October | The Essay
Soul to Soul: The new EQ dressing
The designers that won this fashion month did so with feeling. All hail the rise of clothes that deliver true emotional intelligence, says Tiffanie DarkeTiffanie Darke
Pick a moment to define this fashion month, and it would be hard to beat an emotional Sarah Burton saying goodbye after her final collection for Alexander McQueen. The news that this shy but much respected designer was stepping down left fashion slightly heartbroken – her tearful turn on the catwalk brought a standing ovation. Burton’s well-thought-out aesthetic has deftly explored the tension between delicate femininity and female power, and it’s an aesthetic we are not done with yet. It speaks to womanhood, and the complex and myriad fragments that that identity experience involves. It has a conversation with every subject it dresses, examining her strength, understanding her softness, appealing to her fragility and elevating her power. This season Burton’s collection was a masterclass in that tension: romantic rose printed chiffon dresses floated alongside the high sexuality of slashed black suiting, the exaggerated shoulder of a navy overcoat embroidered in a trailing fringe of blood red silk. Just like the designer when she appeared to say goodbye, these clothes are emotional.
Chasing growth, volume and a shaky stock market, most brands this season rolled out a replay of traditional hits. The incessant need to produce hit handbags and blockbuster shoes in order to maintain insane growth trajectories is driving this, and ultimately sucking the life out of designers’ imaginations. Where was the newness at Gucci? It wasn’t even in the brief: Sabato de Sarno’s Gucci ‘Ancora’ (‘again’) collection was designed to speak to heritage classics. Saint Laurent returned to a blank canvas of plain cotton jumpsuits and pencil skirts. Dior, for all its backdrop of feminist sloganeering, was a safe play on the pretty woman DNA it has commercialised so well. We have not only seen all this before, we can actually buy it on second hand sites already – at half the price. The world does not need any more of these clothes: they exist already. So what is this fashion for anymore?
L: Alexander McQueen SS24 R: Bottega Veneta SS24
Fashion at its best is an emotion, a feeling, an insight into the way we live right now. With all the pressures on our planetary boundaries, clothes need to really earn their place in the world, and for that they need to do more than tick house codes. They need to feel the moment; to explore the heart space of the wearer. And a handful of designers answered this brief: Dries Van Noten, Loewe, The Row and Bottega Veneta among them. Each of these collections had something complex and interesting to say about womanhood, their collections so moving they draw an emotional response in the admirer. This is not status dressing, or fashion by numbers: this is design with emotional intelligence. It is EQ dressing, if you like.
At Bottega, it was a skirt so heavy and full of fabric woven in a check of pink and black that hugged the waist and flared out over the calf. It was exciting: calm and full of adventure at the same time. At Dries, it was a sharp shouldered navy overcoat that would shape you till the day you die. At Loewe, designer Jonathan Anderson showed trousers so high waisted they sat almost under the bust – a shape that will surely influence any pair of statement trousers for the next few seasons. And The Row – The Row! What a collection from the Olsen twins, who have quietly matured into the makers of fashion’s most desirable clothing. The frenzy that accompanied the show speaks to the way these women communicate their intention. We could all feel their uncompromising vision, as they stepped into a daring play on silhouette and proportion, an oversized gold leather pouch clutched against a cerulean blue asymmetric top, hung over a pair of slouchy oversized trousers. The Row is casual but poignantly striking at the same time: so comfortable to wear, so nonchalant in its pose, so strong in its statement. In the absence (not long now) of that OG of female power dressing, Phoebe Philo, The Row has become her true successor. Their clothes speak to the mature woman everywhere.
L: Dries Van Noten SS24 R: The Row SS24
"I’m hoping I can use my runway show as a platform to raise awareness for some of the innovators we work with as well as others who are doing amazing things. Success looks like these sustainable alternatives becoming the standard."
One of the conversations women want to have (and it is overwhelmingly women) is around sustainability. We are cyclical beings, our nurturing instincts understand that the planet is regenerative and we must be, too. The two designers that lead this conversation are women: Stella McCartney and Gabriela Hearst. As Hearst says, women want to know that the homework has been done for them, and with both these brands (and also Chloé, where Hearst has just finished a 5 year term as creative director) the collections are used deliberately and loudly to talk about the progress they are making. They understand sustainability is not a box to be ticked or a ‘conscious’ label to slap on, but is measured through each and every action and intention of a business. Witness the way Stella staged her show in front of a marketplace of 21 innovations and circular solutions, from apple leather to seaweed kelp fabric, vintage curation to cellulose sequins.
That she chose to use her platform to lift up those of others doing the work in this space speaks volumes: “We have been pioneering cruelty-free, conscious materials for over 20 years. In that time, we have collaborated with incredible innovators who I want to support in whatever way I can,” McCartney told Vogue Business. “I’m hoping I can use my runway show as a platform to raise awareness for some of the innovators we work with as well as others who are doing amazing things. Success looks like these sustainable alternatives becoming the standard. We absolutely need to support these innovators, or they will not make it. I am such a believer in putting your money where your mouth is; I do it every day with the next-gen materials and technologies we use here at Stella, as well as through my SOS investment fund [a $200 million venture-backed fund, launched by Stella McCartney and its owner LVMH, focusing on early-stage materials, energy and supply chain startups].” If McCartney’s passion, purpose and progressiveness does not speak to emotion, I don’t know what does.
Over at Chloé, Hearst threw a samba party on the catwalk to celebrate her five years in the designer chair – and with it, brought the joy. And she has much to be joyful about. Over her tenure, Chloé has become the first luxury brand to achieve B Corp certification; she made the ‘volume player’ Nama sneaker out of 40% recycled material a commercial blockbuster, and she leads all her conversations with ethical action and science-based solutions to the climate emergency. “I’m proud that when I came to Chloé there was one person in sustainability. Now it’s a department of twelve. I’m proud that with this collection, the workmanship is so amazing—and the fabrics in the wovens are 70% low-impact and in the knitwear 80%.”
Her final comment after her final show? “We need clean abundant energy. I did a show which spoke about (nuclear) fusion a year ago—and in that one year there have been a lot of advances, and a major breakthrough last December. It’s going to save our asses, and it’s closer than we think.”
L: Chloé SS24 R: Stella McCartney SS24
"Fashion at its best is emotional. It’s a connection between the designer, their intention and the woman that wears them."
In London, new-guard designers are forging similar paths, letting sustainability do the talking. Phoebe English showcased natural dyes, sustainably sourced wool and a partnership with vintage store Glass Onion. Paolo Carazana’s romantic collection backed by the Sarabande Foundation was infused with love and hope using plant-based, recycled, organic and repurposed materials. Tove once again won editors’ hearts for its thoughtful and purposeful approach. And Irish designer Michael Stewart showed that London isn’t just about the shock of the new – his second show under the label Standing Ground for Fashion East was deliberately couture-like. Top to toe bodycon dresses that slither over and around the body presented a sophistication that surely promises a bigger part for Stewart to play in the fashion universe. Especially as his proposition is diametrically opposed to the resource hungry volume players that dominate: each piece is made to order, crafted only by his own hand. If he only made ten pieces a year, that would be enough for him, he has said. How refreshing.
Over in Milan, one of the season’s most accomplished collections was Prada, where Miuccia’s collection contained all the codes for which she is known – belted jackets, broad shouldered tailoring, button up collars, a twisted masculine/feminine interplay. But this latest episode in her narrative on gender subversion was so accomplished, underwritten by an intellectual approach that made her ultra micro rara skirt at MiuMiu look like feminist armour.
Another collection that took intellectual risks was Rei Kawakubo’s for Comme de Garçons. Her designs require commitment, engagement, consideration – no room for cheap seduction techniques here. At the end of the show Louis Vuitton designer Pharrell Williams bowed down to her, his self-proclaimed idol.
All these women – and they are mostly women – have maintained a considered aesthetic that they have discussed over an entire career. Which is why it was so heart-breaking to see Burton exit stage left. But she did so with a show that gave not one nod to the airport terminal merchandising opportunities that so many of her contemporaries have fallen victim to.
L: Loewe SS24 R: Prada SS24
Fashion at its best is emotional. It’s a connection between the designer, their intention and the woman that wears them. In the days that followed the final show, Elon Musk launched his Neurolink technology, a brain implant chip that will allow users to save and replay memories. While you digest that, Artificial Intelligence will be working out what you want for dinner tonight and a further thousand tonnes of microplastics will settle on the ocean floor.
“We live in a weird world”, as Musk said. One where the idea, the expression of who and what a woman actually is, biologically and emotionally, is under review. Where robots and algorithms are getting smarter and more able than us, so what matters – what really matters is how we feel.
And for this we have fashion.