When, at the turn of the 20th century, Louis Sullivan found his trade, architecture, at a crossroads, he was the first to rise to the challenge. Until then, the weight of a building had to be carried by masonry - and with this fact came stylistic limitations and conventions alike. Now there was the technology of the steel frame - and Sullivan immediately saw its potential. He saw the new possibility to build upwards, the opportunity to break away from historic styles, to decorate only to draw attention to the fundamentals of the structure.
In doing so, he came to be regarded not only as the father of the skyscraper, but - after his teacher Frank Lloyd-Wright - as a pioneer of modernism: the idea that austerity trumped decoration, that industrial materials could be as appealing as natural ones, that principles of engineering could be applied as much to a chair as to a bridge, that a style - or, more accurately, the designed lack of it - could be timeless. Modernism, then and now, offered calming respite from the ever more rapid changes of society.
Ninety years ago this year, Sullivan received his final commission. He died two years later. But his legacy was more than his era’s rebuff to period style. He bequeathed a philosophy that is still seen in buildings and furniture, cars and clothes, even now in denim. As Sullivan was first to put it, “form ever follows function”. In its Arc pant, and more specifically the philosophy of 3D design, G-Star might well be said to have bucked the same received wisdom in its field as Sullivan did in his.
Certainly, with an evolution of the brand’s ground-breaking, best-selling Elwood model - a hybrid of easy painter’s pant and motorcycle trousers, with their distinctive articulated knees - G-Star’s Arc brought in asymmetric, twisted seam legs to further develop a shape that conformed to the human shape, rather than make it conform to a more traditional, 2D clothes design pattern. More recent styles, such as the 5620, have even stretched and shrunk seams, and used the latest techniques in textile heat application to bake in shape.
Indeed, just as it took a modernist man to unveil a purity in building design, so perhaps one day G-Star might be celebrated for recognising that jeans could - with respect - be more than an homage to the heritage of the Old West; rather the same hard-wearing, beautifully-ageing fabric could be treated and cut so as to look and work in a way that was not only beyond the vagaries of fashion, but which suited a modern lifestyle in which we are all more mobile, and in which formal and casual boundaries are dissolving.
And it is not alone in supporting a spirit of change. As actress and the new face of G-Star Clémence Poésy has noted: “There are a lot of people right now, and institutions in different countries, that are making a statement that we should listen to if you want to try and work on a modern world that makes more sense.” Anton Corbijn, the photographer/director who shot the campaign, agrees. There is a modern culture that is, he suggests, “modern in the sense that it’s on the streets, it’s engaged with the world today - there are artists and thinkers taking the corporate culture we have today and commenting on it as individuals, even mocking it.”
G-Star’s equally engaged, progressive agenda might furthermore be seen in its collaborations, both those with modernist masters, but also those working within the philosophy today. Last year, for example, saw it team up with furniture makers Vitra to launch a collection of pieces re-interpreting those by French modernist designer Jean Prouvé - “fresh and crisp, keeping its integrity but looking new again,” as his daughter Catherine Prouvé had it.
More recently G-Star has worked with conceptual artist Ryan Gander to create a limited edition of 30 pairs of Arc pants, which he customised with white embroidery to mimic drips of paint; that was a nod to an only half tongue-in-cheek saying of another pioneering modernist architect, Charles Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. “By law all buildings should be white,” he once suggested. And among the participants of G-Star's latest Arc Art project was Shanghai-based minimalist fashion designer Zhang Da, who took a pair of the jeans and used orange paint to highlight the normally more discreetly clever construction.
Clearly we are not in Kansas anymore, not down a 19th century gold mine, nor riding rodeo, as much as other makers of denim might insist on pursuing jean’s well-trodden five pocket western story. Rather, as G-Star architectural denim aims to underscore, we are in 2012. As such, and as much as any other category of fashion has done, denim needs to look forward, keeping its best qualities - its adaptability, individuality, comfort, toughness - but prepared to ditch the dated in favour of new ideas. Modernism, as a period, may be well on its way to official antique status. But its ethos, G-Star believes, is as current as ever.