Dirk's Tour

From Manhattan to Milan, editor in chief Dirk Standen considers the global impact of American style

Published April 09, 2014
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I just got back from a month on "the barge." That's not my phrase; it's Eve Babitz's. In her novel Sex and Rage, Babitz—the great, underrated chronicler of Los Angeles in the seventies and eighties—coined the term to describe the itinerant rich who drift without apparent friction from place to place, a self-contained floating world that exists on a diet of gossip and fillet of sole, lots of sole. Substitute the fish for green juice, and you have the contemporary fashion caravan.

But what happens when you step off the barge for a few minutes? In Milan, early for a fashion party, I ducked into a nondescript bar. The place was full of Milanese kids in their 20s, and what struck me was that every man and woman was wearing the same uniform: jeans, sneakers, sweatshirt, puffa jacket. Global normcore, if you will. This is how much of the world dresses now, and in its casualness and reliance on totemic items like denim—which is both universal and ruggedly individualistic—it's basically the American way of dressing. That's what we wanted to explore in this issue: the American influence.

I'm not necessarily talking about American design, though a decade ago, who would have predicted that U.S.-based designers would be in charge of Balenciaga (Alexander Wang), Hugo Boss (Jason Wu), and Moschino (Jeremy Scott)? Or that Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler would have a retrospective that took over a large swathe of Le Bon Marché and that their clothes would more than hold their own in that bastion of Parisian chic? It's also interesting that, after years of looking to Asia, many European luxury companies now see the U.S. as an important growth market.

More powerful than any of that, though, is how the dream of America—the ease, the freedom, the iconography—has inspired fashion around the world. When I was growing up in England, before I moved to the U.S. in my teens, we idolized guys like Steve McQueen and Marvin Gaye. And the women we dreamed of, whose posters lined our walls, were Farrah Fawcett and Debbie Harry. Movie stars, Ivy Leaguers, rappers, rockers, bikers, cowboys, surfers, skateboarders—American archetypes still fuel adolescent imaginations across the globe.

And no matter how complicated the American reality may be, the dream continues to resonate. Just ask Riccardo Tisci. On a freezing day in early January, I went to Milk Studios in New York for the Givenchy Pre-Fall presentation. Tisci, the label's designer, strolled in a few minutes late. He had celebrated New Year's in Miami with a star-studded crew, and a storm meant his plane couldn't land at JFK until the early hours of the morning. He looked fresh as a daisy. Tisci always looks fresh as a daisy. In his plaid shirt and his Timberlands, with a mustache that's half blue-collar, half boulevardier, he came off like a cross between Marcel Proust and Stanley Kowalski. He told me how excited he was about his upcoming collaboration with Nike. Back when Tisci was a basketball-playing kid in Italy, Nike was one of the American brands that fascinated him. The others were Marlboro and McDonald's. He talked about his love for this country, its diversity. He said his Fall menswear collection would be inspired by America in general and basketball in particular. That's funny, I said, I'm thinking of doing an American-themed issue. (Aside from the reasons mentioned above, there was a personal motivation, which I'll get to.) Maybe, I suggested, Tisci would like to do a shoot for us. He agreed right away. I don't remember his exact words, but I'd like to believe they were: "Let's just do it."

Rappers, rockers, bikers, movie stars, surfers, skateboarders—American archetypes fuel the global imagination.

This was a topsy-turvy season. It was bound to be, when the most anticipated show—Nicolas Ghesquière's debut at Louis Vuitton, a quiet but powerful affair as it turned out—was scheduled for the very last day of the whole four-week cycle. Various events, like snowstorms in New York and Cathy Horyn's sudden resignation from The New York Times, kept things off-kilter. But if there was a through-line, it was this: The best collections were the ones in which designers, whether they were explicitly referencing America or not, looked hard at the reality of the way people dress and the world around us and applied a transformational magic. In London, Christopher Kane took puffa jackets and nylon windbreakers and, by splicing them with lace and fur, turned the everyday into the extraordinary. In Milan, Moschino's Scott confronted the power and ubiquity of American corporate logos to delightfully controversial effect. And in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld, with his leggings and legumes at Chanel, made the most mundane of activities—a spin through the supermarket—into a pop masterpiece. Perhaps it takes someone for whom grocery shopping is presumably not an everyday chore to see how thrilling a trip down the frozen-food aisle can be. Of course, fashion never fits neatly into a thesis, and there was also running through the shows a strand of inspiration that was squarely in the European avant-garde tradition. That was most obvious at Prada, with its homage to the German New Wave filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But even then, reality trumped fantasy. "Something less fancy, more dark," Miuccia Prada said.

Photos: Richard Young / REX USA; Everett Collection; Susan Wood / Getty Images; Janette Beckman / Getty Images; Brian Hamill / Getty Images

As I mentioned, there was a personal motivation behind this issue's American theme. It's not why we chose it, but once we had, it seemed right. Peter Kaplan, the editorial director of Fairchild Fashion Media and a driving force behind this magazine, died last year, at age 59, after a battle with cancer. Peter was American to the core. He grew up in New Jersey and later crossed the river to conquer what his father called the Emerald City. As the editor of the New York Observer from 1994 to 2009, he was a figure of considerable influence, but in the best American tradition, I think he still preferred to see himself as an outsider. For all the sophistication and wit he brought to the pages of the Observer, he had no truck with cynicism, which he regarded as a European vice. He loved Broadway show tunes and Hollywood movies. He was forever fascinated by the madness and minutiae of American politics. He liked the occasional stiff drink and endless cups of weak coffee. He vacationed in all-American locales—for many years on Nantucket and, later, in Maine. In fact, he rarely traveled outside the U.S., and until his duties as editor of M, another Fairchild publication, took him to Milan for the menswear shows, he had never been to Italy. It was part of Peter's genius that he did not allow the lack of air miles to hold him back during a stint as creative director of Condé Nast Traveler.

No matter how complicated the American reality may be, the dream continues to resonate.

And then there was the way he dressed. Day in, day out, regardless of the season, Peter wore the same thing: a blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt, khakis, and brown cordovan lace-ups. A striped rep tie would be tucked into the front of his shirt, and a navy blazer would probably be slung over the back of a chair somewhere in his office, assuming you could find it under the piles of paper and magazines. Soon after he started at Fairchild, a weekly published a satirical story with pictorial suggestions for various ways Peter could make over his wardrobe now that he was running a fashion media company. It was a funny idea, and he got a kick out of it. But, to me, it missed the point. Peter's look was perfect the way it was. It was a perfect expression of the man. It was perfect American style.

Photos: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images; Terry O'Neill / Getty Images
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