SINGAPORE - There are designers who create perfectly lovely, desirable clothes and then there are designers who dig a little deeper and think a little bigger.
The works of the latter camp are almost like cultural markers - not just reflecting the mood of the times, but often also helping to crystallise it and, in some cases, even shifting it.
One of the most original, important voices shaping the future of fashion today belongs to Marine Serre. She burst onto the scene with a bang in 2017, her debut collection netting her the LVMH Prize.
Since then, she has been garnering both critical and commercial success with a singular point of view that explores questions of identity, fluidity, diversity and sustainability.
Call it prescience or coincidence, but there has always been something dystopian about Serre's shows and collections. Way before anyone could have predicted that face masks would be this year's most prevalent (and necessary) accessory, she was already putting it on her runways alongside balaclavas, full-coverage bodysuits and other survival gear.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Serre holds out a lifeline, a potential path forward: From her very first collection, she has placed upcycling at the very core of her brand - with silk dresses pieced together from old scarves and later, couture-like marvels refashioned from vintage jacquards, blankets and towels.
In a conversation with deputy fashion editor Priya Elan of The Guardian last year, Serre noted: "The most important thing was trying to figure out the problematic production process. We're consuming so much. We felt the enthusiasm about the regenerated garments. People are like, 'I could wear a skirt made out of carpet, I don't think it's that weird'. The goal of all this is to make a better world."
As sustainability becomes an increasingly urgent issue for fashion to address, Serre has helped thrust upcycling into the mainstream vernacular. This most sustainable approach to creating is now being practised all across the fashion spectrum, from indie darlings such as Bode all the way to big conglomerates such as Coach.
While the luxury industry used to scoff at anything last-season, the pandemic has brought about a much-needed change of perspective - clever use of deadstock or archival fabrics is now a virtue.
With the pandemic disrupting the way people work, create and consume, fashion is now in the throes of one of its biggest reckonings ever. Shifts that were merely contemplated or fantasised about before this are slowly coming to fruition. Gucci under Alessandro Michele has always dared to be more different when compared with its fellow multibillion-dollar luxury brands.
Feeling change coming - one in which consumers and creators alike are craving a slower, more thoughtful approach to fashion - Gucci became one of the first big brands to announce its departure from the traditional fashion calendar (around the same time Dries Van Noten gathered a group of designers and retailers to call for a realignment of when collections are shown, delivered and discounted).
Michele, of course, has long done away with seasonal discounts, firm in his belief that his Gucci transcends seasons. Now pushing that train of thought further, he has chafed against the relentless cycle of four to five runway shows a year - some staged in far-flung locations to which hundreds fly over for just a 15-minute spectacle.
And so Michele has recalibrated Gucci to a cadence of two collections a year - the how and when of the showings left fluid and flexible. But first, a last chapter to close out the old way of doing things. In July, Michele presented The Epilogue.
Initially conceived as a cruise show in San Francisco, it was staged at home in Italy in the guise of a real-time, surveillance-style live stream of the collection's campaign shoot.
In a conversation with fashion journalist Alexander Fury earlier this year, Michele said: "The show has always represented an incredibly powerful means of communication. Each time, I transformed it to better answer my need to tell. But this need can now find other spaces, other paths. It can also radically reinvent itself. What we're living in is a gym for the imagination."
The first result of that imaginative exercise was unveiled over several days in November as GucciFest - a fashion and film festival with appearances by the likes of Harry Styles and Billie Eilish. This festival not just showcased Michele's latest collection, but also spotlit the works of 15 young independent designers.
Now all across the industry, designers are waking up to the realisation that they do not have to be locked into a rigid system that does not work. The last Fashion "Month" in September stretched out to almost three, with Celine, Michael Kors and Tory Burch choosing to show later, and all in different formats, in October and even November - all the better to align the clothes they are showing closer to when they would be available for purchase.
Then there are those like Marc Jacobs, who chose to sit out Fashion Week entirely - highlighting the human toll the pandemic has taken on an industry driven by creativity and craftsmanship.
While Gucci closed a chapter by reimagining what a fashion show can be, another Italian heavyweight opened a new one by remaking the idea of a fashion collaboration.
Milan Fashion Week in September saw the debut of Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons' joint effort at Prada. Together, they rewrote the rules of how creative minds in fashion can work together - truly and equally - beyond the one-off co-branded capsule.
Those new rules, however, are evolving to meet the needs of the moment. Responding in a post-show conversation to crowdsourced questions about their collaborative process, Prada said: "This is a beginning. We have time to develop, subtract, add and collaborate in any way - this is the beauty of it; that we don't know where we're going."
From Valentino's upcoming roster of Rockstud reinterpreters to Emilio Pucci and Jean Paul Gaultier's stables of guest designers, most of the collaborations at fashion's highest level right now are built on one-off partnerships.
It is still too early to tell, but perhaps Prada and Simons' approach will herald a new way of working - one that is more rewarding and sustainable in the long run.
Be kind, rewind
Virgil Abloh was also thinking about flexibility, but from another aspect. The designer's rumination on the lifespan of a collection led him to the radical idea that a collection can keep on evolving and expanding even after the lights have been turned off at the runway show.
Abloh conceived his spring/summer 2021 menswear collection for Louis Vuitton as something that can shift shapes and take on new dimensions.
What was teased in an animated film set in Paris and released in July turned into a full-fledged runway show in Shanghai in August, which then popped up again in Tokyo in September in a new form - with different staging and new looks added.
The collection was notable not just for its amorphous nature and its addition of new looks, but also for the way it extended the shelf life of older ones. Abloh incorporated prints and motifs from his entire Vuitton oeuvre - a bold statement on how good design ideas don't have to die after one season.
A new dawn
Notable as Abloh's approach was, the one who has really thrived in these unprecedented times, coming up with solutions as unexpected as the conundrum we find ourselves in, is Jonathan Anderson. Apart from John Galliano (and his show-all, tell-all documentaries for French luxury fashion house Maison Margiela), no other designer came close to taking the limitations of this moment and channelling them into powerful new work that was of the moment, while transcending it at the same time.
Anderson arrived at a path forward by casting an eye towards the past, rejecting digital lookbooks and impersonal films for the physical, the tactile, the permanent. His "show in a box" and "show on the wall" for Loewe's spring/summer 2021 menswear and womenswear respectively gathered together boxes and books, papers and swatches, cutouts and fold-outs, and even scent and sound - all lovingly created and curated.
They went beyond mere showcases of a new season's worth of clothes to become a veritable time capsule of the unique experience people are living through now.
Anderson says: "We're now in a moment where fashion needs to change. It needs to be about exploration and I feel no matter what happens, we, as humans, need tactility; we want tactility."
It is designers like Anderson and all the ones aforementioned who are able to cut through the noise and chaos, and distil it into a crystal-clear vision that will shine a way forward for fashion. They will be the light bursting through the dark clouds in these times.
This article first appeared in Harper's BAZAAR Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to www.harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The December 2020 issue is out on newsstands now.