And if the post-Covid twist is that we actually all just want to stay in our own bubbles, among our own tribe? It would be less mythological than the emancipatory seventies styled in the fashion of a never-ending summer, considerably more concrete, albeit coming from a place of reconstructive effervescence. The echo chamber gives fashion its momentum, renewed at every turn, spreading within the networked microcosm through diverse strategies in accordance with calibrated micro-targeting.
Both shared secretly, cannily revealed, and reluctantly acknowledged, the return of the clique in fashion is legitimized as a decadent decency thanks to the recuperation of a discourse which is both communal and at the same time very distant from the glamour of fashion: public health.
Thanks as well to the preservation of an off-stage intimacy which the profusion of images (animated or not) only partially reveals. Partying in the bubble – the parties the fashion world throws for itself – are appearing as a semi-camouflaged extravagance, whilst a joy which is subject to commentary, phygitalised through fashion campaigns, becomes a semi-shared ideological value which is exclusively visual.
What do we really know about contemporary fashion?
The axiom according to which figures speak for themselves has once more proven itself to be correct. As demonstrated by the results for the luxury conglomerates at the end of the first quarter of 2021 which confirmed in black and white how well fashion is doing. In comparison to 2019, LVMH announced an 8% increase in sales, Kering Saw their turnover go up by 21.4%, and on May 4th, 2021 Hermès declared itself “more than confident” during its AGM (which was a closed-door, virtual affair, owing to the lockdown), thanks to receipts doubling in Asia since the start of the year.
This quantitative abundance benefits the brands’ image, reinforcing an ethos of stability, while in parallel post-lockdown revenge shopping has been highlighted by the press, with footage of the queues outside Zara or even Hermès framed as evidence of the consumer habits associated with a fashion that has become disconnected. When it came to the general public, the desire to own new fashion objects became seen as something blameworthy, but the transformation of that into higher share prices for the brands was praised as demonstrating their ability to resist the heavy public health and socioeconomic weather. Same circuit – two speeds.
However, in the era of the start-up nation, with undercover reporters filing exposés from Silicon Valley, with stranger-than-fiction success stories and TED talks, money is no longer taboo. Joy has become synonymous with entrepreneurial vitality in the collective imagination. Far from the mournful seriousness generated by the Covid figures, the fashion figures are a source of relief and jubilation. In fashion offices, the pressure’s off. It’s time to party. And not only in front of a computer screen.
In March 2021, a few brands flouted the rules that apply to the general public and provided a kind of enchanted parenthesis. It remains to be seen whether this was welcome or not. Coperni, for example, organised a drive-in show mixing private hire vehicles, techno music, champagne on the backseat and and the beeping of horns muffled by the walls of the car park, whilst models paraded on a white hot tarmacked podium.
These “physical” events, which we could describe as phygital thanks to their diffusion on webographic platforms, were certainly few and far between. But the appetite they’ve reawakened demonstrated the extent to which fashion was languishing without its extravagance, its intimate pleasures, its other opportunities for close social contact which it can only offer the members of the inner sanctum.
The newspaper Le Monde congratulated Coperni on the partnerships which made its show possible (DS Automobile, Evian, Ruinart) and FashionNetwork wasted no time in relaying the words of a delighted attendee: “It’s so good, I am so bored of watching Vogue Runway, it’s so great to be outside for once!” If even this guest, who clearly works in fashion, complains about the boredom induced by watching collections exclusively via Vogue Runway, you have to wonder about how much appeal a video show has for a non-professional, under no obligation to watch the shows and able to do so only through a screen. And yet, before as during the pandemic, non-fashion professionals had no other access to fashion events save via the digital. From live to videos, it’s thus that fashion (which works through both images and events) interacts with the general public. But from the moment fashion professionals are subjected to the same regime, the digital experience changes massively. Gone are the days of the single static camera filming the show; the whole event now becomes oriented towards cinematographic sensibilities.
Thus a general harmony – beyond social status and position – seems to develop between fashion professionals and others. Access to the content is identical, the brand strives for inclusivity, the experience is shared. As if lockdown life had abolished the boundaries of the field of fashion, which is now accessible to everyone through the ideal and universal conduit of the web.
Pure utopian folly? A crazy longshot? A reversal of codes? Fashion is putting the boot in by actually unveiling what happens in its wings. In an unstoppable frenzy, fashion is unwrapping everything, annihilating that capacity for camouflage that enabled it to build its axiological mysteriousness.
After the video-shows reproducing the backstage preshow ambiance, as in the case of Hermès, the backstage aesthetic is taking off. We take a virtual trip with Lily-Rose Depp to discover how lipstick is produced in Chanel’s factories in Pantin; a masked engineer pops up in a Lanvin lookbook photo; there’s a filmed conversation between Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons… There’s no mistaking the new trend, at least at first glance, but on the other side of the screen, the creative directors are resisting this. Like Olivier Rousteing at Balmain who used an airplane and its runway or Hedi Slimane who tried to conquer the chateaux of France for Céline. The show, at all costs, even solo.
Beyond simple old school puritanism, or a refusal to open themselves to new technologies, these more traditional creative directors are perhaps just demonstrating an honesty which is in short supply in this era when mise en scène is both exterior to the sector and permanent. They are impatiently waiting for the return of the good old shows, permitted by the brands they work for. Brands which organise not only their diaries, but also those of the sector as a whole, in a choreography which has become systematic and in which the big groups set the pace.
That’s why some artistic directors are trying to hold back the rising tide of digital events.
They have an advantage over the future, a kind of perfect knowledge of the immediate future of fashion, and are patiently waiting for things to get back “to normal,” a normal which they will claim to have never forgotten. They will refuse the inclusive image and directly question the appearance of inclusivity, of this fashion which the current emergency and the shift to the virtual has universalized.
In a much more radical fashion, the brand Bottega Veneta, whose artistic head is the anti social media Daniel Lee, organised a private party at Soho House in Berlin at the end of March 2021. Going against the pandemic spirit, the information revealed by The Guardian about the event generated nothing more than criticism of “an uncontrolled excess” from the Journal du Luxe, the only media outlet in France to have relayed the news. Whilst the original article stated that photos had been leaked on social media, it is impossible now to find any visual proof of the illegal party.
This collective aphasia, this iconographic memory loss, only reminds us of the power of images to camouflage, and their manipulation by a human hand at their point of origin, necessary to their appearance/disappearance.
For its part, Chanel presented its collection Métiers d’Art 2020/21 at the Château de Chenonceau with just one visible guest: actress and muse Kristen Stewart. We almost envied this VIP, herself providing as much joy as 700 guests, freed from the cruel laws of seatings, who had no other role than to watch a catwalk show that was as grandiose as it was intimate. Five months later, in May, in Baux de Provence, Chanel pulled the same trick, with a few extra celebrities, whose presence was legitimized by a musical performance by the duo of Sébastien Tellier and Angèle. Images of shows have effectively habituated us to more people. The crowd crammed around the doors of the emblematic sites of the fashion capitals is one of the favourite themes of TV journalists during Fashion Week. And at the parties, glamorous celebrities crowd together in their eagerness to be photographed by Vogue and then appear in the even bigger crowd of images of those parties. Except for these recent occasions, where the ambiance of the two events tended to the sobriety of a small gathering. Visually, the participants in the video show could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Apart from the models, the usual happy few seemed too few to be happy. But, off camera, you can only imagine the number of plus ones that had been granted, and the number of technicians who were only too happy to volunteer for a chance to escape the confines of remote working and the number of experts required to broadcast the show of a brand that prides itself on perfectionism. If we see a feast of images, there must be people at the feast. Thanks to the success of a business, or through being physically present at a show, the moment of joy demanded by the brands needs a material realization to be diffused virtually. The party, as a form of relaxation promoted by fashion since spring 2021, has thus followed an irregular path, littered with uneven obstacles.
Was there partying at Baux de Provence? The response, presumptively affirmative, is ultimately of little significance from a point of view situated within the domain of fashion, since it reintroduces externally this mysteriousness which fashion had almost let slip. Little by little, in smaller numbers as a result of the pandemic, fashion is making the most of the situation to re-animate the extravagant cliquiness of its glory days. Legitimized by the context, the doors to fashion parties are closing to enable a more discreet material participation.
Like Karl Lagerfeld, who organized along with his lover Jacques de Bascher a leather SM party (‘Moratoire Noire’) in Montreuil in 1977, fashion has recovered a tendency to create its own little stories, which above all fear being exposed in images whilst at the same time not caring what anyone says about them. Stories which are lived in the intimacy of a group, as delightful as a privilege, as closely guarded as a secret.
This festive effervescence, characteristic of fashion from the 80s to the 2000s – and the echoes of which were only accessible to the general public through glossy paper – is making a big comeback. Not only at the heart of the new visible backstage areas, which allowed for the diffusion of an image of a light-hearted working fashion, but also in the non-places which maintain the world of fashion.
A flagrant display of this jubilant cliquiness was offered up to us – that is to say everyone who follows fashion professionals on social media – by Gucci on the 27th May this year, when, piggybacking on an in-store event, the brand’s press services organized a supplementary micro-event, for a select few (and this time without any clients). For the second half of this Gucciesque day of fun, the journalist Sophie Fontanel transformed herself into a model-performer at the Italian embassy in Paris, whilst some friendly professionals came to applaud her and celebrate together this progressive return to “the normal,” as announced precisely by this homogenous gathering.
And Gucci repeated this gesture two weeks later with a very private garden party, so private that the famous Clara Luciani could dedicate a song to an employee of the fashion house, well known in that circle, and everyone there knew who that person was. An epiphenomenon which is all the more striking for being rare, even in family gatherings.
The daily life of fashion as revealed on video, fashion as revealed in images, the whole mediated vision – all this sometimes makes us forget that mediation is necessarily techno-human. The virtual machine has not yet replaced human warmth; on the contrary, it has reinforced its semi-material borders. We are witnessing a generalized return to last century’s basic assumption, that professionals in the sector physically rub elbows, while aficionados digitally glean bits of information about events which are not intended for them. It is the clique which is reviving fashion’s glory days, to which Demna Gvaslia is contributing most aptly by reintegrating Haute Couture at Balenciaga, as well the luxury codes that accompany this type of collection. From the McDonald’s of Saint-Ouen to the Georges V in central Paris, fashion with a more popular orientation has departed, leaving a few pixelated traces on social media to confirm an obligation to visibility which is, however, no longer a priority.
Fashion, which offers up to us on social media fragments of its extravagance, is, in the post-lockdown period, letting us imagine the euphoria behind the camera, camouflaged up until now by a modicum of decency but also by the necessity of appealing for the return of its favoured fetish, so that it can reinvent itself in the mysteriousness that characterises it: the off camera.
Translated into English by Sara & Emma Bielecki.