Today’s Fendi Men’s Fall/Winter 22-23 show put us in mind of English actor David Niven (1910-1983). A photograph from the 1970s shows Niven posing in the kind of informal clothing suitable to a summer in the Cote d’Azur: open necked striped shirt with rolled sleeves, fitted trousers with a micro flare, light cashmere sweater tastefully folded around the neck and, utterly contemporary for us, a Celine frieze logo belt. But is that the man? Public school and Sandhurst educated, a veteran of the second World War, the image captures the elusiveness of Niven’s real character, of his automatic military bearing combined with a willed casual elegance. Fendi’s new collection reveals a similar tension, a foundation of martial codes overlaid with Niven’s forced holiday informality. The charm is in the lux: we even have in the Fendi show a version of that frieze logo belt buckle.
What was profoundly informal in Niven’s era makes up the majority of the clothes in today’s ready-to-wear runway shows, a brave rearguard action against the athleisure occupation. Like the best shows from the legacy fashion houses, this show is nostalgic-aspirational: it aspires to return society to a past commitment to formal elegance, the turned heads these clothes inspire when worn representing both a naughty individual thrill and an indication of social work to be done.
There are, broadly, three themes in the show. The least successful comes (mercifully) first, a series of sand coloured monochrome shirt/jacket and trousers combinations in the style of Lemaire or recent Jil Sander. There was what appeared, from our distant seat, to be a new print on one of these lighter looks, but it was difficult to to be sure, and anyway it resembled some of the vintage styled Gucci text prints of Michele’s last few seasons. Unsurprisingly, this light monochrome theme was most effective when combined with colour, for example with oxblood leather trousers and matching patent leather shoes, all covered by a darker shaded coat revealing its contrast Fendi Forever print lining. It is telling that the best of this section of the show is a triumph of styling rather than the pieces themselves.
The second theme is much better: in fact, it is something of a triumph, blending as it does layers of military inspired layered coats, schoolboy iconography and even references to early Modern leggings, with all the ensuing happy complications of androgyny. The leggings, along with the institutional references, suggest a theme of service and duty. Even the baseball caps, present throughout, which offer a welcome sense of humour to otherwise quite formal casual wear (this is ready to wear, after all), in their modesty suggest the humble supplication of tourists as guests subject to the unpredictable customs of a foreign place.
This series of looks relies on an attractive check fabric in white/black and that dark blood red, beautifully cut to oversized yet elegant coats, elsewhere as gorgeous collared shirts which serve as the base of a narrower tailored look. The must-have look of the show comes from this section, a beautifully fitted ankle length coat with exaggerated collar covered, without any indication of the bulk of stacked wool, by a second jacket of the same check print, a pea coat with draped sleeves. Beneath is a spectacular cream baselayer, one or two pieces we aren’t sure—a turtleneck and tight leggings above gender busting black leather Mary Jane shoes.
This is not an easy look to describe, since the patterns and layers combine to make it a difficult look to see. This invisibility, by contrast with other forms of direct gender inversion at say Gucci (pearls) or less farther afield, in this very show (also pearls), seems to us like a striking way to play with masculinity. We are reminded, in this inability to quickly identify these clothes (“Is there one, two? The leggings attached to the…?”) of a slipperiness of classification, an elusiveness which characterises most desire, of what we, for a given moment, consider beauty. This remarkable effect reminds us of Proust’s Saint-Loup, an elegant young aristocrat and soldier, war hero and halfhearted intellectual. Apart from the fact that he is romantically attracted to men (Saint-Loup is a hero-who-is-gay if not a Gay Hero), Saint-Loup is described by our narrator as an embodiment of the very best of France. Each time we meet him in the text, in an elegant cream suit at a beach resort or leaving a brothel in uniform, he is a dizzying series of points in space, a dynamic and uncapturable body:
“Something, however, struck me: not his face, which I did not see, nor his uniform, which was disguised by a heavy greatcoat, but the extraordinary disproportion between the number of different points which his body successively occupied and the very small number of seconds within which he made good this departure which had made good this departure which had almost the air of a sortie from a besieged town.”
Readers come to love, and eventually mourn, Saint-Loup. We love his endless generosity and his “ubiquity.” This excellent look from Fendi suggests Saint-Loup’s ubiquity, the “different points” that ask us to not see as much as see. Rather than demanding that we see this or that identity in old or new or predictably transformed ways, perhaps the best fashion should challenge us to see less, for in that confusion lies the love and desire which are produced only in the imagination.
A third theme is conventional for Fendi shows: a series of pieces in a playful artistic wall cover print. A few are present in black combined with dark red. These are desirable. The remaining are white/black, and on the runway combined too often with monochrome white. The lack of colour is disappointing, and too reminiscent of Kim Jones’s work at Dior Homme. A highlight of the Fendi season was missed here. The greatest shortcoming of the show, however, especially given the brilliance of the spats inspired leather shoes, are the sneakers: a no-man’s-land of ugly sneaker and norm-core New Balance. A big miss.
Great emphasis is placed on bags and purses in the show, many of them beautiful, ranging from more conventional masculine leather totes to silver jewel boxes. Together they suggest the catholicity of a boy’s matchbox car collection (and some of the adult car collections of the husbands of Fendi clients), compiled before that toad social convention convinced men that we needed tools for every occasion, rather than handbags. Of all the manifold and variably successful nods to identity-play in this show, this one we are firmly behind.
15 January 2022