I remember it as clearly as a punch in the face. I was sitting watching the news with my parents. A report came on about a new youth movement. Its members dyed their hair peroxide blond and stuck safety pins through their cheeks. They didn't dance but jumped up and down like they were having a seizure; they spat at each other and the bands they liked, rainstorms of mucus. Even the name was a four-letter word: punk. I don't recall any stereotypical display of disgust from my parents, more a charged silence. As for your humble correspondent? Dear reader, the scales fell from my eyes.
For those who lived through it or, like me, came up in its slipstream, too young to experience it except vicariously, you can't overstate the effect of punk. Its founding father, Malcolm McLaren, may have been understating things when he called it "the most important cultural phenomenon of the late twentieth century." Essentially, it said there are no rules. And even after the rules reasserted themselves, as rules do, I like to think that there has been a part of every subsequent generation that could never accept them at face value.
Let's be clear. Punk is dead. Dead and buried. To make it official, it is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Like dinosaurs and Renaissance painters, punks are about to be embalmed within the marble-clad halls of respectability. The aesthetic shock of punk is so strong that it will continue to be mined ad infinitum, but it will never again have the wit and awe it had when it first appeared. And old punks will go to their graves waiting for an equally anarchic movement to emerge. In this digital age, everything is simultaneously too connected and too fragmented to produce that kind of revolution.
But what of the spirit of punk? Arguably its lipstick traces never disappeared completely, and it has never been more necessary. We asked Rei Kawakubo to define it. The Comme des Garçons designer told us: "The spirit of punk lies in not ingratiating oneself to preordained values nor accepting standard authority." She then sent us some artwork whose fuck-off-ness is iconoclasm defined. In this issue we have sought to identify individuals like her who refuse to accept the status quo and seek to live and work by their own rules. In other words, we wanted to explore and celebrate fashion's rule breakers.
It's not just the show at the Met. It's in the air, a sense that we have misplaced our values. I see that when Sean Penn looks at his fellow actors and their money-driven movie choices and tells Esquire, "When people start using themselves as instruments of a kind of consumerist mosh pit, they're helping that take over. I mean, you are a soldier for it or you're a soldier against it. That's all there is to it." I see it when an artist friend, someone who has benefited as much as anyone from the art market's long, uninterrupted bull run, tells me he's clearing all his gallery commitments so he can go back to painting what he wants.
It's a dilemma that's particularly applicable to the fashion business at a moment when a lot of designers are questioning their place within the system. Nicolas Ghesquière's departure from Balenciaga in November sent shock waves through the industry. If Ghesquière, the most emulated designer of his generation, can't stick it out at a major label, who can? This isn't a rant against his previous employer, PPR—or, as it's being renamed, Kering. Complaining about corporations is like railing against casinos. The house always wins. And who's to say the bosses won't be justified? Ghesquière's replacement, Alexander Wang, a designer long championed by Style.com, made a more than creditable debut at Balenciaga this season. Besides, Ghesquière will emerge, perhaps even before you read this, in an even stronger position than before. Talent will out. Still, it makes designers question their roles and how they can work within the industry and still stay true to themselves. Miuccia Prada summed it up. "If you are in sync and in the right time, try to sell; it means people like what you are doing," Prada told our reviewer (and this issue's guardian angel) Jo-Ann Furniss after the Miu Miu show. "If you want to be an artist, compete with artists. You are not completely free. I struggle for freedom, for understanding, to find the places in between."
That struggle may have led to the introspective atmosphere that hovered over this season's best shows, with designers like Marc Jacobs and Prada herself offering moody explorations of their greatest hits. Even the collection of Christopher Kane, the outstanding talent we profiled in Style.com/Print 04, could be read as a brilliant, extended riff on the themes that he has established so far in his manically inventive young career. For me, the season finally took off on the last Sunday of Paris fashion week. At Céline, Phoebe Philo's designs, formerly too severely minimal for my taste, have in the last two seasons become stranger and more personal, and richer for that. Backstage after the show, she stood with two of her young children greeting a long line of well-wishers. She was smiling, but you sensed that she was feeling the burden of explaining the motives behind her work to one journalist after another more keenly than many designers. "Mum?" her daughter asked. "Why do you keep saying the same two words to everyone?" A few hours after that, the exuberant Riccardo Tisci delivered a jolt of energy with an electric Givenchy show. Forty-eight hours later Hermès produced a collection that was the epitome of understated chic. To stretch a point, you could say that it was punk rock in its own way, as a rebuke to the over-the-top fashions that have ruled the runways and the street-style blogs the last few years.
And in between, there was Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent. As I said in these pages last season, Slimane is attempting to stage a revolution against high-concept fashion. Like any revolutionary act, it has inspired negative reactions. To call his approach "lazy," as Cathy Horyn, a rule breaker in her own way, did in The New York Times, is an easy jab designed to echo in the chamber of the Internet, but it's false. A guy who redesigns everything from the logo to the showroom furniture in his first three months at a company is not lazy. And anyone who says he's not respecting the legacy might want to look up Yves' 1971 Spring/Summer haute couture show, the so-called "Nazi occupation" collection. If you can accuse Slimane of anything, it's being too rigorous. He could afford to lighten up a bit. But, along with creating some of the coolest clothes, he's driving the most interesting conversation in fashion.
Fashion right now is where music was just before punk came along. We are in the prog-rock, guitar-solo era, with collections that are full of virtuosity but often empty and unchallenging. Its clearest reflection is in the bright, overdesigned clothes that appear in street-style photos and that are starting to generate fatigue. At a party at the Paris store Colette, its owner, Sarah Andelman—smart, gracious, with a wry sense of humor—introduced me to two young perfumers she is showcasing. They have created a new fragrance called Everything that combines every single perfume that has been released on the commercial market in the past year. It's a mordant comment on conformity and saturation.
Slimane is reacting against blandness. The thing is that he takes his inspiration directly from the musicians he hangs out with in L.A. and elsewhere. If his clothes at Saint Laurent don't yet deliver the shock of the new, it's because the style of those musicians is itself an amalgam of past influences from rock, punk, and grunge. But when they stumble onto the next thing, so will Slimane.
He is ready for the revolution.