Sex is back
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.’