What’s the difference between ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ fashion?

Calvin Klein Collection’s Fall 2018 ready-to-wear show was a dark take on America’s heartland — thought-provoking without being gimmicky. (Photo: Getty Images)

In 2017, there was no shortage of headlines exploring what “ugly fashion” is. Where did it all start, insiders wondered, why is it popular, and who is wearing it? Now, you may be asking: When will it end?

The Fall 2018 runways may offer some clues. Last year’s dominant trends included bulky-dingy dad sneakersboxy blazers, luxury Crocs, and plastic jeans. This week, despite the oversized bags we saw at Victoria Beckham and the claw clips at Alexander Wang, there were fewer ugly-for-the-sake-of-it pieces on the NYFW runways. (Whether or not you think the collections reflected a lapse in taste is another matter — Tom Ford’s women’s collection comes to mind.)

It’s all a bit counterintuitive: When clothes are intentionally ugly, they become covetable in some spans of the fashion universe. (And so remain “ugly until Rihanna decides they’re not.”) They embrace their unsightliness, somewhat in the way that Andy Warhol captured the things from which you’re supposed to avert your eyes in his “Death and Disaster” series — disfigured bodies in a car crash, an electric chair, and so on, from which you just can’t avert your eyes. The Demna Gvasalias and Miuccia Pradas of the world are masterful at creating those kinds of confrontational, dare-you-to-look-away items, while the Carolina Herreras just wouldn’t be caught dead selling ugly clothes. 

Carolina Herrera’s final runway finale paid homage to her own signature style. (Photo: Getty Images)

As for Herrera, the veteran designer told the New York Times’ fashion director, Vanessa Friedman, “What [women] like now is ugliness. Women dress in a very strange way. Like clowns,” referring to what one might call the Vetements School of Normcore. Herrera’s Fall 2018 collection, the last in her 37-year career, evoked the elegance and refinement that the 79-year-old designer herself has embodied for a lifetime — that is, the antithesis of what might be thought of as conventionally ugly.

For her own peace of mind, and that of others, fewer “ugly” shows appeared during the New York leg of fashion month. There was the R13 show, which put Ugg boots on a runway along with enough camouflage (and, shall we say, “huntercore”?) to make a Cabela’s employee blush; there was Vaquera, a four-person design collective, whose shirt dresses and comically oversized suit jackets worshiped at the altar of ugly.

R13’s Fall 2018 runway included high-heeled Ugg boots and enough camouflage for two lifetimes, leaning in to the “ugly fashion” trend of the past few seasons. (Photo: Getty Images)

Neither of those shows were viral sensations, which makes one wonder whether we’re desensitized to ugly fashion.

“[Ugly fashion] has manifested itself at the moment through hype-driven clothing that often isn’t that attractive — ugly sneakers, Crocs, comically oversized clothing, bizarre appendages, strange color combinations — because seeing those things on a fashion runway is still shocking,” Rachel Tashjian, fashion features editor at Garage Magazine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Once it stops shocking, maybe it’ll end. Fashion has little tolerance for tedium and boredom.

That’s not to say there weren’t bad clothes on this season’s New York runways: Ralph Lauren appears to be completely disconnected from our current reality, and someone ought to check on whether Michael Kors is OK. Tellingly, those collections were particularly unappealing not because they were stale and uninteresting, but because they represent an inauthentic representation of where we are, both in fashion and elsewhere. Even the great Marc Jacobs’s show, for its awe-inspiring grandeur, felt a touch tone-deaf. As one Twitter user put it: “It comes across as someone ordering caviar in the middle of social turmoil.”

Ralph Lauren’s Spring 2018 see-now-buy-now collection presented a glossy view of America at a time when the country is anything but. (Photo: Getty Images)

Even fashion media is tuning itself to meet the frequency of the current moment. Hanya Yanagihara, editor at T Magazine, spearheaded the publication’s redesign into something that she feels communicates authenticity to readers.

“The new look is intended to better encapsulate the magazine’s shifting voice, as it increasingly explores the intrinsic link between art and culture in today’s political climate,” Yanagihara told Glossy. “The magazine has always been at its best in the moments when it’s responding to politics or war or discourse in the world, and explaining why it’s happening and what it means. That doesn’t mean there aren’t simply things in the magazine that are beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. I would argue there is more of a need for that now.”

The finale at Christian Siriano’s Fall 2018 collection, which coincided with the designer’s 10th anniversary, was a beautiful collection that represented his best work yet, both in the design and inclusive casting. (Photo: Getty Images)

If our new sartorial moment is one in which designers provide comfort to us in pretty, thoughtful things, our champions are not far off. Designers like Christian Siriano, Rosie Assoulin and Maki Oh might be the heroes that fashion needs, but not the ones we deserve. For that, there’s Jeremy Scott (kitschy beyond compare) and Michael Kors (erring towards irrelevance). Of course, we are totally undeserving of Raf Simons, who is perhaps best at communicating the overlap between where we are and where we aspire to go, presenting a collection that thoughtfully communicates the Zeitgeist without relying on cheap gimmicks like Ugg boots and Crocs. (It’s no coincidence that Calvin Klein, of which Simons is the chief creative officer, has a multiyear partnership with the Andy Warhol Foundation, allowing unprecedented access to the artist’s work.) 

Speaking of Crocs, there are still three more weeks of fashion month, where designers like Christopher Kane and Gvasalia at Balenciaga, both of whom have given us Croc couture, will present in London and Paris, respectively. There’s plenty of time left for more ugly fashion to rear its head. And we can certainly expect the ugly trend to continue in streetwear, considering how John Elliott showed Nike Air Monarch sneakers on his runway and how quickly things like the Balenciaga Triple S trainers sell out. 

“Whether or not it’s time for fashion to move beyond, that is really up to the fashion gods at large — such is the machinery of fashion,” Tashjian says. “What direction it will take is difficult to say, though I (and a lot of other editors and fashion observers) were very struck by the combination of undisputed beauty and strangeness at the Valentino couture show. But those sorts of changes always take a few seasons.”

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