With bold strokes and graphic silhouettes, designers are harnessing art’s power to challenge the eye. Harriet Quick examines the pattern.
Blame it on Marc Jacobs. The moment model Ruby Jean Wilson stepped onto his runway in New York wearing black micro-shorts and a white T-shirt adorned with black bars, followed by a posse of mod ladies outfitted in every possible variation of swirling, two-tone striped ensembles, everyone knew that op art and Minimalism would be a dominant theme for spring. It was as if a group of prisoners had plotted a daring escape from Sing Sing—provided that Victor Vasarely had been hard at work on their chic uniforms. “Every season is a reaction to what we have done before, but it’s also a consideration of what we want to explore,” said Jacobs. “The idea of visual impact felt really strong, but we wanted to do it in a nonemotional, nonromantic way.”
Three weeks later, Jacobs capped off the optic trend in Paris with his masterly parade of checkerboard column dresses, bags, and pointy slingbacks at Louis Vuitton. He partnered with the conceptual artist Daniel Buren, whose arresting, site-specific installations in historical spaces challenge tradition by confounding the viewer through articulations of light, space, and pattern. Buren created a set featuring four giant descending and ascending escalators that seamlessly delivered matching pairs of models onto a glossy yellow and white checkerboard runway. The mise-en-scène made for a memorable fashion moment that celebrated architectural space; it also lent suitable aplomb to Louis Vuitton’s new handbags embellished with outsize Damier checks brimming with tiny rows of sequins.
But Jacobs was by no means the only designer obsessed with graphic content. Just as the op artists of the 1960s embraced the bold power of modernism with their mind-boggling canvases (showcased in the seminal 1965 New York exhibition “The Responsive Eye”) and made figurative art seem old-fashioned and allegorical, many designers turned away from the nostalgia and poetic embellishment of the recent past with one dynamic stroke.
Michael Kors’s usually sedate pencil skirts and cashmere tops were packed with stripes; Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa played with mesh and contrast-color linings to create dazzling 3-D effects; L’Wren Scott’s sheath dresses juxtaposed vertical stripes with explosive zigzags; Sportmax’s chevron-striped dresses and Moschino’s black and white piped suits made one’s eyes widen, dance up and down, and, finally, shift into a trance-like state; Jil Sander’s curved zippered two-tone go-go boots looked like they could halt traffic—especially on a zebra crossing.
Of course, this is not the first time optical effects have jumped from gallery walls to the runways and beyond—think of Pierre Cardin’s modular space-age collection of 1970, Mary Quant’s miniskirted tailoring, and how photographer William Klein brilliantly lampooned everything “modern” in Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? That era’s obsession with pattern grew out of a desire to break free from the societal conventions and conservative dress codes of the past: The clothes disoriented, shocked, stimulated, and created great big exclamation marks. In 2013, bold geometric statements still have the power to capture the gaze—but, paradoxically, their current incarnation could be a sign that we are collectively craving some sense of order in our fractured, overly digitized lives.
“We are living in a very dizzy world, where everything is an assault on the senses,” said Michael Kors. “For me, the question was how to cut out the noise without going to a monastery.” Kors had been finding solace in California—in the clean, sharp architecture of Lautner and Neutra, in the contrast of concrete and glass under the vibrant sun, and in the work of the designer Rudi Gernreich. “Rudi always had a neatness and sharpness that showed off the body; his designs elongated and framed women. It’s about eliminating the negative, playing with lines—like architecture for the body.”
Flattering the feminine shape is one big democratic appeal of the optic trend, and so is its sense of youthful dynamism. “The past seasons have been so demure, buttoned-up, and ladylike, I had to remind myself I’m 34, not 64!” said London-based designer Jonathan Saunders, who showed dresses with swooshing lines, as well as sheaths with laser-cut satin “teardrops” bonded to the surface. “When I was a student in Scotland, I was really drawn to Victor Vasarely and his balance of colors and graphics. Op artists were criticized at the time for being all about ‘surface,’ but their work was also about color, line, and the feelings they elicit—it makes you appreciate rigor and sophistication.” Both Saunders and Jacobs also cited as an influence choreographer Michael Clark, who is known for his color-block costumes and sets that heighten and dramatize movement. Jacobs was so seduced by the way patterns and stripes flow on the body that he used a dancer for his fittings in New York. “I found the geometry of this collection very soothing,” he said. “It required an enormous amount of mathematical precision.”
Indeed, what is so alluring about the current op moment is that designers have pushed their research as much as their aesthetics in order to cleverly contrast textures, lines, and curves. The final effect might be refreshingly minimalist, but behind the visual impact is a combination of painstakingly handcrafted techniques, high-tech fabrics, and ultra-precise tailoring. Fashion is coming clean not just by referencing artists famous for cutting through visual clutter but also by stripping down clothes to the essential. And in the process, they are knocking us in the eyeballs.