Look, Don't Touch

From left: Schiaparelli Fall/Winter 2022, House of Alaia Summer Summer/Fall 2022, Saint Laurent Fall/Winter 2022 (Photos: Showbit)

For the better part of a year now, designers and fashion watchers have been proclaiming that sex is back. A cursory glance at the runways proves that indeed it is, but a closer look reveals that sexy this time around looks a little different. The last time fashion was so outwardly horny was in the early 2000s, when Paris, Britney and Lindsay et al. traipsed around in midriff‐baring tops and skirts barely bigger than belts. That moment itself was an evolution of the fashion mood in the late 1990s, when designers such as Calvin and Helmut were in a deconstructive mood—stripping things back until often, only underpinnings remained. That minimalist approach to (un)dressing was, of course, a reaction against the brash maximalism of the ’80s, when bigger—hair, shoulders, jewels, busts—was always better.

This time around, there is a little bit of all those influences, but there is also something else in the mix. On the runways, the most seductive propositions of what sexy looks like now came with a tinge of spikiness—there was a sharper edge and a muscularity to this new sexy that was not as
immediately pleasing and palatable to the straight male gaze the way Y2K sexy was. The looks were revealing, sure, but they were also a little man‐repelling—to borrow a term from the end
of the Y2K era.

Nothing exemplifies the rise of this powerful take on sexuality more than the new‐found heat over at the House of Alaïa. Azzedine Alaïa was, after all, a pioneer whose designs put strength and sensuality on equal footing. Who could forget Grace Jones as a ferocious Bond girl in her hooded Alaïa bandage dress? Though the brand has never left the cultural consciousness, it has been a long while since it is as red hot as it is now under the creative direction of Pieter Mulier. Mulier came to the job with a healthy respect for all the codes that made Alaïa the “King of Cling”—the body‐con dresses, the fit‐and‐flare silhouettes, the goddess drapes and warrior
hoods—and a modern eye for how to remix and redeploy those codes.

With two collections under his belt, Mulier proves that he has the chops to carry on Alaïa’s legacy of celebrating both the sensuality and the power of the female form. The pieces that the late designer used to denote sex and power—the belts that are part corset and part gladiator’s harness; the bandage dresses; the moulded leathers; the skintight perforated knits—are also
very much part of Mulier’s Alaïa, always suggesting at the body underneath but leaving the power to reveal it with the woman wearing the clothes. As the designer tells Tim Blanks for the
Business of Fashion, Alaïa to him is about “a form and femininity that’s very powerful—just purely about beauty. It’s about a certain classicism that Azzedine twisted completely to his hand, like a sculptor … And it’s about pure, pure femininity, sexual and very sensual, without a touch of vulgarity.”

That last part is key—and the biggest embrace of it came courtesy of Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent. Vaccarello’s fantasy of the Saint Laurent girl has always been a party creature with expensive taste—sexy, yes, but also occasionally infantilised with diaper shorts, playsuits,
crotch‐skimming mini dresses and bras tinier than training sizes. This season, the Saint Laurent girl becomes a woman—exuding cold, hard chic. The silhouette is long, lean and covered up—often strong and structured or plush and protective on top, soft and wispy below. There was sheer black chiffon covering every inch of the body yet offering up a tantalising glimpse of the figure underneath, while fistfuls of bracelets and bangles stacked to the elbows exuded a don’t-mess-with-me vibe.

But when it comes to using clothing and jewellery as both body adornment and armour, no one does it better than Daniel Roseberry at Schiaparelli. Surrealism has always been an inextricable part of the Schiaparelli identity, but Roseberry has also used it as an entry point to subvert what we think about when we think of the female form. The codes he has established in the House’s haute couture the past few seasons are now being deployed in ready‐to‐wear—those casts and forms of breasts and nipples, ears and noses, and long golden talons all drawing attention to the body, flaunting it and making it larger than life, while simultaneously shielding it. For his latest collection, those breasts have been extended into spikes and cones, studded or encrusted for the ultimate in look-but-don’t-touch appeal.

Why does the look hold so much allure now? Perhaps Roseberry himself put it best when he said: “[Elsa Schiaparelli] was a shrewd businesswoman, a wicked wordsmith and a gifted visionary … She was by day a disciplined aesthete with her own ‘hard chic’. By night, though, she was a creature, a sphinx.” He called his latest collection “a meditation on that contradictory identity” where “you find softness and severity, often in a single garment. You see the softness in the hand-crocheted breasts … you see the severity in the moulded boob tubes, as pointy and sharp
as a hummingbird’s beak. It’s tender, it’s savage … I want to give women clothes to run the world in, yes—but equally, clothes to fall in love in. Can’t we have both? Can’t we want both? Can’t we be both?” One look at the strongest, most sensual fashions of the season answers that: Yes, we can.