In episode 1 of We Are Who We Are, Luca Guadagnino's eight-part HBO series, 14-year-old Fraser wanders around the Italian seaside town of Chioggia alone in the sweltering midday sun, his hair dripping with sweat, ensconced in Kanye West's luscious 'Devil in a New Dress' via a pair of earphones. His mother Sarah, a US Army colonel played by Chloë Sevigny, has moved the family from New York City to a US army base in Italy, and Fraser (played by Jack Dylan Grazer) is like a fish out of water in the alien, rural terrain of Chioggia.
After some locals offer him a carton of wine to drink, a woman working at a sewing machine on a table strewn with pixelated camo military gear sparks his interest. 'You know Raf Simons? You're a fucking genius,' he tells her, innocuously snapping pictures of the clothes on his iPhone. Fraser's obsession with high fashion is immediately obvious; in this scene he wears a Raf Simons S/S 13 T-shirt featuring an eerie painting by Los Angeles painter Brian Calvin, paired with adidas Y-3 drop-crotch leopard print shorts. Calvin's image, of a solitary teenage girl drinking a Modelo beer, is prophetic; after failing to make friends with other teenagers at the beach, Fraser spends the day alone, getting drunk, and later bloodies the T shirt after a fall.
'I think the way kids approached fashion in 2016 (when the show is set) is still relevant today. The internet and social media make it possible to have fast access to trends, and even high fashion has become more accessible to younger people who can now find platforms on which to buy clothes at lower price,' says Giulia Piersanti, the costume designer behind We Are Who We Are.
Fraser is walking proof of a more refined breed of hypebeast – not a Supreme-clad tween, but instead the type to track down specific vintage items on secondhand online marketplaces like Grailed – he wears an array of designer brands, including Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto, Rick Owens, Comme Des Garçons, Henrik Vibskov, Vetements, KAPITAL and Saint Laurent, all purchased secretly using his mother's credit card. One of the most expensive (and outlandish) of Fraser's pieces is a rare Bernhard Willhelm S/S 03 floral military vest, so coveted that it's currently selling on Depop for $1,500. 'Even after just one episode, kids reached out to me to ask who designed this or that piece, and what season it is from,' says Piersanti.
This is Piersanti and Guadagnino's fourth collaboration; Piersanti designed the costumes for the erratic, sun-drenched A Bigger Splash (2015), the sensual, Oscar-winning 1980s love story Call Me By Your Name (2017), and the bleak, witchy Suspiria (2018) remake. We Are Who We Are is Guadagnino's first foray into television, making it Piersanti's most ambitious project to date, with over seven hours of edited footage and hundreds of people to dress. 'It was a vast universe to portray as the story brings people from all backgrounds into one confined area,' she says. Piersanti covered the walls of the costume department with visual research including reportage portraits of teenagers and adults from all sorts of backgrounds, and met with soldiers and their families on a real US military base in Italy.
Fashion is an inseparable part of Guadagino's artistic output; he has done projects with brands like Dior, Fendi and Jil Sander, collaborated with Valentino's creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli on the short film The Staggering Girl (2019), and directed Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams (2020), a documentary about the Italian shoemaker's life. Timothée Chalamet, the lanky breakout star of Call Me By Your Name, is now a self-styled fashion icon and certified heartthrob, having appeared on the red carpet in a sparkly black Louis Vuitton harness, a pair of hand-dyed, chalky overalls by artist-cum-designer Sterling Ruby, and a cinched Haider Ackermann silk suit. Fraser wears similarly offbeat outfits in We Are Who We Are with ease – fits made all the more intrepid considering his environment – a conservative US military base entirely lacking in 'high fashion-ness.'
Even Chloë Sevigny's style takes a rare backseat in the show; she mostly appears dressed in military uniform with a cropped haircut (inspired by non-binary gender theorist Judith Butler's hairdo), embracing the role of a tough, lesbian US Army colonel dealing with an onslaught of crises, both professional and familial (her and Fraser's relationship oscillates between adoration and hatred – both states are expressed with primal physicality). It often feels like Fraser lives to piss off his mother. 'For some of Fraser’s looks I gave an ironic take on military clothes as a provocation to his mom,' says Piersanti, citing the naif flower Bernhard Willhelm harness as an example. After a blowout between the two, Fraser tells his mother, 'I hate you. I hate everything about you. I hate your uniform and I hate when you sing and dance by yourself.'
While watching the show, I was reminded of Wolfgang Tillmans's softly eroticised collection of mass media images of soldiers, featured in the Soldiers: The Nineties (1999) book. Through Fraser's romantic adoration of the handsome military major Jonathan (played by Tom Mercier), Guadagnino seemed to exert a similar, homoerotic gaze on the military men in We Are Who We Are - an unsurprising parallel, perhaps, given that in 2015, Guadagnino directed a short film inspired by one of Tillmans's photographs. The German photographer's influence can be felt elsewhere too; after the teenage protagonists break into a house for an impromptu party, Guadagnino's lens lingers over their clothes strewn by the poolside; a pair of inside-out green adidas tracksuit bottoms, scrunched up swimming trunks, sodden boxers. They resemble Tillmans's 1991 photograph 'grey jeans over stair post,' wherein an empty pair of trousers morph into something highly suggestive, despite their lack of human inhabitant.
'Proportions were very important. Everything I bought for Fraser was adult size and was retouched to fit him in a way to still look oversized and baggy,' says Piersanti. I was hoping to constantly remind the audience how young these characters are as they navigate growing up in a world surrounded by grown-ups that are, for the most part, pretty crappy adults.' Fraser's partner in crime, Caitlin, is also struggling to come to terms with the adult world as she explores her blossoming gender identity, much to the dismay of her parents. Using clothing to navigate her amorphous, shifting sexuality, she frequents a local cafe in her father's shirt and baseball cap, posing as a boy and flirting with girls. Fraser catches her cross-dressing, and helps, the only way he knows how – with clothes. 'The stuff you wear is inappropriate for what you’re planning on doing,' he tells her, later gifting her a green Dover Street Market parcel containing a men's Carhartt polo shirt and pair of jeans.
'Caitlin has no care for fashion. Her wardrobe has more to do with her personal inspection into figuring out who she is and her sexuality,' says Piersanti. 'I layered very small, cropped cut-off tops with baggy, boyish Dickies or big basketball shorts. I wanted to show her petite body despite the baggy, more masculine wardrobe choices. Despite wanting to be a boy, she is not aware of her unconscious feminine side, but I wanted the audience to see it even though she is not aware of it herself.'
Fraser, however, is keen to turn her onto high fashion. In episode 3, he reads Caitlin a poem from Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016) as they drift in her father's boat. 'Why do you read poetry?' she asks. 'Same reason I hate your clothing,' Fraser replies. 'It’s fast fashion. You buy something that you think you like and in two months it ends up in the garbage. I’m looking for stuff that means something. The same goes for poetry. Every word means something.'
Whether waxing lyrical about how Demna Gvasalia brings the memory of war into the fabric for his Balenciaga collections, or justifying the price of a Junya Watanabe jacket thanks to its irregular artistry, Fraser is at his most animated when talking about clothes. In episode 6, he lies in the darkness of his bedroom watching a Karl Lagerfeld interview on his iPhone, a world away from the regimented gloom of the military base in which he currently lives. 'You have to be interested in what’s going on,' says Lagerfeld, from behind his signature dark glasses. 'You have to read the newspaper. You must never think that you saw it all. You have always your eyes open. You have to be like a roof with lots of antennas, get all the images.' Like his idol, Fraser is wide open too, brimming with life's myriad possibilities – just don't ask him how much his T-shirt costs.