Is futuristic fashion prescient or just playing make-believe? Clara Young explores.
Why is fashion so obsessed with “the future”?
the futuristic trend in fashion is back this season, with brands like Louis Vuitton, Loewe, Chanel, Maison Margiela and Edun sticking an experimental toe in the waters of what may come. The hallmarks of the trend are not subtle: Prada embarked on a space odyssey, with orbital earrings dangling off the models and woven mesh layered over traditional houndstooth jackets, while Thomas Tait gave the ’60s-era designs he sent down the runway a Jetsons jolt, with crystal-ball embroidery and occult-looking portholes. Tait embraced the extraterrestrial inspiration, explaining that “the embroidered circles with 3-D outer rings looked quite sharp and mechanical, while the artwork suspended inside the circles [on the sheer backing] appeared to float in air like a cosmic screenshot of a constellation.”
Space-age details on the catwalk have become synonymous with the futuristic trend today, but the details themselves haven’t changed all that much since the ’60s, despite the fact that our grasp of the concept of “the future” itself should be leaps and bounds ahead. Or should it? If the futuristic trend in fashion is so easy to recognize, can it really be considered clairvoyant?
To start, the ubiquitous overlay of braided and knotted mesh and lattice that is a galactic leitmotif of the collections is actually a 21stcentury update of the chain-mail minidresses Paco Rabanne constructed with a pair of pliers in the years before the 1969 moon landing. Rabanne, along with Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges, pioneered futuristic fashion in the ’60s. But, unlike his contemporaries, Rabanne took no issue with the h
idea that the future is often a rendition of the past. It is for this reason that his garments of chain-link geometric leather, plastic and sheet-metal pieces are more Joan of Arc than they are robotic. In an interview in The New York Times over a decade ago, Rabanne said: “It is impossible today to be a futurist […] We can only be decadent—you copy the past or are contemporary.”
True to Rabanne’s word, there is a great deal of decadence in this season’s take on futurism. And the time travel we’re witnessing on the catwalk today is still spinning us backwards. At Maison Margiela, for instance, there was silver eye makeup and matching gloves and hair rolled up like the replicant Rachael’s from Blade Runner, but the coats had a broad ’50s cut to them, and the geisha ensembles read Japanese Edo period. And at Louis Vuitton, despite the staging (the show opened with a colour-blocked digital installation reminiscent of a video game’s alternate reality) and the minidresses embroidered with celluloid to look metallic, the New Romantic pirate shirts, peasant blouses and Romeo Gigli-like trousers were inspirations from a quarter of a century ago. The evidence that the past is always forwarded into the future is in the details, except this time around, the future is a mere accessory. It is a bit player in a costume drama: a couple of dots under the eyes, a pair of smooth iridescent sunglasses, an earring, a set of metal-rimmed eyelets and a layer of transparent chiffon. It’s cop-out futurism—not a manifesto, just styling.
Futurism was born in Italy in 1909 with the publication of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and emphasized a total break with the past as a means to an end: modernity. The movement evolved after it emerged, finding a perfect fit with Fascism and Mussolini—its more violent interpretation—and influenced, however directly or indirectly, designers like Rabanne, Cardin and Courrèges, who set the template for futurism in fashion. Courrèges, for one, is credited with inventing the miniskirt (he shares the honour with Mary Quant) and pioneered a new geometry in garments, such as trapezoid- shaped dresses, circle-shaped pockets and architectural cut-outs. At Cardin, hemlines were sometimes as oval as an egg, while fabrics were PVC, plastic, wool crepe and jersey because they kept sharp shapes best. These clothes were produced at a time when economies were strong, technology was booming and the moon was about to be conquered. “The clothes I prefer,” revealed Cardin, “are those I invent for a life that doesn’t exist yet—the world of tomorrow.” Futurist fashion predicted wonderful times ahead.
The tropes we now recognize in fashion as futuristic are a product of that hopeful vision of the future, which futurism enabled. “Looking at the work of Pierre Cardin during the mid- and late 1960s, I love the clean lines and the bold silhouettes and the dazzling colour,” says Frances McSherry, fashion historian at Boston’s Northeastern University. “When I look at what the designers are coming up with in 2016, I don’t have the same visceral feeling. It’s not clean and refreshing; it’s clunky and bulky. I wonder if it really is a trend—although people are acting like it’s a trend—or if it’s a passing fad and we’ll look back in a decade and see that it was just an idea that some designers were grasping at— calling their collections ‘futurism’ just for the sake of being able to give it a name.”
Perhaps futurism today resides not in season-to-season trend makers but in designers who are committed to the idea of creating pieces that are ahead of their time and who constantly rethink the functionality of clothing, its decorativeness, what it’s made of and how it’s made. What once seemed gimmicky, like Pauline van Dongen’s solar-celled dresses, now seems practical: On a sunny day, a garment that keeps your phone powered up is convenient. Her experimentation with 3-D-printed clothing and shoes, called “between,” builds up customized clothes with puff ink using computer software that maps the body’s shape to create a pattern with the perfect fit. Three-dimensional fashion design is the avant-garde invention that not even h
Perhaps futurism today resides not in season-to-season trend makers but in designers who are committed to the idea of creating pieces that are ahead of their time.
the space-age designers, like Cardin, dreamed of in their heyday.
A high-tech approach is what makes Iris van Herpen light years ahead in fashion. In 2008, two years out of school, she produced a couture collection called “Chemical Crows” that was made up of woven “hair,” leather and brass pins, working in much the same way as Rabanne did. “It’s all handmade, without computers,” she said back then. “In all the brass pins, there are several little holes and one hinge. I sew metal threads by hand through the holes, which I finish after with leather. I do not even draw anything [...] but the designs strongly exist in my head.”
The designs knocking around in van Herpen’s head have altered little over the intervening years. What has changed is that technology has caught up with them. She now 3-D prints, weaves, laser cuts and laser sinters her ready-to-wear clothes using organic materials and different kinds of lace, some crystal studded. Even bioengineering is an inspiration, leading her to new ways of thinking about garments, including “growing” dresses that mimic the way spiders build a circular web or using magnets to shape iron-filing-embeddedresin “fabric” into clothing.
Futurism today begins with envisioning the way things can be but using old techniques to achieve that vision as best we can. Then, the technology catches up, revolutionizes the process and frees our thoughts to leap ahead to the next big idea. “I like to find things I don’t understand,” says Tait. “It’s only when we don’t understand and want to discover that we find new things and progress into the future. It’s a very optimistic way of living, which is crucial for creative and personal growth.”
This push and pull between technology and ideas makes futurism a different, more rigorous kind of trend than, say, oldschool tennis, Mad Max or ’20s colonial Britain in the Middle East. You can’t just slap silver tinsel onto a dress and call it futuristic. It demands that something truly new be brought to the table— something that boldly goes where no woman has gone before. n
Iris van Herpen’s spring/summer 2016 collection
(right) is otherworldly.