After further discussion, it would be wrong not to talk about Runway's most delectable garnish. After all, what are we, if not the masks we wear daily? So, to close the 'Elements of Runway,' we observe the face, Runway's finishing touch—absorbing as much of the spotlight as the garments themselves.
To be clear, 'face' is extended to everything, shoulders and up. For the better half of this series, we've spoken from the heart on Runway and its magical storytelling. Unfortunately, this aspect of the show is prone to blindspots or blatant disrespect, and sometimes we witness styling take a painful turn.
Hair, we can't get around it. Everything from the style it's worn to how/if it's covered, is controversial, and just about everything from skinheads to turbans and lace fronts have found their way down the stage. Taking inspiration without citing the source is dysfunctional. Yet, when lead hairstylist Julien d'Ys learned his Egyptian prince muse wasn't well received, he was more confused than apologetic. It was Commes des Garçons FW20, and white models in cornrow wigs stunned the audience one after the other. This was just after being ridiculed for not casting a black model over two decades and after Marc Jacobs matted yarn together to make colorful dreadlocks for their white models, supposedly an ode to Lana Wachowski.
There's a lot to be said, but most of it has already been written. Without absolving one from their misjudgment, you realize how sometimes one can be so desperate to tell a story that they forget what they are trying to say. Sadly, history has shown its comfort in massacring the ethnicities they so often wish to replicate and to take it a step further—fashion is no different. So, although vehemently unacceptable, it was no surprise when the Sikh Coalition had to reprimand Gucci in FW18 for sporting turbans that would later go on to retail for USD 790. But it wasn't just the turban; there were other head coverings: scarves, bandari masks and cropped golliwogg doll ski masks, to name a few. Though the garments themselves told one story, it was apparent that the styling's theme was anything other than its authentic origins.
Appropriation aside, styling in tandem with the collection can be a seriously impactful tool. Alexander McQueen is a master of overt commentary. For FW95, Highland Rape went past preying on women's sexuality and instead spoke to England's rape of Scotland.
"[This collection] was a shout against English designers... doing flamboyant Scottish clothes. My father's family originates from the Isle of Skye, and I'd studied the history of the Scottish upheavals and the Clearances. People were so unintelligent they thought this was about women being raped—yet Highland Rape was about England's rape of Scotland," commented McQueen to Time Out (London 1997).
Though graphic, the visual execution of bruised skin through tattered and torn garments made this presentation all the more real. Moreover, the details of this make-up, extending from the body to the face, vividly illustrated a nation's alleged threat of rape.
Now, gearing the breaks towards fantasy and opulence—no one knows how to wield the power of make-up quite like Thierry Mugler, a pioneer of the renegade when he first entered haute couture. The late Manfred imprinted the world with his theatrical shows, and his vision brought him to stages beyond Runway. Yet, the ballet dancer, costume designer, director, and so much more knew his definition of beauty did not exist in this world. So, to circumvent reality's shortcomings, Manfred harnessed his bewitching skillset to create alternate universes that exemplified unprecedented femininity.
Manfred's avant-garde designs didn't stop at what sculpted the bodice. No, there was no limit to his creations, nor was it uncommon for his looks to have impressive circumferences. Employing latex, feathers, sequence, scales, insect-like antennas and more—the models' make-up often extended well past their skin into surreal crowns. Finding beauty in the subversive, Manfred had an eye for the underground and frequently honored this community in his shows. Most notably, when he approached Kabuki Starshine, whom Manfred approached while dancing at Webster Hall. This resulted in the make-up master doing his own to star in Manfred’s runways. In the 90s, and still today, Kabuki took the NYC scene by storm until he was an international success. Paving the way for club kids and drag alike brought these communities together in more than one way. His use of full body make-up for couture was unprecedented, and he stunned audiences with his bare chest and pearls more times than not.
This influence has grown, and body makeup has transformed into appendage-like modifications. Today, with the help of makeup technology and innovation, subversive then is a school girl compared to subversive now. And though not couture, gothic grunge maestro Rick Owens has used the internet to come across some of today's most disorienting luminaries. In 2019, Owens discovered Salvia, a visually disturbed 19-year-old angel. Alien or angel, you decide, but after one runway with Salvia’s mutant touch, Owens’ presentations haven’t been the same since.
Salvia, a trans artist and visionary hailing from Cyffylliog, Wales, has been perfecting her craft to make their alternate world the only world. Thanks to them, FW19 donned sclera lenses, a frosty contour, pushed-back hairlines and facial modifications that Owens had not explored before.
Owens and Salvia’s commentary in an excerpt and quote from i-D:
"This generation has to reject tattoos, and they're doing that through body modification and face work, botox and implants, which is really interesting to me,” Owens explained. “It's supposed to offend my generation, and it does. It's wonderful; it's transgressive, it's inventive, it's provocative. Ultimately it's an insult to the generation before, which is exactly what it's supposed to be!...it takes a lot of aggression and drive to do everything she's doing at only 18; I hadn't done anything close by that age. This is my homage to her. What do you think of glamour today?” he asks her. "You can use glamour in a way that is political, a way that pushes things forward and challenges perceptions," Salvia explained.
Unfortunately, their ongoing relationship grew to be one-sided. Post FW19, Owens has continued to use Salvia’s likeness and visual language in seasons since without the actual involvement of Salvia themselves. And though not payment enough, to know an 18-year-old made a lasting impression on the infernal, post-apocalyptic glamorous line is a testament to the mind-bending creations younger generations have homogonized in the beauty world.
Suppose this is all to say—sometimes the garments can only take us so far. While every component is as crucial as the next, the stage, sound, and styling have formed an inseparable ecosystem. Yet, the styling, Runway's finishing touch, maybe its most envisioning element of all.
Text by Shahrnaz Javid