Out of chaos comes the opportunity to find a new order. Despite, or perhaps because of, the uncertainties of the past two years, a small group of visionaries have been able to disrupt and redefine the fashion industry. They did so by carving out new paths forward and pushing the boundaries of what fashion can be—what it represents, how it’s created, who it reaches and how it gets there.
No one changed the game quite like the late Virgil Abloh. He did it with his work at Off-White, where he was one of the pioneers who brought high-fashion legitimacy into the realm of streetwear; and he did it with his platform at Louis Vuitton as the Artistic Director of menswear—the first black designer at the helm of one of the largest, most illustrious fashion brands in the world. In his lifetime, Abloh was often hailed as a master of hype and a branding genius but the weightier legacy he left behind might just be the spirit of partnership which defined his body of work.
More than building buzz, Abloh was interested in building bridges – community was always at the heart of what he did. His amorphous approach to design and collaboration meant that his work became not just part of the fashion conversation, but often of a larger cultural one. The roster of brands he worked with was astounding – ranging from IKEA and Evian to Nike, Levi’s, Rimowa and the NBA.
He could rope in Jenny Holzer to contribute to one show, then coax Lauryn Hill out of semi-retirement for another. He would dress Timothée Chalamet in a bejewelled harness for a red-carpet premiere, and Serena Williams in a tutu for the US Open – both moments would end up dominating our Instagram feeds and sparking think-pieces about the codes of gender and dress.
In the wake of the racial reckoning that swept the United States after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Abloh established the Post-Modern Scholarship, which has raised more than US$1 million for the education of black students in the US. And even before that, he had famously mentored and supported other young black creatives – A-Cold-Wall’s Samuel Ross was his first assistant, and one of many whom Abloh had helped uplift.
“My career isn’t about my own achievements. It’s about the furtherment of my culture within fashion, and writing that in the history books,” said Abloh to Jason Campbell for the Business of Fashion. “It’s important that today’s young generation knows who they are, and I can offer a platform for them to be able to achieve that. The way I collaborate is very important because my whole ambition is to uplift. I’d rather it not just be me – it’s like, keep the door open, and try to build a community.”
Abloh might have been a prolific collaborator, but the ultimate fashion collaboration happened when Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons joined forces in 2020 to co-creative direct Prada. It was an unprecedented move in the history of fashion – two of the most singular minds in fashion, both at the highest echelon of the industry, coming together as true equals.
In a post-show conversation after they presented their first joint collection, Prada said that the beauty of it was that “we don’t know where we’re going.” Simons elaborated, “We do not want to create for ourselves a specific way of working. Maybe we do a collection that is very much everything Miuccia says but I feel very related to, or the other way around. For us, it’s very important to keep that freedom.”
With the spring/summer 2022 womenswear collection that was shown last September simultaneously in Milan and Shanghai – the duo’s first physical show – they crystallised their vision for what the next chapter of Prada would look like. Their Prada has an immediacy to it that might seem a touch unfamiliar to longtime fans of Prada’s often conceptually hefty collections, but which feels right for our screen-first, information-overload age. The intellectual depth is still there but the proposition is direct, the message streamlined.
For their latest collection, the pair had sex on their minds. It was a common thread through the spring/summer 2022 season but no one else presented a more compelling take on the topic. In Prada and Simons’ hands, tropes of female sexuality were reduced and refined to their purest essence, resulting in an ultra-modern meditation on seduction.
Faint traces of boning and corsetry were built into jackets and knits; demure-looking dresses peeled away at the back to reveal skin exposed all the way to the waist; and super-short sheaths with floor-sweeping trains knocked the stuffing out of the idea of evening dressing. So many others might be talking about the return of sex in fashion, but Prada and Simons were the only ones who presented a refresh instead of a rehash.
The duo’s synergistic spark at Prada seemed to have rejuvenated their personal output as well. At Miu Miu, to which Prada has said she takes a more spontaneous approach compared to the brand that bears her family name, that energy of spontaneity came across stronger than ever. For spring/summer 2022 – her strongest outing in recent years – the clothes looked like they were literally, nonchalantly hacked off.
It was such a seemingly simple gesture but it completely turned the familiar – blue button-downs, grey crew-neck sweaters, khaki skirts – into something irresistibly new. With the amount of midriff, pelvic bone and thigh on show, Prada was aligned with the hordes of other designers championing the return of the Y2K aesthetic, but again, she was the only one who seemed to get the essence of it and fashioned it into something fresh.
At his eponymous label, Simons also took an idea that has been percolating in the collective consciousness for a while – that of genderlessness – and added a new dimension to the conversation. He did it by situating the idea within the context of dress codes and uniforms. Men and women alike wore skirt suits and smocks that at times evoked the C-suite and at others, the clergy. It didn’t feel overtly fantastical or numbingly sexless – the two traps genderless fashion tend to fall into. Instead, it felt covetable and believable – a tantalising glimpse of what the world could look like if true genderlessness was achieved.
It doesn’t mean that designers who operate on the more fantastical end of the spectrum are less persuasive. For a few years before the pandemic, Marc Jacobs got his groove back (which the designer seemed to have lost a little in the immediate years after he left Louis Vuitton) by leaning hard into his more theatrical tendencies. His runway collections from 2018 onwards were full-blown, capital-F Fashion and the critics lapped it up. They never quite took off at retail though, and when the pandemic hit, Jacobs hit pause – halting all production and shows.
The 16-month break did him wonders. Jacobs returned to the runway last June with an epic collection that married his usual creativity with a new commerciality. He had his models walk out twice: once, swaddled in the most extravagant puffers, stoles and cocoon coats; and a second time shed of all those layers to reveal the skinny knits, wide-legged trousers, graphic separates and paillette dresses underneath.
It was a masterclass of not just design, but merchandising. In his show notes, Jacobs said, “Our decision to pause allowed us to slow down and to reflect, ruminate, re-evaluate and take a thorough inventory of what works, what doesn’t work, what we love, what we’re willing to let go of, and what has value, importance, and meaning.”
During his time away from the runway, Jacobs also managed to find a creative solution to building his business – which never quite recovered from the shuttering of the Marc by Marc Jacobs line – up and out. He launched Heaven, a lower-priced line of sweatshirts, tees, dresses and jackets as well as accessories and objects like charm bracelets, plastic earrings, socks, scrunchies, CDs and zines – all of them defined by a raw, lo-fi, grungy aesthetic that is practically catnip for a generation of youth hooked on nostalgia. There is also The Marc Jacobs, a contemporary line of signatures that are more accessible in terms of wearability and price points compared to his runway line.
All of that, coupled with Jacobs’ winning social media persona – the designer is refreshingly open about his life, work and passions; as candid about his facelift as he is about his influences – mean that Jacobs is enjoying a newfound surge of resonance. That same heart and honesty is the key to the resonance that all the aforementioned designers share. Their impact is so powerful because their thoughts and actions are driven not by corporate manoeuvres and algorithm-generated, results-oriented data but rooted in true soulfulness and humanity – moving not just their audience and acolytes, but the entire industry forward.