Vetements, Spring/Summer 2016 show: DHL T-shirt. Photo: Gio Staiano
Vetements, Spring/Summer 2016 show: DHL T-shirt. Photo: Gio Staiano

Though I was not there, one of the most titillating fashion venues of last year was the basement of a gay bar in Paris. A secretive Paris collective called Vetements showed security-personnel T-shirts, yellow leather washing-up gloves and puckered French firemen’s jumpers that were very suggestive. Not of in flagrante delicto, but rather of workaday man.

That workers of the world were uniting was the backdrop during Fashion Week that early spring: as models marched up and down runways in Paris, Milan, New York and London showcasing novelties of Autumn/Winter 2015, fastfood workers, bus drivers, security guards and other low-wage, zero-hour-contract earners were marching to a tune from a very different soundtrack. In 2014, in the US, the UK, Brazil, Japan, Ireland and Finland, they were fighting for higher minimum wage and, in the case of the fast-food industry, the right to unionise.

Eight months after its sex-bar collection, Vetements drew wardrobe ideas once again from the lumpen proletariat. Masterminded by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, it opened with a scoundrel in black leather and a yellow DHL T-shirt. Then followed a succession of oversize workshirts in Guantánamo-orange and Rothko-blue that floated open in the back, and plastic floral-patterned butcher aprons. The latter, which hinted at extant apron springs between Gvasalia and his mother, may not, in fact, have been a labour reference, but it did join a slew of other aprons that seemed too fashionable for the kitchen or workbench. They ranged from the supplest black leather apron dress at Hermès last spring to a short, rigid caramel one at Fendi two years ago.

In menswear, fashion has sourced its references from Northern English coalminers, splendidly handsome before their fall from Thatcherite grace, and fishermen with beard, apron, pail and sou’wester. The excessively priced and now defunct label Band of Outsiders set the look book for its last menswear collection in front of a workbench garnished with an assortment of tools. For a recent women’s resort and cruisewear collection JW Anderson accessorised with utility belts. Last autumn, Céline populated its wardrobe with snap-buttoned work smocks.

As the blue-collar worker goes the way of the dinosaur, never have he and she been more heralded in fashion. We cannot get enough of overalls, boiler suits, lab coats and construction boots. “We’re trying to grapple with the old world and the new world,” said Faye Toogood, “and workwear has a sense of retro. Of looking back nostalgically at some aspects of work because it’s physical, which we’ve lost.”

For those who rarely do an honest day’s work, but want to dress like one who does, designer Faye Toogood and her sister, Erica Toogood, a pattern cutter, produce a British clothing label called Master Edit. Master Edit is a sartorial elegy to the humble tradesman. It debuted in 2014 with seven coats. All unisex, The Roadsweeper, The Beekeeper, The Oilrigger, The Chemist, The Milkman, The Courier and The Mechanic constitute a curiosity cabinet of nearly extinct proletariat garb. Each carries a tag that gives the names of the designer and finishers who made the garment. The coats, made of variously treated artist canvas, conjure up the spirit of the profession – a gleaming black rubberised coat evokes the oilrigger, for example, and a papery, white-hooded coat, a beekeeper. The Toogoods followed this with other worker paeans, such as plumber onesies, big-pocketed photographer’s jackets, long fishmonger’s coats and loose, painted- pyjama-like ensembles in the manner of the curator.

“A lot of our friends, artists, designers, architects, didn’t necessarily want to be wearing fashion-led, heavily branded seasonal clothes,” says Toogood. “They wanted a timeless quality to them, and they couldn’t find them, and we couldn’t find them.” Like the Toogoods and their friends, we are turning to workwear for its quality and Jeremy Corbyn-like durability. Its stoic anonymity in the face of logos and labels. Its hearty cotton drills and twills, its bonded seams, its generous and comfortable cut, so in-tune with the de rigueur unisex trend. Workwear is a stalwart alternative in a world of fatally cheap knockoffs.

The thing that yokes together the clothing of the slave and the clothing of the master is something those in the field of marketing like to call ‘heritage’.

Workwear ascends, but those who traditionally wore it have seen their fortunes decline. Blue-collar jobs in the US plummeted from 28 percent of the economy in 1970 to 17 percent in 2010. The collective-bargaining power of this group has similarly weakened, with trade-union membership sliding from a high of one-third of the American population during the 1950s to just over 11 percent today. Since 1989, the wealth of blue-collar and service-sector workers has fallen between 26 percent and 35 percent. The working have become stiff indeed, and their fall has been as fast and as hard as that of the aristocracy when the First World War hit. There is so little danger today of being mistaken for a longshoreman, or, for that matter, a duke, that this is exactly how we want to dress – because they are exotic. And so rapid has been the rapprochement between work clothes and luxury goods that one can simultaneously hit the two – duke and longshoreman – with a single well-chosen overcoat.

The thing that yokes together the clothing of the slave and the clothing of the master is something those in the field of marketing like to call ‘heritage’. On the one hand, there is Hermès, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, which themselves rose from artisan trades as makers of boxes and horse bits. On the other, there are the venerable factory brands like France’s VETRA (established in 1927) and America’s L.C. King Manufacturing Co (founded in 1913).

We associate luxury with rare, expensive, handcrafted things; what is new is to associate it with industrially manufactured ones. And therein lies the meaning of workwear’s ascendance. A piece I read in The Wall Street Journal reported that the epicentre of cheap clothing manufacturing has moved this year from Southeast Asia, whose workers now command sumptuous fees of US$67 a month, to Africa, where, in Ethiopia for example, the average is $21. The same report noted that China, hitherto considered a producer of garments whose buttons pop off like Mexican beans as soon as they are put on, was now the place for ‘sophisticated production while basic cutting and sewing goes to countries with lower wages’.

Luxury is about process. It doesn’t have to be restricted to hands and fingers, but can include machinery and computers

There is such a thing as high-quality manufacturing, and just as China, once the capital of cheap factory labour, has upgraded to the premium, skilled-labour category, there is a revived interest in what remains of the garment industry in Europe and North America. Textile factories in Scotland are a case in point. Chanel bought Barrie Knitwear in Hawick in 2012, when the century-old firm was about to foreclose. Since then, they have added 60 people to their workforce and still cannot keep up with orders. Barrie Knitwear is illustrative of the ‘semimanufactured’ luxury Scotland is putting in place. The Scots are fusing new technology with their archives, their knitting needles, their sheep, their water, their turn-of-the-century machinery and their centuries-old skills in the production of Harris tweed, wool, cashmere and lace. Pringle of Scotland incorporates nubby 3D-printed fabric into its argyle sweaters. Lacemaker Morton Young and Borland wired up their old Nottingham lace looms with CAD programs. Garments are frequently factory-made but hand-finished or finished with special machines that need to be set up each time they are used.

Luxury is about process. It doesn’t have to be restricted to hands and fingers, but can include machinery and computers as well, if it’s done right. Nobody understands this better than Margaret Howell. Howell has made workwear-inspired clothing since the early 1970s, long before it became trendy. She started out in a flat in Blackheath, London, but her classic shirts were so popular that it required opening a small factory to meet demand. “When we took over every room in the flat with production, we found a workshop,” she says. “Well, it was an old shop actually, we converted it to a place where we could actually employ more machinists, and we built up a workroom of about a dozen skilled shirt machinists, and used to produce the shirts from there.”

If you spend any amount of time with Howell talking about shirts and skirts and coats, you are bound to get very wonkishly into the details with which workwear abounds. Howell loves to delve into the miniature world of reinforcings, looped buttonholes, cross- stitched buttons and buckled tabs. They are the details that were once relevant, but which Howell now transposes into, if not clothing for manual labourers, then active people at least. She muses, “In England, we produced beautiful, sturdy clothes, and we moved away from that, didn’t we, really, with central heating and all the rest of it, and travel and everything.”

‘All the rest of it’ is coming back to bite us in the bum. On the radio last week, I heard a report that white working-class American men are dying in droves. Princeton researchers discovered that while mortality rates have fallen for everyone else, they have risen by 22 percent for this group since 1999, mostly due to suicide and/or drug and alcohol abuse. Only AIDS and the collapse of the Soviet Union has had this kind of demographic effect in the modern world.

White blue-collar males are killing themselves and unskilled workers are marching for a decent living wage because their work is valued little more than the clothes on their backs. The workwear industry, once moribund, has dusted itself off and spiffed itself up. Would that those who once wore it can do the same. 

From the Summer 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia

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