How Did the 1980s AIDS Crisis Affect Fashion?

NJAL expands on Charlie Porter’s review of the inaugural New York Men’s Fashion Week where the Financial Times Fashion Editor mused on why the city falls behind London in radical menswear design and traced it back to the 1980s AIDs crisis. NJAL treads further to assess whether the city has yet fully recovered from the disease that decimated creativity in its silent devastation, following the countless lives claimed including designers Perry Ellis and Willie Smith and the untold others in fashion.

In an informative review of the inaugural New York Men's Fashion Week, Financial Times' Charlie Porter mused on whether New York as a fashion industrial complex had yet fully recovered from the 1980s, when AIDS claimed the lives of name designers (including Perry Ellis and Willie Smith) and many other creative men and women in the fashion industry. It wasn't just designers but showroom assistants, stylists, photographers, creative directors, window dressers — an entire generation of creativity, completely decimated. In 1980s New York, fashion was the city’s second-biggest industry and these people were its pulse. AIDS touched the lives of nearly everyone in the fashion industry but its effects are rarely discussed, admitted or acknowledged. Yes, the fallen heroes of the AIDS crisis are remembered but the clout of their creativity seems to be underestimated given the state of contemporary fashion today and more specifically in menswear as bluntly diagnosed by Porter.   

Porter has a knack for boiling down popular culture to its elemental components and the link he makes between the disparity of innovation between New York and London's contemporary cadre today as rooted in the hangover of the 80s AIDS crisis is a curious connection that calls for some critical reflection. Fashion is an art form that constantly looks back and aestheticises historical references freely. Yet, there's a more recent chapter in the history of fashion that for many remains too painful to engage with. I can understand why it was much too raw and agonising for a previous generation to probe but today's generation can't say it lost countless friends in such a bleak and ghastly way.

While an older generation of the industry remembers its lost icons, I am from a generation that barely knows anything about some of the designers who died of AIDS beyond the enduring iconicity of their namesake brands. In Simon Doonan’s book The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences and Hysteria (2013), he says;  “To those of you who were not around, I can only say this: You have no idea how lucky you are.” We are certainly blessed but we have a responsibility to talk about this disease and its harrowing consequences because at the height of its horror, it remained a stigmatised terror that nobody wanted to talk about. Today, we should talk about it. 

Contemporary fashion scholarship barely touches on some of the defining iconoclasts that were taken too early by AIDS, such as Chester Weinberg who was a household name in the 1960s and 1970s. He was an undisputed darling of the fashion press at the time yet art historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell claims that Weinberg has been “written out of history books entirely.” Chrisman-Campbell calls out Richard Martin’s encyclopaedic book titled Contemporary Fashion (1995), which remains the only major scholarly source on Weinberg’s life. The book merits just a few paragraphs on Weinberg but this was the designer responsible for reviving Calvin Klein in its moments of decline and mentoring Donna Karan during her studies at Parsons, as well as an array of other grossly overlooked achievements and accolades. By the time of his premature demise at 54, he was no longer famous despite working steadily and his death was wilfully ignored by the fashion industry. That's why fashion commentary today in the broadest context has to do more than just memorialise designers for having fallen to a disease but acknowledge the consequences of this sorrow and question how the next generation dealt with a mounting loss of talent. My generation today knows them as Halston, Perry Ellis, or elsewhere as Moschino but not as the real men behind the brands and that’s largely because the industry and academia hasn’t done enough to pay tribute to the bravado of these bright, bold talents and the innovation they sparked and, most of all, the painful resonance their absence left. Things have changed since the death of these visionaries but we still have so much further to go when it comes to the understanding and acceptance of HIV and people living with the disease. Heck, we need more people to just understand the difference between AIDS and HIV. We need to know how to prevent it. It's not just for the legacy justice on behalf of Weinberg and the untold others, it's for all people who are living with and who may die of HIV.

In a 1987 Vanity Fair article, the publication predicted 179,000 deaths from AIDS in the US alone by 1991, with New York City as its epicenter. These are staggering numbers and it seems simply ignorant to repudiate any colossal consequence from an entire generation being wiped out. In a 1990 People magazine feature discussing the industry’s state of mourning, American designer Vincent Larouche is quoted saying; "It's not just a question of numbers. Even if just one person dies in a company, it's a broken link in the chain that the whole creative process depends on. It's tragic. It has a terrible effect on everyone." 

What’s the effect? A disarming lack of knowledge, yes. A more drab landscape of creativity each time a bright talent was lost, yes. An epoch of fear, stigmatisation and rampant homophobia — definitely. However, the spectre of AIDS had even more deep-rooted ramifications in how the industrial complex of fashion operated. From heads of billion-dollar conglomerates to individual designers struggling to keep their small showrooms afloat, the industry's leaders were apprehensive of news reports of an AIDS-related death and any implications of homosexuality would hurt the bottom line. As the AIDS plague swept on, it was rarely publicly acknowledged and its collective quiet was not just because of social taboo but hard business sense. There were brave gestures at a time when AIDS remained an embarrassment to the industry, such as model Toukie Smith’s frankness on the death of her brother, designer Willie Smith. She refused to mask his death with any note of deception. “People die of AIDS,” said Toukie, who tirelessly fought the stigma of the disease with exactly this kind of openness. “It’s life — real and basic. It’s not a sin.”

Yet the taboo maintained its existence within the industry despite the general public becoming aware of the fatal concentration of AIDS and homosexuality within it. As late as 1990, the openly gay designer Rudi Gernreich told The Advocate that though “everybody” in the fashion industry was gay—“all the good ones, I mean the men”—they stayed closeted “to protect their jobs.” This unapologetic discrimination marked a beginning where young, male designers, untouched by AIDs, found it near impossible to secure any financial backing to help launch their careers. Fashion executives found it difficult to quantify the costs of the crisis, which caused designer labels to falter and smaller houses to die, absenteeism and insurance premiums rose and venture capitalists totally shied away. ''Health has become the most important thing in fashion, more important than the cut of the clothes,'' said Virginia Estrada, the sister of Angel Estrada, a New York designer who died of AIDS in 1989 to the New York Times

It became impossible to separate homosexuality and AIDS from the fashion industry and young, male designers suffered because of it. Fashion has always been queer and there have been expertly curated exhibitions and academic materials in recent history that demonstrate this. A Queer History of Fashion: From The Closet To The Catwalk (2013) by Valerie Steele is both a book and exhibition that explores how gender and sexuality have been inspiring and informing fashion for over 300 years. From Christian Dior to Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent and Jil Sander, many of the world’s greatest designers have identified as LGBTQ. For centuries, fashion has been an instrument of expression and experimentation for this community. My generation is very familiar with the sexually charged creations of designers like Walter Van Beirendonck and the androgynous looks flooding fashion week’s runways and it's hard aesthetic proof that sexuality and the way we style ourselves are inextricably entwined. The most significant chapter of this relationship remarkably remains the AIDS crisis and we remain collectively uncomfortable even today. Why?

We are right to champion the industry's queerness but it's just as fair to say that homophobia has proliferated corners of the industry for just as long. “The word ‘fag’ is being flung around the jealous jungle of Seventh Avenue as irresponsibly as ‘pink’ was in the McCarthy era,” Women’s Wear Daily complained in the publication's 1980s coverage of the AIDS epidemic. There's no doubting that AIDS gave way to a defining legacy of fashion industry activism and philanthropy but it also made the 1990s a troubling decade for the young, male designer. As the American economy bounced back from the early 1990s recession, cash-flush foreign investors were keen to align themselves with the pop-cultural relevancy and mass-visibility of the fashion industry. While it's fantastic that the 1990s became "the decade of the woman designer", as predicted by industry analyst Alan Millstein, it stopped many young, male designers in their tracks, who were essentially punished by the industry for their sexuality. "It's heartless, but business is business,'' said Todd Oddham to the New York Times, a womenswear designer who had to be tested four times for AIDS before securing a job designing for Japanese brand Onward Kashiyama in the early 90s. AIDS remained inextricably entwined with gay men and though AIDS shouldn’t be synonymous with gender, female designers did benefit from the willingness of investors to deliver backing because it was considered safe.

In the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, Woody Hochswender reported on the menswear offering at New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 1990 for the New York Times. He described it as "smoothly traditional" with an overbearing reportage of uber-masculine silhouettes. There remained designers on schedule such as Ronaldus Shamask, who brought a downtown spirit to traditional men's clothing through glen plaid suits with sleeveless hooded sweaters, but it remained a less commercially-viable stylistic sensibility and it was still conservative radicalism at best in pale to previous years. It signaled an aesthetic return to hetero-normativity, even in the most subversive of creative industries such as fashion. 

In the 1980s, it was not just gay designers who were creating the looks but gay stylists, hairdressers and photographers who all exerted a fashion influence. A key example is stylist Ray Petri (featured in The Face, i-D, and Arena magazines) who drew on looks that he saw in gay clubs to create a whole new style known as Buffalo that swiftly disseminated into the mainstream. With so many creative gay men dead, of course fashion became a little more sanitised and, by 1994, Rudy Giuliani (Former Mayor of New York City) would begin his campaign of rampant pink-washing and the homogenisation of iconic queer spaces. All of this made the fashion industry a little duller and a lot harder to break into.

Today, New York is bursting with superb fashion talent, but it requires the industry and its commercial stakeholders to learn from its past and create opportunities for young designers and stimulate diversity in order to revive the city's capacity to compete with the more radical fashion talent in London. Compared to New York, London still boasts much better initiatives to both incubate and propel its youngest and most raw talent. The industry shouldn't close the doors like it did to young, male designers in the early 1990s but take risks and allow pure creativity to thrive and that can only happen through key support and open-mindedness. The CFDA has multiple awards for designers, yet many of the nominees on this years rosta are relativley seasoned and although it's a laudable offering of diversity — what about graduates? Does New York simply need more altruistic and non-profit initiatives to nurture emerging young designers through the difficult early stages of their career to breed something radical and new? Or should the balance of aesthetics and pragmatism that defines the legacy of American menswear and its well-worn path of tailoring and sportswear not be challenged? There are broken links in the chain and the industry's history tells us where.