to strip everything back.” This is how Jonathan Anderson summed up his spring-summer 2018 collection presented at Florentine gardens of the Villa La Pietra (as a special guest of the season’s Pitti Uomo). And then he added, “I think this is the first season I’ve tried everything on myself. It was like going back into yourself.” Even the jeans are cut in the way he really likes it. And I like this type of cut, too – slightly baggy, cropped. Also, who doesn’t love a pair of off-duty Converse? Anderson collaborated with the sneakers brand for the upcoming season. Multicoloured heart patches bring on the hippie mood of carefree, summer nights. Chunky knits and tattered-looking jackets will be the perfect choice for a breezy beach day. Sometimes it’s worth going chinos and loose t-shirts, to just settle down and chill.
It’s the first time in a while, when Pitti Uomo feels exciting. This season, the fashion editors and buyers have seen Gosha Rubchinskiy take on Italian culture; the same day, Raf Simons presented one of his most defining collections in his career. The standing fashion show for spring-summer 2017 was a special occasion – it was a nod to Robert Mapplethorpe, a controvertial American, who was known for his unconventional black-and-white photography. During his lifetime, the photographer shot such extraordinary characters as Patti Smith or Andy Warhol, but also, he was famous for his highly BDSM polaroids, flower still-lives (often compared to erect phallus) and nudes of female wrestlers.
The photographer, who began the cult of erotic photography in the 70s, was the main, well-visible and fully acknowledged reference point for Raf this season. Rather than simply putting famous Mapplethorpe photographs as prints on tops, Simons challenged himself to make his inspiration something much more profound. “Every boy is a representation of a piece of work” – this is how the designer described the models, with dark, curly hair and skinny black pants. Some looked like the original characters taken out of Mapplethorpe’s polaroids, wearing leather biker caps and voluminous, white shirts. Oh yes, the shirts. The over-sized silhouettes reassembled white walls of a gallery, perfectly exposing these defiant and somewhat deviant visuals. Debbie Harry, with a stern face, looked at you from under a cropped V-neck sweater; a penis photo on a striped t-shirt wasn’t a surprise, keeping in mind Robert’s late obsessions. Wherever you turned, you could sense respect for the photographer, coming from Raf’s heart. The focus was on the clothes – the images weren’t shouting, leaving space for the pieces to speak for themselves. It’s not a one-season-only type of collaboration between an artist (specifically, Mapplethorpe Foundation) and a fashion designer. It’s a collection, where everything is about the rebellious attitude, with a very clear, labelled reference. Other designers should take a note from Simons on how to name their inspirations, in order not to become accidental copycats.