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11 March 2011, 2:00 pm 2 Comments

Fashion: Male Androgyny – Hot, Strange, or Lucrative?

This post was submitted by Topher Burns

[This article, written by Topher Burns, originally appeared in BlackBook / bbook.com]

Model Wiktor (courtesy Next Model Management)

I’m partial to purses.  They come in all sorts of fun shapes and colors, and in the summer I much prefer holding a clutch to stuffing the pockets of ever-slimmer shorts.  I also used to carry a Chinese fan – especially handy for holding up to one’s face in order to tactfully trade a salacious bit of gossip.  When I lived in DC the sight of a man holding a purse or cooling himself by snapping open a sandalwood fan incited comment from strangers, but New Yorkers don’t seem to be much fazed.

Let’s be real, this is not the most masculine thing I could do, but it doesn’t make me feel like less of a man.  I’ve just always admired people, both guys and girls, who get dressed up no matter what their definition of “dressed up” is.  By and large it’s women who have the most license to express their own “dressed up” self – a girl can wear a pink summer dress one day and a beat-up motorcycle jacket the next.  For a man to experiment with different looks and shapes in his attire has in the past been seen as a touch fruity (or – God forbid – European).

But something’s taken hold at this season’s New York Fashion Week.  Unisex clothing lines are staking out territory as credible innovators, androgynous male models are the ones everyone’s talking about, and members of the trans community are seen in higher profile positions than ever before.  It’s as if the entire industry is banding together to turn to me and say “hey dude, sweet purse!”

Of course fashion’s no stranger to toying with staid concepts like gender, but recently in mass media the fashion industry seems to be hell-bent on blurring the lines of what masculinity means. Oprah recently interviewed transsexual model Lea T., who has already earned a name for herself by serving as muse for Givenchy and more infamously by swapping spit with Kate Moss on the cover of Love Magazine.  On RuPaul’s successful show Drag Race cross-dressing contestants duke it out in catwalk battles that often reference more relevant fashion history than what gets mentioned on Project Runway.  And on the most recent cover of transsexual fashion magazine Candy James Franco appeared in drag, fake eyelashes, and cherry red lipstick.

Though it’s no surprise to see these new concepts of masculinity bleed onto the runways, the sheer frequency and force of it this season is surprising many in the industry. New York Fashion Week has earned a reputation as the most practical of Fashion Weeks (if such a thing can be).  Other major fashion hubs are known for avant-garde creativity, artistry, and experimentation, but here in NYC it’s all about the dollar.  We show what sells.  That’s why it’s so noteworthy to see the femi-man becoming a hot item – because the New York fashion industry is betting that he’ll earn them money.

Andrej Pejic has in many ways become the face of this new fashion obsession.  Strikingly beautiful, as a male model Andrej leapt to prominence last year by booking with Gaultier – he walked in both the designer’s womenswear and menswear shows.  In men’s clothing he’s an almost otherworldly model, seemingly genderless and alien with remarkable proportions.  In women’s clothing he’s the most eye-catching high-heeled creature on the runway.

“He’s walking in eleven shows at New York Fashion Week, five of them major, and editorially everyone wants him,” explains Taylor Hendrich, Pejic’s agent at DNA Models, “both in womens and menswear.  Whether or not he’s going to be a staple on both sides, it’s too early to tell.”

This reticence to declare a trend a dominant force is probably advisable in an industry that consumes newness so quickly.  “I do believe there is a market for models like Andrej,” Hendrich continues, “and it will probably open up much stronger in Europe than in the US.  But honestly, will America see a whole bunch of androgynous kids out there?  I’m not sure.  I think we’re at the beginning of something, and hipsters, rockers, and transgendered people are all a part of it too.”

Some, though, are convinced that the winds have decisively changed for now, if not forever.  Luis Venegas is the editor of Candy, the yearly fashion magazine dedicated to “transversal” style that femmed up Franco.  When asked if this new, more playful and androgynous representation of masculinity has found a toehold in society he responds, “Is it mainstream?  Yes, and about time.  There is no other group of people  for whom makeup, fashion, and clothes are more important than for transversal people.  It’s not as simple as for you and I.  No one thinks so much about fashion in a practical way as they do.”  And so, he implies, it makes sense that fashion would finally be turning to people who dress and act outside the “norms” of their gender for inspiration.

Wiktor; Courtesy Next Model Management

Another model making a name for himself in this space is Wiktor.  He says he looks up to Pejic, and doesn’t mind at all being referred to as androgynous.  “I feel 100% like a man, but sometimes I also feel like expressing something that’s a little more in between.”  Wiktor has also been shot wearing women’s fashion, and says walking in women’s shows is more fun because you get to be more creative with how you walk and present yourself.  “I feel kind of sexless in a way – I do whatever I want to do.  I never feel like a girl.  I know I’m a man, but I’m just comfortable.”

This seeming contradiction can sound puzzling at first, but seems to crop up quite frequently when speaking with people involved in these new androgynous trends.  It’s a sort of queer-theory game of twister, with guys proudly declaring themselves man enough to wear a dress.

Asked which of his customers are buying clothes that fit into this new phenomenon, Louis Terline, owner of Soho designer boutique Oak states that he’s not seeing one specific demographic of shopper pick up this trend.  Instead, “it’s only about confidence.  It’s the people who have this sort of sense that ‘it’s just clothes.’  We’re seeing more shoppers who feel that maybe we’ve all taken this whole [gender] thing too seriously for too long, and that we should be able to explore.”

But Terline also sees this movement as being about much more than self-esteem.  “This is the most comfortable environment we’ve seen in retail.  People aren’t as worried about whether something is designed for women or for men – it’s all about the garment.  In a way, this trend is eradicating sexual identity from clothing.”

Models at this season's Fashion Week Dominic Louis presentation (courtesy Troy Chatterton)

Unisex designers are echoing this sentiment.  Louis Mairone, whose unisex line Dominic Louis has been sold at Oak, recently presented his next season.  “I don’t use androgyny to wow people – it’s about expressing what I love from both men’s and women’s clothing, and showing who carries it well from both worlds.  The unisex aspect of the collection is more about unifying people.”  Mairone designs in unisex because it frees him to focus on innovation and quality rather than be restricted by tradition.  To this end, he says that he shares the same garments between his parents and his friends.  “My mom and I both look great in the same garment.  We have different bodies obviously, but it’s the same fit.  Unisex clothing is powerful because it has the ability to serve clients across ages as well as genders.”

This catch-all aspect to unisex design may be a herald of fashion’s future.  “I actually had to do battle with pretty much everyone because they wanted me to ‘define my client’ by answering questions like ‘where does he go to lunch’ and ‘where does he go on vacation?’”  Instead, Mairone wanted to cast both female and male models in his Fashion Week presentation.  “My representation didn’t want to confuse clients and buyers with too much variety, though,” so instead he settled on an equally startling array of male models (from terminators and pirates to elves and wild-haired shepherdesses, Mairone’s choices each seemed to portray a different facet of masculinity).

Currently seen as the tiniest of niche markets, unisex and androgynous clothing may actually be the diametric opposite.  By very definition these clothes are the most catholic, egalitarian garments on the market.

One of Sir New York's looks for F/W 2011 (courtesy sirnewyork.com)

In some ways, this “all things to all people” philosophy is already found in every mall across America.  “If you think about it there are all sorts of unisex lines out there already.  Labels like J. Crew, Thom Browne, and Band of Outsiders all have unisex lines – they sell the exact same garment to men and women, just with different cuts.”  This, from Auston Bjorkman, one half of the design team (Freddy Dico the other) that makes up Sir New York.  When defining his line, Bjorkman says “we think of our line as unisex, but in the tradition of menswear.  We don’t see Sir New York as masculine or feminine or androgynous.”

At its Fashion Week presentation Sir New York was displayed on all male models, though, so there is some sort of gendering going on.  “At the end of the day we still want our clothes to be marketable.  Sir New York is a balanced lifestyle brand,” Dico explains.  Divorcing how they view the garments from how their potential customers might, Dico says that when designing Sir New York he and Bjorkman found themselves asking each other “would a straight guy wear this?”

Why jump through all these mental hoops, then?  Why make what would be marketed as menswear to men into a double-blind gender studies hypothetical?  It may have something to do with the fact that while Dico indentifies himself as a more androgynous person, Bjorkman is a transgendered person who was born a female but identifies as male.

“Freddy’s definitely the more feminine of the two of us in terms of typical gender roles,” Bjorkman asserts.  Dico continues, “I do try to make sure I’m always at least half and half in terms of men’s and women’s clothing, otherwise I’d just be a boy in girls’ clothes,” to which Bjorkman replies, “whereas I’m a guy in guy’s clothes.”

While all this pontification is interesting on an individual level, one can’t escape the cruel math of New York Fashion Week – creativity is great, experimentation is wonderful, but it’s got to make money.  So, show us the moolah.

Wiktor (courtesy Next Model Management)

Despite their enthusiasm for the trend, Wiktor’s agents Elayne Bohary and David Bonaparte of Next Model Management admit they’re not yet fighting off clamoring designers with a massive appetite for androgynous boys.  “We’re still having to push a bit, we’re not at the point where we’re getting a huge amount of requests for boys like Wiktor,” explains Bohary.  That being said, Bohary and Bonaparte (and Wiktor too, for that matter) are betting that the trend is going to be taking off in New York.  Rather than Pejic’s agent Hendrich, who expects to see the trend mature in Europe before making the leap to New York, Bohary predicts “New York is going to go androgynous first, before Paris and Milan.”  Bonaparte agrees, elaborating that “men in Europe are perhaps more comfortable looking androgynous, and are stereotyped as more that way, but guys who look like that don’t get work over there.”  As Wiktor sums up, “Europe has the reputation for experimenting with clothes, but not with the models.  New York is commercial when it comes to the clothes but with the models they’re more willing to take a chance.”

While it may yet remain to be seen whether there’s sufficient demand for a large community of androgynous male models in New York, an even more fundamental way to measure the trend would be to scrutinize clothing sales.  To this end Louis Terline says that he and Oak didn’t start pushing androgyny, but rather that his clients did.  “I actually think the whole trend started with the customer.  We noticed the demand, saw more of our male clients gravitating to the women’s section; their desire existed before we began supplying it.  We’re seeing men shop [for androgynous and unisex garments] piecemeal, mixing hypersexual items like professional work attire with a item or two of women’s wear…  One photograph I saw that really sticks with me in terms of illustrating this new approach was an image of a man in a pinstripe suit wearing women’s high-heeled shoes.  I think that really is how our customer is expressing this trend, not in full looks but in small pieces.”

Of course not everyone shops for clothes at high-end boutiques.  Nor does every businessman dream of strutting to the boardroom in strappy stilettos.  Terline expects the trend to trickle down and to dilute along the way: “In some form or another this will wind up in Macy’s.  Whether it’s heavily draped sweatshirts, wraps, or ponchos, men are going to start playing with shape and form more readily than they have before.”

The other major market value of male androgyny is much less new to the world of fashion – shock.  Asked why major brands might reference trends pioneered in Candy, Venegas says it’s simple – “To attract attention.  On the runway it’s about showing all kinds of possibilities.  You want your brand to become more visible.  [Co-opting this trend] communicates that you are a label that is open and available to all kinds of people.  It says ‘we’re not going to judge you, as long as you buy our clothes.’”

On an individual level, one thing that’s clear when discussing how male androgyny is popping up at New York Fashion Week this season is that the people involved in this new trend are still grappling with its sometimes-unfamiliar vocabulary.  When Bjorkman and Dico were discussing their views on how gender relates to their collection Dico pauses, and then blurts out “I’m sorry, I just keep coming back to thinking we’re so gender queer.  Maybe we work together well because we both understand that clothing and identity are related.”

Others in the industry might not be so abstract in their thinking.  As Wiktor observes, “When Andrej walks into a room people still don’t always know how to react.  Working with male models, backstage there’s always a lot of talk about like ‘oh my girlfriend said this’ and ‘how’s your girlfriend?’  It can feel like a high school locker room.  So it’s refreshing to me to see a more diverse set of boys.”

Model at Dominic Louis presentation (courtesy Troy Chatterton)

There is also the hope among many that what we’re seeing in fashion right now might translate to a larger movement.  “Featuring a lot of black models was relevant and new for Vogue forty years ago.  What is as revolutionary today?  Featuring the transversal community,” claims Venegas.  “It’s like the black and gay rights movements before.  The more visible something is the more accepted it will be.”

Venegas also points out the differentiating aspect of this new trend: “Usually when people talk about elegance they say ‘be yourself.’  At Candy I say ‘become yourself,’ because these days you have the ability to transform into the best outward manifestation of who you are.”

Am I becoming a more perfect version of myself by grabbing a purse before I leave the apartment?  It certainly feels fun to do so.  It also freaks out the squares, and part of me thinks that’s fun too.  Maybe what we’re really seeing at Fashion Week this season is not men becoming more like women, but instead men becoming less like “men.”  In a world where fashion’s gender exists in black white, a man’s garment altered becomes feminine.  Perhaps fashion is just now getting around to filling in a grey shade where an altered man’s garment is just an altered garment.

And if you see me glance your way before hiding my mouth with a delicately painted fan and whispering to my companion, I promise I won’t be spreading slander – I’ll only be jealously complimenting your stunning new pair of unisex heels.


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2 Comments »

  • James said:

    Loved this. But it’s interesting, and ultimately depressing, to consider Venegas’s noting of a parallel between the contemporary rise of androgony in models and the rise in interest in models of color. That makes me think this is a passing fad and that androgony will remain anecdotal to the larger fashion narrative. But maybe not and hopefully not.

    It’s also important to point out what one commenter said last time Pejic was discussed (http://thenewgay.net/2011/01/model-behavior.html) about the other implications from this rise in relation to size. Ultimately the designation of what constitutes androgony is rooted in sizeism, but it’s the fashion industry, so, duh.

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