FROM RICK OWENS’S ragged T-shirts and canvas shifts to the giddy ornamentation of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, all glitz and blitz and reconstituted Elton John costumes, the spring collections appeared to not have a common thread between them — a seemingly bipolar mix of downtrodden, derelict styles and escapist fantasies. Rei Kawakubo’s Boschean excess at Comme des Garçons — clashing Renaissance paintings and Japanese cartoons as prints and reconstituted pileups of tacky plastic children’s toys as headpieces — was a stark contrast to Miuccia Prada’s comic-book-print warrior women and the tatty gewgaws and currency-war patterns of Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga collection. There, the idea of luxury was debased and devalued with gaudy dresses, blouses and skintight pant-boot hybrids cut in post-Brexit-inspired euro-note and dollar-bill patterns.
So, what is it with fashion at the moment? Designers appear to have assumed a fight-or-flight response to these uncertain times, which, to some — especially those with a flair for the dramatic — look a lot like the end of days. “Fashion is a reflection of the way we live,” said Gvasalia backstage at Balenciaga. “I wanted to create a feeling that something dangerous was going to happen.” He was talking, specifically, about the sturm-und-drang mood at his show, which took place in a blacked-out venue filled with smoke and the boom of ominous trip hop music. The message was less “apocalypse now” and more “apocalypse soon.”
Art, literature and film frequently tackle themes of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it destruction — in 2017 alone, there was the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which felt eerily prophetic; Kara Walker’s towering Goya-esque murals shown at New York’s Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in September, which depicted the unfolding of a modern, racially charged civil war; the artist Jonathan Horowitz’s doctored photo of President Trump playing golf while the sky above him burned; and, even, a sequel to that earlier neon-fizzed end-times nightmare, “Blade Runner.” But apocalyptic naysaying is less frequently found in fashion, an industry that trades on optimism, fantasy and, most importantly, an ability to predict the future. But in moments of great distress, even clothing tends to reflect our troubles. Immediately prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, there was a surfeit of Austrian and Bavarian influences in the industry; in the late ’80s, Black Monday gave way to the rise of a movement dubbed “deconstruction” that originated with the Belgian designer Martin Margiela, whose leitmotif was the unfinished hem and the inside-out seam. His clothes were purposefully made to look poor — because the world suddenly was. It was a volte-face to the excess of the early ’80s, the dancing-on-the-lip-of-the-volcano styles of Christian Lacroix and his archaic indulgences of crinoline pouf skirts and Second Empire extremes.
Designers appear to have assumed a fight-or-flight response to these uncertain times, which, to some — especially those with a flair for the dramatic — look a lot like the end of days.
YET THIS SPRING’S fashions, more than in any era in living memory, seem inextricably linked to the times in which we live. They are hysterical, scatterbrained and lunging toward extreme opposites (glittery at Gucci, wasteland-era at Rick Owens) just as global political parties have become more polarized themselves. The collections telegraph post-national, post-history and post-internet ideas — all of which bear individual examination. The post-national is, perhaps, the easiest to connect to culture’s current fixations: Eschewing borders as various governments seek to enforce them, fashion is, in a sense, evoking an aesthetic idyll, a leftist liberal dream in step with most fashion designers’ sensibilities. The post-nationalism of fashion has emerged perhaps in response to the rise of the right wing — not only across America, but in much of Europe, too, where the notion of patriotism has been used as a Trojan Horse for prejudice and white supremacy.
Equally, post-nationalism is a reaction to the ongoing furor around perceived cultural appropriation — when even a hairstyle can cause widespread outrage, as was the case with the dreadlocks worn by models at last spring’s Marc Jacobs show, highlighting the politicization of black women’s hair. Rather than the clichéd references of early 2000s fashion (and before), where collections could be readily and easily labeled “African,” “Asian” or even “French,” the industry’s boundaries have now almost dissolved. Jacobs’s spring collection, for example, was a globalized, turbaned bricolage of different eras and locales, eluding facile categorization — an eccentric ancient-modern tribe beyond identification, a vision of a nativeless world, with a single culture created from the flotsam of many. And when a designer does flatten their inspiration into the now-old-fashioned adage of X meets Y (Queen Elizabeth plus Duke Ellington, say) it feels hopelessly dated. As for post-history, fashion is oft chastised for its reliance on retro ideas and is encouraged instead to look forward. But what if that outlook is bleak? Fashion’s current point of view is hesitant, reluctant even, to think too much about the future.
As the line between true and false and right and wrong becomes disorientingly blurred, designers are challenging other norms — including the purpose of clothing itself. Mutated hybrids are emerging, the most extreme being Balenciaga’s propositions of entirely separate garments — like denim jackets and trenches or opera coats and padded construction worker’s vests — conjoined at the neck, leaving one or the other flapping over the front or flank, or Phoebe Philo’s two-in-one trench coats for Céline, which are sewn together in an infinity loop at the bottom hem.
At Maison Margiela, John Galliano sliced his clothes apart with a technique he dubs “décortiqué” (translation: “peeled” or “shelled”), stripping the garment to a framework of ribbony seam allowance, with open space between. The concept rethinks a jacket’s reason for being: It will no longer protect you from the elements, a previously essential component of a garment, that could, perhaps, become unnecessary due to the ever-rising mercury of climate change. Rick Owens’s spring show had swollen, bulbous volumes erupting from various points on the torso, which, he said, scrambled familiar bodily shapes. Most everything he showed featured zipped pockets, transforming a piece of clothing into something more akin to a suit fit for a nomadic post-apocalyptic existence, an outfit for a world in which not only the idea of nation had become irrelevant, but that of home as well. With nowhere to store your belongings, you had to carry them with you.
Walter Bradford Cannon, the physiologist who first coined the term “fight or flight,” observed that fear was the motivation for the latter and rage for the former — although both could be triggered by the same event. That seems to be the instinct of designers, too, caught (as are all of us) between fear for survival (of humanity, of themselves, or maybe just of their business) and raging against the machine. Rick Owens characterized his show as “a gesture of turning away from threat, not really as escapism, but as rejection.” Others were rather more fantastic — Alessandro Michele’s Milanese Gucci show, for instance, with its gang of rootless rebels in glittering neo-folkloric dress traipsing a runway reimagined as a fabulist map of artifacts from the ancient world. (In reality, they were fakes shipped from the Cinecittà film studios in Rome.) Fight or flight, or fatalist versus fabulist, is the season’s key message.
But how can you run from — or fight — an apocalypse? Apocalypse evokes the notion of worlds falling apart in spectacular, high Hollywood fashion — a flood, an asteroid, and existence being wiped out. Judgment Day. But perhaps the apocalypse we are approaching is, to a degree, a destruction of worlds rather than the world, a collapsing of established orders and ways of doing business. On a base, commercial level, the old rules of seasons and of male and female suddenly seem inapplicable, irrelevant — fashion labels are challenging gender binaries, eschewing retrospective styles, cultural cherry-picking and lazy luxury for something more fluid and less easily categorized.
Owens cited the Italian poet and activist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism,” written in 1909, as an inspiration for his show. “There are a few unfortunate attitudes in this manifesto regarding women and book burning,” he said with his typical deadpan candor. “But what’s fascinating about radical utopian movements is that they start with the best intentions but then degenerate and crumble. Until the next wave of hope appears over the horizon.”
Model: Achok at DNA Model Management. Hair by Adam Szabo at Frank Reps using Oribe. Makeup by Yumi Lee at Streeters using Nars Cosmetics. Casting by Arianna Pradarelli. Photographer’s assistants: Gabriela Worosz and Alexandre Hertoghe. Stylist’s assistant: Gage Daughdrill