While his longtime fans know exactly what he stands for aesthetically, the broader world is still trying to figure him out. Not everyone will have an affinity for his work, but it’s worth at least giving folks a chance.
It’s hard to see the clothes when the models are swan-diving into a mosh pit.
Clemens presented his fall 2019 collection Thursday night downtown at Irving Plaza in what was a good, old-fashioned happening. The thick crowd of guests blanketing the street outside had the jumpy energy that comes from fear of missing out on something people could be talking about the next day. Inside the performance space, music drowned out conversation, cigarette smoke wafted through the air and the sharp scent of weed seeped into your clothes. Everything and everyone exuded an aura of artful intention — of a downtown city scene that stubbornly, willfully still exists. In a world of tightly controlled fashion branding, this was loosely controlled chaos. And there was something refreshing about that.
Clemens ceded the stage to the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, blues musician Robert Randolph, another singer, a rapper, a punk band and dancers who populated the main floor and caught the models after they took the plunge. They were all, Clemens said after the show, “people I respect and like.”
Collaborations are common in fashion. At times they seem virtually required. Every brand is mixing it up with another one. Mostly, these relationships are wholly transactional. They’re all about selling a particular product. Clemens’s partnerships are more focused on exploring an idea or simply seeing how other forms of communication — music, poetry — can inform the vocabulary of fashion.
This collection, called “Country,” and in celebration of what Clemens calls “Black Future(s) Month,” centered on the dual meaning of the word. Country, of course, simply references the land — rolling hills, bucolic fields. It also refers to a nation with its man-made boundaries, laws and traditions. It gets at the tension between indigenous people and conquerors, natural order and man-made hierarchies.
Duality abounds. As each model falls into the crowd, it’s an act of both bravado and trust. Their clothes are designed but lack the glossy, pristine look of designer clothes. What are the clothes like? Flared denim, one-shoulder shirts, big camp shirts, roomy jackets. Patchwork jeans that create the effect of chaps. Graphic T-shirts. Scarves.
It’s a powerful concept and one that unfolds against the backdrop of a wall-size American flag that has been ripped apart. With Randolph on blues keyboard and Harris delivering a monologue about “her-story, history, our history.”
Clemens has a lot on his mind, and he’s chosen to speak through fashion. But the clothes only whisper. At least this season. Clemens’s voice is at full volume in his choice to occupy a spot on the official fashion calendar, through the creative souls he’s able to bring together, in the diverse crowd he attracts and in the energy he injects into the entire cultural conversation.
What does it mean to be a citizen of a country vs. someone who lives in the country? It’s a timely question. Clemens doesn’t answer it, but posing it at all is saying a lot.