Leave it to Rick Owens to say what few in fashion dared. With many designers doubling down on runway escapism after a challenging year, Owens took the opposite tack on the Venice Lido in October. His models emerged from the Palazzo del Casinò masked and ready to slay any foe in thigh-high wading boots and tough, post-apocalyptic shoulders. The California expat was, as he wrote in his show notes, mischievously extending “an exaggerated middle finger to doom.”
“I always want to honestly show the full spectrum of our life experience by pursuing beauty but acknowledging life’s fragility,” he tells T&C. Owens has long been fashion’s Cassandra, and with his spring 2021 collection he looked toward a future in which doomscrolling is just something we used to do on our phones. Some of his more adventurous peers did the same, drawing on classic motifs of the horror genre to respond to the dread in the zeitgeist with gallows humor and gothic elegance.
“A kind of dark glamour feeling comes up every few years,” says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It’s as though there’s a pendulum that swings from cheery flowers to black roses and razor blades.” That pendulum has been swinging ever since the days when Christian Dior designed Marlene Dietrich’s costumes for Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright. “No Dior, no Dietrich,” the star declared. Seventy years later, Hitchcock’s films, alongside those of Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento, remain fixtures on designer mood boards.
When Steele curated “Gothic: Dark Glamour” at FIT in 2008, she captured the evocative grandeur that continues to make the macabre such a rich vein to tap, but she couldn’t have anticipated the devastation looming in the Great Recession. This time designers went to work on their spring collections with large swaths of the world in lockdown and whole industries upended, luxury fashion included. While some returned to the runway with optimistic counter-programming, other creative directors leaned into the ambient anxiety. John Galliano conjured a haunting short film for Maison Margiela that was loosely about an eerie South American wedding, complete with tango dancing, blood-red veils, and a ghost-white bride. Riccardo Tisci commissioned a performance piece from endurance artist Anne Imhof to accompany his audience-less presentation in the woods of Black Park, near London, lending an ominous, Blair Witch Project air to the proceedings.
Rei Kawakubo and Olivier Theyskens each offered a foreboding vision, and Jun Takahashi imagined several fantasy worlds, some more ghoulish than others. “All things have a back and a front, a light and a dark to them; I always want to express both sides,” he says.
Owens is naturally predisposed toward the dystopian, and this season offered that mood in spades. When his factory in Modena was temporarily closed, he decided to wait it out in the city that gave us the word quarantine: Venice. The elegiac collection of linebacker shoulders, coverall tunics, and a mostly somber palette with nervy pops of hot pink was informed by the experience; it was not lost on Owens that the venue for his show figured prominently in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. “There has been a long tradition of using body adornment to process fear and take control of it and, at times, mock it,” Owens says. “Extremely exaggerated shoulders suggest grimly cheerful defiance in the face of adversity.”
A similarly indomitable feeling took hold at Prada, as the models—wearing the first looks crafted by Miuccia Prada and recently named co–creative director Raf Simons—clutched their shawls, bracing themselves as they navigated the show’s obstacle course runway inside a panopticon riddled with cameras. Persevering in the face of fear—may we all be so bold.
This story appears in the February 2021 issue of Town & Country.
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