Essay: Dan Thawley

Ugly Boys

by Dan Thawley .

‘Ugly’ as a concept is more nuanced than bad taste, as it suggests a knowledge of good taste applied with delicious perversion. In these circumstances I relish one of the Oxford Dictionary’s explanations (2.1, to be precise) that states ugliness as ‘unpleasantly suggestive, causing disquiet’.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when gentlemen were peacocks. Gussied up in satin breeches, velvet doubloons, silk hose and buckled pumps with a (substantial) heel the renaissance gentlemen were show ponies to the Nth degree, until down from that pedestal we fell to become woman’s sober shadow. Suddenly we were a supportive arm in a well-cut suit, the black to her white, the plain to her pretty. As fashion made a swift exit from the mainstream male vocabulary, it was replaced with the sensible, the sartorial, and the altogether boring. It wasn’t until subcultural movements of the 20th century stirred avant-garde modes of dress associated with music and the arts in general, allowing the return of eccentricity to the men’s wardrobe. That’s where the history lesson ends and ‘ugly’ begins, a phenomenon that in recent decades has fascinated designers and their willing disciples just as it has artists ad finitum.

Beauty has bounds, and in the last century the ideal of the perfect male has been muddied by the ever-changing, liberalised attitudes of society that has embraced a wide, new set of norms. Call it what you will, but with categories arising from dandy to metrosexual (‘spornosexual’ is the latest box one can tick, I believe) men have been let off the leash, and when it comes to clothing ourselves it has allowed our creative juices to flow in weird and wonderful ways. Enter the realms of subversion, and the purposeful ugliness born from fashion informed by fashion (let’s call it meta-fashion). The re-appropriation of existing fashion tropes in line with developments in fabrication and technology has created many stylish, hybrid garments, however it is when designers really challenge notions of masculinity and desire that things get interesting. It is a concept being explored on and off the catwalks of the major fashion capitals, with many heroes from Miuccia Prada to J.W. Anderson having been thoroughly explored in the Ugly project, their work spanning both men’s and womenswear in a cross-pollinating process. Menswear has its own set of protagonists big and small and their shtick is not ugly for ugly’s sake, but rather a constant battle with the strict norms of the male wardrobe.

What is important to preface here is that ‘ugly’ as a concept is more nuanced than bad taste, as it suggests a knowledge of good taste applied with delicious perversion. In these circumstances I relish one of the Oxford Dictionary’s explanations (2.1, to be precise) that states ugliness as ‘unpleasantly suggestive, causing disquiet’. That does indeed imply a certain darkness in ugliness, which isn’t always the case, yet in the world of avant-garde menswear often is. Rick Owens has of course played with this for years and enjoyed it immensely, spawning a legion of fans whose own serious and obsessive nature towards his garments couldn’t be further from his own light-hearted and earnest attitude. To tell a short story: Owen’s Spring show was entitled Faun after the Nijinsky ballet, and followed the woodland romp of said faun chasing a band of nymphs. After finding himself alone he is left only to masturbate with one of their scarves, an image that Owens translated into shorts and tunics wrapped with trailing fabric and models tainted in sickly shades of body paint. These lofty inspirations were a way of elevating the fashion show and its trappings with classical and historical clout, and were an affirming back story to the mustard and apricot-coloured bombers and body harnesses, or the hoof-like metallic moonboots on foot. Owens created a theatrical strangeness – a dynamic, modern poetry that celebrated things close to his heart. One can’t help wonder if part of the ugliness will manifest in its dilution, as the collection will inevitably translate as black jersey edits, fit for the shop floor and the blackhole wardrobes of his eager disciples.

There are many case studies like his that apply to ‘ugly’, some subtle and others extravagant beyond belief, the former category raising questions of deranged normality as designers attempt to tell a quiet story greater than cloth. When is a tracksuit more than a tracksuit, for example? Perhaps when Raf Simons prints it with Sterling Ruby’s artworks? I’d say yes, an immediate ‘more’. The London-based Cottweiler duo cut their trackies in shower curtain plastic and walked them in front of a surrealist dreamscape vacation film, and Nasir Mazhar transformed them into a macho-queer statement in pink terry towelling worn by a muscled black model. With Simons apart, the aforementioned two bask in reinventing notions of British class culture, a common ‘ugly’ theme amongst London designers in particular. East London provides more than adequate food for thought on the subject – what with its melting pot of cultures and the bric-a-brac styling of both ‘chav’ and ethnic communities that it unapologetically spews forth. Meadham Kirchhoff too have skirted exciting ‘ugly’ territory in menswear, however their balance of anthropological borrowings is both more elegant and jarring at once. The oddness of pairing flimsy floral shirts with latex trench coats or fanciful embroidered silk blazers with lurex knitwear makes its own sort of sense in their dense collage of subtexts, where ugly results may stem from flowery Art Nouveau decoupage or found photographs from the Great War. Such expert use of anachronistic clothing can itself become ugly, when designs transcend pure ideas of ‘vintage’ to both look and feel like a different proposal in a new context.

Other designers achieve ugly not through postmodern cultural context but by pushing their own design boundaries to create ‘newness’. In this category falls a perennial favourite in men’s conceptual fashion circles named Aitor Throup, the Argentine designer whose experimental pattern work has led to intricate trouser studies that snake around the body like rogue suits swallowing ankles and feet. Across the pond in Paris, Korean designer Juun J has made a signature of morphing quasi-corporate suits into rompers and jumpsuits for men, or blowing up trenches and other outerwear into impossibly large proportions, the body lost entirely in pools of fabric. In New York, Siki Im too has had moderate success playing on these ideas of splicing men’s garments and realigning codes to arrive at a new aesthetic, however on a global scale his true impact has been minimal. Of ‘ugly’ note though was his A/W 14 show, when he incited a spontaneous action of improvised fashion drawing with the illustrator Richard Haines, who attacked Im’s collection with chalk backstage moments before the show. Haines took to bomber jackets and felt suits to sketch his signature wan, male figures directly onto the garments, in a raw gesture that counteracted the precise cuts and staid grey tones of the clothes. The final touch was bestowed upon one deserving model, whose steel-capped shoes were graffitied by Haines with the suggestion to ‘draw a big dick’. It was the kind of suggestive slap-in-the-face that makes ugly menswear meaningful, racy and relevant in a wider sphere – leaving digital prints and ravey-repeats to bite the dust.