Nostalgia and Familiarity: The Runway Mega Trend

While the pandemic has forced many brands to question their business model and their strategies, causing the reorganization of production and delivery schedules, as well as the format of their presentations, it didn’t prompt the majority of international designers to venture into unexplored territory in terms of creativity and imagination.

As emerged from the global catwalks and showrooms, fashion creatives, who conceived the biggest part of their spring 2021 collections in lockdown, found shelter from the uncertainty of the times in a sort of nostalgia, neither sad nor melancholy — but definitely reassuring and familiar.

In New York, for example, Micheal Kors presented a collection that WWD wrote felt like a “study in serenity” with a range of timeless everyday essentials exuding cozy luxury. Adding a nostalgic, emotional component, Kors filmed the lineup at the community garden of the New York Restoration Project in the Bronx, three blocks from Yankee Stadium and five blocks from where his grandfather grew up.

Playing with both flamboyance and restraint, Wes Gordon looked at famous portraits of Carolina Herrera, the founder of the fashion house where he’s creative director, to find inspiration for some elements he included in his elegant lineup, such as big pearl button earrings and a bolero with take-flight shoulder treatment. Meanwhile, Christian Siriano walked down memory lane by referring in his escapist show to late Eighties and Nineties movies, such as “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” and “Clueless” — the latter the same film that designer Nicola Brognano, born in 1990, referenced with his first show for Blumarine in Milan.

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Saint Laurent RTW Spring 2021

In the Italian city, while Silvia Venturini Fendi celebrated the joys of small familiar things with her beautiful IRL spring runway show, the new high-profile Miuccia Prada-Raf Simons design duo unveiled a lineup for Prada that felt like a summation of the two designers’ signature codes.

Donatella Versace brought back the flamboyant and recognizable fashion house’s Trésor de la Mer print depicting sea creatures, and Pierpaolo Piccioli reworked Valentino’s signature aesthetic codes to convey a luxurious yet highly wearable wardrobe injected with everyday sophistication.

Carolina Herrera, spring 2021. Courtesy of Carolina Herrera

An eternal rule-breaker, Jeremy Scott offered a “sentimental ode to old-school fashion,” as WWD put it in reviewing Moschino‘s spring 2021 collection, with his miniature runway show developed in collaboration with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, which offered a lesson in couture-like dressmaking.

Delivering clothes that “felt like old friends or heirloom,” as per WWD, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior presented an approachable and familiar array of her staples, including printed jackets, lace dresses and chiffon goddess frocks.

Rick Owens, while introducing new designs, including free-flowing tunics and shrouds, couldn’t resist revisiting some old hits, including fishnet tank dresses and hoodies winking back to the mask used for his fall 2021 show.

“The collections definitely tended to be more nostalgic and familiar,” observed Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “But this doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of creativity in the designers, it could more simply mean that they sensed, probably accurately, that their public wanted to to find nostalgic, familiar clothes. In hard times people tend to find comfort in familiarity so I think that’s not unexpected. I actually expected to see a lot of familiar, nostalgic, comfy, reassuring things and, of course, for the designers who have a strong, established profile one way to be reassuring is to say ‘yes, yes, I’m still the brand you know and love.’ I think it’s not a question of lack of creativity but an awareness that’s what the public wants. It’s always a very small part of the public that tends to want something that’s new. And it’s so ironic, because fashion is supposed to be about the new. But what really sells are things that are almost old but with that tiny pinch of difference […] a homeopathic dose of novelty.”

According to Heather Vaughan Lee, fashion history specialist and author of “Artifacts From American Fashion,” the reaction of creative talents to a crisis can cause them to either focus intently on said crisis or to look firmly away from it.

“The example that comes foremost to my mind is a dress by Elsa Schiaparelli, the Surrealist fashion designer of the Thirties. She, along with artist Salvador Dalì, was reacting to the high tensions preceding World War II by creating in 1938 her famous tears dress. She used typical Surrealist imagery and techniques already popular at the time to react to the geopolitical and art worlds. The same could be said of the stress and tensions caused by the pandemic,” Vaughan Lee said.

According to the fashion historian, “whereas Schiaparelli chose to confront the horrors of war by creating a dress reflecting violence and destruction, nostalgia and escapism were also prevalent in response to the American Great Depression of the Thirties, especially in film and its associated costumes.”  

In fact, during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the movie industry focused on romantic, happy-ending movies offering people the chance to escape from their everyday issues.

As Steele pointed out, in the late Thirties, collections in Paris referred the Belle Epoque, and also modern designers, such as Coco Chanel, did romantic, Victorian clothes, “because it was reassuring to people,” Steele said.

New York-based fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen, author of “Dress Your Best Life,” explains the abundance of nostalgic and comforting elements in the spring 2021 collection with her “mood enhancement dress” theory. “I believe that designers create collections to optimize the mood,” said Karen, noticing that during a crisis people tend to “take flight, they freeze or they fight. I think that designers are taking those flights to reach nostalgia and escapism to mitigate anxiety by minimizing uncomfortable feelings.”

“As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the world has undergone a major shift that has caused innumerable changes in our lives — this includes fashion and the fashion industry. With so much confusion and uncertainty, it is no surprise that designers have chosen to incorporate loose references to the past, and even outright nostalgia in their collections,” said New York-based historian and archivist Doris Domoszlai-Lantner, who cited Eighties shoulders, as well as Twenties and Thirties dresses and skirt suits as recurrent “nostalgic” styles across the spring 2021 collections.

In particular, Domoszlai-Lantner focused on the Moschino show. “Jeremy Scott provided direct references via silhouettes and color schemes, and his use of puppets, to the fashions from the Forties and Fifties, and the famous Théâtre de la Mode,” she noted. “This was an especially potent dose of nostalgia, as the Théâtre de la Mode was conceived in order to help rebuild the damaged fashion industry following the war, indicating that Scott believes the industry needs revival and rebuilding today as well.”

Christian Siriano, spring 2021. Courtesy of Christian Siriano

Domoszlai-Lantner pointed to the many examples of designers in the history of fashion that reacted to critical times indulging in a certain nostalgia — from Christian Dior’s New Look to Eighties power suits. “In the Eighties, we saw designers send large, broad shoulders down the runways, coining what we term the power suit,” she said.  “Given the huge sociopolitical and military upheaval of the Eighties, including AIDS, the last stretch of the Cold War which included ‘Star Wars’ between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, nuclear issues, major wars in the Middle East, among others, it is not surprising that designers referenced the military-like silhouettes, especially the suits, of the World War II era, which is what we are now see being referenced again.”

According to Steele, the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 emergency is certainly not helping creativity flourish, especially for emerging talents. “People have to be in contact with others to be creative. This is definitely shown historically. It’s good we can meet on Zoom, but ultimately we need to be together. And not just a bunch of similar people getting together. One of the things is that diversity is not a nice, politically correct thing. In fact by having people who are different together, they get different ideas, assumptions and perspectives,” she said, adding that hierarchy is also a factor holding back creativity. “The younger and the newer need to speak up and not be crushed by those who they call superiors. Those designers and creatives that are working on building egalitarian and diverse networks are creating a more creative bubble for themselves that can have an impact on the world.”

However, as usually happens with an economy after a serious crisis, should we expect a creative rebound when the emergency is over?

“It depends a lot on how and when it will be over,” Steele said. “Surely, if next spring there will be a vaccine and people will be back to their jobs, I absolutely expect a big movement of creativity and novelty and people will be so happy to be producing and consuming again. But if this drags on and there is another wave or another disease coming out from China or from other places where humans are encroaching into the environment, then there could be some long-term effect.”

Domoszlai-Lantner sees things positively and she already thinks that the first seeds for a creative rebound have been planted. “Although nostalgia and the past were major themes of runway shows this fall, we are also already seeing the beginnings of a creative rebound, and perhaps even major changes to the industry,” she said. “For example, Demna Gvasalia opted to look towards the future instead of the past for his latest collection at Balenciaga: he imagined a scenario in 2030, free of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alessandro Michele opted to combine men’s and women’s collections, and cut down on the number of shows at Gucci. Overall, while some are taking design inspiration from the past, there is also momentum to push through industry-wide structural changes that will propel fashion into the future.”

Karen sounded more skeptical. “I don’t know if there will a creative rebound,” she said. “I believe that there is an extreme shift taking place. There will likely be a permanent shift and it will spark an entire new decade of fashion. I think that designers will create collections for safety and functionality and we will adopt this modest form of fashion.”

Dior, spring 2021. Dior RTW Spring 2021

With several nostalgic and familiar references on retail shelves this spring, will consumers be satisfied with this fashion comfort food or will they demand a spicier menu?

“We are observing a good response to the nostalgia vibe and more vintage aesthetic from our customers, both the younger generations and more mature ones. I believe nostalgia to be a very strong narrative in these special times. References to the past, be it also the early 2000s, are extremely effective in portraying an optimistic outlook into consumers,” said Federica Montelli, head of fashion at Rinascente. 

According to Montelli, consumers are attracted by “archive” capsules and recognizable pieces. “Also, the younger customers opt for an eclectic styling, with lots of vintage pieces, since they are often looking for a circular and sustainable approach, or simply a bargain,” she said. “I feel that customers, for the most part, are attracted to an idea of simplicity and familiarity, particularly befitting in these times.”

Comfort is definitely king for Browns men’s customers, according to buyer Lee Goldup, who thinks that designers’ safe approach reflects the current attitude of final consumers. “Customer buying habits have also changed a lot in the current climate, with people spending the majority of their time at home, so simpler, more pared back timeless pieces are what they’re looking for right now rather than more fashion-forward items.”

Tsum Moscow and DLT St. Petersburg consumers “like a positive kind of fashion and like to purchase always new collections and new trends and they are really endorsing the novelty from major brands,” said the Russian department stores’ head of buying Riccardo Tortato, while underscoring however that they don’t reject a more comfortable, timeless look. “Our customers like to dress in a perfect way. Even when the look is casual, it’s a Loro Piana type of casual. If they want to stay cozy, they wear Brunello Cucinelli.” However, Tortato noted that demand for going-out items is still high, especially for Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana and Valentino garments.

Saks Fifth Avenue fashion director Roopal Patel couldn’t agree more. “Customers are definitely craving a bit of comfort right now, but they are also still looking for great fashion to keep them feeling beautiful and uplifted. It was exciting to see designers embrace comfort with a more elevated approach and luxe touch this season versus basic casualwear,” she said. “We are finding that our customers are still wanting to dress up whether they’re working from home, entertaining a small group, or just going about their typical day, so it’s important for designers to find the right balance between comfort and design.”

Nostalgia is OK but not enough in the long term, for Mytheresa consumers, according to fashion buying director Tiffany Hsu. “I think the escapism part is definitely shared among designers and consumers alike, as we are all dreaming of our next great getaway,” she said. “But I do think customers are also looking for newness and something a bit more exciting to look forward to. A touch of nostalgia is always nice, but products need to be new to trigger the urge and hype to shop.”

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