Fashion is partly a clairvoyant’s game: looking six months to a year into the future and positing how women will want to dress at that point in time. During this season’s round of fortunetelling, however, designers seem to have failed to foresee a recent development – namely, the virulent reaction across Europe to non-austere executive salary levels, and the related restrictions being proposed from the EU to Switzerland on various kinds of corporate income and bonuses.
After all, this suggests that the 1 per cent that is fashion’s shrinking local consumer base may be even smaller going forward. Does it matter? As long as someone is buying, not to the bottom line, but maybe to designers’ presumptions. They all have a woman in mind when they create, but who, exactly, is she these days? It’s not entirely clear.
At Givenchy, for example, designer Riccardo Tisci enlisted the help of his friend, musician Antony Hegarty, who not only sang three songs for the show, accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra, but also contributed a manifesto. Entitled “Future Feminism”, it said (in part): “We have abused the bodies of women and the body of the earth … men must find the humility to retreat … If there is to be a future on earth that includes us, it will be feminine,” and so on. The implication being, presumably, it will also wear Mr Tisci’s clothes.
Which will be a challenge. In a gypsy-meets-gender-bending mash-up of good ideas, weird ideas, familiar ideas, and over-the-top ideas, Mr Tisci offered up great flared trousers that made legs look miles long; chic velvet and leather biker jackets; zip-on puffa corset belts that may have been meant to symbolise comfort, but mostly looked thick; signature luxe sweatshirts, this time with a silk screen of Bambi-meets-the-Venus-de-Milo (or something) on the front; and chiffon frilled and ruffled high-waisted full-skirted party dresses, layered over tailored trousers. Oh, and there were lumberjacks in there too, and gilt carvings, and Madonnas. Deconstruct the whole and there were gems within, but boy – it will take some work.
Yet Mr Tisci was not the only designer interested in layering up the allure of activism. At Maiyet, a brand created in part to encourage sustainable artisanal businesses in challenged regions, the handwork – embroidery on the bodice of a jumpsuit; Varanasi silks in skinny trousers and cropped jackets – was hard to distinguish in the overall mixture of dark, masculine tailoring and flippy skirts, as if the original point of difference had been lost in the desire to be on-trend. As for Stella McCartney, her invitation came with an effort to “protect the world’s last polar bears”, Bono was in the audience and on the runway, monster-truck-soled mega-platform shoes proved to be made from biodegradable rubber, heels from “sustainably sourced woods”, and bags boasted an “eco laminate veneer”.
The clothes themselves, however, were loosey-goosey versions of working classics: pinstriped suiting pulled slightly to the left, with inflated proportions or rendered in bright purple; strapless dresses with elasticised tops, the waists dropped way down to knee-level; evening “tuxedos” with big, baggy trousers and matching sleeveless shells. It was insouciant in the extreme.
By contrast, just after Switzerland voted to limit corporate salaries, came Akris, set against yet another orchestral background. Known for its high style clothes for the high powered, the Swiss brand sent out a collection of strict almost all-black body-skimming looks that involved the interplay of geometry and skin: animal skins, from mink, which came in a short trenchcoat and caped suit, to ponyskin, which formed a brief miniskirt, leather, and cheviot, a form of sheepskin that resembles astrakhan. There was also real skin, which was startlingly visible through the veil of tulle turtlenecks and dresses striped with thin herringbone strips of suede, or criss-crossed by a grid of rectangles. There were sleek trouser suits too, and thick pile cashmere, but it was the exposed epidermis that made the statement. Which is not necessarily a statement for everyone.
Even Chloé, where Clare Waight Keller has made a signature out of a cool uniform frumpiness – seen this season in tailored double-face wool cape coats, pinafore dresses in school team colours, and neat skirts, the waists raised just a little too high – got more questionably luxed-up, with “chain link” T-shirts: literally, metal wires connecting big, winking crystals in a cage-like T-shirt formation, which were thrown over the top of dresses. Not to mention leather sweatpants, and fur-polka-dotted pullovers.
Retailers carp about rising prices as they sit watching, runway-side, and already Italian fashion critics complain of receiving fewer show tickets, and being relegated to standing because their readers aren’t buying. The seats are needed for reporters from other, healthier, markets.
And yet, at a certain point, design still trumps economics. Sacai’s dual-nature clothes, which marry trenchcoats to velvet; window pane plaids to puffa pleats and lace; and Nordic knits to trapeze silks in trompe l’oeil suits and evening dresses that sway not just with the body, but between genres, were charming and smart, and just abstract enough to be open to various interpretations.
Create desire and you create consumers. In a few months, when these clothes hit stores, we’ll see who they are.