How Is Fashion Responding to the Politics and Hardships of Modern Society?

Designers have adopted “fight or flight” responses in their collections.

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On March 7, Chanel transformed the Grand Palais in Paris into a launchpad. The collection presented featured a bevy of space-age designs, Barbarella haircuts, metallic textures and concluded with the launch of a literal space shuttle. When speaking to Business of Fashion‘s Tim Blanks after the show, Karl Lagerfeld bluntly explained the inspiration of the elaborate set design and spectacle, saying “it’s not that great down here at the moment.”

The late, great David Bowie was a man obsessed with outer space. His spacemen characters and personas like Ziggy Stardust and his band, the Spiders from Mars – not to mention Major Tom – were outsiders, either stranded on Earth or all tied up in the Great Beyond, floating above Earth in tin-cans. On “Space Oddity,” the Thin White Duke sings, “The papers want to know whose shirts you wear.”

Nowadays, designers across the aisle have expressed a burgeoning obsession with the final frontier and its explorers – they want to be the ones to design the shirts that the Major Toms of the future wear. Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3 imprint famously came together with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to design the first outfits built specifically for space tourism, for example. Since then, aspiring footwear designers and customizers have run amok creating mock-ups of other otherworldly collaborations.

Designers are not alone, however, in turning their eyes and ambitions skyward: tech moguls like Elon Musk have come forward and outlined some pretty elaborate and extravagant missions themselves. SpaceX‘s plan to send humans to terraform Mars may sound like something lifted out of a Philip K. Dick novella, but its heavenly aspirations may have its roots in a fundamental human instinct: to escape.

In school, we’re taught that human instinct is fundamentally split into diametrically opposed responses: nature vs. nurture, fight or flight, etc. Ironically, the current fascination with outer space is experiencing a boom as a result of the many calamities, crises and catastrophes unfolding down here on Earth. After all, Karl is right: politics, economic crisis and global warming have made it stressful to live on planet Earth. Naturally, artists and designers have two choices when confronted with this kind of circumstance: they can either choose to tackle the threats head-on or they can opt to escape altogether.

Naturally, artists and designers have two choices when confronted with this kind of circumstance: they can either choose to tackle the threats head-on or they can opt to escape altogether. Fight or flight.

In its relative isolation and insulation from these threats, high fashion designers have erred on the side of escape. Vetements, the outsider fashion collective helmed by the brothers Gvasalia, presented its 2017 fall collection inside of the Centre Pompidou, marking an artsy shift from the gay clubs and Chinese restaurants of the past. Demna Gvasalia explained his decision to switch things up to Vogue, ”I got tired of just doing hoodies and underground clubs; we’ve done that at Vetements.” The change in venue was announced in invites masked as fake IDs. When guests arrived, they were handed notes with a list of Parisian stereotypes: Stoner, Emo, Miss No. 5, Nominee, Bouncer and Miss Webcam. One model wore a deteriorating sweater bearing the flag of the European Union, whose contentious future is seemingly always up for debate.

The combination of the collection’s cast of characters with the venue’s escalators and austere seating led many to note the presentation’s resemblance to an airport terminal. Where Lagerfeld sought to shoot us into space, Demna chose to take us on a brief vacation from grim reality.

Chanel Launches Rocket at Fall Winter 2017 Show

Photo by IMAXTREE

This is not to say that all haute designers have gone silent: in her inaugural collection for Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri’s walked models down the runway wearing T-shirts reading “We Should All Be Feminists” in a reference to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk-turned-book of the same name. Elsewhere, Prabal Gurung’s finale showcased a slew of statement tees, reading: “Revolution Has No Borders,” “I Am an Immigrant” and “The Future Is Female.” Most of the brands brave enough to make a political statement on the runway were charitable enough to donate portions of their profits to respective charities.

While boutiques are continually attempting to distract guests, editors and customers from the chaos outside, streetwear designers find themselves much closer to ground zero.

Street style has also trended toward the practical: before Vetements ballooned the bomber jacket’s proportions, Kanye West had given the piece a cosign and boost, elevating it to a wardrobe essential. While boutiques are continually attempting to distract guests, editors and customers from the chaos outside, streetwear designers find themselves much closer to ground zero. Outfitting citizens for the elements means that turning a blind eye to politics is difficult, verging on impossible. Brands like New York’s Noah have embraced this responsibility, elevating tees into literal statement pieces. Noah doesn’t really mince words — the brand has released T-shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the wake of the U.S. election, Supreme’s dropped a graphic tee imploring customers to “Say no to racists, to sexists pigs, to authority figures, to religion, to television, to patriotism, to political ideologies, and any of the thousand and one ways in which this society keeps you from realizing your own needs and desires.” The Downtown goliath’s most recent collection also featured tongue-in-cheek accessories like tiny pins that read “F*ck The President,” for good measure.

It goes without saying that current events will always inform fashion. Take Uniqlo’s decision to leave the United States if President Trump follows through on his “America First” rhetoric — another case of a hulking brand choosing to flee when the going gets tough. Under Armour CEO Tim Blanks’s ringing endorsement of Donald Trump led to a downgrade of the company’s stock amid serious financial ramifications for the company as a whole: just look at the dive UA stock took in the days after Blanks’ statements went public for more proof.

Collections from brands and boutiques will always be products of their sociopolitical and economic environment. As citizens take to the streets around the globe — from New York to Moscow — the conversation has gotten closer and closer to ground level. With their independent, outsider approach to the industry, the clearest voices will likely come from streetwear companies, as they outfit the protests worldwide.

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