For the last year, fashion has had sex on its mind with a wholehearted embrace of barely there looks and a return to Y2K aesthetics—a time when It girls made headlines for wearing very little clothes. This vibe shift has happened largely in the realm of womenswear but for spring/summer 2023, the movement exploded on the men’s runways. Skin has never been more in—there were endless variations on the shirtless suit (this has proven to be popular on the red carpet in addition to the runway); short shorts; bare arms; and most interestingly, exposed underwear, either peeking out from above trouser waistbands or worn on its own as a statement piece.
With so much skin on show, one can’t help but think of that Miu Miu collection from spring/summer 2022 with the ultra-cropped tops and low-riding bottoms revealing flashes of undergarments and exposed linings. The collection was a massive success for Miu Miu and Miuccia Prada has been building on it ever since. For spring/summer 2023, she has even expanded her cast to include both male and non binary models, clad in the same nonchalantly sexy styles—t-shirts rolled up and tucked into Miu Miu briefs, shorts pulled down low.
While Prada might have kicked the trend into high gear, there are plenty of designers looking to stake their claim on this piece of the fashion pie. It’s more than just about being keyed into the zeitgeist; it’s also about good business sense. We are in peak logomania, and as big brands seek to grow ever bigger (with many harbouring ambitions to build full lifestyle brands beyond fashion), branded underwear seems
the natural next step in product category expansion. In our always-on, anything-goes social media culture, every product is fair game. Already, #GetReadyWithMe videos typically begin with a quick underwear shot. Why not turn it into a branding opportunity? The rise of brands like Savage x Fenty also prove that there is a thirst for both designer underwear and underwear-as-outerwear.
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It’s no surprise that big brands want in on the action. Designers like Tom Ford and Dolce&Gabbana have always done a healthy business of selling underwear but now, they’re putting it out there on the runway instead of confining it to the stores. It helps that their brand identities are already highly sexually-charged to begin with (Ford was, after all, responsible for one of the earliest high-fashion underwear moments with his Gucci thong)—this move works to both spotlight the merchandise and amp up the sex factor of their shows.
The other brands moving into this arena are doing it in ways aligned with their overall identity. At Balenciaga, Demna sent out male models in low-waisted baggy jeans worn with women’s corsetry, sheer and sparkling mesh tops, and cropped puffers. These pieces showed off the new Balenciaga underwear line that, like much of what Demna touches, has had its proportions tweaked—his has greatly exaggerated waistbands. Matthew Williams at Givenchy also showed exposed undies, though the look was sleeker—in line with the elevated, streamlined take on streetwear he has brought to the House. Meanwhile at LOEWE, Jonathan Anderson’s version was shown sans pants. Rather than hot-blooded sexuality, the look evoked a sense of boyish vulnerability, a theme that Anderson has often explored in his work. The boxer-briefs also had a crinkled and papery effect, which quietly spoke to the crafty spirit that animates everything created by the House.
Designer underwear in itself is not a new phenomenon, of course. The precedent for this current cultural moment is the time between the ’90s and the early 2000s, when hip-hop loomed large and its stars wore their jeans low and their underwear high. The image that best summed up the era is perhaps the one of Marky Mark in his Calvin Klein tighty-whities. What is new this time around, is the queer gaze on masculinity and sexuality. For too long, the mainstream definition of what makes a man sexy was defined by cis-het men.
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Now, a new generation of designers are bringing in fresh, diverse and personal points of view by centring their own queer fantasies and the non-binary bodies of their communities. Ludovic de Saint Sernin has built a cult following on the back of his lace-up leather briefs and his sexed-up, androgynous vision of minimalist glamour. A cohort of smaller labels are following in his footsteps: LGN Louis-Gabriel Nouchi crosses beefcake sex appeal with literary references and sensuous fluidity; Lazoschmidl does playful, poppy, body-positive fashion; Alled-Martinez serves up nostalgia-soaked takes on gay codes and archetypes.
But for spring/summer 2023, the one who takes the cake for being the most out, loud and proud, is not a new or young designer at all, but an establishment star. Thom Browne, who has been pushing boundaries and going against the grain his entire career—and one of the earliest to put men in dresses—put on a camp extravaganza featuring sailors, cowboys, and country club and C-suite types. They were dressed in tweed suits (mostly skirted) with the tops cropped, waists dropped and sides slit to expose red, white and blue jockstraps. The finale look even came with a big, blue pierced codpiece. Though there were swathes of skin (and butt cheek) on show, the result was often as unsettling as it was sexy. And that’s how we knew we were going somewhere new—it’s sex that not only makes you feel, but think.
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