When Rei Kawakubo’s men strutted on stage for Comme Des Garçons’ Homme Plus SS1996 show, attendees could have been forgiven for thinking they had wandered onto a construction site. High-vis reflective strips in orange, white, lime and red contrasted sharply, almost seeming out of place on Kawakubo’s tailoring and outerwear. The show of course was inspired by everyday workwear, with safety uniforms of construction workers deconstructed and reimagined as high fashion.
The ’96 Comme show underscored a desire for safety that has since become a recurring motif amongst runway shows, and throughout the cultural zeitgeist. In the spring of 1999, Helmut Lang echoed this sentiment with his use of “safety orange” and NASA-inspired reflective silver, cloaking his models in reassuring armour for the everyday. Later that year, McQueen followed, making his own mark on hi-vis before the turn of the century for Givenchy AW99. Several years later, we again saw a re-emergence of hi-vis in Issey Miyake Men’s SS13 show. This was a presentation of refined, futuristic sporty silhouettes that featured reflective strips at the hems, occasionally cutting diagonally across garments and footwear.
For AW2018, more than 20 years after Comme des Garçons’ Homme Plus first showing of hi-vis, Raf Simons at Calvin Klein 205w39nyc, Burberry, Walter Van Beirendonck, Undercover and Junya Watanabe all revisited the theme as part of their own collections. More recently, Walter van Beirendonck - whose use of volt, reflective materials and eye-catching colours has been a trademark since the 90s - jumped on the hi-vis bandwagon in both of his 2019 presentations, and once again the following season for SS20, manipulating reflective glare on everything from clothes to his models’ make up.
Hi-vis has become synonymous with the common sense solution; the pinnacle of function and practicality, and societally an emblem for safety. It’s consistent employment by designers has been metaphoric of a need for protection in a world rife with uncertainty.