Do Designers Really Expect Us to Wear Those Ridiculous Clothes?

This is one of those questions I have been asked pretty much every season since I started covering the runway shows. Another one is about why models never smile, which I answered last season, and I get it, I really do. From afar, many styles that appear on designer catwalks can seem more like souvenirs from a trip to an alternate dimension in the Tardis in “Doctor Who” than actual clothes.

There are, of course, some brands, like Max Mara and Dries Van Noten, that feel an almost moral compulsion to be able to sell what they make. Ditto Rick Owens, the designer of the somewhat extreme fall look above — but he has a committed fan base that sees itself in his otherworldly aliens and embraces the idea of announcing that to the world. (As does Mr. Owens himself, who told me backstage he had figured out a way to produce and sell the ropy looks.)

Remember that just because you don’t want to look like a paramecium does not mean there isn’t someone in the world who sees such an outfit and thinks, “YES!”

It is also true that for many designers the runway is the only opportunity they have to show their ideas to the world in their purest state — not through the filter of magazine stylists or celebrity desires or retail choices — and they have only about 10 minutes to do so. That means that those ideas have to read quickly and clearly, and often the fastest way to get an idea across is by exaggerating it. This has become more imperative in the age of social media, when ideas are being conveyed not just to the people in the room, but also to anyone watching a livestream on a very tiny screen.

There’s really no better example of this than the work of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, who charmed me forever when in 2014 she announced that the idea behind her show was “not making clothes.” That sounds ridiculous, I know, but it means that her runway is mostly one of thought experiments, rather than garments. And the garments, which are interpretations and iterations of those experiments, are back in the showroom and often end up in the stores. (Comme des Garçons, if you are wondering, is a healthy business, full of stuff people can buy.)

There will always be die-hard fashion fans who collect the crazy stuff and some who actually wear it, like a sign screaming “fashion acolyte.” These are also the clothes museums tend to acquire and that have value that accrues at auction since they represent a moment in time. (Once they are worn, and depending on who wears them, their value becomes associated more with social, as opposed to aesthetic, history.)

But for most people, no, designers do not expect you to dress like shrubbery or a space queen or a Brancusi sculpture. They expect you to exercise your free will and think for yourself about how what they are making does or does not fit into your life and closet; to make it your own. They know what they are offering is a proposal. What to do with it is up to you.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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