Sex sells! It’s the central cliché of modern capitalist culture. Brands sell an aspirational (and heteropatriarchal) vision of a sexy, new and improved future you – a bigger fish in the murky pond of sexual jealousy – and promise to propel you toward its ultimate accolade, the compliment that 'women want to be her, and men want to be with her'. It might seem old-fashioned (and it is), but it’s still used to praise successful women, from global pop megastar Rihanna to famous actors Blake Lively and Priyanka Chopra.
Fashion has long embraced the power of sex, and the profits of serving the male gaze; working on the principle that, as John Berger memorably put it, "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." In the mid '70s, there was fashion photographer Helmut Newton’s iconic photobook White Women, followed by Big Nudes in the '80s. Tom Ford went nuclear with his hyper sexual aesthetic at Gucci in the '90s, scandalising public morality with Terry Richardson-lensed ad campaigns and achieving bankruptcy-averting success for the then-ailing Italian brand. And it was in the '90s that Bruce Weber shot his provocative series of ads for Versace Jeans and Versus. (Richardson and Weber both being 'risqué' photographers who have since been accused of multiple instances of sexual assault by models.)
But the rules of selling sex in fashion have changed. You might not know it from the hugely expensive publicity stunt that is the Victoria’s Secret show, with its bizarre Angel-elimination rounds, multimillion-dollar bras and pop megastar bookings. Or indeed from LOVE magazine’s ongoing advent calendar, a controversial festive video series of near-naked models. But these throwbacks have become the exceptions. In a post-Weinstein world, under the righteous microscope of the #MeToo movement, brands have had to rethink how they sell to women. Even Tom Ford gets it, declaring to The Cut in 2017: "The sex thing’s a little bit old at this point. Been there, done that."
The Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan describing Stella McCartney’s collection as "frumpy" would, previously, have been parsed as serious shade. But for Autumn Winter 18 – with sex conspicuously absent from the catwalks – Givhan was actually praising Stella’s roomy overcoats worn over faded denim jackets and bootcut jeans, paired with trainers. "It wasn’t especially exciting, but it was reassuring," Givhan wrote. "It was not sexy. Or hot. It was a little bit frumpy. Purposefully so."
And Stella wasn’t the only one. For several years now, across seasons and continents, fashion has, purposefully, been in a protective, near-puritanical mood: high necklines and low hems; loose outerwear and cocoon-like layers; and a focus on unfussy, practical garments. The Weinstein scandal (and its numerous, unwelcome sequels) had something to do with it, of course. (Just ask the women film stars who accuse Weinstein of forcing them to wear his then-wife’s designer dresses – proof, if it were needed, that wearing a sexy designer dress isn’t always 'empowering'.) But the #MeToo movement didn’t account for all of it.
The seemingly endless, dystopian newsreel of Trump’s America, and the rise of the 'alt-right' there, mirrored by Conservative austerity in the UK, Brexit shambles, and the rise of fascist politics across Europe, all contributed to a more protective mood. A mood not simply characterised by self-care cocooning, but more so by a forceful womanhood and the defiant refusal to be reduced to a mere figment of the male gaze. In London especially, designers sought to serve the modern warrior women fighting for our future. Outfitting them in a scrappy, punk-practical uniform, it was a vision most clearly articulated by Matty Bovan’s witchy, hi-vis survivalists for Autumn Winter 17, and indeed his multilayered Spring Summer 18 collection, which mixed sporty separates with rugged knitwear and dazzling warpaint.
Put simply: in a post-MeToo world (and with a self-confessed 'pussy grabber' as US president), fashion brands that most relied on the economy of the male gaze had to tone it down for propriety, and the designers who genuinely speak to women’s desires saw our fury and determination to frog-march the world into working for us, too. Even Milan – the home of Molto Sexy dressing – caught the covered-up bug: Gucci’s gone geek; Versace women wear layers and coats; Dolce & Gabbana have discovered diversity; even Roberto Cavalli dropped hemlines to the floor. Commentators began to wonder: Does sex sell fashion anymore? But not for very long.
Enter fashion bad boy Hedi Slimane, who, having taken the reins at Celine, reassured everyone that his "goal" was "not to go the opposite way of [former designer Phoebe Philo’s] work" – before doing exactly that. Slimane replaced Philo’s grown-up womenswear with the super tight, short and skinny LA hot mess look that has been his signature since he popularised the skinny jean in the early '00s. New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman spoke for many when she described the collection as "pouty" and "infantilising". Though if Hedi’s collections for Saint Laurent (he infamously dropped the 'Yves') in the early 2010s are anything to go by, his debut for Celine will likely sell very well indeed. But fashion is about more than simply selling clothes, and the critical reception of Hedi’s Celine demonstrates the immense cultural capital he has lost.
So why, all of a sudden, is sex all over the London catwalks? Regarded as the most youth culture-driven, anarchic and future-focused fashion capital, London designers are expected to be political and progressive, not regressive. Nevertheless, like a fast-moving STI, creatives in the post-punk metropolis have caught a slinky, kinky new vibe. Their vision for Spring Summer 19 is all about sex, sweat and skin, skin, skin! It’s nothing new, in the grand scheme of fashion history, but it does represent a serious about-turn from the earnest, activist, practical and protective mood that has dominated for several years.
Take Ashish, for example. London’s sparkliest designer held a sombre (and beautiful, and diverse) SS17 show, responding to the rise in post-Brexit hate crimes, and took his bow in a T-shirt with 'IMMIGRANT' proudly emblazoned across the chest. A year later, his SS18 show presented a resistance force of queer disco witches. But at the recent SS19 show, there was no overt political messaging. Androgynous, sweat-drenched clubbers were errantly dressed in wisps of iridescent sequins, propelled down the catwalk by slamming Berlin techno and supported by an inclusive cast of couples kissing in corners. The only slogans were 'SEND NUDES' and 'S&M Sex and Magic' in diamanté grid lettering on cosy, post-rave hoodies. Had one of our most engaged creatives sold out his politics in order to sell sex?
"Everything is political," Ashish mused backstage after the show. It might sound like a cop-out, but as you would expect from one of fashion’s most emotionally honest designers (and a consistently reliable canary in the coal mine of fashion’s future mood), there is much more to unpack here. Yes, the show was sexy, sweaty and scantily clad, but it was also a celebration of diverse bodies, genders, sexualities, relationships and lovers. It was about going out and letting loose, having fun and feeling free. Importantly, it was about feeling sexy, rather than conforming to the tired clichés of the male gaze in an anxious quest to look sexy.
"I think a dose of hedonism is required in these times of regressive right-wingism," Ashish explains over email. "It’s also perhaps a reaction to the growing culture of 'Eat clean! Meditate! Mindfulness! Don’t drink! Do yoga! No sugar!' – modern life ideals that are all about restraint and self-control," he says. "Sex feels almost like an act of defiance in the face of all this self-control, not just in the way we are constantly told to live, but also in the political climate of crumbling liberalism and democracy." Unlike previous collections, Ashish’s latest was not a funeral, not a fight, but a celebration of liberal values, of freedom, lust and love. He presented a radical vision of self-sensuality, and perhaps also an alternative self-care proposal.
This radically sexy mood had also captivated Gareth Pugh. In recent years, Pugh has titled a show 'Corporate Cannibals'; set one season in an underground bunker; and created a gory, disturbing film about destruction and brutality (with the radical performance-sculptor Olivier de Sagazan). For SS19, however, he returned to the confident dramatics of club kid style that made his name in the early '00s. Reviving his signature star print in graphic red and black, Gareth’s models were creatures of the night. Stomping the fresh earth (literally) of the catwalk to a heavy club soundtrack, the diverse lineup wore monster boots and power coats, high-cut bodycon leotards that covered the face, kinky muzzle-like face-thongs and other haute fetish wear made in collaboration with Bordelle.
Gareth dedicated the show (and the amazing drag ball afterparty) to the legendary London creative Judy Blame, who passed away earlier this year. "Judy was uncompromising, ungovernable and fiercely anti-establishment. He was a creative extremist," Gareth says in the show notes. The collection is a celebration of "outsider society" and "of London as a cradle of creative extremism – a place where anything can happen." Yes, he referenced kinky sex, but it was also about queer bodies and creative communities, with the nurturing 'House Mothers' of the ballroom scene as a key influence.
Marta Jakubowski’s confident, carefree beach babes (inspired by the designer’s trips to Ibiza this summer) had a more casual vibe: easy tonal day dresses slashed in horizontal sections to flash glimpses of skin, and slinky black evening gowns built from modular sections held loosely in place by spaghetti straps and crossed fingers. There was a lazy-day sensuality to the collection, but Marta had women’s practical needs in mind, too. Teaming up with lingerie brand Chantelle, the models wore their 'soft stretch' line as a comfortable base layer, and one model, who is a mother, walked wearing an Elvie Pump, the world’s first silent wearable breast pump. "A lot of women around me have changed the way they’re dressing," Marta says over email. "They seem to be more confident and celebrate their body, which I think is a great movement," she adds. "Women dress for themselves these days... I think it’s a new way of power dressing."
It was at Richard Malone’s spectacularly well-crafted show that London’s powerful new mood found its mantra – delivered, fittingly, by Cher. In a short audio clip from 1996, the star recounts her legendary response when her mother urged her to marry a rich man and 'settle down': "Mom, I am a rich man!" Embodying this proto-BDE spirit, models stormed the "trashy Paris wine-bar" runway in knee-high lace-up platform boots – a glam-rock high-glam fusion that was echoed in the clothes: skin-baring demi-couture tailoring in luxurious satins, and tight '60s-style micro-minis. "Dresses to get laid in," the show notes concluded, matter-of-factly.
In the immediate darkness following Trump’s campaign and election, Weinstein’s fall and the raw power of the #MeToo movement, it makes sense that women desired to be both protected and ready to fight. But the danger that men pose – individually, structurally and geopolitically – shouldn’t dictate how women present themselves. "I’ve always thought that fashion should be sex-positive. It should empower, not exploit or demean," Ashish says. "The #MeToo movement has (I hope) pushed it in the right direction," he adds. "I don't want sex to become a dirty word, but rather the message should be one of a healthy, consensual experience."
Living a radical, empowered life doesn’t only mean fighting for your rights, but also enjoying your body, your experiences, identity and community. Fashion for the male gaze has surely been cancelled, but not the desire to feel sexy and have fun. In London, designers are responding to what women and non-binary people really want. (Even beyond fashion – Claire Barrow made a diverse and inclusive porn film with Brooke Candy, titled I Love You, which Brooke describes as "queer, sensual, grotesque, decadent, and BIZARRE".) It's a new vision of sexy: not tacky or infantilising, not cliché, and not vulnerable in a violent way, but a tender one. Powerful in our bodies, in our desires, and, importantly, in our diversity, SS19 fashion is all about sex on our own terms. At last.