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Gender-blending: Sexual ambiguity in fashion

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Designers' fixation with sexual ambiguity is reaching new extremes, with an explosion of frank and unsettling images of androgyny. Is there beauty in blurring the boundaries, or has it gone too far?
By Alex Fury
Lea T is a model in demand. After fronting Givenchy's last two campaigns and gracing the brand's latest pre-fall lookbook, she jetted off to Sao Paulo to open the brand's fashion week before moving on to the New York shows.
She's also the cover star of the latest issue of Love, super-stylist Katie Grand's bible of cool – paired with Kate Moss, no less. It's the standard "hot model of the moment" story. But with one unexpected addition: Lea T was born Leandro Cerezo, son of Brazilian soccer hero Toninho Cerezo, and is still undergoing gender reassignment.
Lea T isn't the only signifier of fashion's current fixation with transgender chic. Andrej Pejic is the male mannequin name to know – whippet-thin, pouting under a cascade of blond hair and with a disarming similarity to the female model Erin Wasson. Jean Paul Gaultier was certainly impressed: he cast Pejic as the keynote model of his autumn/winter 2011 menswear show, "James Blond" (Pejic's locks are a Harlow-glow shade of peroxide). Not only that, but a week later, Pejic teetered down the same catwalk in flounces of tulle as the "bride" at Gaultier's haute couture show. Flat-chested, narrow-hipped and inhumanly tall – yes, he's a boy, but that's the figure of the fashionable female these days, too. It was the shape Katie Grand stated she and Marc Jacobs were looking for when casting for the Louis Vuitton womenswear show last October, one of the hottest of hot tickets on the Paris Fashion Week schedule, and the first time she picked up on the androgyny vibe that has stamped itself so indelibly across the latest issue of Love and its three covers.
It may seem odd for the barometer to have spun so resolutely away from the Mad Men-influenced gender archetypes espoused for the past half-dozen seasons, but fashion is nothing if not fickle. That said, there's something of the ambiguous even in those hyper-sexualised silhouettes. Antony Price, the legendary fashion designer responsible for outfitting Bryan Ferry and trussing up Amanda Lear, Jerry Hall et al in leather, satin and fish scales for Roxy Music's seminal album covers, is an expert. "Small arses, small waists, wide shoulders and big tits, that's the female ideal. But that silhouette of small arse and big shoulders is a man's silhouette." It's also the Vogue Paris-sponsored shape that has held grip for the past half-decade.
After a few years of curvier girls and butcher blokes gracing magazines and catwalks, fashion has decided it's time to gender-bend again. Or maybe that should be gender-blend – taken to its extreme, this is less about one gender approximating the other than actually appropriating its best parts. The photographer Nick Knight caught on to the mood last year, creating a cover editorial for the winter/spring issue of Arena Homme + that showcased boys in lipstick and suspenders, girls with beards, and a pre-operative transsexual in little beyond a smattering of magenta body-glitter. "It has nothing to do with the subtle, slightly dull androgyny of the 1990s," Knight says. "This is a big, flamboyant explosion of sexuality and gender image. It's that, on steroids. It's a lot more exciting, in my opinion."
Cross-dressing is, of course, nothing new. Fashion has flirted with androgyny for almost a century – those Twenties garçonnes earned their moniker because their shingle-cropped hairstyles and flat-chested bodies looked like those of teenage boys. Our current obsession is a little more abstract. To quote from Grand, "There's something about that early-Eighties thing of boys dressing as girls dressing as boys that feels right for now." With this in mind, even Lea T has a forerunner, in the form of Teri Toye, the openly transgendered model-cum-muse of the late New York designer Stephen Sprouse. What it's certainly not about is the dour 1990s brand of androgyny – the floppy-fringe coyness of Suede's Brett Anderson, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and a young Stella Tennant – where sexuality wasn't so much ambivalent as plain absent. The new trangenderism is frank and direct.
Of course, the Blitz Kid cult of the early Eighties had its roots in the peacock glamour of Seventies rock, and performers such as Roxy Music and, of course, David Bowie. Knight cites those as his own personal reference points but states: "Now, it's much more upfront. It's now 2011 – it's not 1970. And, with the advances in cosmetic surgery, there's the ability, medically, to go further." That was the inspiration behind Knight's latest images – redolent of the decadence of Weimar Germany and the louche, libertine mood of Studio 54, they certainly go further than most. This cross-gender boundary-crossing is made all the more exciting in situ, the images sandwiched between the brawny, muscle-bound editorials of a magazine that, high fashion or not, is otherwise resolutely male.
That's the striking thing about fashion's latest round of gender games – it's the men who are leading the way. We've got used to seeing women cross-dressing in three-piece suits and trench coats, but there's still a frisson of shock over a man appearing in anything overtly feminine. The latest round of menswear shows tackled the feeling head-on – not only via the more artistically inclined Parisian labels, but on the testosterone-pumped, big-business catwalks of Milan. There was nary a comedy kilt or sarong wrap in sight – this was cross-dressing done with po-faced seriousness. Christopher Bailey sent out his Burberry boys in sweet, Sixties-style bell-skirted coats with fur tippets fit for Nora Batty, while Miuccia Prada wrapped her boys in glistening Lurex fretted with art deco patterns, and what the press office euphemistically described as "a back-buttoning silk-georgette shirt in pale blue". Otherwise known as a big girl's blouse.
Heading up the men's march into the women's department is Luis Venegas, editor of Candy – billed as "the first transversal style magazine". Venegas himself puts it a little more simply: "The idea was to make 'Tranny Vogue'." Certainly Candy is glossy and high-fashion enough – its second cover featured Hollywood star James Franco photographed by Terry Richardson in full drag. An arresting sight, certainly – even Venegas states: "Not even in my dreams could I imagine this Hollywood movie star cross-dressing on the cover of a magazine. I haven't seen anything like that anywhere."
Candy is at the cutting edge of the new transgender explosion – but don't call it underground. The appeal of Candy's first issue, featuring Kelly Osbourne's then-boyfriend, Luke Worrall, in a powder-pink negligee, was such that cult Swedish clothing label Acne approached Venegas to create a selection of transsexual-friendly pieces. That's transsexual rather than unisex. "I wanted to make the opposite of unisex. Unisex clothes are usually very neutral – in this case, I wanted people not to say, 'Oh, these are clothes for men and women', but to ask, 'Oh, are these clothes for men or women?' The same feeling you get in front of a transgender person, that's what I wanted to create with the clothing." Acne has previously collaborated with Fantastic Man and Lanvin. "The last thing you can call that is underground," Venegas says.
With its first issue published in autumn 2009, Candy has been credited with kick-starting fashion's current cross-gender obsessions. "I read some blog that dubbed it 'The Candy Effect'," Venegas says. "I wouldn't say it's because of Candy, but I think maybe Candy showed that there's something interesting there at a time when magazines are repeating the same stories again and again. How many times can we see military stories, or streetwear?"
Change is, of course, the ultimate aphrodisiac – but rather than a mere seasonal flight of fancy, this is only the latest chapter in fashion's continuing love affair with gender-bending. Nick Knight summarises it neatly: "From Andy Warhol and Candy Darling there's always been a fascination for men who are women and women who are men. I think what Riccardo Tisci is doing with Lea T is part of that."
So where will this interest take us next? The womenswear shows are currently in full flow, hot on the heels of a menswear season that questioned the status quo between the sexes at every turn. Whether fashion will bravely continue to transgress the boundaries, or will wilt into the shadows of gender stereotypes, remains to be seen. Leading the vanguard as he prepares for Candy's third issue, Luis Venegas is philosophical about his aims. "If showing these images and stories somehow helps to change the conventions and what people see as elegant or right or wrong, I'm happy about it. That wasn't the plan, but at least people can look at this in a different way."

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