Why are we so obsessed with inflatable fashion?
Life may be a let down, but a continuing trend of blown-up garments – from Diesel to Dingyun Zhang – is keeping us upbeat and buoyant.
Inflation is at an all time high right now. You know, the huge surge caused by big label flotations and increased rates of interest. Wait, quantitative easing, wha-? Cost-push, huh? We know nothing about economics, we went to art school, mate. We’re talking about fashion, and how it’s really obsessed with inflatables right now.
Just yesterday, Glenn Martens’ Diesel went mega with five gargantuan, inflatable models overlooking a scarlet runway. Based on 3D scans of actual IRL people, they towered over the catwalk, all 50ft of them lying down in statement poses like blimps that had fallen down from cyberspace.
Then, last week, there was Moncler’s latest collaboration with Dingyun Zhang, its bulging designs filed under the brand’s Genius project. If you’re not down with Zhang, he’s a CSM grad and Yeezy alumni obsessed with jumbo air-crafts, having started his own brand a year ago. Spanning bloated, ballooning puffers, billowing vests and mega-skirts, it takes inspiration from underwater forms and emergency inflatables, scaling them up to the max. Whatever floats your boat, right?
In many ways, inflatable fashion feels like it should be a bit of a fad, a blink-and-you-missed-it craze along the lines of no-dels, gunge or sticker beauty. In reality, it has held currency for a few years now, which in dog years is a few decades, and in fashion years? An eternity.
Sure, if we’re going way back, it was even a thing in the ’70s, with “sauna pants” promising to help you shed weight while ensuring you looked like an absolute berk. In slightly higher-brow culture, Michiko Koshino was doing it in the ’80s, putting insanely bulbous coats on models for runway shows. Oh, and let’s not forget the uber-kitsch, pop-coloured inflatable chair of the ’90s, hallowed throne of the MTV-obsessed teenager.
Later, the ’00s pumped it up a notch thanks to Gareth Pugh’s inflatable designs. The subversive Sunderland-born designer conjured up a red and white balloon dress, somehow simultaneously resembling an atomic nucleus, Willy Wonka prop and Pokeball, landing him a Dazed cover in 2004 and a spot on, er, short-lived UK reality show Fashion House. Later, he further explored the theme with inflatable black latex suits and skirts, ironing out the form’s kinks.
It’s really in the last few years, though, that inflatable fashion has blown up, thanks to a string of cool club kids, emerging designers and fashion grads who, like Pugh, featured the practice heavily in their early shows. Back in 2018, Edwin Mohney made waves with his inflatable swimming pool dress, condom dresses and rubber chicken looks, by playing with aerated, plastic fabrications. Fredrik Tjærandsen soon followed in 2019, earning himself a standing ovation thanks to his bulbous, globular balloons that deflated into garments, a kind of reverse-play on Hussein Chalayan’s AW00 telescopic tables-turned-dresses.
Elsewhere, University of Westminster student San Kim, bored of ordinary silhouettes, saw inflatables as inclusive. Inspired by Freud, his grad collection saw his models become oversized, ready-to-pop heroes clad in diaphanous sacs. “I was really sick and tired of the ‘Standard Model Spec‘ which is too perfect to reach,” he says. “In my balloon pieces, It doesn’t matter at all whether the wearer is tall or short, fat or slim, how old they are, gender, skin colour, where they are from. We are all equal in my bubble world. Air gives a space that lets us be more free and natural.”
This interest in the democratic, rather than purely aesthetic, quality of inflatable fashion runs through its latest manifestations. Emerging Chinese label MARRKNULL recently unveiled an inflatable dress for SS22, its multi-tiered, candyfloss form looking like a childlike sugar-rush of party rings, bouncy castles and layer cakes. Like Mohney and Zhang, they were inspired by the pool. “The inspiration for the inflatable dress came from our observation of children playing by the pool, they would fold their swimming rings one by one and put them on themselves,” they said. Again, it allowed for a more playful form: “I think it is a challenge to the high-end and exquisite silhouette [of] the past.”
Playing with inflatable objects, rather than just the silhouette, gets to the core of what makes it all so intriguing. Excuse us going all BA Philosophy for a hot second, but honestly, Martin Heidegger had it right when he talked about “objects as things”, each having an essential “thingness” that lies within the item, rather than its physicality. “The empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as a holding vessel,” he said about a vase – and it kind of checks out about anything else filled with air, too. Think of Duchamp’s Paris Air from 1919; the glass was neither here nor there, its air was its aura. It’s what’s inside that counts, after all.
Undoubtedly, though, part of the appeal is still how photogenic (and therefore, Gen‑Z) inflatable fashion is. Scroll down your Instagram feed, and it properly pops out. “Social media has evolved toward being faster and more instant,” San Kim explains. “Designers have to find a way to promote themselves to survive.” Just ask Hariskrishnan, whose hugely viral inflatable trousers risked dwarfing the rest of his equally explosive collection.
Then bigger names started to float into the mix. Before Moncler Genius linked up with Dingyun Zhang, they signed up Craig Green for another inflatable collection, recalling floatation devices and king-sized airbeds. In 2020, Marc Jacobs returned with a riotous AW21 collection, drowning models in mega, floor-sweeping puffers. Last year, Louis Vuitton waded in with their inflatable gilet, a literal investment piece so expensive it spawned hundreds of DIY versions across Chinese social media, using crisp bags and bubble wrap that cost just a tad less than the $3,400 asking price. Mercedes, meanwhile, teamed up with Heron Preston for the much-anticipated 40th anniversary of the airbag (missed it?), turning safety equipment into a limited-edition capsule of puffers. Oh, and then there’s that rotund Yeezy Gap jacket doing the rounds right now. Whew.
If inflation was a thing a few years back, we’re now in a period of hyperinflation. Air, it seems, has substance when it comes to fashion; there’s something beguiling about a garment that seems to grow in front of our very eyes, encasing something mysterious within. Like a sad helium balloon, though, it can’t last forever. “Just like a balloon, it’s going to get immediately bigger and bigger,” Kim says, “but then it’ll pop.” As long as supply remains high, we reckon demand should be inelastic. Maybe we do know a little bit about economics, after all.