How ‘alt-beauty’ became the hottest trend in men’s fashion

The new look is pale, thin and unglamorous – and its stars overwhelmingly come from former Soviet states

Ukranian model Danyl K thinks he looks like “a pig”. Maksym, another model from Kiev, describes himself as “alien-like”, while, the day before, his almost namesake Maksym P was scouted in a crowd, having just shaved off his hair. And yet these models are three of the biggest emerging faces on the catwalk and a sign that unconventional “alt-beauty” is the latest trend in men’s fashion.

For these models, symmetry is not a requisite. A slightly sallow pallor is ideal, wonky oversized features are also fine; the bigger the nose, the ears and the lips – the better. Modelling trends, like fashion, vacillate wildly – and the physical nuances often reflect the mood of the industry. In the 90s, the industry big guns (Armani, Versace) reigned, as did the Supers – instantly recognisable, conventionally beautiful models such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss were muses, and as famous as the clothes they modelled. There was the male equivalent, too, with Swede beefcakes such as Alex Lundqvist and Marcus Schenkenberg dominating. Dishearteningly, bar Tyson Beckford, almost all of the big names in male modelling have been white, a trend that continued into the 00s. They have also tended towards the pretty and slight, or hyper-conventional, like David Gandy. Aided by social media, this It generation, paved the way for a new era of Insta-models this decade, with names such as Gigi Hadid and Lucky Blue Smith cultivating as large a presence online as on the catwalk. But while their rise through unconventional channels has possibly helped enable a more diverse aesthetic, few would have predicted the alt-model to be this season’s look. Or that they would overwhelmingly come from former Soviet states.

The trend was arguably propelled by Eva Gödel, who runs the German agency Tomorrow Is Another Day. She has described the boys she scouts as “guys who may not consider themselves good-looking enough to apply”. She prefers to focus on “the way people move, how they dress and do their hair, how emotion crosses their faces”. Gödel discovered Paul Hameline, now Vetements muse, standing at an ATM in Le Marais, Paris. Like most alt-models, he was reluctant (most are baffled at being scouted, although this was the fourth time Hameline had been approached), but he has since walked for labels including Kenzo and Hood By Air. Another model signed to Gödel’s agency is Berliner Steve Morell, who recently walked the Balenciaga show. “I have a characteristic face, cheekbones, big eyes,” he says. “It’s like an elegant, bizarre, 80s character.”

Avdotja Alexandrova founded the Russian agency Lumpen in 2014; it follows a similar aesthetic. “I think that the time of faceless models is over,” she says, adding that the defining characteristic of those on her books is that they are unglamorous. Meanwhile, Kiev-based agency Cat-b – home to Danyl and the two Maksyms – is run by Marija Pogrebniak, who says there is no look to describe her models – they are all “blossoms in one vase”. She recently scouted someone because they looked like a squirrel; another because of the way they smelled.

The shift towards an alternative look isn’t new. Casting real people in catwalk shows became so close to the norm that the term “nodels” was coined by the industry in 2015. Designers such as Nasir Mazhar, Kanye West and Eckhaus Latta have all used models that were not cast from the western beauty mould, often found on Instagram or, more commonly, “the street”. If the look is esoteric, then it’s supposed to be. Most of these models have second jobs, often artistic ones, as it’s thought to add an edge.

What is new, however, is the dominance of former Soviet countries, as designers look to cast their models from the same region, so as to reflect the same aesthetic. The last few years has seen a generation of “eastern bloc” designers, most famously Demna Gvsalia of Vetements and now Balenciaga. Gosha Rubchinskiy, a Russian designer and one of the first to cast almost exclusively non-models (most were skater friends from Russia) has spoken of how “models can be part of the look, the styling”. His clothes fall under a category now known as gopnik, a Russian word meaning roughly “yob” – which unfortunately tends towards all-white casting, and for which Gvsalia has been criticised.

Of course, pairing a particular look to a region is problematic. This fetishisation of post-Soviet style has been growing in the west – since joining Balenciaga last year, Gvsalia has instilled his unique, oversized, 90s-infused look into the once trad, historic French fashion house to steady critical rapture. For the models themselves, this lumping together of countries that have little in common bar a traumatic past is troubling. “This so-called eastern bloc is just a new space for western people,” says Maksym P, who feels the shift resembles a modern-day orientalism.

What’s more, diversity is not without its limitations. These models may not be conventionally handsome, but they conform to the usual sizing, are predominantly white, and are uniformly odd-looking.

Still, it does mark a shift in some standards in the industry. And while 2017 may not be a banner year for relations between Russia and the west, it is, in striking contrast, a good year for fashion – and its models.


Morwenna Ferrier

The GuardianTramp

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