Sex sells! It’s the central cliché of modern capitalist culture. Brands sell an aspirational and heteropatriarchal vision of a sexy, a new and improved future you, and promise to propel you toward its ultimate accolade, the compliment that "women want to be her, men want to be with her." It might seem old-fashioned (and it is), but it’s still used to praise successful women, from Rihanna to Blake Lively to 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 book White Women, followed by Big Nudes in the '80s. Tom Ford went nuclear with his hyper-sexual aesthetic at Gucci in the '90s, scandalizing public morality with Terry Richardson-lensed ad campaigns and achieving bankruptcy-averting success for the then-ailing Italian brand. And in the '90s, 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 popular Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, with its multimillion-dollar bras and pop megastar bookings. Or from LOVE magazine’s ongoing advent calendar, a controversial festive video series of near-naked models. But these have become the exceptions. In a post-Weinstein world, under the microscope of the #MeToo movement, brands are being forced to rethink how they sell to women. Even Tom Ford understands, telling The Cut in 2017: "The sex thing’s a little bit old at this point. Been there, done that."
The Washington Post's fashion critic Robin Givhan describing Stella McCartney’s collection as "frumpy" would, previously, have been parsed as serious shade. But for fall/winter 2018 — with sex conspicuously absent from the runways — Givhan was actually praising McCartney's roomy overcoats worn with faded denim jackets and bootcut jeans, paired with sneakers. "It wasn’t especially exciting, but it was reassuring," she wrote. "It was not sexy. Or hot. It was a little bit frumpy. Purposefully so."
But Stella McCartney 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; a focus on unfussy, practical garments. The #MeToo had something to with it, but it didn’t account for all of it.
The seemingly endless, dystopian newsreel of Trump’s America, and the rise of the 'alt-right' all contributed to a more protective mood. A mood not simply characterized by self-care, but more so by a forceful womanhood and the defiant refusal to be reduced to a mere figment of the male gaze. In a post-MeToo world, fashion brands that relied most 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. Even Milan — the home of molto sexy dressing — caught the covered-up bug: Versace women wore layers and coats; Roberto Cavalli dropped hemlines to the floor. Commentators began to wonder: Does sex sell fashion anymore? But not for very long.
Enter 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 and extra-short look that has been his signature since he popularized 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 "infantilizing." If Slimane’s collections for Saint Laurent (where 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 just pushing product (though that is one vital aspect of it) and the critical reception of the "new" Celine demonstrates the immense cultural capital he has lost.
So why, all of a sudden, is sex all over the runways? It’s nothing new, in the grand scheme of fashion history, but it does represent a serious about-face from the earnest, activist, practical, and protective mood that has dominated for several years.
Take Ashish, for example. London’s sparkliest designer held a somber spring 2017 show that responded to the rise in post-Brexit hate crimes and took his bow in a T-shirt with the word 'IMMIGRANT' proudly emblazoned across the chest. A year later, his spring 2018 show presented a resistance force of queer disco witches. But at his most recent show, there was no overt political messaging. Androgynous, sweat-drenched clubbers were errantly dressed in wisps of iridescent sequins, propelled down the runway by slamming techno music 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 cozy, post-rave hoodies. Had one of our most engaged creatives sold out his politics in order to sell sex?
"Everything is political," designer Ashish Gupta told Refinery29 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, there's much more to unpack. 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. And perhaps most 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," Gupta says via 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 or a fight — it was a celebration of liberal values, freedom, lust, and love. He presented a radical vision of self-sensuality.
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 spring 2019, 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 runway to a heavy club soundtrack, the diverse line-up 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.
Pugh dedicated the show and its amazing drag ball after party to legendary London creative Judy Blame, who passed away earlier this year. "Judy was uncompromising, ungovernable and fiercely anti-establishment. He was a creative extremist," Pugh said in the show notes. The collection was 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 Jakubowski 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," Jakubowski tells Refinery29. "They seem to be more confident and celebrate their body, which I think is a great movement. 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, skin-baring demi-couture tailoring in luxe satins, and tight '60s-style micro-minis. As the show notes concluded matter-of-factly, they were "dresses to get laid in."
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," Gupta says. "The #MeToo movement has (I hope) pushed it in the right direction. 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, your identity, and your community. Fashion for the male gaze has surely been canceled, but not the desire to feel sexy and have fun. And some designers are responding to what women and non-binary people really want. It's a new vision of sexy: not tacky or infantilizing, 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, fashion is all about sex on our own terms. At last.