2016 was the year that… women ruled the runways
This year brought to the forefront the women who, with their agenda setting shows, gave us reason to believe in fashion.
The past has year been especially tough for most sentient human beings, but particularly for womankind. Not that it needs to be rehashed in an article about runway fashion, but quite evidently Trump is utterly opposed to the feminist agenda, and conservative lawmakers across American feel empowered to pass legislation limiting women's reproductive freedom and gender equality. Oh, and Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint and then blamed for it because she wore too much jewellery on Instagram. Truly an annus horribilis.
It might seem odd then, and perhaps irrelevant, to celebrate the fashion industry's year, but in my mind it's never been more important to appreciate a world that employs and empowers so many women. Walk into any magazine, or atelier, or press office, and the male/female divide is so much more equal than many other fields, in fact there's probably more women than men most of the time. It's also a field in which women gain news headlines for their work and creativity rather than say, their appearance or the crimes being committed against them in the name of politics. "British Women Lead Paris Fashion Week" announced Cathy Horyn's column at the end of the Spring 2017 shows, and she was right. In fact, throughout the year female designers set the agenda, from young designers at London Fashion Week to new appointments at Paris' grandest maisons, to an exhibition honouring the reigning queen of conceptual design.
First, to the aforementioned women Horyn was so impressed by. Phoebe Philo's Céline is of course always a highlight of Paris-her designs are almost the opposite of intellectual, they're instinctual, and a certain kind of woman goes quite insane for them. This season however really took the proverbial cake, taking weird, vaguely awkward oversized styles (blazers and pants were voluminous), sending them out in a plethora of odd fluoro colours, and somehow creating one of the emotional highpoints of the season. Who knew that lime green and magenta when paired together could produce such depth of feeling. After the show, Philo wasn't available to give comment - how refreshing to make up one's own mind about a collection.
Stella McCartney also had an, ahem, stellar season. This season her jolly models felt spontaneous and unforced as they took to the runway in voluminous pants, shirtdresses, and t-shirts saying 'THANKS GIRLS'. Indeed. It harked back to when McCartney's designs were on the back of every girl you wanted to be. At McQueen, Sarah Burton had a vintage outing; she took her atelier on a voyage to the Shetland Islands, and in the process produced a truly remarkable show. On a runway covered in carpets that digitally reconfigured the isles, an array of feminine gowns (anchored by tough, intricate leatherwork) swept out. It seemed to meld the house's historical sensibility with Burton's own sensitivity and feeling for what women would like to look like. Both felt truly British in strikingly different ways.
It was another British woman's return to the runways which made more unlikely waves however-that of Zandra Rhodes at Valentino. Rhodes' lush prints, taken from the work of Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, transposed her seventies sensibility onto Pierpaolo Piccioli's feminine designs. There was also a lot of magenta, the signature colour of both Rhodes' hair and work. When Rhodes' aesthetic is so liberally sampled by designers, it felt right to see her properly honoured on the runway. Across town, Piccioli's ex partner in crime, Maria Grazia Chiuri, was the centre of attention. This is the first time that Christian Dior has had a woman designer, which is kind of insane given that the storied house is so renowned for its celebration of colour and femininity. Chiuri, in a break from the work that made her name at Valentino, sent out a thoroughly different vision. Inspired by, interestingly, fencing, she sent out a mainly monochrome collection emblazoned with both the house's name and slogans like 'We should all be feminists,' the latter on a t-shirt paired with a gorgeous embroidered skirt. It was a modern response to what Dior should look like.
Elsewhere, the industry's most experience female designers sent out truly brilliant collections. Donatella Versace upended her house's aesthetic with a cool, believable sportswear inspired outing. Rodarte were inspired by bees for their lovely, lacey vision of femininity, whilst across the pond Simone Rocha, who's become one of the highlights of London, showed white and red lace inspired by old masters and agricultural workers. And of course Miuccia Prada, the Milanese intellectual giant, sent out brilliant shows for both Prada and its little sister Miu Miu, playing with ideas of the '70s, the decade that fascinates her (and us) so.
It was an even more storied designer however who created the biggest waves. Rei Kawakubo, the force behind Comme des Garçons, was announced as the subject of next year's exhibition at the Met's Costume Institute (and the accompanying party). To give some context, the last time a living designer was honoured thusly, it was Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. "Rei Kawakubo is one of the most important and influential designers of the past forty years," said Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute's curator in charge, when the news was announced. "By inviting us to rethink fashion as a site of constant creation, recreation, and hybridity, she has defined the aesthetics of our time."
There you go then - women currently define the 'now' in fashion, the most important, intangible quality in a fickle industry. This is reason enough to be hopeful. When the world at large is taking a collective step back (into the dark ages), the tumultuous, frankly quite insane fashion world thunders forward, ever more inclusive, or at least trying really hard to be. Surely it'll be an even greater beacon in 2017 too.
Text Jack Sunnucks
Photography Mitchell Sams