Fashioning The Fall 2021 Season, Creativity Off-Line for On-Screen
By Long Nguyen
How a Digital Year Has Evolved Fashion Shows & Fashion Itself
The Paris Fall 2021 digital show season ended with one extended day due to production delays, with the mega-brand Louis Vuitton closing the season as usual.
This time the artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière captured in his fall collection the sentiment of art, couture, and streetwear in a masterful blending of eras and genres. It is a giant poster holding up the image of this contemporary era where hybrids of any kind seem to be these new normal rather than the exceptional.
There is a new form of a fashion show – the pre-recorded release of a fashion show in a live stream taped version rather than a live stream real show. These taped releases have the merit of a traditional physical show in disguise as a digital film. Still, they can also contain a built-in narrative like the Dior taped film show, directed by Fabien Baron, that straddle the borderline of a fairy tale with a showing of really great clothes.
The fall 2021 season saw just a few fantastic inventive fashion shows, namely Rick Owens and many mediocre shows that are not very creative. The discrepancy here lies in the fact that many designers merely asked themselves about what kind of clothes they can make to comfort people rather than go on with the business of fashion design.
The malaise is perhaps the fixed fashion shows calendar schedule has become obsolete as its dependency on this model is waning. That’s on top of brands learning in the past year how different formats and platforms may work even better to expand the global audience for each new season.
The current system isn’t yet a relic of the past because the vested interests left intact the structure, despite filling the vast holes in the calendar with smaller and invited brands that would not typically qualify to be on the official calendar in the past.
But, many of the spring 2021 shows that took place worlds away from these fashion hubs seemed to be doing just fine, or even more than satisfactory, in galvanizing and garnering their community support. There were no other competitions for attention on whether these brands had chosen to release their digital initiatives.
Consider that all the Kering Group brands have opted out of this dependency on a fixed calendar system. Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, and Alexander McQueen showed their spring collections last December, while Gucci produced a fashion film festival supporting emerging brands lasting over seven days. Gucci will show its fall 2021 collection on this year’s tax day.
After a year of experimenting with different modes, would these brands and even smaller independent brands ever want to return to the old ways, both in the schedule and show format?
Asking the question about whether things should go back to the system before is utter nonsense in many ways. In a crisis or not, everything evolves.
Within an industry that demands ‘newness’ every season, now that the actual newness has arrived in the form of the new year-round showing schedule, the old established guard is pushing back with all it has left to preserve any sense of the status quo. Bizarre is not even the right word to describe this resistance.
Think of the seasonal calendar show system as a star with planets and revolving around a central sun. A few of the planets that orbit this sun have suddenly disappeared into the void in the past few years, leaving a much smaller planetary system still orbiting a sun now bigger, engulfed by self-importance.
The importance of the seasonal calendar has been significantly diminished in recent years as the main supporting actors in the arena for this old system are on the verge of collapse or the crisp of significant revolutionary changes. Fashion labels are depending less on the department store and the wholesale structures of the past. In the latest earning calls for fiscal 2020, the Prada executive team detailed the decrease in the brand’s wholesale channels by 49 percent in fiscal 2020 to compare to fiscal 2019 to facilitate the distribution system in a much tighter manner.
Of equal importance is that the magazine media is no longer the behemoth it once was to provide brands with marketing support within a dependency model. Each brand is a media entity of its own, with its community and its creative channels. The Kering Group brands that showed spring 2021 off schedule did more than fine on their own, perhaps better since they didn’t have any form of competitions on each of their chosen days to reveal the new collection.
The federations of fashion in all the major capitals stuck to their established calendar unyieldingly and unable to make suggestions on how to adopt changes. Now, individual brands decide what is best for their interests rather than communal senses. Seeing this process reminded me of the title of the German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s 1974 movie ‘Every Man for Himself and God Against All.’ In the film, Herzog recounted Kasper Hauser’s story, a young man released in a public square in Nuremberg in1828 after spending seventeen years of life chained in a tiny cellar devoid of human contact.
New York experienced the worse of this infirmity of a fashion system in desperate need of renewal of all the fashion capitals. In the last two seasons, no American marquee names are showing during NYFW, now desperately rebranded as the American Collections with an added caveat – an open-ended show schedule listing any American brand showing anywhere at any time. That should solve everything. Does it?
None of the big American brands were present this past February during the meager three days of shows with a schedule from the CFDA and a competing schedule from NYFW The Shows, the brand IMG control that ran a series of showroom events at its hub at the Spring Street Studios. This conflicting and competing dual system did nothing to ease how American brands can still show creative ways. No wonder why so many choose the present outside of these official channels.
Yet, American designers like Anna Sui and Proenza Schouler are not the kind of designers who fixated too much time on how both brands showed fall fashion that was intrinsic to them and to their ways of making fashion all these years. Sui crafted fantastic otherworldly and imaginative clothes well within her recognized signature. The team of Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough reimagined their fashion now, with their style ever-evolving forward with a beautiful selection of sportswear clothes with fewer ostentations attached. The Brooklyn-based designer Willy Chavarria is an example of this exception to the standards. He honed his distinct ethos for his men’s clothes that combined design ingenuity with a close ear on the ground, listening to his peers and customers in their local communities.
Tom Ford, the CFDA chairman, released a lookbook but at a later date where he also cut away the ‘frou frou’, chopping a couture gown to a camisole paired with specially dyed jeans. Meanwhile, Hillary Taymour didn’t make any real clothes for her Collina Strada collection – she did an animation, a transformative one where avatars and clothes changed from one state to another. Sure, Taymour’s animation work is far more exciting than Ford’s lookbook images.
However, the absence in New York was one of creativity rather than commerce. PVH Corporation announced the abrupt departure of Raf Simons from its Calvin Klein division in late December 2018 after a two-year stint and shortly after ended the brand’s collection business. One bright moment of New York fashion week was forever extinguished, never to see the light of day again. Marc Jacobs’ absence also makes whatever shows that remained felt much less of an American Collections collective.
Besides, in New York, a few independent brands like Eckhaus Latta had joined Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren in opting out of the officialdom, making the already hollow three days schedule even more emptied.
The opposite, though, took place in London, where the young generation is rising and taking charge of their vision in highly creative ways that is becoming a distinguishing feature of this British capital of fashion.
For the most prominent British fashion player Burberry, chief creative officer Riccardo Tisci opted for a standalone menswear show that was, in essence, a full display of his menswear aesthetics formed primarily during his long Givenchy years.
Absent of Burberry’s gravity, Eden Loweth did a superb collection with his concentrated tailoring for his going solo at Art School. Matty Bovan delivered a masterpiece from his hometown of Leeds in the north, rallying local support for his practice of wrecking traditional silhouettes to foster new ones. Priya Ahluwalia, the winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Prize, created a small and concise collection of menswear based on different cultures’ meshing.
The American designer working in London, Harris Reed, showcased superb tailoring with a mix of women haute couture finishing, softening his men’s silhouettes with billowing tulles in his debut since graduating from Central Saint Martins in June 2020. Somehow, this was the primal energy lacking in New York.
In Milano, the big news was the debut women’s collection for Fendi by the new artistic director for womenswear Kim Jones. As far as big news is concerned, this debut was more of a giant flop despite the elaborate staging that reproduced the set of the haute couture showing in Paris towards the end of January.
In Paris and now in Milano, Jones failed to provide the overall grand aesthetics for Fendi’s idea. The clothes felt like they came from the late 20th century, just a bit polished again, along with some brand new fur coats. ‘What is Fendi’ remains an open question.
Without any doubt, this Milano fall season belonged to Prada, Marni, and Valentino, each in their ways.
The creative team of Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons indeed did a powerful second-woman collection. The Prada clothes that exuded a sense of optimism in the colorful furry wool stage set to the clothes that sparked a bit of glamor and a bit of protection, mixing the subtle sequins with a rigid structured bright yellow wool coat.
The post-show conversations that started last September following their debut show have now morphed into a fashion cultural phenomenon on its own. Fashion designers rarely talk directly to the public or even answer students’ questions on the subject of their fashion. These Prada post-show chat that had expanded this season to include guests like the filmmaker Lee Daniels and the designer Marc Jacobs has become institutionalized that a form of it will have to continue losing some new followers.
It is surprising how long it has taken for fashion designers to talk to their public, at the very least, about their thinking on their collections.
Oh, and on that subject of engaging the public, Marni’s Francesco Risso has done stellar work in creating a recognizable style for Marni that matters to young people and how to create a community with these youths. In place of an actual staged taped show, Risso invited the global guests globally to a breakfast, lunch, or dinner depending on the time zones and showed how the Marni brand has successfully fomenting loyalty with the kids.
The colorful Marni clothes are just the kinds one would see on this targeted consumer-based for Marni and all other brands veering towards this demographic. By 2025, that’s in seven more seasons. These kids will dominate the luxury consumer market globally.
How can Prada not continue these post-show talks with the audience in the future? These talks are more than just the extension of a show – they are, in essence, now an intrinsic part of the show in this new hybrid show’s structure.
Then, there were the artistic gestures of Pierpaolo Piccioli. For his Valentino fall ready-to-wear co-ed collection, the Roman designer staged the show at the Piccolo Teatro, in honor of this yearlong closure, with a presentation to demonstrate the purpose of art and creation. With little fanfare in the staging or with the clean and sharp clothes devoid of embellishments, the designer’s haute couture spirit filtered throughout the clothes, now entangled with the feel of authenticity and realness.
The actions, even on-screen actions, moved to Paris with a fantastic season-opening show from the young French designer Marine Serre.
One of the first French young designers to fully embrace sustainability in all aspects of her fashion brand, Serre’s approach has been more intellectual in her repurposing and recycling work on almost all of her products. This season, she asked all her friends to model the new fall clothes. She photographed them for a limited edition book that details the materials she used for her collections since her start show in February 2018, blurring couture and sports. Now her audience can identify the people in these clothes, and perhaps a few will see themselves included as well.
This capacity for an emotional connection will help expand Serre’s community and her fashion territory.
Paris remains unchallenged as the city for creative fashion, even if one of the city’s most ardent creative designers decided to show his collection again on the oceanfront sidewalk in Venice.
From the beachfront concrete walkway behind a hotel with the Adriatic Sea behind in the misty light grey fog as a backdrop, Rick Owens’ show was the kind of emotional and powerful fashion punch so vital, yet so difficult for designers to harness.
In the live stream broadcast from the Venice Lido, models changed their outfits with strings of clothing racks along the concrete walkway and the sand with staff members helping them switch to a new look fast. The show has a feel of a school project, but the clothes are fantastic and imaginative creations on their own.
Owens’ fall clothes have that sense of urgency with their majestic couture shapes but as a giant puffer coat over the zippered leather bodysuit or a dress pulled down to the waist to show a knit tee shirt underneath. Even a shredded black denim bodysuit paired with a cropped black pagoda-like shoulder sleeveless jacket felt imposing.
Contrast this ‘rack along with the beach’ show with the high budget Givenchy taping in an industrial warehouse with arrays of overhead lightning and little water submerged floor. The difference between the Rick Owens and the Givenchy shows lies in the inherent innovative design.
Owens’ clothes are mesmerizing, pushing fashion design to their limits. Matthew M. Williams, the new creative director, Givenchy frocks at best only reach the level of luxury streetwear, and that’s it nothing beyond. Unlike many of his peers anywhere, Owens’ fashion is unique.
Williams’ actual taped co-ed physical show for Givenchy conveyed so little meaning about what his concept for Givenchy is all about. The clothes telegraphed expensively and luxury and street – a chocolate leather puffer coat here, a giant faux fur coat, and a fitted tailored suit there – but nothing about the aesthetic of this new Givenchy, if there is a great ethos for the brand. This show was not seemingly in this fall show, nor was it in the spring presentation last season.
Even if one is to accept those aesthetics can result from a long creation process, that process is not apparent at the new Givenchy.
One French brand so sure of itself is unquestionably Hermès. Not only has revenue returned to growth in the last quarter of 2020, but the French family-owned public company also had not seen an actual contraction in business last year. The brand is in a perfect position now for increased business in the coming year. Perhaps that’s the optimism for the triptych live stream show in three cities – New York, Paris, and Shanghai, a performance of dance and fashion to capture movements and crafts as the essence of Hermès.
A question remains, though – how would Hermès come back to just doing a regular show in Paris alone when this multi-city and multi-media excursion is far superior to showcase the brand’s collection with a much broader perspective.
Maria Grazia Chiuri, the artistic director for women’s collections at Dior, has done two great films for her fall 2020 and spring 2021 haute couture with the Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone. For Fall Chiuri teamed with Fabien Baron to create a taped show at Versailles that merged movie and runway show into one with a narrative of fairy tales while the clothes remain as they say, with both feet on the ground.
Dior’s hybrid model seems a much more effective way to convey the new season to a global audience, beyond the need for influencer amplification in the digital sphere. Even with a fanciful running staging set, how would Dior go back to just a straightforward physical show in this manner.
How would the fantastic Miu Miu show in the snow Cortina d’Ampezzo mountains of the Italian Alps look like if done indoors with faux snow? Would that fake environment take away from the collection’s strength with the eclectic mixtures of heavy puffer coats with knit skip dresses? Indeed the show is far more robust on the actual mountain than at the Palais d’Iéna. Don’t forget Thom Browne’s remarkable short film of Lindsay Vonn downhill course filled with human poles wearing the most creative mesh of extreme sport and couture ever seen on white snow.
That also goes for Chanel, where Virginie Viard, the artistic director for women’s collections, opted for the Castel nightclub’s intimacy to feature her gang of girls bonding on a night about town. That nonchalant intimacy gave the clothes a better personal feel than at the giant Grand Palais, where the vastness of the space at a time can consume the energy of the clothes.
The big question hovering over the next season’s showing is defining the shows’ formats. As physical shows may be returning by September or even a minimal hybrid version in June, brands have to ask the most effective manner to reveal a new collection in the crowded space, physical or digital. The answer lies in the creative solutions. Brands should not toss out what they learned from the trial and experimentation errors this past year.
No doubt, a form of digital initiatives will remain in conjunction with any live physical events that will be taking place.
Perhaps those off-season shows that took place in faraway land no longer require an audience as Saint Laurent did their stellar spring show in the Morrocan desert. This environmental consciousness will endear these brands to the younger generation more conscious of fashion’s environmental impact, from fashion shows to manufacturing to consumption. Remember how Saint Laurent got the wrath of environmentalists for its excursion into the Malibu beach Paradise Cove for a men’s spring 2020 show in early June 2019. Sustainability isn’t just about recycling and repurposing but a brand-wide carbon footprint.
And as media companies themselves, these brands have to figure out making creative short films or comparable mediatic ventures all year long, not just during fashion season, which is now becoming a year-long enterprise.
Fashion isn’t changing as fast as some insiders and outsiders would like and hope, but it is changing nevertheless.
WHERE FASHION GETS CREATIVE
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