Essay: Communicating Fashion During A Pandemic

by Violet Conroy on 12 April 2021

Across the A/W 21 season, designers experimented with printed matter, celebrity cameos, fashion film, runway shows and finally, the still image. Violet Conroy poses the year-old question: how best to communicate fashion during a pandemic?

Across the A/W 21 season, designers experimented with printed matter, celebrity cameos, fashion film, runway shows and finally, the still image. Violet Conroy poses the year-old question: how best to communicate fashion during a pandemic?

Jonathan Anderson's Loewe A/W 21 womenswear ‘A Show In The News’ print supplement

Jonathan Anderson, perhaps more than any other designer working today, is nailing the art of communicating fashion during a pandemic with his thoughtful, niche experiments in the realm of printed matter. For his Loewe A/W 21 womenswear collection, the Irish creative director printed a newspaper supplement (no gimmick - the paper was distributed around the world to readers of The New York Times and Le Monde) with the headline 'THE LOEWE SHOW HAS BEEN CANCELLED.' The Loewe show, which was scheduled to take place in Paris on 5 March 2021, had indeed been cancelled - and so had hundreds of others in the fashion capitals of London, New York, Milan and Paris.

A year on from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, fashion remains in an extraordinary state of flux. Following a seismic, regenerative period of change, one would expect the industry to emerge from the ashes like a phoenix. But has it? Runway shows with audience members are mostly impossible, many consumers are spending less on designer clothing as countries around the world are engulfed by economic recessions, and, with nowhere to go out thanks to lockdown, we've entered a sartorial period of tracksuit fatigue. So, frankly, where does high fashion fit into all this - if at all?

'Fashion has been democratised, in the modern world, because its images can be consumed by all - it is both a part of culture and, in itself, pop culture' - Jonathan Anderson

With its ambitious distribution reach and anti-elitist stance, Anderson's ‘A Show In The News’ print supplement was a step in the right direction. 'Fashion has been democratised, in the modern world, because its images can be consumed by all - it is both a part of culture and, in itself, pop culture,' reads the front page. Enclosed within is an excerpt from Danielle Steel's new novel The Affair, with a terrifying fashion editor at its core - the parallels between Meryl Streep's frosty Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and the editor of the fictional Mode Magazine in Steel's novel are uncanny. That Anderson chose to embrace fashion fiction in a year dominated by Emily in Paris is no surprise; during a year of cooped up living, pop culture is a balm - and who doesn't love a fashionable matriarch?

Ella Emhoff for Proenza Schouler A/W 21 womenswear in New York

Other brands to capitalise on a pop culture sensibility were Coach, Proenza Schouler and ART SCHOOL. Celebrity has always been at the core of Stuart Vevers's Coach, and this season was no different. In an 11-minute video, Megan Thee Stallion appeared as queen bee in a riff on Mean Girls, while Jennifer Lopez writhed around in a phone box, lip syncing to Blondie's 'Call Me.' An ensemble cast of New York cool girls including Hari Nef, Tavi Gevinson and Paloma Elsesser starred in a snowy lookbook shot by Juergen Teller, father of the bizarre-but-chic fashion photograph.

At Proenza Schouler, Ella Emhoff made her modelling debut in a sticky leather trench, a furry-shouldered grey coat and a midriff-baring suit, all while wearing her own signature wire-rimmed glasses. The stepdaughter of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was signed to IMG Models after images of her at the inauguration wearing a Batsheva dress and a tweed Miu Miu coat went viral. Emhoff is now both a fashion darling and celebrity kryptonite. Across the pond in London, Bimini Bon-Boulash and Aurora Sexton from RuPaul's Drag Race UK walked in gothic attire for non-binary label ART SCHOOL, adding a dose of celebrity to an otherwise ultra-serious show.

Virgil Abloh's Louis Vuitton A/W 21 menswear show, 'Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light'

If celebrity inclusion made fashion feel more like entertainment, the medium of fashion film took that notion a step further. Virgil Abloh's 15-minute Louis Vuitton menswear film, Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light, took fashion to a newfound, multi-sensory cinematic extreme. While an all-star Black cast of poets and musicians including Yasiin Bey (best known under his former moniker, Mos Def), Saul Williams and Kai Isaiah Jamal performed, an army of models milled around the set like commuters in a train station, clutching their monogrammed LV briefcases and bags. The set itself recalled Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich's seminal 20th century modernist masterpiece, the Barcelona Pavilion - both incorporate slabs of luscious green-tinted marble and stone as a backdrop for the architect's iconic white Barcelona chairs. As a mishmash of runway show/fashion film/spoken word performance/musical set, Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light reinvented the possibilities of what a fashion film could look and sound like. The video has since racked up over 1 million views on YouTube, proving that fashion film can be just as popular, if not more, than your archetypal runway show.

A still from Saul Nash's A/W 21 menswear 'Twist' film

In comparison, Saul Nash's fashion film was short but sweet. Entitled Twist, the 2-minute film depicts a confrontation between two men, and then an unexpected kiss. 'I wanted to look at preconceived assumptions about men of my generation, how we are perceived and who we really are,' said the British menswear designer and LVMH Prize 2021 semi-finalist. In the film, Nash's signature slouchy activewear is illuminated in red light, drawstrings flailing like tassels as the two figures push and shove each other. As the pair kiss and the cast are bathed in light, preconceived stereotypes around the type of men who wear sportswear are turned on their head.

London-based designer Marie Lueder was also on a quest to champion a more unguarded, nuanced type of masculinity. 'I look for tall men who are masculine but also very vulnerable and soft,' she said while discussing her upcycled A/W 21 collection. This criteria of men with a 'suppressed vulnerability' formed the basis of her A/W 21 film, THE 4TH DIMENSION, which, similarly to Vuitton, doubled up as an occasion for both live spoken word and musical performances.

Rem Koolhaas' set for the Prada A/W 21 menswear show in Milan

Many brands across the A/W 21 season took the safe route and stuck to the traditional runway show format, albeit without a physical audience. In fashion's new, post-COVID world of viewing shows online, catwalk sets were of paramount aesthetic importance. Prada reigned supreme on this front; in Milan, both menswear and womenswear shows unfolded within Rem Koolhaas's surreal, self-contained universe of jam-coloured faux fur walls and opulent, green marble flooring. Clashing colours provided the backdrop for Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons' wintery head-to-toe long johns, sequin coats and furry stoles.

Back in London, the setting of the Kiko Kostadinov A/W 21 womenswear show was equally self-contained. Despite having been designed as an ode to the 'spontaneous élan of the flâneuse' (the female equivalent of the flâneur - a man who strolls around the city observing urban life), the city street was nowhere in sight. Twin sisters Laura and Deanna Fanning instead sent their models through a cushty, carpeted set decorated with spray-painted polka dots in equally playful fur-panelled jackets, slouchy, low-slung striped playsuits and galaxy-esque printed skirts, waistcoats and shirts.

Kiko Kostadinov A/W 21 womenswear, designed by Laura and Deanna Fanning

Outside the world of artificial world-building by the likes of Prada and Kiko, big brands went wild with both their budget and choices of location. Miu Miu's Brave Hearts show took place in the snow-capped mountains of Northern Italy, as panoramic cameras and drones captured models catwalking through the slopes in enormous fur snow boots, knitted balaclavas and puffy, padded ski suits. For the Celine Teen Knight Poem menswear show, Hedi Slimane sent a clan of waifish teenage boys galloping on horseback toward the labyrinth facade of the Château de Chambord.

In London, Simone Rocha chose an equally unorthodox show location: the church of St. John’s Hyde Park in central London. Three weeks before her wildly successful H&M collection hit the stores, the Irish designer sent a punky army of tulle and leather-clad 'fragile rebels' stomping through the empty parish church in platform boots. In Paris, Matthew Williams utilised his newfound budget as creative director of Givenchy with enthusiasm. His first ever physical show for the house saw models splashing their way through a water-soaked floor in the low-lit, seemingly infinite stadium of Paris La Défense Arena. Think of the rain-slicked carpark dance in Step Up 2, but make it fashion.

The Miu Miu A/W 21 'Brave Hearts' show, set amongst snow-capped mountains

Those without a bottomless budget kept things simple with a focus on the still image, instead of opting for live-streamed video content. As always, Sinéad O’Dwyer took the body as her starting point. For her A/W 21 collection, The Switch, longtime muse Jade O’Belle modelled a variety of custom, form-fitting pieces including delicate, spiralling silk chiffon and satin bodysuits, fiberglass busts and the designer's first ever shoe - handmade Mary Janes (a particularly alluring green satin pair feature intricate embroidery of an orgy). At Lulu Kennedy's talent incubator Fashion East, Nensi Dojaka's spindly, asymmetric lingerie was offset by Maximilian Davis's lycra ensembles, designed to transition easily from the beach to the club. By keeping their presentation simple, these collections held their own in a video-saturated market - and perhaps they were even better off for it.

Sinéad O’Dwyer's A/W 21 'The Switch' collection, shot by Ottilie Landmark

A year into the pandemic, designers are still doing things their own way. No one-size-fits-all formula is sticking - and rightly so. There is little to gain from COVID-19, but in fashion terms, it has opened Pandora's box as to how designers can communicate their collections. Gone is the invite-only runway show, and in its place are myriad experiments in printed matter, celebrity cameos, fashion film, runway shows and the still image. What fashion will look like another year on is anyone's guess, but the image - moving or still - is here to stay.



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