PARIS — Sexy is back with a vengeance, but with a looser grip on gender.
While the likes of London-based Mowalola and Casey Cadwallader at Mugler flaunt the female form with empowered gusto, it’s men’s wear designers who are making the strongest case for skin baring, particularly in Paris. A daring clutch of emerging names are showing a taste for provocative dressing and an enviable symbiotic relationship with their customers through social media.
“When I design clothes, I don’t think in terms of gender [or lack thereof]. I just make clothes that hopefully people connect to and feel free to wear,” said Spanish designer Arturo Obegero, who makes his Paris Men’s fashion week debut on Jan. 23. “Calling them unisex is just creating another label and putting people in boxes.”
According to fashion historian Florence Müller, the curator of Fashion & Textile Art at the Denver Art Museum, so much sexy is emanating from men’s wear because gender boundaries are being questioned. “Combining irrefutably masculine bodies with feminine garments says ‘I refuse the prison of gender’,” she said.
Groundwork for genderless dressing was laid down as far back as the Sixties by avant-garde designers Pierre Cardin and Rudi Gernreich.
“I am struck by how much Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s aesthetic recalls Helmut Lang’s approach to the body, which in turn, was highly informed by Gernreich’s work,” said Andrew Groves, professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster in England. “Our pervading understanding of futuristic clothing that is utilitarian and unisex derives mainly from [his] revolutionary work of challenging convention, wanting to create a society that was unashamed of the naked body, striving to liberate it through ideas such as the monokini.”
But the road is long. “You only have to see the reaction to Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue or Lazoschmidl’s ruffled blouses in the ‘Lights Up’ music video to understand how deeply gendered garments still are, and how unsettling this remains for most people,” Groves noted.
While designers from older generations were inaccessible to the general public, proponents of the new sexy feel more approachable and only a private message away on social media, where they are often daring to bare their own designs.
“Designers such as de Saint Sernin, Neith Nyer and Burç Akyol fundamentally use skin as their primary fabric [treating] it like any other material, integrating it into their designs and accentuating its qualities and sensual tactility,” Groves said.
Journalist and consultant Philippe Pourhashemi said the new sexy is less about evoking arousal and more “a tool of self-affirmation, and a refusal to be objectified. You are taking back control by showing your body because it pleases you, and only you.”
Laura Darmon, who cofounded the Parisian nonbinary store L’Insane before becoming head buyer and director of business development at ENG, a nongendered boutique in Shanghai, agreed being sexy is first and foremost an appreciation of oneself.
“We are in the selfie generation, where the ‘digital self’ is more and more valuable, and where a person has more confidence in themselves rather than anyone else to know what makes them look good, be it fashion choices or Facetune. It’s for ourselves, although on occasion the goal will be to be seen by others,” she said.
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Having grown up on the Northern Spanish coastal town of Tapia de Casariego, the Central Saint Martins graduate finds inspiration in the idea of sensual movement and vulnerability. His signature look of high-waisted flare trousers, fluid silk shirts and cropped bolero jackets are a reference to his Spanish heritage, taken from flamenco dancers, bullfighters, with the odd surfing reference thrown in.
Belonging to a generation where sustainability is a no-brainer, Obegero is not only working with off-cuts from luxury houses for his designs, but he’s also eschewing traditional retail models. While he has a handful of wholesale accounts such as Paris-based Elevastor, he is looking to bring “bespoke traditions through ready-to-wear” by adding a made-to-measure system to his e-commerce, where a tight selection of his designs are available.
Rather than gender, he likes to work on transmitting poise and posture by “adapting the construction of a look to enhance different shapes to suit the different bodies,” among them Solange Knowles, Christine and the Queens and Belgian singer Tamino, as well as dancers Germain Louvet, étoile of the Paris Opera ballet and New York City Ballet soloist Harrison Ball. Obegero is also working on the costumes for an upcoming production for a theatre in Zurich.
In his opinion, sex will always sell, but he prefers “something less primal, where you show feelings rather than skin. Sexy is the freedom of showing who you are. The people I look up to are performers, like Antonio Gades, an amazing flamenco dancer who brought flamenco into a modern contemporary vision. He had a presence when he walked, he was a walking poem and that’s how I want people to feel: empowered, showing your true colors, your sensitivity and your vulnerability.”
Having discovered fashion via his father, a tailor who worked for Paris’ couture houses, Burç Akyol gave up a budding acting career to enroll at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. After working at Christian Dior under John Galliano, Balenciaga under Nicolas Ghesquière and Emanuel Ungaro with Esteban Cortazar, he followed Cortazar when he launched his namesake brand. In 2019, Akyol left his position as head of collections to create his own unisex brand.
His first collection’s commercial debut in January 2020 was curtailed by the pandemic. While he is planning an e-shop and looking into a preorder production for knitwear and simpler pieces, “everything will be price on request, because I really want people to get in touch with me so I can start talking to them. I want fittings. I want to meet them.”
The Parisian designer finds there is “a kinkiness to being yourself. Being sexy is playful, confident, and being in a comfort zone where you can really play with who you are.” For him, challenging rules through fashion is a way to trigger change. “If you want to make things change, you have to be in it, you can’t do it from the outside. I don’t want to gender clothing. It’s about you being comfortable with what you’re wearing. It has a gender: the one that you choose.”
Marrying sexiness and austerity is Akyol’s favorite combination, as seen in his tuxedo jackets and in his long tunics that telegraph monastic restraint or futuristic hedonism, depending on how they’re styled. While his designs have yet to be seen on boldface names, he named Isabelle Huppert — “perfect mix of austere and sexy — untouchable yet already naked” — Timothée Chalamet, who could “pull off many things and make them look natural,” Harry Styles, who is “playful with what he does,” and Lauryn Hill as celebrities who invoke the spirit of work.
The sheer, frilly blouse and silky-sleek trousers worn by Harry Styles in the “Lights Up” music video may have put Lazoschmidl in the mainstream spotlight, but the German-Swedish duo formed by Andreas Schmidl and Josef Lazo have been exploring the nonbinary frontier since launching Lazoschmidl in 2017, attracting the likes of Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Kylie Jenner and Iggy Azalea. If so many female-identified wearers feels surprising, “[the brand] wasn’t about coming from a men’s wear angle and addressing queer identities, but about the liberation of those who connect to the clothes,” said Schmidl.
Seduction and sexuality don’t come into the equation of these skin-baring silhouettes “although it could be one desirable objective for the wearer. It’s certainly not a reason to create a collection. [Choosing a garment] is an emotional choice that’s even more important today. Because we shop less, it’s even more important to consider why you need or want this product. [Gender distinctions matter less] than how you feel about and with a particular garment,” said Andreas Schmidl.
According to Schmidl, feeling good and appealing to one’s own eyes matters more. “Some of our customers don’t wear our clothes outside — sheer lace trousers for example — they dress up at home. It’s [a form of intimate gesture] because you’re confident enough. You’re not looking for affirmation, you are just making an invitation and you’re not afraid of being rejected.”
The main retail channel for Lazoschmidl remains made-to-order requests made over direct messages on Instagram, and the brand has built a network of retailers in Europe and the United States, among them Voo Store in Berlin and Tom of Finland in Los Angeles. “We prefer to have a personal relationship with a shop and be certain we are working with partners who understand our brand,” said Schmidl.
Growing up in Brazil surrounded by people who had gender questions about themselves, Francisco Terra always saw his work as a space for freedom and personal expression, for him and others. “What I’ve been trying to do since the beginning of my career is give marginalized communities the space to make their voices heard, instead of talking about [their issues] in their place. Because that’s the only appropriate way to do it: understanding your privilege and finding the way to use your place to open a door for others. In the end, it’s our duty because they’re unable to open those doors for themselves.”
Seeing fashion as a key to change, for the way its images become norm, Terra made Neith Nyer into a brand focusing on “loving yourself and embracing what social codes may consider imperfect is what makes someone attractive. The times of what I call wet sexiness — that Nineties look where girls in ads were always [depicted] wet, with enormous breasts, blondes with blue eyes — are long gone and I hope fashion will keep on enhancing people’s natural features whether they are within a certain norm or not,” he said.
Loath to talk about a signature look, Terra said that he most enjoyed “dressing people so that you see the body without seeing it” because “there should be another way of looking at people and interacting with them, other than sexualizing them.”
Terra has designed a few costumes for Beyoncé under his own name, while Neith Nyer pieces have found their way into the wardrobes of Miley Cyrus, M.I.A., and French stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani. Most recently, his designs were spotted on Blackpink as well as Chinese musician and actor Cai Xukun. “The [artists] that I like the most are those who have embraced the quirkiness of the brand, like Miley Cyrus and Sza.”
After focusing on wholesale for the first three years of the brand, Terra decided that he would pivot to a direct-to-consumer approach with his own e-commerce, while keeping a handful of retail partners. “What I enjoy about working with stores like [London-based] APOC is that everything is on demand, so we have a correct way of producing and being paid. Wholesale put me more in trouble than it helped me,” he said. “The whole system is not adapted for independent designers. Large department stores would come with these ginormous 300, 500-piece orders but all on consignment.” Starting in 2021, he plans to only offer one big collection per year, segmented into monthly drops. “It’s basically what H&M does but taken from an angle of creative expression and without the aim to become a high-consumption brand.”