SINGAPORE - For the better part of a year now, designers and fashion watchers have been proclaiming that sex is back.
A cursory glance at the runways proves it indeed has returned, but a closer look reveals that sexy this time around looks a little different.
The last time fashion was so outwardly sexy was in the early 2000s, when celebrities such as singer Britney Spears and actress Lindsay Lohan traipsed around in midriff-baring tops and skirts barely bigger than belts.
That moment itself was an evolution of the fashion mood in the late 1990s, when designers such as Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang were in a deconstructive mood - stripping things back until, often, only underpinnings remained. That minimalist approach was, of course, a reaction against the brash maximalism of the 1980s, when bigger - hair, shoulders, jewels, busts - was always better.
This time around, there is a bit of all those influences, but there is also something else in the mix.
On the runways, there was a sharper edge and a muscularity to this new sexy that was not as immediately pleasing and palatable the way Y2K sexy was. The looks were revealing, but they were also a little man-repelling - to borrow a term from the end of the Y2K era.
Nothing exemplifies the rise of this powerful take on sexuality more than the new-found heat at the House of Alaia. The French brand's late Tunisian founder Azzedine Alaia was, after all, a pioneer whose designs put strength and sensuality on equal footing. Who could forget actress Grace Jones as a ferocious Bond girl in her hooded Alaia bandage dress?
Though the brand has never left the cultural consciousness, it has been a long while since it is as red hot as it is now under the creative direction of Pieter Mulier. The Belgian came to the job with a healthy respect for all the codes that made Alaia the "King of Cling" - the bodycon dresses, the fit-and-flare silhouettes, the goddess drapes and warrior hoods - and a modern eye for remixing and redeploying those codes.
With two collections under his belt, Mulier proves he has the chops to carry on Alaia's legacy of celebrating the sensuality and the power of the female form.
The pieces Alaia used to denote sex and power - the belts that are part-corset and part-gladiator's harness, the bandage dresses, the moulded leathers, the skin-tight perforated knits - are also very much part of his direction of the brand, always suggesting at the body underneath, but leaving the power to reveal it with the woman wearing the clothes.
As Mulier said in an interview with trade publication Business of Fashion, Alaia to him is about "a form and femininity that's very powerful - just purely about beauty".
He added: "It's about a certain classicism that Azzedine twisted completely to his hand, like a sculptor. And it's about pure femininity, sexual and very sensual, without a touch of vulgarity."
That last part is key - and the biggest embrace of it came courtesy of Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent. The Italian designer's fantasy of the Saint Laurent girl has always been a party creature with expensive taste - sexy, but also occasionally infantilised with diaper shorts, playsuits, crotch-skimming mini dresses and bras tinier than training sizes.
This season, the Saint Laurent girl becomes a woman, exuding cold, hard chic. The silhouette is long, lean and covered up - often strong and structured or plush and protective on top, soft and wispy below. There was sheer black chiffon covering every part of the body yet offering a tantalising glimpse of the figure underneath, while fistfuls of bracelets and bangles stacked to the elbows exuded a do-not-mess-with-me vibe.
But when it comes to using clothing and jewellery as both body adornment and armour, no one does it better than Daniel Roseberry at Schiaparelli.
Surrealism has always been an inextricable part of the Italian house's identity, but Roseberry has also used it as an entry point to subvert what people think about when they think of the female form.
The codes established by the American designer in Schiaparelli's haute couture the past few seasons are now being deployed in ready-to-wear. Those casts and forms of breasts and nipples, ears and noses, and long golden talons draw attention to the body, flaunting it and making it larger than life, while simultaneously shielding it.
For his latest collection, the breasts have been extended into spikes and cones - studded or encrusted for the ultimate in look-but-do-not-touch appeal.
Why does the look hold so much allure now? Perhaps Roseberry put it best when he said of the house's founder Elsa Schiaparelli: "She was a shrewd businesswoman, a wicked wordsmith and a gifted visionary. She was, by day, a disciplined aesthete with her own 'hard chic'. By night, she was a creature, a sphinx."
He called his latest collection "a meditation on that contradictory identity", in which "you find softness and severity, often in a single garment".
He added: "You see the softness in the hand-crocheted breasts, you see the severity in the moulded boob tubes. It's tender, it's savage.
"I want to give women clothes to run the world in, but equally, clothes to fall in love in. Can't we have both, can't we want both, can't we be both?"
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 harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The August 2022 issue is out on newsstands now.