The 12 Fashion Shows That Changed Men’s Fashion

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Game Changers is Highsnobiety’s retrospective series highlighting the moments that changed fashion forever. From era-defining store interiors to Nike sneaker boxes and runway looks by Helmut Lang, Game Changers celebrates the things that we still reference to this day.

Out of thousands of fashion shows, only a few are remembered for creating a true fashion moment. In considering this list, stylist and consultant Karlo Steel and myself have looked at collections that were pivotal in how men dress or how they view fashion to this day. We begin with Giorgio Armani, the first designer to take that seminal men’s staple — the suit — and change it forever. We end with Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton debut, which cemented the penetration of streetwear into the highest echelons of men’s fashion.

We tried to encapsulate shows as they went down in the history of fashion without regard for our personal bias, as much as that is possible. It’s also one of the reasons I decided to bring on Steel, who co-founded the trailblazing menswear boutique Atelier and whose knowledge of fashion is encyclopedic, to enhance this list and provide an informed counterbalance to my own point of view. All in all, we think we sketched out a good picture of how men’s fashion changed from the gray mass of suits to the rainbow of styles we see today.

Giorgio Armani Spring/Summer 1976

Although Paris has been traditionally viewed as the epicenter of fashion, it was Milan where the modernization of the suit really took place. Giorgio Armani showed his first collection there in 1975 for Spring/Summer 1976. Initially structured and broad shouldered, his suits became increasingly softer and more relaxed with each new collection — literally taking the stuffing out of his garments. Sans padding, his suits took on an air of stylish nonchalance, as exemplified in American Gigolo (1980), for which he designed the clothing for the protagonist, played by Richard Gere. This new architecture of the suit allowed more freedom and experimentation for increasingly lightweight fabrics like wool crepe, which had been traditionally viewed as a “feminine” fabric. Armani’s apex for softness, however, came with his use of unstructured linen, kicking off a trend of rumpled chic that took hold of an unsuspecting public by 1985.

Jean-Paul Gaultier Spring/Summer 1985

It may come as a surprise to people of a certain age who think they are at the forefront of fighting for gender and race equality and championing body positivity that the French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier did it all decades before. Gaultier, who came to prominence in the early ’80s, was notorious for blending all types of models on his catwalks, black and white, thin and thick, tall and short. It is a great shame that his influence has been all but forgotten by contemporary fashionistas, because he blazed so many trails. So it was with his Spring/Summer 1985 collection Et Dieu Créa l’Homme (And God Created Man), in which he put men in skirts. “There is no difference between my men’s and women’s clothes,” Gaultier told the Washington Post in 1984. “All things can be mixed. Everything can be beautiful, small and big — small girls, big girls, big boys, small boys.”

Comme des Garçons Homme Fall/Winter 1993

Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons man was always too artistically intelligent to be bogged down by ideas of traditional bourgeois convention. Poetically unkempt, yet knowing and ironic, “bad taste” was a stylistic device he employed to intrigue. Rumpled jackets, untucked shirts, ankle-grazing trousers, mixing black and navy; all were big no-nos at the time of her Homme Plus 1985 debut. After seasons of rule-breaking, including a period of near aristocratic prissiness, Kawakubo’s Fall/Winter 1993 was a coup de foudre of radical menswear. Washed wool garments were irregularly dip-dyed on their lower half to a startling effect. The collection was so revered that Kawakubo revived the technique for the launch of her Evergreen collection in 2005.

If you are sensing a theme by now, yes, we are here to confirm that 1985 was a pivotal year in men’s fashion. When Rei Kawakubo made her Homme Plus Spring/Summer 1985 debut in Paris, she was already a star. With a slew of starkly modernist boutiques in global capitals, and riding high over having won critical acclaim as a cause célèbre, Kawakubo stepped confidently forward into menswear — after all, she did call her label “Like the Boys.” Short ventless jackets in lightweight fabrics treated to look aged and worn assumed the casualness of a shirt worn untucked. The artfully disheveled styling rendered the mood artistic, irreverent, and dandyish with its crew of long-haired models, artists, architects, and designers, all different ages and different shapes. This type of “authentic” casting would be copied by many. It was poetically radical. The cropped trouser and white crew neck T-shirt, worn nearly throughout, became house signatures.

Yohji Yamamoto Fall/Winter 1998

“I’m always singing the same song” Yohji Yamamoto is quoted as saying. “Sometimes it’s in a different key, but it’s always the same.” That “song” is black gabardine, remixed and remastered into a thousand different iterations since his stellar Pour Homme Spring / Summer 1985 debut.

Characterized by a generous cut that fell away from the body, his clothing suggested a languid sensualness, an idea usually reserved for womenswear. That approach found its fullest expression when he cast only women (different ages, sizes, and races) for his Fall/Winter 1998 men’s show. Vivienne Westwood, Charlotte Rampling, and Ines de la Fressange strolled down the catwalk in oversized coats and jackets, smiling and nodding to the attendees, like rakish chaps flirting on a boulevard. There was no need to shout about female empowerment; Yamamoto let the clothes do the talking. And talk they did.

Startlingly transcendent, Yohji Yamamoto’s masterful Spring/Summer 1985 Pour Homme collection let the silhouette do the talking. Unfussy, unstructured, decidedly unglamorous, clothes, some transparent, floated away from the body in a long line. There were no tricks and nothing was overstated. Coats, jackets, shirts, and pants were classically recognizable but elongated and devoid of the rigidity associated with menswear at that time. The clothes were austere but not cold or dry. They possessed a subtle sensuality with fabrications, their movement and shapes. The show was a total success, achieving a rare balance between modernity and romanticism and launching Yamamoto as the de rigeur menswear designer for much of the two subsequent decades.

Raf Simons Fall/Winter 1998

When it comes to shows that both define and are defined by youth culture, it’s not easy to pick just one from Raf Simons, the designer who cemented the idea that fashion is most exciting when it’s in dialogue with other cultural disciplines, especially music. Would it be the in-your-face Spring/Summer 2002 “Woe Unto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation​…The Wind Will Blow It Back”, or the Fall/Winter 2003 collection titled “Closer,” after a Joy Division album, which kicked the graphic elements of menswear fashion into high gear — and for which Simons designed parkas that still resell for tens of thousands of dollars? Ultimately, the seeds for those shows were planted in Simons’ Fall/Winter 1998 debut. That collection was the bridge between the menswear of the 1990s and that of the next decade. You could say that every other menswear collection for the next 10 years was a footnote to this one, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

Helmut Lang Spring/Summer 1998

The 1980s ushered in the kind of unbridled glam fantasy — spearheaded by Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, and Jean-Paul Gaultier in Paris, and by Gianni Versace in Milan — that was so over the top that, in retrospect, a backlash seemed inevitable. First it was Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto with their somber, loose clothes that pointedly rejected glamour, but it fell to the Teutonic minimalists like the German Jil Sander and the Austrian Helmut Lang to put the last nail into the feathered boa coffin of 1980s excess. Their clothes were sparse but their proposition — to take fashion seriously — was radical. Lang’s Spring/Summer 1998 co-ed show was one of the pinnacles of such a viewpoint, especially the idea that fashion — gasp — could have a utilitarian value that…

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