Dressing for the apocalypse: London’s reaction to an uncertain future
“If fear of the future was last season’s theme, then this season is about how to cope with that fear,” says Xander Zhou.
Last week, a new report by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration warned that “planetary and human systems are reaching a ‘point of no return’ by 2050”. If this prediction is correct, we will be able to see the beginnings of human extinction in just 30 years. It’s a terrifying thought. However, when environmental destruction, the rise of the far right and the ever looming threat of Brexit continues to catapult the UK into political disarray, an apocalyptic future somehow seems less farfetched. Amidst all of this chaos, though, fashion has proved a place for us to work through our fears and look towards the future – as seen in this year’s SS20 men’s collections, which previewed in London last weekend. Indeed, if fashion ever had the privilege of existing within a vacuum, it is not now, with designers looking towards the future like never before.
From last season onwards, designers seemed to engage more closely with the theme of protection. From Craig Green’s militia style collections to A‑COLD-WALL*’s walking dead, AW19 had an eerie, politically charged and combative feel. At A‑COLD-WALL*, performance artists struggled to keep afloat in tanks of water which flanked the runway while an isolated Rottweiler barked on a lead. The clothes were utilitarian, technical, and gave a sense of intense safety while inevitably falling apart, with intentional cut outs and portholes. It was a depiction of a nihilistic future – scary, ritualistic and pessimistic. This was not exclusive to the stalwarts either, with smaller brands like the avant-garde streetwear of Cottweiler and the directional Feng Chen Wang all exhibiting the increasing use of technical fabrics, proportional exaggeration, uniform, bolder colour blocking and sustainably sourced materials. It was widely read as a need for refuge – designers provided notes on protection, to shield wearers from the world around them for example Craig Green said “I love the idea of a talisman, believing that an object can protect you” when describing the inspiration for his last SS show.
Xander Zhou, the first Chinese designer to be part of London Fashion Week, was one of the designers to excavate these fears last season, via a surreal and fantasy depiction of what a post-apocalyptic future could entail. Pregnant men, yetis and clones were sent down the runway, it was tongue in cheek but horrifying. Yet for a designer that claims that “politics does not play any role in my designs whatsoever” he certainly has a lot to say. “If fear of the future was last season’s theme, then this season is about how to cope with that fear” Zhou says. “Somehow I can’t manage to think of an apocalypse as something frightful, that is why in my recent collections I tried to express equality and love.” This season, he provided a sanctuary from chaos, where the spiritual and technological aligned. Models walked around a room, entirely covered by screens. It was a digitalised paradise, where a hybridity of cultures coexisted – the shamanic and the street, the genderless (skirts totally replaced trousers) and the post-human (Zhou showcased two digital garments). In its neutral colour palette, wide fits and almost religious iconography, Zhou’s models felt like futuristic healers.
In fact, rather than despair, optimism has started to peak through this season. According to C2H4 designer Yixi Chen “I don’t take the changes in the world right now as a solely negative thing”. For Chen, we are entering a new era “driven by technology, especially the internet, [which] is changing not only the ways we do things, but also potentially changing who we are as a species.” This sense of us changing irrevocably sounds spookily similar to ‘The Singularity’, a popular theory describing a point in time when technological progression becomes irreversible – creating permanent changes to human civilisation. The looks this season certainly echoed this sentiment in just how futuristic they felt – face masks, padded scarves, protective bibs, panelled boiler suits and reflective piping on tailoring.
Similarly, Liam Hodges managed to balance his technophobia with a lighter touch. His oversized, cut and paste knitwear and modular track pants, all spoke to the Y2K era, when humanity feared impending apocalypse at the turn of the century. But although his references felt much darker than before – David Cronenberg, Fifth Generation, cyberpunk – they were set amongst bulbous, rudimentary sculptures in an array of primary colours. It counterbalanced the angst on the runway, bringing forth something more basic, more primordial, more human. This respite from chaos was a theme which followed throughout the collections – party boy Charles Jeffrey held an unusually stripped back show at the British Library, Martine Rose let clownish optimism loose and Per Gotteson relaxed into a makeshift innocence with exposed zippers, pinned prints and bare footed models.
In the eye of the storm, it seems as though many of the most prolific designers of today are embracing the dystopian and the post-human as something which is inevitable and even positive. In this way, the future becomes more about acceptance than fear, combating destruction with hybridity, the energy of youth and creativity. Perhaps, there is life after death after all. It’s a sentiment shared by Zhou. “I hope it is clear that my collections do not breathe despair,” he says. “But are a beam of light in the dark”.