A deeper look at what lies be­neath fash­ion’s se­cret fetish fac­tor


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.”



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