in the age of big tech, why is fashion returning to the world of cyberpunk?
There might have been dramatic advancements in the relationship between fashion and tech, but designers seem to be moving towards something a little more Y2K.
Photography Mitchell Sams
Last October, attendees to the Balenciaga spring/summer 19 show found themselves sitting in a tunnel covered with wrap-around LED screens and a mirrored floor, all constructed temporarily within a vast warehouse space. Before the show, a modest display of water droplets gave few clues as to what Demna Gvasalia was planning with his artist collaborator Jon Rafman. Then, as models began walking, the screens exploded into a light show that paid homage to the aesthetics of the early internet — referencing video games, and the infamous “blue screen of death”.
More recently, for autumn/winter 19, LVMH Prize-winner Marine Serre decided to hold her show in the bowels of a Parisian basement, kicking off her show with a laser show that lit up clothes, all of which had more than a whiff of a turn-of-the-millennium hacker aesthetic. Kim Jones’s first Cruise spectacular for Dior, held in Tokyo, saw him collaborate with the iconic Y2K-era artist Hajime Sorayama with an oversize sculpture of a slick, silver fembot. Then, for Louis Vuitton’s cruise offering, which took place in the the TWA Terminal at New York’s JFK airport — a 60s, space age architectural wonder that has recently been repurposed as a luxury hotel — Nicolas Ghesquière debuted a series of bags that were embedded with OLED screens lit up with imaginary, futuristic cityscapes.
In 2019, the worlds of fashion and tech have never been more intertwined. With advances in the field of wearable tech, you’ll find plenty of people sporting Fitbits or Hermès-designed Apple Watches; Amazon is trialling virtual mirrors that allow you try on outfits from the comfort of your own home; 3D-printed garments have hit the runway by designers from Iris van Herpen to Chanel couture. There are more possibilities than ever before to embrace and develop a vision of fashion’s future. Why, then, are so many designers reverting to an internet aesthetic from decades past?
As with so many trends dominating the fashion landscape, the origin comes most likely from Demna Gvasalia. The winking irony of internet culture is part of Demna’s DNA, whether that’s knowing pop cultural references to everything from DHL to James Cameron’s Titanic, or his instincts for cherry-picking from various style cultures and sticking them in a blender, with all the curation of an Instagram feed and the chaotic virality of meme culture. This is also the impetus behind the highly meme-able looks we’ve seen at Marine Serre and Louis Vuitton: in the wild west of the internet, even the most bizarre accessory can have its 15 minutes of fame.
More recently, Demna’s autumn/winter 19 show for Vetements was a comprehensive tribute to the internet of today. He told journalists post-show that he was inspired by ventures into the digital equivalent of the dark side of the moon: the infamous deep web, where traders buy and sell drugs, guns, and maybe even bootlegged fashion that copies designers just like Demna. A series of looks toward the end saw models walk out veiled, with the glow of their iPhone screens just visible through the sheer fabric; Demna said the idea came to him while travelling on a train and wanting to be able to look at his phone without anybody seeing him.
But while there are plenty of examples of designers operating within this aesthetic, what’s arguably harder to come by is an explanation why. Perhaps the appeal of the Y2K aesthetic lies in the utopian promises it offered: of the internet as a new frontier that offered a freedom of creative expression, a new peer-to-peer model of exchanging information, and the chat room’s possibilities of connecting you with like-minded people all across the globe. The reality has been, of course, altogether more troubling: whether it’s data harvesting or meddling in foreign elections or the online rise of the alt-right, the power of social media has been continuously hijacked by sinister forces. Who wouldn’t want to return to those simpler, more innocent times?
Then there’s the possibility that it was simply a style culture we simply underestimated. The revival by Prada of their Linea Rossa line and the renewed interest in their classic, black Pocono nylon bags — all of which were a go-to for style savants in the early days of the internet — has provided a reminder that while these utilitarian designs aren’t the prettiest, they are endlessly practical (well, apart from those tiny sunglasses that made something of a return last year). By and large, all of the staples of the look, from cargo pants to tank tops, are slicker and more functional garments for the impending apocalypse than anything frilly and frou-frou.
Back in 2015, the annual blockbuster exhibition opening to coincide with the Met Gala was titled Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. The displays within the show set out a lineage of technology’s relationship with fashion going back centuries, leading all the way up to garments representing how tech continues to shape the industry today. On the red carpet, Claire Danes arrived in a Zac Posen organza gown that was threaded through with fibre optics to light up as she walked up the Met’s steps, while Zayn Malik sported bionic cyborg sleeves.
It seems that, since then, there’s been a sea change in the relationship between fashion and tech. People appear to be less interested in dressing for the future, and instead more nostalgic for a time when the future felt genuinely exciting. Perhaps the Y2K revival, spearheaded by designers like Demna and Marine, is something of a riposte to the promise of technology’s infiltration of the fashion industry. After all, as technology continues to encroach into every corner of our daily lives with relentless, dystopian force, it’s safe to say it never became all it was cracked up to be.