Over the past year, I’ve been captivated by photos taken of Bella Hadid on the streets of Paris and New York. I couldn’t pinpoint why until it recently clicked: Hadid looks like someone who is having fun with clothes, and I haven’t thought of fashion as fun for at least two decades.
The American model’s style combines an eclectic mix of references. One day it might be beige corduroy slacks paired with a mannish tartan coat, a fluffy burgundy scarf and voluminous powder-pink earmuffs; on another, a low-waist, punkish kilt worn with a cropped black ruffled top over a white tank vest, finished off with a light brown bowling bag. It’s creative and playful. She pairs things that shouldn’t look good together but do.
Her style also typifies the specific fashion moment we are living in. After years dominated by oversized streetwear, muted utilitarian clothes and the covered-up minimalism of Phoebe Philo’s Celine, the fashion pendulum is swinging back towards clashing colours and prints, skintight dresses, low waists and glamour. This movement is part of the cyclical nature of fashion, which one decade celebrates pussy bows and the next prizes a bare midriff.
On the catwalk, it can be seen in the return of styles popular in the early 2000s, from Miu Miu’s low-waisted miniskirts to Blumarine’s denim butterfly tops. But it is not merely nostalgia at play here. The pandemic, TikTok and the more inclusive, environmentally conscious values of a younger generation have brought about a profound change in how we think about clothing and self-expression. Combined with a facility for thrift shopping and DIY, they are giving way to a freer approach to dressing that disregards conventionality and the pursuit of “good taste” in favour of the odd, the off-kilter, the personal and the eclectic.
“Seeing experimentation flourishing on social media pushed people who maybe would never try clashing polka dots and stripes or wearing tie-dye with florals to try something that felt a little bit more outrageous,” says Steff Yotka, Vogue’s global director of social media, who favours garments from eclectic designers such as London-based Chopova Lowena. “Everyone is so eager to get dressed again. The rules have gone out of the window.”
Alongside Chopova Lowena, labels including Collina Strada, Cormio, Marco Rambaldi, Saint Sintra and Puppets & Puppets are helping define the new style. In New York in particular, where Collina Strada, Saint Sintra and Puppets & Puppets are based, a new creative class with a DIY attitude (small, in-house production runs with small budgets) and strong community ties is changing the traditional perception of the city as the capital of commercial fashion.
“It goes across the board for all New York designers, there is this uninhibited, dark humour fearlessness that everyone is working from. Whatever we want to do, we do. It’s freeing,” says Carly Mark of Puppets & Puppets who, like Vogue’s Yotka, has noticed a similar mood on the streets. “People are wearing whatever they want and it’s really exciting and fun to see. There is a lot more fantasy than before,” she says.
“People are so comfortable in wearing whatever they want to wear and communicating their headspace with it as well,” says Mina Alyeshmerni, founder of online multi-brand store Maimoun, which stocks an eclectic mix of emerging designers.
Alyeshmerni has seen customers gravitating towards her more off-kilter offerings, including pieces with a strong DIY influence, exposed seams and threads, and pieces with fun silhouettes and eccentric prints from designers Yuhan Wang, Julia Heuer and Priscavera. She calls them “conversational pieces”. “Fashion has become this little invite into building back communication within the outside world again,” she adds.
Perhaps recent political, economic and environmental pressures, as well as two years of a pandemic, have showcased some of fashion’s underestimated qualities: the ability to entertain, distract and comfort in challenging times. “People want something fun, they want to escape, they want fantasy, they want frivolity,” says Shawn Grain Carter, professor at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “It’s not fashion as form or fashion as functionality so much as fashion as fun, fashion as good times, fashion as creating your own moment.”
That spirit was also evident on the red carpets of the Oscars and Grammys earlier this year. Justin Bieber wore giant Crocs, Kristen Stewart sported hot pants and Timothée Chalamet went shirtless. Celebrities have stylists who help them choose what to wear, but many guests opted for particularly personal style choices (and offered a respite from the gruelling news cycle).
Adding a little over-the-top, surprising accent to an outfit has brought me joy in recent months. A longtime devotee of black, I’ve been surprising friends and family by wearing things that I’ve always liked but never considered trying on: a brocade corset with dangling pearls, a lilac and pink mini skater skirt in silk and lace made from an old nightdress, a floor-length shaggy faux fur coat. For the first time in my adult life I’ve been dressing intuitively, freely picking clothes that align with my moods, tastes and feelings.
“It’s dressing for yourself versus dressing for someone else,” American fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen tells me. For many, the pandemic disrupted the habit to dress for external factors such as work, dates and nights out, bringing a new focus on wearing simply what feels good in a particular moment. “What comes with dressing for external factors comes with judgment, but now everyone has shifted to internal factors — dressing for my own mood, for how I’m feeling. People have more grace and more empathy for other people and how they show up in the world.”
FIT’s Grain Carter sees a parallel with the 1960s in the way fashion is also being used to express individuality and make countercultural statements. “You have political upheaval, you have the social justice, racial justice, gender justice movements happening simultaneously, and you also have people questioning the status quo,” she says. In the 1960s it was miniskirts; today it’s clothes that often challenge gender norms and the canonical rules of dressing.
As with any trend, the aesthetics of the moment will continue to evolve, but I believe the ideas and attitudes that this new style represents are here to stay. “I think it had the making of a new style, you can feel what was once alternative becoming mainstream,” says Vogue’s Yotka. “There is so much creativity happening on the fringes of fashion and because there is such a powerful groundswell of new ideas about design, sustainability, styling and community, they can’t help but become the centre.”
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