Labels look to an “off ” aesthetic for inspiration
How the fashion industry is embracing reversed beauty standards
There is a French term, jolielaide, which, when translated, means “ugly-beautiful” and which, when uttered, is actually a compliment rather than an insult. Jolie-laide has been used to describe an atypical beauty, notable for the asymmetry of features, and therefore striking and unforgettable, as opposed to the blandness of the merely pretty. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “After a certain degree of prettiness, one pretty girl is as pretty as another.”
Such women have been celebrated rather than shunned, mainly by those with European sensibilities, and even immortalized on film or on the catwalk: Rossy de Palma, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sofia Coppola, Alek Wek, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Sarah Jessica Parker, and even Cher.
While such jarring features—a prominent hooked nose, a too-square chin, too widely-set eyes, a masculine jaw—may startle at first, one eventually gleans the beauty inherent in the oddness. But can the same yardstick be applied to fashion?
There is a thread of ugly stitched into fashion of late, and apparently it’s cool. From Vetements, Balenciaga, and Dries Van Noten, to Gucci, Gosha Rubchinskiy, and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, there’s an aggressive ugliness to the fashions being purveyed at the moment. As a recent article in Quartz pointed out, “Right now, ugliness is having a moment. The labels getting the most attention make clothes that are often deliberately gawky and ungainly, in a clamor of lurid or mismatched colors that knock about glaringly in an outfit.”
Beauty, in other words, has become so basic and boring and banal that it offers nothing new or exciting in terms of fashion. The point, it seems, is not to create something beautiful or sublime that ticks all the boxes according to the conventional norms of what is beautiful in fashion, but rather to challenge, shock, and upend those norms and force the eye to see differently.
Or so they say. They, including Dries Van Noten, who said in a 2012 interview at the Alliance Française in New York, “I’m more inspired by things which I don’t like ...nothing is so boring as something beautiful. I prefer ugly things, I prefer things which are surprising... You force yourself to ask yourself questions. Quite often I make a collection and I say, ‘Here’s a color I really don’t like.’... My assistants will say ‘ Okay, you don’t like lilac,’ [that means] this season will be lilac. It’s like you see a color, and you think, ‘ Why don’t I like this color?’ Maybe the composition is wrong, maybe the lighting is wrong—it would be beautiful in silk, but not the synthetic fabric... That for me is the fun, to play with all the [fabrics].”
There is indeed a deliberateness to the addition of “off ” elements in clothing today. Demna Gvasalia, who designs for both Balenciaga and Vetements, throws in—not casually, but with calculated nonchalance— these elements: downmarket fabrics, awkward proportions, clashing prints. They do not border subversion but embrace it.
At a price, of course, to the consumer. •