The Sunday before classes began this semester, from a few tables away, I saw Nick Witchey sitting in Hobbs brunching. His fine-boned face was framed by silky Medieval pageboy hair, and until I could meet him in the flesh, I decided to call him “Bowl.” Code name established, I spent a fascinating few weeks watching his progression of unexpected layers construct and deconstruct into new forms every day. I didn’t know his name or his aesthetic background, but I knew he was hip; he presented one of the most visually interesting figures on this campus.
When I talked to Witchey about his style, he explained that the astonishing variety of clothing choice I had observed was actually very new for him. “Up until recently, I dressed very preppy, and then I went through this half punk, half mall goth phase.” Now, “[I try] to dress like a different person every day.”
This transition is striking. Although his current style does hold this incredible amount of variety, Witchey pointed out “I’ve been veering more towards the punky look – but just the look, I’m not a punk, I go to an elite liberal arts school, which is the opposite of punk.” To imagine him in a theoretical past of pure preppy boy aesthetic is difficult.
He explained that the cause of this transition has been one of change in his understanding of the world and his role in it. “Before I left last fall, I thought I knew everything about myself. I thought I knew who I was, and that I was this set person, so my style was very consistent. Now I’m at this point where I’m just totally confused about myself, so some days I feel like a punk, and some days I feel super ravey, and some days I feel like I want to be high fashion… It’s all sort of connected to this confusion of being a twenty year old.”
For Witchey, clothing is a principal artistic outlet, and it ends up being intensely emotional. “It’s my personal form of expression, so whatever I wear, it has to feel somehow connected to what I’m going through in my life, which is why for a while I was dressing in the all black mall goth. It’s sort of cliché, but it just felt right at the time… At some point, the preppy look didn’t express the way I was feeling anymore. The look didn’t satisfy me.”
There is an artist’s pride in Witchey’s need for satisfaction from his clothing, and an artist’s vision in his willingness to alter his aesthetic on a daily basis to try to achieve satisfaction. “Getting dressed in the morning is one of the things that keeps me going. It’s one of the happiest times, it’s when I feel most creative.” But Witchey argued that he doesn’t have the artistic vision of a designer.
Styling, as a means of interpreting the visual through presentation, is work he feels more drawn to, for its synthesizing, rather than constructive, potential. His favorite city for fashion right now is London, for similar reasons. “The fashion world there is really concerned with producing conceptually interesting clothing, and also cares about analyzing and synthesizing that in a coherent, cogent way. It’s this nice play between creation and analysis that you don’t really get in New York or Milan or Paris.”
Witchey listed several particularly inspirational and intriguing young menswear designers working out of London right now: J. W. Anderson, Bobby Abley, Craig Green, and Fashion East’s menswear line MAN. The Central St. Martin’s MA shows also interest Witchey, which are not exclusively menswear. But there is clearly a focus, for Witchey, on menswear.
Witchey presented this focus in the context of the fashion world’s current, changing relationship with the idea of gender. “The fashion world is really paying attention to new and changing conceptions of gender and sexuality that I think not a lot of other people are. So a lot of the women’s wear stuff is really accessible to men, and vice versa. I actually pay closer attention to menswear, not even because I’m a man, but because I think that menswear at this moment is a lot more interesting than women’s wear. Because of all the constraints [that have been] put on menswear, there is so much room to explore.”
Specific designers and shows, like J. W. Anderson’s spring 2013 men’s collection, have recently challenged assumptions about gender and clothing. Anderson presented men in ruffles, dresses and chiffon, a traditionally exclusively feminine fabric. His dresses were very simple, in a silhouette that translated for Witchey as a “symbol of the dress.” Anderson was showing the mens fashion world just “how restrictive it had been.” But this challenge of prevailing attitudes is not universally lauded; “it made people really angry.”
In Witchey’s own life, subversion of strictly gendered clothing has elicited interesting responses as well. Recently, several people have asked if he is trans, because he chose to wear a dress or a skirt. “It’s so interesting to me that that’s all it takes is something so superficial, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, I mean something so exterior… I find it so interesting that that automatically expresses your gender identity. What is it about a dress that is so inherently feminine? It’s all just fabric.”
That statement, “it’s all just fabric,” for me expressed an interesting dynamic in Witchey’s view of clothing and fashion. In his personal life, it is supremely important. “It’s not objective. This is my own interpretation of the way I’m feeling right now.” It is a means of self expression and analysis, and holds a disproportionate amount of his concentration, as “the thing I care most about.”
But he also looks at fashion critically and objectively, in an almost academic way. “I do it for myself, but I do it for other people to. Just to incite conversation. It’s just interesting.” He doesn’t see style as good or bad, but as present or not present – if you dress intentionally, you have style, you make a statement and you participate in a dialogue.
Fashion expresses and subverts our expectations about gender and beauty. Our individual clothing choices express the ways we perceive those, and so many other things, in and about ourselves. In clothing, the personal and the societal, the emotional and the objective, tangibly coalesce. It’s all just fabric, but that seemingly diminution demands that we examine how it all got to be so very important.