Wed, Sep 16, 2009 - Page 14 News List

Down-and-out is in, according to designers at least

Call it vagabond chic: fashionistas have turned to the homeless for inspiration

By Guy Trebay  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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The overused journalistic trope used to be that the zeitgeist whispered and fashion listened. These days no special auditory skills are required to gauge the spirit of the age. Lately the drumbeat of negativity is so loud that designers have put their hands over their ears.

“I don’t want to be Debbie Downer,” said Daniel Silver, one of the two designers (Steven Cox is the other) of the menswear label Duckie Brown, before their Bryant Park show on Thursday. “But I feel like everyone’s floundering. It’s a floundering season. But let’s not focus on that.”

Some of us prefer to think of fashion as a charcoal filter that indiscriminately sucks up whatever’s swirling around, rather than a big ear that listens to what’s going on in the culture. Sometimes ideas become clarified in fashion, and sometimes they get stuck as gunk.

How else to account for a spate of references in fashion to homeless chic? A 28-page pictorial in this month’s issue of W magazine, shot by the British photographer Craig McDean, repurposes shopping bags from labels like Chanel and Dior as makeshift dresses, and shows them worn with furs and pearls and designer bags.

The Russian model Sasha Pivovarova, listless but still ineffably glamorous, is seen slumping on a park bench or a mattress or a bed of Prada bags. Along with the hair and makeup people involved in the story, the stylist Alex White is credited at the end of the spread for having made the (cleverly constructed, it must be said) paper-bag clothes.

Were the W feature a one-off, it would hardly merit mention. Fashion has been down this road before. John Galliano, to cite the most notorious example, was pilloried some years back for his “clochard” collection, which took as its inspiration the still increasing ranks of tent dwellers (mainly Polish immigrants) and others in Paris with no roof over their heads. The collection, of ripped and shredded dresses, stockings laddered with runs and holes, and sooty top hats, sold well, as it turned out, although nobody seemed to pick up on the idea of wearing a balloon hat.

Last week, Scott Schuman, in his popular Sartorialist blog, posted a picture of an unidentified man who, if he is not actually homeless, has a recognizable look.

“I don’t usually shoot homeless people,” Schuman said in a caption disclaimer. He added that he does not find homelessness “romantic” or “appealing,” unlike “a lot of street photographers.”

It was just that the man’s jeans-shorts-over-sweat-pants look, his pale blue boots, with matching socks, gloves and glasses, suggested that he had not lost his need to “communicate and express himself through style.”

Even that observation was not without precedent. Designers as unalike as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and even Marc Jacobs have spoken admiringly of the improvisatory and, naturally, desperate way some people without a permanent place to live compose themselves.

“Sometimes they’re wearing everything they own at the same time because they have no choice,” said the designer Keanan Duffty, who sometimes plays a game on the street that he refers to as “Fashion Stylist or Homeless Person?” “It is not intended as a lack of respect for people with no homes and no means,” he said. “It’s more a kind of admiration for improvisations people come up with in a dreadful circumstance.”

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