Fashion’s Darker Side Comes to the Fore — Again (2023)

“Apocalypse Wow” was the headline WWD chose for Karl Lagerfeld’s cinematic fall 2011 show for Chanel, the models emerging from glowing white cubes and traversing a wooden boardwalk flanked by smouldering rocks. They wore boiler suits, sturdy boots and roomy jackets and pants, mostly in black or ashen colors.

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It was an uncharacteristically somber effort by a designer better known for his ebullience — and it proved eerily prescient. Only a few days later, an earthquake-induced tsunami swamped a seaside power plant with square, white reactor buildings in Fukushima, Japan, causing one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.

A doomsday mood recurred in several fall 2020 collections in Europe — running the gamut from black cloaks to full-on face coverings — which again seemed prophetic as the coronavirus virus, not yet a pandemic, continued its silent and deadly advance.

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While historians and academics see more coincidence than cause-and-effect at play in the latest glut of bleak chic, they acknowledge that enveloping, protective styles could take on new resonance and relevance in the aftermath of the current health crisis.

“Dystopian themes in fashion have always expressed fears and anxieties about the fragility of bodies exposed to the threat of war, catastrophe and destruction,” said Jane Tynan, leader of MA Fashion Critical Studies at Central Saint Martins school in London. “The dystopian look goes hand-in-hand with streetwear and military-inspired clothing, which is not all that new.”

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In fact, dystopian themes in fashion have been around since at least the Thirties.

“There are some examples in Surrealism, such as the Skeleton Dress by Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali from 1938. Instability brought on by war and economic crisis made it even more urgent to consider the possibility of a dark and dystopian future,” Tynan explained in an interview.

“No future” sentiments were part and parcel of the punk movement of the Seventies, and dystopian styles surfaced on many runways in the late Nineties “when it signified all of the anxieties of a generation entering a new millennium,” she continued. “Dark themes appear to have endured so I would expect them to come around again and again to reflect new fears and anxieties. But this particular moment has its own specific worries, such as ethno-nationalism, plague, climate crisis and economic crisis.”

To wit: Demna Gvasalia seemed to crystallize fears of eco disaster with his bone-chilling Balenciaga show in Paris, the pitch-black set a sunken stadium stalked by grim-faced figures in dark, flowing robes — or jutting spikes; as did Marine Serre, whose tribes survived the environmental apocalypse and wore face masks and cocoon-like padded jackets.

Serre in particular has become something of a ringleader for what she calls “futurewear” — much of it upcycled, and much of it steeped in a survivalist mindset that nevertheless doesn’t skimp on fashion thrills.

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Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology, said fashion trends rarely draw a direct line to social, political or economic tribulations. When she dove into research on gothic fashions for her 2008 book, Steele found that it first surfaced during an economic boom.

“It often has to do with trends in music or trends in a recent film, or a fashion trend that some cool designer did. You know how many designers are — others pick up on it,” she said. “With the ebb and flow of what seems like protective or post-apocalyptic fashion, it usually has to do with things like that, as opposed to real things about apocalypse in life, which we haven’t had that much of in the Western industrialized world for a long time.”

Yet the fashion look has gathered steam since the Nineties.

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“Walter Van Beirendonck’s ‘Aesthetic Terrorists’ and the label Vexed Generation as well as the dark insurgent militarism of the Maharishi label were all indicative of a new fusion of high fashion, cyber culture and streetwear that anticipated conflict, homelessness and even the threat of annihilation,” according to Tynan, recalling that Vexed Generation was conceived as a fashion riposte to widespread use of surveillance cameras in Britain — protest via face-obscuring garments like parkas with built-in goggles, and parodies on police riot gear. (Vexed recently reissued some of its signature designs with Farfetch.)

Many observers point to Rick Owens as one of fashion’s most influential dark lords since the millennium.

His fall 2020 women’s collection was an ode to musician Gary Numan, and Owens gained permission to use one of his tracks. “His performances as an alienated witness to a dystopian world in the Eighties was one of the foundations of my personal esthetic,” Owens wrote in his show notes. “His was a clinical and calculated artifice that gazed dispassionately on the banality of a decaying world; perfect for now.”

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“He was the one who made dark fashion become popular among the mainstream fashion market. Since then, it inspired more people to start to explore dystopian fashion,” said Pita Cheng, owner of Ink Hong Kong, a specialty fashion store. “I think he is the one of the reasons that triggered the appearance of dystopian boutiques.”

Retail purveyors of the look, even if some shun the dystopian tag, include L’Eclaireur in Paris, IF Soho in New York, Lift in Tokyo and Darklands in Berlin. Brands carried at these boutiques tend to be artisanal in approach and male-focused, such as Carol Christian Poell and Boris Bidjan Saberi, bona fide hall-of-fame designers for the avant-garde set, plus newer names like Geoffrey B. Small and John Alexander Skelton.

They don’t see a particularly bright future for dark fashions.

“I think the idea of dystopian clothing has been fading since 2013. I would rather describe our merchandise as handcrafted or artisanal.Maybe I am pessimistic, I think the whole business has passed the peak and is slowing down nowadays, although we can see more and more dystopian luxury boutiques are opening in China with the open policy,” said Ink’s Cheng. “Unfortunately, not many of them can keep focusing in this area. They are now mixing the merchandise with contemporary fashion or other big commercial brands. Since the market is niche and the whole industry is facing global competition, the increasing number of shops will no doubt make the business harder.

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“I would say the peak of ‘dark fashion’ — as some people like to label it, although I hate that phrase — was likely in 2015 or 2016,” said Campbell McDougall, a Canadian-born independent retailer who founded Darklands in 2008. “Since then most of the bandwagon jumpers have moved on.”

According to McDougall, Darkland’s clientele, which is predominantly male, is seeking quality, exclusivity, artisanal flair and value — in addition to avant-garde aesthetics.

“I would debunk the theory that it is for goths and ex-goths,” he said. “Many arrive at this after much experience elsewhere. Our average good client is likely in their 40s or 50s.”

McDougall first cottoned on to the look in the early Eighties, and never strayed. “My starting point of interest was the black based, post-apocalyptic fashion coming out of Japan then, particularly from Rei Kawakubo,” he said. “I have done what I do for 31 years. There is always a client for it — sometimes more, sometimes less.”

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“I believe the real reason behind their passions for this style is the desire of craftsmanship, innovative techniques and luxury details,” Ink’s Cheng concurred, adding that devotees “pay a lot of attention to the stories behind what they are wearing, instead of wearing what the market told them to.”

Barcelona-based Saberi, who has a cult following for his low-crotch pants, engineered leathers and technical outerwear, said his penchant for what is often described as post-apocalyptic clothing springs from many wells: his upbringing in Bavaria amid fully covered Persian family members; his passion for skateboarding in the post-punk era, and his nomadic ways. (He recalls wearing layers of hoodies and leather and customized gear — “my survival package” — whenever he left his little town to go to the city.)

“I always did masks. Every third garment of mine has a face protector inside. It’s something I always did, for the aesthetic and the functionality,” said Saberi, whose early fashion experiments included customizing military garments and hand-making leather accessories.

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He founded his label in 2007, and immediately settled into his aesthetic. “The darkness is maybe a kind of self-protection,” he mused.

According to Steele, “clothing can be a compromise between different psychological feelings — and we all feel the need to armor ourselves, at least sometimes.” That chosen armor can be a function of your age, income level or other factors. “Whether we armor ourselves in a Chanel suit or a black jumpsuit with leather trim, both of them could be said to be armor,” she said.

To be sure, dystopian themes can manifest themselves in myriad ways: consider the safety blankets, quilts and dingy firefighter coats Raf Simons proposed during his Calvin Klein days, or the prim monochromatic dresses and cloaks in “The Handsmaid’s Tale,” or the colorful, circus-like pageantry of the elite in “The Hunger Games.”

According to Steele, “it’s not just in the cyber-punk, dark look but clearly in things like protection, like leather, also kind of rugged chic, like you’re out there ‘Mad Max’-ing it.”

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Most of the signature signposts of dystopia — dark, highly structured garments with a technological edge, lots of PVC, hoods and military capes — coalesced in Gareth Pugh’s fall 2017 collection, Tynan pointed out.

“And there was a leather trenchcoat, one of my favorite dystopian garments. The trenchcoat turns up whenever there is a crisis,” she said, noting the garment got its name from the dystopian trenches of the First World War. “The trenchcoat is worn by the most sinister characters in art, literature and film and is associated with technology, survival, danger, the city, violence and sex. It is not surprising that sinister garments like the trenchcoat attract fashion designers.”

Not that dystopian fashions are necessarily pessimistic.

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“Surely it means these designers are being realistic about the world they live in,” Tynan argued. “For instance, civil disobedience has become more theatrical with the various anti-capitalist protests, the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and Extinction Rebellion. These movements are all creating images — and objects such as pussy hats and balaclavas —that are in many ways dystopian, but also have a certain resilience and are defiant.”

On a more general level, many so-called dystopian fashions are “essentially streetwear and offer clothing styles that are hard-wearing and make our bodies feel resilient against an uncertain future. Rick Owens captures the look with clothing that looks like practical streetwear but has a hint of the quirkiness and absurdity of the moment that young people are living through,” Tynan said.

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In recent years, fashions have tended to be more covered-up, functional and utilitarian, qualities prevalent in protective or so-called dystopian styles.

For the most part, retailers and historians agreed that men’s fashion has enjoyed a longer, deeper dalliance with doomsday chic.

“There’s still such a strong pressure on women’s fashion to make women look pretty,” Steele said. “You can bring in a dystopian element, but it often gets very heavily mixed in with the eroticized early on so that it becomes kind of a femme fatale look rather than a cyber-punk dystopian look per se.”

It also tends to be associated with younger designers “because they’re in the same age of younger people who will associate those looks with something cool and who may also have more overt anxieties about the future looking grim,” she said.

In his fall 2019 and spring 2020 collections, Beijing-based designer Xander Zhou put his models in masks, gloves and other protective gear.

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“Now that almost everybody in the world is experiencing some kind of coronavirus lockdown, people have been asking me recently if I had had premonitions about the current period when I was making my past few collections,” he told WWD. “Back then I did imagine a future in which mankind had to struggle with viruses or other biochemical threats. I still think this will remain one of the major challenges for the future of mankind. So yes, this aesthetic does reflect the current mood. And no, it’s not always nice to be right.

“I didn’t feel it was a big thing when I started going down this path. Perhaps by now, more designers are pushed in this direction by the world we live in. Or they might find it cool, who knows,” he continued.

Yet he doesn’t see his vision as a grim one. “What I try to visualize is that mankind is capable of facing whatever challenges or other frightening things might come our way, and deal with it. With my collections, I try to show a certain preparedness for what is to come, and offer some kind of solution,” Zhou said.

“Maybe one of the things that this does as a fantasy is to give you the sense that, ‘OK, you could prepare for it,'” Steele agreed. “You could be one of the survivors.”

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