AS COVERED-UP, OVERSIZED SILHOUETTES REIGN SUPREME ON THE RUNWAYS, A NEW NOTION OF SEXINESS HAS TAKEN HOLD: SUBVERSIVE IS THE NEW SEXY
A deeper look at what lies beneath fashion’s secret fetish factor
“I‘M SO BORED WITH THIS WORD ‘SE X Y ’,”
Donatella Versace eye-rolled during an interview with the South China Morning Post at the opening of her Hong Kong flagship. It’s the kind of off-brand statement that, if you’re a fan of the label, should stop you cold in your skintight rhinestone mini. Sex is, after all, in Versace’s DNA. But if Donatella is over skimpy slip dresses, plunging necklines, and exposed gams, well, one can’t help but wonder: where exactly does that leave “sexy”?
It’s an especially compelling question given the almost total absence of scantily clad glamazons and body-con on spring ’17 runways. Long sleeves, floor-grazing hems and oversized everything have replaced leather minis, bare midriff, and side boob as the must-have looks du jour. Gucci—once the epitome of sexed-up provocation under Tom Ford—is leading the charge thanks to Alessandro Michele and his granny-chic girl gang of over-the-top but covered-up magpies. At Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia showed barely a sliver of skin, instead swathing his models in hooded capes, too-big trenches, and gigantic leather waders. At Céline, Phoebe Philo proposed a practical wardrobe of boxy suiting, modest layers, and billowy evening dresses. And then of course there’s Versace, where the label’s signature sex appeal took a back seat to street-wise athleticism via nylon parkas, drawstring maxi skirts, and track pants. Meanwhile, British Vogue announced that cleavage is “over” and The
New York Times declared “the end of the naked look.” Which isn’t to say that sexy is out and unsexy is in. Designers are simply exploring a new take on titillating—one that rejects the overt in favour of the subversive. Look again at the collections and amidst the full-length frocks, mannish suits, and comfy athleisure outfits, you’ll find surreptitious elements of kink and fetish. At Gucci, a tweed skirt suit was paired with glossy latex and patent sock boots. Models at Balenciaga wore brightly hued tights, legs encased (stilettos and all) in glamorously kinky spandex. At Givenchy, patent lace-up booties added dominatrix vibes to simple long-sleeve dresses. Even streetwear brands got in on the fetishistic act: at her presentation for Fenty x Puma, Rihanna paired millennial pink sweats with come-hither corsets, and at Hood by Air, latex overcoats and zippered corsets (worn with distressed suiting) punctuated designer Shayne Oliver’s collaborations with Hustler and Pornhub.
“To some extent, there’s a little bit of fetishist in practically everyone,” says Valerie Steele, author of the 1996 book, Fetish:
Fashion, Sex & Power, and director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “What’s interesting about the kind of kink we’re seeing this season is that it’s not very overt like you might have seen back in the ’90s. Instead there’s more of a ‘sense.’ We’re not playing up the very kitschy image of the phallic woman in a tight lace cor-
set. We’re saying, yes okay, we can fit this into a look which is otherwise unrevealing or sporty or volumetric.” Hence Rihanna’s streetwear remix. Or, for uptown girls, Céline’s wide leather belts worn over chic, gallery-appropriate separates.
Part of what gives designers the opportunity to explore fetish and sexuality in new and subversive ways is an overall more educated fashion audience. When Gvasalia sends his models out in lurid colours and stiletto boots that merge into skin-tight lycra pants à la 1950s porno magazines and ’70 punk kids, he’s playing to a customer that understands fashion and fashion history. “It’s much more playful now. Someone buying a PVC coat today knows that it was first worn in underground porno films, and in the ’60s, with kinky boots,” says Steele. “They’re adding it into their wardrobe for something that is a little bit transgressive and fun, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re really into that kind of sexuality.”
“Everything has some type of skew, or in French we say décalé,” adds Marie Ivanoff-Smith, women’s apparel fashion director at Nordstrom. “It’s a little bit offbeat. There’s a playfulness to it so it’s more of a well-thought sexiness versus a plain body con. Of course there will always be a customer who wants to show off her body because she’s working really hard on it, but I think the more modern way today is definitely more about having that sense of humour.”
The thing is—and we all know this—fashion trends, and particularly ideas of what is sexy, exist on a pendulum. Every few years, we’ll see very overt or even caricatured images of sexuality come in and out of fashion, so the question is why? What’s changed in our lives that our attitudes about what we should wear and what we should be looking like have changed so much?
“I think it’s got to do with politics, to be blunt,” says Penny Lovell, a celebrity stylist whose clients include Anne Hathaway, Rose Byrne, and Bella Heathcote. “A lot of what we’re seeing in fashion goes back to what’s going on in the world, the feminist movement, and the idea of a strong woman. Certainly on the red carpet, there’s a lot more freedom—more self-expression, feeling stronger, more empowered, more individual, and less conformist. I definitely see that happening all around in Hollywood.” Adds Ivanoff-Smith: “Confidence, for me, is the new sexy. The idea of freedom, playfulness, and getting that high-low mix. It’s all about mash-up. Everything is mixed and matched but in a very thoughtful way.”
And on a deeper level, that mash-up, that subversive wink—quirky vs. kink, posh vs. porn, sporty vs. fetish—reflects a new fluidity in the way we think about identity and perhaps sexuality. “No one is just one thing anymore,” says Steele. “These days, there’s a much less rigid view of who they are. People are realizing that there are many aspects to who they are. So what they wear is all sort of optional and occasion-specific. The same person who wears lycra pants one day, might wear a Supreme T-shirt and jogging pants the next.” Case in point: the latex sock in Gucci’s fantastically fetishistic booties is removable. “It’s not a lie,” says Steele. “It’s just an admission that life is complicated.”