Sex is back

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It’s the Eight­ies re­vis­ited, with spike heels and la­tex thigh-high boots

This sea­son is turned on by the Eight­ies’ shame­less cel­e­bra­tion of sex­i­ness, so have a fling with spike heels, la­tex boots, mini skirts and glit­tery nip­ple pasties. From Saint Lau­rent to Ba­len­ci­aga to Top­shop, ev­ery­one’s putting out.

Jess Cart­ner-Mor­ley un­zips to­day’s most glam­orous it­er­a­tions of the decade

The night sex came back into fash­ion be­gan with an in­vi­ta­tion in a black leather en­ve­lope to a cat­walk show in a for­mer monastery. It was a sul­try evening in Paris, and the sun was set­ting be­hind the iconic YSL ini­tials, picked out in neon, as the new de­signer at the sto­ried house of Yves Saint Lau­rent, An­thony Vac­carello, un­veiled his de­but. The col­lec­tion was Robert Palmer’s Ad­dicted To Love video meets a young Kar­dashian on a date night, spiked with a twist of Hel­mut New­ton. Long legs in high heels, over­sized ear­rings graz­ing bare, oiled shoul­ders, boned vel­vet corsets and sheer black lace. And then – just in case the mes­sage wasn’t get­ting across – Binx Wal­ton strode the cat­walk, re­splen­dent in a black leather mini-dress, cut away to re­veal a sin­gle glit­tery, sil­ver nip­ple pasty.

It may have been the mo­ment sex ap­peal made its of­fi­cial Paris Fash­ion Week come­back, but the signs had been there a while. Two weeks ear­lier, in New York, Jeremy Scott’s show was a love let­ter to sleazy Eight­ies’ Man­hat­tan nightlife, all la­tex trench coats and jer­seys printed ‘Rated X’. There were bikini-clad pin-ups on the shirts at Alexan­der Wang, and ‘Hustler’ logo polo shirts at Hood By Air. And in Paris, the scent of sex stayed in the air all week, from the cat­walk corsets at Olivier Theyskens to the la­tex ‘con­dom cape’ at Ba­len­ci­aga.

Hold up. What’s go­ing on here? After all, we’re talk­ing about the same Paris Fash­ion Week where, just three days after the nip­ple pasties, Dior’s first fe­male Cre­ative Di­rec­tor, Maria Grazia Chi­uri, cel­e­brated her land­mark mo­ment with slo­gan T-shirts pro­claim­ing, ‘We Should All Be Fem­i­nists’. The Paris Fash­ion Week where, in con­trast to the thigh-high boots on the cat­walk, many in the front row were com­fort­able in sim­ple white train­ers and clas­sic Gucci loafers. How do nip­ple pasties and la­tex boots – with all their as­so­ci­a­tions of porn and strip­per-wear – fit with fash­ion’s new-found fem­i­nist con­scious­ness? Is fash­ion hav­ing a sex­ual awak­en­ing or an iden­tity cri­sis?

An­to­nio Ber­ardi, whose dresses are loved by Gwyneth Pal­trow, Blake Lively and a league of loyal clients for their killer combo of knock­out sex ap­peal and silky so­phis­ti­ca­tion, be­lieves that se­duc­tion will never go out of style. ‘Never. Sex and cloth­ing fun­da­men­tally go hand in hand. Ev­ery man and woman dresses to im­press, whether it be the other sex, the same sex or both,’ he says. From Amer­i­can Ap­parel to Calvin Klein, from So­phie Dahl for YSL’s Opium fra­grance to Gucci’s in­fa­mous lo­goed pu­bis, the briefest his­tory of fash­ion ad­ver­tis­ing con­firms sex as a fash­ion peren­nial – as does the view of Natalie King­ham, Buy­ing Di­rec­tor of Matches Fash­ion: ‘If we ever see sexy clothes, we buy into them.’ Sex sells.

But what looks sexy right now has a dis­tinc­tive con­tem­po­rary feel. Think of the corset trend and how fash­ion likes it best when worn over a T-shirt. That idea be­gan on the Prada cat­walk in Fe­bru­ary and was re­cently cham­pi­oned by an off­duty Gigi Ha­did. It sub­verts the tra­di­tional sex­u­al­ity of the corset, so it looks ‘al­most like ar­mour’, as Sel­fridges’ Women’s De­sign­er­wear Buy­ing Man­ager Jean­nie Lee puts it: ‘Sexy now is very strong.’ This is a sen­ti­ment echoed by Stu­art Weitz­man, the god­fa­ther of the over-the-knee boot: ‘Sexy to­day is about con­fi­dence.’ Sleek, chic and ver­sa­tile is how he char­ac­terises the look; sex ap­peal is al­most in­ci­den­tal.

‘To me, the im­age of the sea­son is the vel­vet corset and jeans with a YSL heeled shoe, from Vac­carello’s first col­lec­tion,’ says Natalie King­ham. ‘Some­thing about the sil­hou­ette and the mes­sage sums up the woman we call our “warrior woman”, who wants to look pow­er­ful and sexy. The rise of Bal­main, of shoul­ders and corsets and thigh-high boots, but also the aes­thetic of Givenchy, Alexan­der McQueen, Ver­sace and Al­tuzarra all ap­peal to this cus­tomer.’

You might as­sume fash­ion is sim­ply re­flect­ing a cul­ture more sex­u­alised than ever, but Sarah Shot­ton, Cre­ative Di­rec­tor of Agent Provo­ca­teur, be­lieves the op­po­site is true. ‘The prob­lem is we are hav­ing too lit­tle sex, rather than too much. That’s why fash­ion is ob­sess­ing over it now. It’s a fan­tasy, be­cause in real life we don’t have time for sex any more. Ten years ago, you could go home and be in­ti­mate, but now we go home and stare at our phones all evening. Fash­ion ex­presses our fan­tasies as much as our real lives.’

Tech­nol­ogy is never far away from any as­pect of how we live now. One of the iconic ‘looks’ of the mod­ern age, which has had a mea­sur­able im­pact on fash­ion, in­volves no clothes at all: the nude selfie. This seems counter-in­tu­itive, un­til you con­sider that not even the most-liked cat­walk photo of any given sea­son could hope to reach a frac­tion of the au­di­ence who saw Kim Kar­dashian and Emily Rata­jkowski’s top­less pho­tos. Ac­cord­ing to e-com­merce site Lyst, in the 48 hours after Kim Kar­dashian posted her in­fa­mous, ‘When you’re like I’ve got noth­ing to wear LOL’ bath­room selfie, wear­ing only two black cen­sor­ship bars, searches for ‘black ban­deau’ bikini-style tops were up 406% as shop­pers at­tempted to recre­ate the look*. A black, ban­deau-style bikini by Lisa Marie Fer­nan­dez re­ceived 82,000 page views in just three days**. In a vis­ual world where the nude selfie rules, fash­ion is tak­ing its cues from stylish im­ages in which clothes barely fea­ture.

Kim Kar­dashian main­tained that nude self­ies rep­re­sent fe­male em­pow­er­ment and lib­er­a­tion. Oth­ers would ar­gue that they per­pet­u­ate the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of women’s sex­u­al­ity for com­mer­cial gain, and send a mes­sage to young women that be­ing sex­ual re­volves around how you look to oth­ers, rather than how you your­self ex­pe­ri­ence sex. The jury re­mains out on that one, but the de­bate has brought fe­male sex­ual em­pow­er­ment back into the spot­light.

Jess Mor­ris is the Co-Founder and De­signer of Rock­ins, the cult brand that be­gan with silk scarves and now makes the sex­i­est, most ap­ple-bot­tomed jeans in Bri­tain. Her per­sonal aes­thetic, honed over two decades as a fash­ion PR and by be­ing on the guest list of any party worth be­ing at, is clas­sic rock’n’roll sex ap­peal: spiky heels, tight jeans, black eye­liner, Mica Ar­ga­naraz-es­que shaggy curls. ‘Fash­ion helps us iden­tify each new cul­tural stage,’ she says. ‘It can be a re­flec­tion of op­pres­sion, ei­ther po­lit­i­cally or sex­u­ally, or of free­dom.’ Rock­ins cel­e­brates a free­dom that she sees in young women around her, ‘who can now ex­press their equal­ity through wear­ing gen­der-neu­tral clothes and a band T-shirt, or cut-off denim shorts and fish­nets. It’s about ex­press­ing your­self freely and be­ing heard.’

The mod­ern take on sex­i­ness comes in many guises. ‘The last time we saw a real resur­gence of “sexy” was with the pop­u­lar re­branded Hervé Léger ban­dage dress in the early Noughties,’ says Jean­nie Lee. ‘And the Preen power dress. The im­pact of that style and shape was mas­sive. It re­minded women of the power of sex. It was a fresh an­ti­dote to the new bo­hemia, which was pop­u­lar at the time. By con­trast, sexy feels much more mul­ti­fac­eted now. You have the clas­sics, such as Alaïa corsets or the peek-a-boo sheers at Lan­vin, but also the new boudoir py­jama dress­ing – deca­dent, sen­sual and tac­tile.’

In other words, the new sexy is rel­e­vant to your wardrobe, even if you’re not in the mar­ket for stilet­tos or corsets. ‘Be­ing sexy nowa­days is as much about what you’re not re­veal­ing as what you are,’ says sea­soned fash­ion exec and street-style star Sarah Rut­son. ‘It’s no longer about show­ing your cleav­age or be­ing overt in body-hug­ging mini dresses. Women can be sexy wear­ing a de­con­structed dress with cut-out de­tails re­veal­ing their shoul­der and col­lar bone. We’re see­ing the re­worked cot­ton shirt worn off the shoul­der, or tied at the waist to re­veal a hint of skin, as seen at J. Crew and Jac­que­mus. I also love Ulla John­son’s re­veal-and-con­ceal dresses, which feel both flirty and fem­i­nine, and show off tiny sliv­ers of midriffs and shoul­ders. In pretty prints or sim­ple cot­tons, these feel like a mod­ern ap­proach to what is the new sexy.’

The fact that sexy dress­ing has moved be­yond show­ing skin is par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent at this time of year. Even the most ded­i­cated Saint Lau­rent fan isn’t go­ing to be bust­ing out those minis­cule dresses any­time soon, un­less she wants to risk hy­pother­mia. ‘Right now, she’s us­ing knitwear to be sexy,’ says Sarah Rut­son. ‘Look at Tibi’s one-shoul­der, cut-out knit­ted sweater and Dion Lee’s open-back jumper. Sexy knitwear would once have been seen as an oxy­moron, but it’s big busi­ness now.’ And then, of course, there are shoes: Ba­len­ci­aga’s white, pointed, stiletto boots and At­tico’s satin shoes with an­kle cuffs can both bring fetish at­ti­tude to a win­ter wardrobe.

The new sexy de­fies neat pi­geon­hol­ing. Its mes­sages are most de­fi­antly mixed and this is pre­cisely what gives it a fash­ion­able spin. Ju­dith Clark was the Cu­ra­tor of The Vul­gar: Fash­ion Re­de­fined, a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Bar­bican Art Gallery, Lon­don, which ex­plored what vul­gar­ity means and how it has changed, with pieces from Vivi­enne West­wood and Manolo Blah­nik on dis­play. ‘The thing that most peo­ple think of when they hear of the word “vul­gar” is some­one who doesn’t know what to show, and what to con­ceal,’ says Ju­dith. ‘It’s about what is fit­ting and what is ap­pro­pri­ate. “Sexy” is usu­ally the de­scrip­tion given to some­thing that con­veys a se­duc­tive mes­sage ex­plic­itly, mak­ing the in­ten­tion very clear, while “vul­gar” is as­so­ci­ated with not know­ing where those bound­aries lie.’ In fash­ion, with its dra­matic tide ta­bles, the tec­tonic plates of those bound­aries are li­able to un­dergo volatile shifts.

Whether or not nip­ple pasties are to your taste, there’s no deny­ing that fash­ion would be a far duller place with­out sex. ‘I am one for flavours in fash­ion,’ says An­to­nio Ber­ardi. ‘That doesn’t mean an ex­cess of salt, but a hint of spice and sea­son­ing, well used. Even the most con­ser­va­tive fash­ion has the po­ten­tial to be sexy. A but­ton is there to be un­but­toned, a zip to be un­zipped, and an imag­i­na­tion to run rife with pos­si­bil­i­ties.’

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