Style signifiers: What is fashion telling us about the world today?

Fashion has long acted as a cultural litmus test - so what are the runways saying about modern-day society?

Gucci, Valentino, Imm, Louis Vuitton

When Jean Patou and Gabrielle Chanel presented their respective “little black dresses” in the 1920s, the aim was to liberate women from corsets and return them to a more natural form. A decade later, Elsa Schiaparelli elevated women to Greek goddesses with her plissé column dresses, while the 1947 wasp waists of Christian Dior restored the feminine hourglass after the utilitarian rigours of the Second World War.

Model Suzy Parker wearing rose chiffon gathered bodice and black tulip-pleat skirt, with pillbox and wrap jacket, by Dior, with a Louis XIV pin. (Photo by Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

Jump to the 1980s and Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Herve Leger all burst on to the fashion scene with tight-fitting clothes that exacerbated and celebrated curves, because fashion is all about making women look beautiful, right?

Not quite. While many designers enjoy cladding women in clinging, molten dresses, the wider role of fashion is to act as a litmus test of whatever else is going on around it. Take the recent obsession with contoured, Botoxed perfection – part fuelled by endless online posts from the Kardashian clan, et al.

In a reaction against this whitewashed, unattainable vision of female beauty, on the runways we're seeing awkwardly normal people (ie non models) stomp the catwalk in outfits that could be straight out of a charity shop, paired with comfy trainers and wearing not a single scrap of make-up.

In scientific terms, this is a clear example of Sir Issac Newton's Third Law, from Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis, which states that "every action has an equal and opposite reaction".

Throughout the ages, fashion has acted as a barometer of the cultural mood. The social restraints of the 1950s birthed the relaxed jeans and T-shirts of rock and roll, while in the 1960s, the Vietnam War spurred the fluid, flowing robes of the protesting hippie movement. In turn, that optimism was replaced by the louche excesses of 1970s disco – a backlash to which gave the world punk, with angry teenagers wearing home-ripped clothes and anarchy symbols daubed on jackets in house paint. Then came the untouchable glamour of 1990s Tom Ford and John Galliano’s Dior, followed by the seemingly never-ending logo-mania of a post-recession world.

Punk rockers march in London. 3rd February 1980. (Photo by Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Today, we find ourselves in the unique position of watching high-end luxury labels chase “the youth”, sending streetwear-style bumbags, tracksuits and trainers down the most lauded of runways. And while some in the fashion world may be nonplussed by this turn of events, economists and statisticians probably won’t be.

Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) today constitute a quarter of the entire world population, with the number of millennials in China alone equivalent to the whole US population. Members of Gen Z (those born since 2000), meanwhile, are this year expected to make up 32 per cent of the global population.

In 2017, millennials spent close to $200 billion in the US alone, making it the generation with the highest spending power, ever. Not surprisingly, everyone is rushing to tap into this market, and the relentless expansion of connectivity means that social media is now a prime means of communication. Smartphones are currently used by 36 per cent of the world’s population, and 62 per cent of millennials say they would become loyal customers to the brand that best engaged with them via social media. The race is on.

And yet, when Hedi Slimane was installed as creative director of Yves Saint Laurent in 2012 and set about overhauling the entire company, the fashion elite was up in arms. Unbowed, he shifted the brand's headquarters from Paris to Los Angeles, which he considered to be the younger, cooler city.

Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Getty Images, Versace

Understanding that success meant engaging with a new, younger customer, Slimane dropped the prissy ideals of his predecessor, Stefano Pilati, and served up micro skirts, zippered leather jackets and skinny-fit jeans, sending models down the runway with doleful faces glaring out from under floppy brimmed hats.

Slimane’s intended audience lapped it up and sales doubled in three years.

Meanwhile, when Frida Giannini quit as Gucci's chief designer in 2014, the house plucked an unknown name from the studio to become her successor. Given barely five weeks to put together his debut collection, little was expected from Alessandro Michele. And yet, when the first androgynous male model appeared in what was essentially a woman's pussy bow blouse at Michele's autumn/winter 2015 menswear show, it was clear something seismic was happening.

In October 2015, Kering took another gamble and installed Demna Gvasalia as head of Balenciaga, replacing Alexander Wang. Although he had worked at Louis Vuitton and Maison Martin Margiela, it was through his fashion collective Vetements that Gvasalia had made his name, with an uncompromising focus on clothes he described as a "dialogue for today".

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01:  Designs by Rei Kawakubo on display at the "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between" Costume Institute Gala Press Preview at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Although Gvasalia has stayed true to Balenciaga's experimentation with volume, this is now expressed via several coats piled one over another, or as shirts and jackets worn four sizes too big.

Soundly rejecting the rigid quest for perfect proportion, Gvasalia has dramatically changed the rules for everyone. Suddenly, the message coming out of Paris is less about unerring chic, but more about expressing who you are. Teenage experimentation has become high fashion.

In truth, fashion has always been driven by cash-strapped creativity. The chaotic energy of London has given the world Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Molly Goddard, while America spawned a hip-hop scene that still dominates streetwear styling 40 years later. What is new is that this street style has migrated to the arena of high fashion, and in a huge shake-up, the thinking-outside-the-box mentality of fashion students is now being embraced by major luxury houses.

As Riccardo Sciutto, chief executive of Sergio Rossi, explains: "If you think heritage and play heritage, it's boring. We hate it and the millennials, they don't care. When we were that age, we followed our parents. Now, it's the opposite. I am following my child.

“Now, with the 20 to 30-year-olds, the father and mother are following them. This is their power, because now if you can catch the millennials, you can catch the grandmother.”When we were that age, we followed our parents. Now, it’s the opposite. I am following my child.

"When we were that age, we followed our parents. Now, it's the opposite. I am following my child."

As fashion houses rush to bring out graffiti-covered sneakers and tracksuit bottoms (including some by the late Karl Lagerfeld, who once famously dismissed them as “a sign of defeat”), dressing is now less about being feminine and more about being an individual.

To speak to this new audience, Louis Vuitton's head jewellery designer, Francesca Amfitheatrof, is launching a jewellery line called Thief and Heist, which will initially offer one product: a bracelet of silver and nylon that can be removed only with scissors. Louis Vuitton's menswear designer, Virgil Abloh, meanwhile – who came from the hip-hop and streetwear background of Off-White – recently unveiled a sculpture at the brand's New York flagship on Fifth Avenue, of what he called "the new Vuitton man". It covers two floors and has distinctly African-American features.

At Gucci, Michele has ditched traditionally pretty models for gawky teenagers dressed in splendidly off-kilter, haphazard layers. It is no coincidence that the brand experienced a rise in sales of 49 per cent in the first quarter of 2018.

As with all things in fashion, this idea is not entirely new. Rei Kawakubo has been doing it for decades with her label Comme des Garçons. Literally meaning “like boys”, she brought the very Japanese concept of unisex dressing to the rest of the world.

A model presents a creation by  designer Pierpaolo Piccioli as part of his Fall/Winter 2019-2020 women's ready-to-wear collection for fashion house Valentino, during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

As Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of Valentino, explains: "While in the West it is about showing off, showing how much money you have, in Japan it is more about personal expression. It is about dressing for yourself, and showing the world who you are. It is very personal. Many men and women in Tokyo dress in a non-gender way. Their clothes are loose and the body is not defined the way it would be in Europe."

Having been raised on a diet of fast fashion and its poor construction, those born since 1980 are looking for something new. And for the first time, it seems that the young no longer aspire to dress years above their age, but instead crave pieces that, while still beautifully made, allow them to act their age.

Why else would Dh3,800 Balenciaga trainers fly off the shelves, or Dh1,600 Gucci fringed leg warmers be a must-have?