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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Hildreth

How Literature Helps Me Translate the Runway

On Altuzarra, show notes, and getting lost in translation.


L-R: Altuzarra SS24, Loewe SS24 Menswear, Prada SS24 Menswear

I thought that working at an independent bookstore in Soho would at least prove to be some idyllic, intellectual pursuit that would allow me to talk about the literature I loved with customers — but, in reality, in the winter I worked there, most days the building had no heat, my manager rightly said I talked too much, and the customers were extremely varied. One was delayed picking up her online order because she got shot while on vacation and another told me he was too much of an empath to read Toni Morrison. Not all were bad. A certain celebrity mother-daughter duo would come in and pick out their next book to read together and I once helped a well-known actress find a beginner’s acting manual (“for a friend”). 

And a handful of times, Joseph Altuzarra’s mother, Karen, would come in. On the last occasion I saw her, I rang up her purchases and kindly said that I didn’t mean to bother her but I used to work in the fashion industry. I had attended her son’s SS20 show in Paris before and recognized her from the audience. We began talking, albeit briefly, as she stood in the checkout line (I had already been given my warning about talking) about literature and different forms of communication. All of this to say, she recommended to me her favorite novel: A Heart So White by Javier Marías. 

I took the book home that night and, upon first read, found the prose surprisingly complex and difficult in a way that I had not struggled to encounter since the classroom. The novel places two professional language translators shortly after their wedding but flashes forward and backward throughout the narrator’s life. In order to come to terms with his family, old and new, the narrator must grapple with the intricacies and limitations of human language while his expressive revelations remain bound by the alphabets and dialects that the world communally understands. After I finished the novel I couldn’t put it down. I found myself still digesting these sentences I had read months prior and began applying these intricacies to the language of fashion. 

Marías’ narrator observes that his greatest translation tensions were not from an imminent crisis, or in our case a runway stunt, they were from a lack of receptiveness or available language on the part of the communicator. Over the course of the novel, the narrator must come to grips with the blending of families and generational differences in communication — as his wife and father begin to establish a secret language between the two of them that allows him to learn more about his father, and family writ large, via second-hand language than he ever could have by miscommunicating head-on. Every time Altuzarra’s videos pop up on my feed, I see him beaming about his daughters and the pieces that he sets aside for them from each collection as a wordless time capsule of affection, and once again I am drawn back to the confines of language that lies beside limitless other forms of expression. 

In fashion, we critique and we complain and we praise and we comment. We observe a runway show and hope that the artistry has not gotten lost in our own translations. As a writer, I constantly attempt to digest a designer’s intention long after the show, much like I still think about Marías’s prose today. As a brand, designers must ask themselves: how do we tell a story, and tell it well enough to sell? Over the past year, fashion’s storytelling has become increasingly habitual, and styling gestures transform from awe on the runway to residual ideas and images in our minds. 

L-R: Bottega Veneta SS24, Prada FW24 Menswear, Miu Miu SS24

It’s not too dissimilar from the slow-turning, ballet-like walks we see during couture, albeit a little more commercial. Whether we identify with Bottega Veneta’s woven baskets filled with newspapers and button-downs from seasons past or Miu Miu’s model’s Band-Aid-laden toes after a long day in heels, designers are using their clothing to communicate the language of lived experience. A mannequin represents ambiguity but the runway’s movement allows us to recognize these gestures as ideas that already live inside of us, even if the idea is as simply relatable as sore feet. Prada’s generally the master of this, inviting us into an organic yet incredibly informed runway of experience — such as this season, which blended corporate austerity with organic matter that thrives in the absence of human interaction. Models in swim caps and skinny suits walked down and around the corporate setting as nature peered into humanity’s terrarium — and, as I thought, Will we ever set them free? 

Loewe SS24 Menswear

Loewe folded layer upon layer of communication through the point of view of different digital diasporas. While Anderson canonized his it-boy ambassadors, I unintentionally saw my memories reflected back at me witnessing button-downs tucked into trackies tucked into mid-calf socks. The runway launched me ten years backward into my prep-school dining hall where I watched boys shuffle around the dinner line in — what I thought of then as — the most ridiculous styling pairing I had ever seen. Sweaters; polos; jeans; flannels sewn intentionally amuck under large overcoats zig-zagged our eyes from look to look as if we were darting from phone to computer screen to TV. It’s chaos and yet extremely communicative — each undone belt buckle or tucked trouser leg reveals another layer until we finally reach the bare-chested commentator sitting behind the screen.

Martine Rose SS24 Menswear

Martine Rose used quickness and deft design to accelerate her own dialogue. The show was a surprise, announced only the night before, and its wrapped coats and knotted leather trenches somehow looked like the way that listening to “Blue Monday” by New Order feels. But in a flash, as quick as the runway came, it’s gone and the stage goes dark. As the screen sizzles, I blink and am left with the dizzying imprints of the models’ turns. The outlines of camouflage button-downs paired with mohair striped suits, and the lingering orange from crushed velvet pants stick on the back of my eyelids to be reinterpreted in my wardrobe for another day. 

Sometimes the best we can bear is witness as the story unfolds on the runway before us — before we begin to create our own second-hand interpretations that we nurture closely within ourselves. Eventually, we come to understand something similar to the narrator’s conclusion. Listening to his wife’s feminine hum, he knows, it “...isn’t sung in order to be heard, still less interpreted or translated, that insignificant song, with neither aim nor audience, which one hears and learns and never forgets,” is sung despite everything else. 🌀


Alexandra Hildreth is a 26-year-old freelance fashion writer, brand consultant, and fiction enthusiast based in NYC. Hildreth, who previously worked as a producer, is particularly interested in fashion’s intersection with the “real world” and in her free time remains a competitive Goodreads user. You can find her on Instagram at @Alexandra.Hildreth and TikTok @guyfieri.superfan.


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