In 4th grade, I was accepted into a new public school that invited select students from statewide districts—both urban and suburban—to create a concept learning experience that actively incorporated the arts into traditional education. At such a young age, the multi-cultural, interdisciplinary space felt almost like a social experiment, as kids from all over came together with our own understanding of “normal” and “subversion” based on the communities we’d all separately grown up in.
But after months of being in each other’s presence every day—the affluent mini-mansion girls with bone straight hair alongside the inner-city girls with color-coordinating sneakers and caps—our communal understanding of “alternative” eventually became singular, collectively landing on a pseudo-punk look—boys with jet-black, towering spiked hair and girls with mini-skirts styled over jeans. Like with arguably all art schools, alternative was the goal and we were mutually hungry for it, as students visibly wrestled with self-discovery by projecting their own brand of Otherness in hallways.
With every movement comes a reaction, especially from those striving to stand out in a sea of Others. Before this, I’d been attending a quintessential suburban elementary school, where every student dressed like a buttoned-up prep—something I radically rejected until realizing “preppiness” could be my means of rebellion against this new student body. What I once considered “sameness” had become “Otherness” within this new context, as I decidedly built my entire wardrobe around Abercrombie & Fitch, layering short-sleeved polos and bright collared shirts with khaki cargo shorts. In my own neighborhood, I was a follower, but at school, I was an individual.
During NYFW, a paralleling scenario took place among the city’s more subversive, up-and-coming brands, as everyone clamored to have their voices heard and collections seen. Hood By Air covered its models’ faces in fake cum and collaborated with PornHub, Namilia introduced patches featuring Donald Trump’s face superimposed on porn stars and LUAR cast queer ballroom performers for his MADE runway debut. These were all strong declarations of Otherness—whether sexual or political—but ones that altogether composed a like-minded perspective. When alternative is chased by many, it inevitably becomes the norm, leaving normalcy alienated and ripe for experimentation.
Telfar Clemens did just that, making a much louder statement than his contemporaries by tackling what’s been longtime untouched by underground designers with an eye for cool. “Prep is actually the new subculture,” the 31-year-old designer told DazedDigital, introducing an entire spring ’17 collection that played with conventional mainstream fashion—mainstream, like your New England cousin’s go-to country club look, from striped rugby polos to logo-emblazed trousers. “It’s Aeropostale, Martha Stewart, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie—it’s all of these things.” Clemens continued. “I took everything I thought I hated and I turned it into something I love.”
These widely consumed silhouettes were presented this season as unisex styles, all reworked through Clemens’ smart, subtle lens. “Styling Telfar is based on Intuition,” said Ryan Trecartin in the soundtrack he voiced over exclusively for Telfar’s runway presentation—and the designer’s intuition was apparent throughout, as if he were grappling with why exactly these looks had become normalized in society as-is. Polo plackets were angled toward the armpit, not directly down; convertible pants were worn with just one leg removed, not both; purses were hung around the neck, not the shoulder. By thoroughly examining sameness, Telfar had successfully achieved Otherness.
Photography: Kohl Murdock