We fashion folk like to say that there’s a difference between “fashion” and “clothes.” Fashion is storytelling; clothes are the medium by which that story is told. By analogy, it’s the difference between a poem and words. Increasingly, though, fashion is clothes. The focus on the runways of late is on consumable stuff that can be mixed and matched into a high-functioning wardrobe. Some critics mourn this shift, which became paradigmatic in the seasons between Hedi Slimane’s arrival at Saint Laurent and the first Louis Vuitton collection under the artistic direction of Nicolas Ghesquière. Rather than mourn, though, it seems more useful to assume that fashion, writ large, hasn’t stopped telling stories, and to pose the follow-up question: What story is fashion telling now?
Designers make fashion. Women wear clothes. The fashion that designers are making today is about women—many kinds of women—and the clothes they wear. The collections that felt relevant this season didn’t offer fashion qua fashion, proposing a look for its own sake; they comprised clothing that inhabited various keenly observed forms of womanhood. Relevance didn’t always equate to originality. In many cases, the appeal of a collection derived from the charm of its take on an established type, like the blowsy festival femmes at Chloé and Saint Laurent. Still, these shows turned a mirror on the buying public, and represented an experience with which that public could identify. Canny designers understand that when Generation Selfie looks to the runway, its denizens want to see enhanced images of themselves.
But who are those denizens? And what preoccupies them, when they turn their cameras back around and consider the surrounding world?
If you want to understand the deafening buzz around Vetements—officialized by the appointment of Demna Gvasalia to head Balenciaga—a good place to start is by appreciating that the label is in the business of making clothes. (No coincidence that Vetements translates as just that: clothes.) But Gvasalia and the rest of the Vetements design collective aren’t content with reiterating the familiar fashion muses—the free-spirited bohos, the rock chicks, the femme fatales, the Park Avenue princesses with galas to attend (and so on). Instead, team Vetements is inventing a new kind of fashion girl—or, if not inventing her, reflecting the kinds of girls they IRL know in fashion-enhanced versions on their runway. It’s hard to define the Vetements girl. Call her a gutter aristocrat, making style out of this and that. There’s something proletarian at her core, with her penchant for patchworked vintage jeans and oversize sweats, and she’s possessed of enough reserves of toughness that she can make a diaphanous, ruffled floral dress look intimidatingly cool. She’s a 21st-century punk, stripped of the shopworn trappings, and you want to be her.
This is how designers turn the project of making clothes into fashion again: by seeing harder. Team Vetements looks around, and sees a new kind of woman, and thus new possibilities for clothes. Other new-to-the-scene brands, such as Off-White, Faustine Steinmetz, Caitlin Price, Phoebe English, Eckhaus Latta, andHood By Air, have the same modus operandi. In the case of HBA and Eckhaus Latta, in fact, you can replace “woman” with “person”—these are two houses impatient with the idea of gender binaries.
There are other ways of seeing hard. While there were a lot of collections this season that spoke to a collective nostalgia for nature—Erdem and Sarah Burton atAlexander McQueen each stood out for their breathtakingly lovely riffs on the pastoral—Jonathan Anderson saw hard at Loewe, and gave us nature as it actually exists, a territory conquered by the man-made. These are two different tacks, via fashion, of sublimating our anxieties about climate change. Take your pick. Or choose Gucci, where Alessandro Michele conjured flea market–scavenging gals, whose passion for the artisanal and fondness for ’70s-era, encounter-session aesthetics insinuate Naomi Klein–influenced politics. At first blush, Michele’s Gucci girls seem too puckish to start a revolution. But don’t be surprised if they do.
The big reckoning on the runways this season, however, was with the concept of femininity. The commonplace in fashion is to set the feminine against the masculine, with the former coded as soft and sensual and the latter connoting strength. Well, screw that. Men don’t have a monopoly on strength, as Rick Owens asserted most emphatically in his show, with its featured cast of robust women carrying other women down the runway. Owens’s point was that the qualities we associate with women—nurturing, emotional expansiveness—are their own kind of strength, and they deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated as such. And there were echoes of that message at Proenza Schouler, at Céline, and at Balenciaga, where Alexander Wang served up a terrific swan song. Wang, Jack McCollough, Lazaro Hernandez, and Phoebe Philo are all designers who like a forceful woman; here, they communicated that force via ruffles, pouf sleeves, lace and chiffon, and in the cut of the clothes, as gestures of self-exposure. Simone Rocha engaged a similar conversation in her collection’s push and pull between motifs of domesticity and sexual perversity, and Mary Katrantzou and Laura andKate Mulleavy at Rodarte did it by asserting will to power via an artful overload of glitz. The women on those runways did not need to appropriate a mannish blazer or a biker jacket in order to feel strong.
The reckoning with femininity went beyond clothes. Spring 2016 may well be remembered as the one in which fashion definitively lost interest in parades of identically dressed sulky teenagers and rejoiced in individuality, instead. Vetements elevated a new kind of woman—metaphorically—to the runway, but they did so literally, as well, by street casting (and Instagram casting) diamond-hard girls who fit their no-type type. “Real” women were represented at lots of other shows, too—starting right at the top of New York Fashion Week with Rachel Comey, whose models were dancers of all colors, ages, and shapes, and continuing straight through to Balenciaga, where a few of Alexander Wang’s pals took to the catwalk to see him off from his gig. Elsewhere, the trend toward individuality was witnessed, on the one hand, in the emphasis on natural hair texture—see Stella McCartney’s show, for a prime example—and on the other by the enthusiastic reception, inside the industry and out, to Gigi Hadid’s manifesto against body-shaming posted on Instagram. “I’m a hard worker that’s confident in myself, one that came at a time where the fashion industry was ready for a change,” Hadid wrote. “I represent a body image that wasn’t accepted in high-fashion before . . . Yes. I have boobs, I have abs, I have a butt, I have thighs.” Generation Selfie has forced the change Hadid refers to upon fashion. This is a generation that wants to see itself, in all its heterogeneity—on the runway. It’s made up of strong, confident, proudly womanly women who want to see themselves in the clothes they’re being sold, and in the people who model them. There is absolutely nothing to mourn about that.