Androgynous fashion

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Gender indicators are becoming increasingly blurred in Hong Kong’s fashion scene. Arthur Tam finds out why. 

Androgyny is a word that usually strikes an emotional chord with audiences. Despite not being an entirely new concept in fashion, it still gives a sense of provocativeness, progress, intrigue, ease and, at times, unease. 

At different stages throughout the history of fashion, androgyny has been interpreted and reinterpreted. Screen goddess Marlene Dietrich, donning herself in tuxedos and ties as early as the 1930s, was the most celebrated, early pioneer of the look, while  Coco Chanel made waves as a designer, creating a collection inspired by loose-fitting, moveable menswear that did away with the bustier and finally let women breath. From that breath, we’ve seen a transformation in women’s fashion. Dresses can easily be exchanged with shirts and trousers while suits provide a convenient and clever alternative to a gown. Icons have been born on the back of the tomboy look, from musicians like Patti Smith and Tegan and Sara to the big screen stars like Glenn Close and Tilda Swinton (who, by the way, has become the new face of Chanel). Here in Hong Kong, we’ve had legends like Anita Mui and more contemporary figures like Denise Ho who have become models for effortlessly moving between the masculine and feminine. 


Marlene Dietrich - the early pioneer

But while there have been poster stars of the androgynous look over the last 50 years, in the last five years – yes, around about the time Lady Gaga came onto the scene – the blurring of the fashion lines between traditional gender norms has become far more widespread, permeating into increasingly accessible forums and, perhaps even, the global mainstream. You need only look to the high-profile global catwalks to get such a feel. On the runway, designers like Rick Owen, Gareth Pugh, Yohji Yamamoto and Martin Margiela are incorporating skirts, dresses and draping silhouettes in their menswear designs. And to complement those designs, you have models like male model Andrej Pejic, who, with his long blonde curls and hourglass body figure, walked the runway for the men’s and womenswear collections for Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs.


Andrej Pejic on the runway - he's the epitome of today's androgynous look

In womenswear, celebrated names like Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Alexander Wang are creating tough, masculine, linear-lined pants suits, boyfriend sweatshirts and oversized jackets for women. And on the catwalk, you have up-and-coming female model Tamy Glauser with her shaved head and boyish frame rocking menswear for Givenchy. 

“It’s a reflection and reaction to the cultural, social and political progress that is, frankly, happening all around the world – not only in Hong Kong. We’ve redirected our roles in society and there shouldn’t be any lines differentiating what young men and women are supposed to do,” says Yuli Yuferev, a fashion professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. 


Tamy Glauser - for her, it's all about the attitude

Indeed, there is a distortion of the genders from a fashion point of view. But there is an important distinction between androgyny as an aesthetic and what it means to be transgender – women are not dressing like a man to be one, nor the vice versa. “The body is a canvas. It’s where you can experiment with different shapes and silhouettes on your body as an expression of freedom,” continues Yuferev. 

While it is a global movement, it has significantly affected the fashion identity of Hongkongers, particularly as the city slowly becomes more philosophically open. “Hong Kong has become a bit more accepting of bisexuality and homosexuality,” says Matthew Ko, the Divisional Merchandise Manager for Joyce Boutique. “And because of an increased openness, this in turn has translated to more expressive and daring outfits regardless of whether or not the person is straight or gay. But when you go bold that doesn’t mean you won’t attract stares on the street.” That hasn’t, however, stopped Ko from stocking the edgier items that Joyce has been known for in the past decade. “It’s something that our company has acknowledged for a while and we do see cross-selling – men purchasing from the women’s department and vice-versa.”

Just strolling through Central, Causeway Bay or Mong Kok, it’s clear that the androgynous look is becoming more and more prevalent on the hip city streets: guys are wearing platforms, skirt leggings, long draped tops like the kind Eason Chan and Juno Mak wear; girls are sporting dandy outfits with brogues and blazers or 90s-grunge-inspired looks with loose boy Ts and skinny jeans, a la Kary Ng or Denise Ho. “It’s a movement,” says Yuferev. “Since the 80s, we had Boy George and David Bowie doing the flamboyant and provocative thing. Then you see Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein working on minimalist forms that blur gender lines at the same time Kate Moss’s heroin chic was at its height and brought a different type of sexiness to women. The common thread, again, is the freedom to express.” 

For local designers like Anais Jourden Mak and her label Jourden (a nod to Michael Jordan), it is that very freedom that inspires her to design for what she calls ‘gender-confused girls in Hong Kong’. She believes that women in Hong Kong are not really that feminine and nor do the men adhere to rigid standards of masculinity. Her take on androgyny is a less literal one. “As a girl who designs, I think I’m thinking more about the character of the woman and not her sexuality,” Mak explains. “The sex appeal of women has changed, people are able to appreciate women in a lot of different styles. She doesn’t have to be traditional. It’s a freedom to be attractive in a different way, to be honest and to be yourself.” Mak’s designs clearly weave in forms and structures traditionally known for menswear because, as she says, ‘I’m designing for real women who run around, because the women that are fancy, dressed up and idle isn’t the modern woman’.

By no accident, the first store to ever carry Jourden just so happened to be Liger – the fashion-forward boutique co-owned by the femme duo of Hilary Tsui and Dorothy Hui. Hui has long been known for her savvy style and her ability to predict future trends when it comes to picking stock for her shop. And as for her next predictions? “I do believe gender neutrality will continue to be a trend. To be honest, for me, I’ve never given much thought to the social implications of androgyny. It’s just that if you’re into fashion, you are going to be afraid of being bored, so you’ll try something different. Fashion should be fun and playful.” 


Tilda Swinton - a modern icon

In essence, fashion is trying to break the traditional definitions of what women or men are supposed to wear, distancing itself from conventional concepts of sexuality and increasingly becoming a more personal experience based on style and attitude. In the local scene, few would know this better than Kin Chan, the fiercely gaunt designer of ATT Production, former stylist Denise Ho and current stylist to Juno Mak. His designs can only be characterised as a cluster of competing ideas that meld together everything from asymmetrical cuts and kimono prints to peplums, lace and unconventional fits into one article of clothing. “There is no right and wrong with fashion,” says Kin, describing his life’s mantra. “Fashion should match your attitude, not your sexuality. I think some people choose their clothes to match their body type, which is fine, but that shouldn’t be the limit.” 

Kin has held true to this idea with his styling, either pushing an artist’s style to the next level, like he has done for Juno Mak’s upcoming MV, or challenging the comfort levels of others. “Back when I was styling for Denise [Ho], I only made her wear skirts. Why? Because I felt like I shouldn’t limit her. I wanted to try something new with her because we’ve already seen her do the masculine look, and if you’ve seen her now, she’s evolved. I’m happy when people at least try different opportunities. It’s self-discovery. Take Leslie Cheung – once he accepted himself towards the latter half of his career, you saw his more flamboyant side come out.”

Ultimately, the androgynous movement is very much a reflection of societal and cultural contexts. That’s a continually morphing landscape – particularly here in Hong Kong – and for fashionistas, it provides an ever fascinating inspiration to draw from. That is, as long as we retain our freedom of expression.  

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