Memories may be beautiful, and yet…
In fashion, they make a high-glam Hydra — enchanting, compelling, quizzical, off-putting. Some people consider fashion’s ongoing reliance on memories — whether sprung from firsthand experience or actual or acquired vicariously, via research — the industry’s scourge, (one of them, anyway), their manifestation on runways fodder for the claim originality is dead, and designers far too dependent on pilfering the past rather than developing newness.
Such contretemps are as retro as a skinny shirt and hip-huggers. Coco Chanel said famously that “only those with no memory insist on their originality.” Several years ago, no less a creative genius than Rei Kawakubo told WWD that, as time passes and her creative portfolio deepens, it gets increasing challenging not to repeat herself. (That didn’t keep her from delivering a spectacularly inventive spring collection.) In between, in October 1994, during the spring 1995 collections in New York, WWD ran a feature in which we solicited industry opinions on the state of fashion during what proved a mega-retro season. (Back then, New York followed Europe, so all three European cities had already shown, allowing for a powerful in-season sample.) In fact, laments over creative stagnation go way back, predating modern fashion by centuries. That WWD piece opened with a bon mot from Cicero, in which he implored, “Let us not go over the old ground, let us rather prepare for what is to come.” While it’s doubtful that he had toga nuance in mind, it’s clear that even BC — before constant mass communication, before mass production, before Instagram and Zara and contemporary — creative heavyweights voiced concern over originality becoming an increasingly rare commodity.
In truth, looking back isn’t a fashion thing. It’s a human thing. Age-old truisms so attest: We should learn from our mistakes. The past inspired William Faulkner to pen perhaps his most-invoked deep thought (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”), and Bruce Springsteen, his anthem to the glory days that simultaneously uplift and sadden, as they remind of happier times. Why should we expect designers to be immune to the lure of times gone by, even as they adhere — or else — to fashion’s unrelenting creativity-on-demand schedule?
The key is not whether designers look back — how can they not? — but what they do with the material thus mined. Do they use it to mimic, inform, uplift, undo? For this series, WWD asked numerous designers to name their favorite decades. (That full piece will post to WWD.com on Wednesday, and run in that day’s Digital Daily.) Anna Sui, a practitioner of retro that often swings literal, is unapologetic. She loves the Sixties as “the era of optimism…Love is all you need, Give Peace a Chance, War Is Over. It was a beautiful moment when this all seemed possible.”
Many designers cited the decades of adolescence and early adulthood, when their tastes were forming and their fashion awareness coming into focus: Seventies for Marc Jacobs, Eighties for Clare Waight Keller, Aughts for Natacha Ramsay-Levi. The personal perspective can prove poignant for other reasons as well. Donatella Versace noted the Nineties, because “it was so fun to change everything with my brother.” Conversely, some are drawn to eras before their time, the better to romanticize that which was unexperienced firsthand. Joseph Altuzarra fancies the Seventies the sexiest of decades, “probably because I missed it,” he said.
Then there are those who named periods of seismic social change. Jonathan Saunders cited the Twenties, for their broad-stroke innovation; Christopher Kane, the post-War Forties, because “Everything was so new and everyone started from scratch — the silhouette, the architecture, the interiors.”
In fashion, the same reference can be taken in wildly different directions. Gabriela Hearst loves the late Sixties for their “hedonism and free thought;” Yohji Yamamoto, because that’s when ready-to-wear first encroached on haute couture’s supremacy as the primary driver of fashion. “It was a very important moment,” he said. Similarly, Riccardo Tisci heralds the Nineties for a look but an attitude, “the street injection in luxury and [the] design world.”
Of course, like most thinking people, designers acknowledge that the past matters primarily as an infinite well from which to inform the present and future. John Galliano cited “the present decade that I navigate in calmer waters,” as his favorite, and Versace, as her second favorite, the 2020s, for the allure of the unknown. In his inimitable way, Karl Lagerfeld refuses to engage in “good old days” endorsements, professing to “hate them all, except now.”
While hate is a strong word — certainly for the past in general — for most real fashion lovers, specific decades trigger yay-or-nay passions. This week, WWD looks back at the fashions of yore and the current clothes they inspired. (For our tidy purposes — a four-day window and a look at spring 2018’s retro motifs — “yore” dates from 1970. Designers queried were not confined to a time frame.) Perusing the coverage, you may find your own passions reawakened by your favorite periods. Or, perhaps, like myself, you’ll be reminded of why, (a pair of remarkable, now-vintage oversized sweaters and the birth of a mostly pleasant daughter aside), the Eighties were largely hideous. Enjoy.