What imbues clothes with a sense of identity; of masculinity or femininity, youthful spirit or loftiness, informality or luxury? It's something that's been explored a lot this season what with Miuccia Prada giving us a lesson in gender relations and looking at what makes something fit for a boy or girl. It was a topic that was also on Raf Simons' mind for A/W 15. There were girls on his runway for the first time. Unlike Mrs Prada, he didn't seem preoccupied so much with the equality of the sexes, but more with teenage identity, tribes and the haphazard experiences that occur when we're young and ultimately shape who we are for the rest of our lives. Teenage-hood is a war of the sexes in some way - pivotal moments are always stolen glances, first kisses, unrequited crushes, panics about sexuality. The inclusion of those girls felt totally natural (not like a quick attempt to flog some pre-fall as it does when female models appear on some menswear runways - though one couldn't help but wonder if the pieces, which were, besides fit tweaks, identical to the boys' clothes, will make it onto a womenswear shop floor). One even wondered how the girls had never felt missed before.
Simons' forte is packaging youth and selling it back to us in a way that never feels contrived. This season it felt somehow even more raw than usual. Maybe it was the new inclusion of those female models, but one got the sense of Simons letting barriers down. There was a nostalgia at play here - of course. How can one explore youth without turning back the clock to one's own experiences? That was most evident in those white lab coats scrawled with graffiti so specific one wondered if it had become like a sort of therapy for Simons - like penning a letter to someone you hate just to write your thoughts down. It was also suggested in the sense of nostalgia. The trouser shape was resolutely retro and centred around a distressed, frayed bottom flare, worn mainly over sneakers, recalling the wet, ripped bottom of baggy jeans worn and loved through teenage scrapes and scraps. Similarly, sweaters came furnished with quaint animal motifs - squirrels or groups of birds that recalled that trio of ducks in flight that hung in so many homes in the past. All in all, it was a story about clothes collected - pieces bought, pieces borrowed, pieces customised and pieces adored and favoured. Isn't that the tale of everyone's childhood wardrobe? Very few are fashion addicts that early. Mostly our teenage clothes come into our world in a wayward, confused way - hand-me downs from fathers or brothers, t-shirts borrowed from friends, imposed school uniform - yet they shape who we are and serve as an identifier for what we stand for, even if we never realise the importance of them at the time. Simons had hinted at that as well, by arranging his models into groups for the finale, each vaguely distinguishable for its shared aesthetic. Tribes; his age old obsession.
The length of pieces served to suggest teenage lankiness, the odd growing pains of body transformation during puberty. So coats extended down to the floor as if they'd been stretched. It was those references to the awkward, uncomfortable parts of youth that were the most striking, and most thought-provoking. The magic of one's youth is the odd balance between individual memories and shared experience - hence why Simons’ work on one hand feels so impenetrable, so autobiographical, so personal, as if it's drawing on memories that could never be shared with words, yet at the same time so understandable to us who've grown older and are able to reflect on the common nature of teenage angst and the shared nature of feelings that seemed so specific and personal. Maybe that's the real strength of Simons’ work and why it feels so complex - that fine line between how relevance and incomprehensibility, between things we all understand and things that feel totally removed. But that's the most intense feeling of youth isn't it - that feeling that no human on earth has felt what you're feeling and suffered the same? Oh to be young enough to still think everything you're living through is unprecedented. At least Simons takes us back.