The frenzy around Kid Cudi performing on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live in a floral gown with a fitted bodice and spaghetti straps seals it: The dress is shaping up to be one of the defining menswear fashion silhouettes of 2021. If male-identifying celebrities have one fashion super-power, it’s that their wearing something amounts to both an endorsement and a permission slip. The more famous guys wear something, the easier it is for regular guys to try it. So every time another style icon—Harry Styles, Dan Levy, Jeremy O. Harris, and let’s not forget Young Thug all the way back in 2016—wears a silhouette borrowed from womenswear, it means many more young men are going to say yes to the dress. (Or at least, “Maybe.” It’s been a long road!)
At first glance, the menswear dress might seem uniquely designed for maximum provocation at a time when the right-wing is dangerously dedicated to policing gender norms. But Cudi in his flowing, sweet but unprecious frock suggests that the dress is as much about comfort as raising eyebrows. (Countless young men swapping basketball shorts for this season’s easygoing men’s and gender fluid skirts, and Harry Styles gussied in his Gucci gown and buckled up in Chopova Lowena, would agree.)
It also points to a more seismic shift in fashion’s gendered garment dynamics. For almost a century, as any fashion historian (or high fashion Twitter head) will tell you, the pant suit was the standard from which all other silhouettes departed. Dressing gender-neutral or gender-fluid meant wearing something derived from the men’s suit. Now, the dress may be slowly usurping that role: it’s relaxed and universally wearable, a Big Fit in just one garment. Even the new suits seem kind of, well, gown-y. Men are feeling an increasing need to experiment, and an increasing comfort with doing so—an acceleration of the work done for decades by queer people who had far fewer hangups about shopping in all departments of the store.
Cudi’s dress is an instant classic. Conceived with Abloh as a tribute to Kurt Cobain, whose birthday was last Monday and who is, of course, a north star for the current generation of menswear dress fanatics, it’s half Princess Diana—classic and Laura Ashley-ish chintz—and half grunge sweetie. (Cudi also paid tribute to SNL legend Chris Farley with a T-shirt under a green Cobain-y mohair cardigan in his other appearance.) Abloh, en route back from Daniel Lee’s top secret Bottega Veneta show held at Berlin’s Berghain nightclub (you read that right!), spoke to GQ about creating the look, and where the dress fits into the fashion ecosystem. “I hope today there’s some kid in middle America that feels empowered by what Cudi used our privilege and platform to do,” he says.
How did the idea for the dress come together? It’s a tribute to Kurt Cobain—what did you and Cudi discuss next?
Cudi and I have history that goes back 10 years. He was on the set of a film shooting on an odd time zone and goes, “I need a dress for SNL.” I said, “Say no more. I’m on it.”
The silhouette differs from Kurt’s dress, which is more grunge girl—borrowed from Courtney (or one of her acolytes). This one’s more borrowed from a hot woman at brunch, or the bridesmaid stealing the show at her best friend’s wedding. Can you say more about the silhouette?
100%, you’re catching the nuance. For me, this moment exemplifies the power garments possess to tell a story. That’s the essence of Off-White™️ since it’s inception. Derail the notion that fashion only tells stories that my culture consumes, but harness the potential and tell our own stories.
Garments travel. That dress and all Cudi’s looks have an homage to Kurt Cobain and Chris Farley. The heritage of the setting was important from the beginning. The dress fits the way it does precisely on purpose. It doesn’t cop out at the very end and get loose at the top so it looks more safe. No, it’s a dress from a loved one’s closet. Cudi and I are “faux against the grain” for fun, we really are independent thinkers.
For me, it represents personal empowerment despite any social norm. It vehemently represents confidence. It’s Cudi knocking on your television screen saying, “Hey! Be yourself.” Day one fans of Cudi know that he isn’t the norm. He has only ever been himself.
Tell me about the word “PATTERN” across the bodice of the dress? Pattern like a cut and sew dress? Pattern like Kurt wrote the rule book?
Off-White™️ has a history with the word “Pattern” on all over prints. It’s an entendre to mean all things. In my mind, that’s how garments leap from reality to mean something more. So you’re onto it all. It means it all.
The dress and the skirt seem to be taking over menswear. You had a lot of them in your LV show; we’ve got Harry in Chopova skirts and Gucci gowns… and the wearers always look so at ease, liberated. And of course they do: dresses are comfortable! (No wonder Greek philosophers wore them.) What I’m getting at is where you think the dress fits into the landscape of menswear now? As Cudi demonstrated, it now seems less about provocation (as it did with, say, the NY Dolls, or even perhaps with Thugga) and more about comfort and freedom. But maybe you disagree! Is the dress displacing the men’s suit as the “norm” from which other fashion deviates or derives? Or do you see it in another way?
The beauty about now, is our generation, piece by piece, can dismantle norms. 2020 was a year of reckoning about how the system in place that governs us as people is out of date. My work exists in the space of pop culture. Gender norms and racial freedoms are amongst the most important things in society that need to be updated. As a fashion designer, moments like this let me know that there is space for intellect and risk for the sake of expanding space. I could care less about the attention. I hope today there’s some kid in middle America that feels empowered by what Cudi used our privilege and platform to do.