The zeitgeist is despondent. International relations, the climate, the economy—all facets of contemporary life appear utterly hopeless, a feeling that is internalized without question and expressed in our music, our cinema, and of course, our clothing. Adam Curtis, in his documentary HyperNormalisation (2016), aptly describes the mood of recent years. “All optimistic visions of the future [have] disappeared,” he narrates with nonchalant fatalism. “And everyone became obsessed by dark forebodings, imagining the very worst of what might happen.” These dark forebodings are traceable in numerous avenues of cultural output, but this vague apocalypticism has had its most potent manifestation in fashion.
Evidently, the fashion industry, just like entertainment and media, is as preoccupied with our bastardized reality as the rest of us. It makes sense—if “fashion is capitalism’s favorite child” (Werner Sombart), then disaster capitalism naturally breeds dystopian couture. Clothing reflective of a bleak present is nothing new—the popularity of camo, for instance, often fluctuates synchronously with actual war—but such trends feel even more prevalent now. Of course, fashion should be an avenue to dissect fraught social, economic, political, and environmental vistas, but the heavy-handed presence of apocalyptic ideation has no doubt had a negative impact on our collective esprit. Having been so inundated with consistently dismal collections, at what point does the fascistic uniformity of Miu Miu become a self-fulfilling prophecy? While in the past four years the pessimism of gas-masked Marine Serre and hazmat-suited CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC may have felt piquant, prescient, even profound, these aesthetics now feel overdramatic at best and demoralizing otherwise.
Checking Vogue Runway for the industry’s most recent output—specifically Fall 2021 Menswear and Ready-to-Wear—was just short of doomscrolling. Guram and Demna Gvasalia, whose (respective) work for Balenciaga and Vetements is generally a respite from fashion’s self-serious pessimism, was utterly fatalistic this season. Morale was especially low at Vetements, which opened with an anarchy symbol, a Pussy Riot style ski mask, and turgidly Orwellian sloganeering (“THINK WHILE IT’S STILL LEGAL”)—less bone-chill, more eye-roll. Meanwhile, Balenciaga fought a holy war in an anachronistic collage of military accoutrements, juxtaposing medieval thigh-highs with both chainmail dresses and (less successfully) NICOPANDA-esque camouflage ensembles. The crusade continued at Kim Jones’s Dior Men, which likewise sported Napoleonic jackets with patriotic star buttons, galoshes as practical for the trenches as they are for snowy sidewalks, an assortment of military berets, and more camo winter suits. In the past, designers have similarly used military references in acknowledgment of broader social commentary; Shayne Oliver’s Hood by Air Spring 2015 collection, for example, which used army-inspired silhouettes and colors to facilitate a greater rebuke of destructive masculinity. But for Gvasalia and Jones, sending models down the runway in fatigues and combat boots isn’t commentary—it’s complacency.
The general takeaway: ambient dystopianism, once a novelty in fashion, is only becoming more popular. But John and Yoko said it best; war is over, or a least it should be. Labels telling us how to look chic during some vague apocalypse is a tired concept—if this really is Armageddon, our priorities will hardly be outsourced from the next SSENSE drop. And while a handful of designers have chosen a reactionary anti-war approach to fashion, they remain largely unsuccessful, too bogged down in nostalgia or navel-gazing to actually change the stubborn apocalyptic mentality. For instance, Etro’s Fall 2021 Menswear takes the search for peace into historical context, channeling the ’60’s in paisley-printed Barrymore collars, tasteful kiltie loafers, and chunky sweater vests. The effect, also shared by this season’s Wales Bonner, serves as a love letter to late 20th century free-thinking collegiate academia. Bringing “free love” a step further, queer menswear brand Lazoschmidl mixes retro ’70s flares and PVC singlets with cartoony food-themed knitwear and cowboy boots for next fall. Childhood motifs abound: infantile butterfly cut-outs and unicorn prints synthesized with a vintage approach to social and sexual freedoms. These distinct collections, among others, seem to unanimously argue that the best way to escape a discordant tomorrow is through nostalgizing a blurry yesterday. But redux and regression are no way to move forward. How can we design a brighter future through fashion if our only understanding of harmony is gleaned from looking back, or inward?
Escapism is not the answer—fashion must instead embrace idealism. This is a challenge, given that many designers rely heavily on either nostalgic references or “dark forebodings” as inspiration for their work. To many, optimistic futurism is too abstract a design concept; the closest they can get is a backlog of endless retrospection, blindly sentimental and too reactionary to be effective. And a dearth of available utopian references—in contrast to the abundance of apocalyptic/disaster cinema and literature—leaves little tangible material for designers to work with. But isn’t the job of any formidable artistic vanguard to push the limits of originality, of ingenuity? What happened to shooting for the moon?
Perhaps our designers are aiming a little lower. Perhaps we can accept that, as a consolation prize. Truth be told, recent collections haven’t all been doom and gloom; a thread of emergent positivity and experimental utopianism cuts through the noise like a silver lining, whether or not the effect is intentional on the part of the designers. One approach arrives with Daniel Roseberry’s Schiaparelli Spring 2021 Couture, the central concept of which is a sense of overcoming through fortitude. With padded, simulated muscles and toned six-pack corsets, the likes of which were also present at Swedish indie label Gudfreja, Schiaparelli doesn’t just bring us to the gym—it shows us there is peace in strength, and strength in peace. NYC-based label AREA, wittingly or unwittingly, also made an attempt last month; with Genesis P-Orridge bumping in the background of their Spring 2021 Couture video, designers Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Pansczczyk display elevated seapunk garments, every item a sparkly coral reef. Concurrently cheap and expensive, a Swarovski tassel falls off one rhinestone wrap skirt, but model Yasmin Wijnaldum doesn’t flinch, just keeps strutting—she still looks great, she knows it, and that’s all that matters. The same energy propels the Ludovic de Saint Sernin Fall 2021 preview video. In it, a scantily-clad, socially-isolated man daydreams of a house party, of vulgar electronic muzak, glittery shots off the coffee table, group selfies with beautiful people in beautiful clothing, and wakes up to the doorbell ringing: the fashion industry’s optimistic denouement.
In some subtle way, these three collections pose the essential question: What do you want tomorrow to look like? Where will you go? What will you drink? Who will you kiss? What will you wear? They implore you, crucially, to ditch the dreary and start dressing for the future you aspire to live in, not what you’re scared it will become. Because they know—we know—that war isn’t just over; it’s passé.