Earlier this year, Casey Cadwallader managed to pull off a rare feat in today’s fashion landscape. Even without the marketing dollars of the big luxury conglomerates and megabrands behind him, the designer broke the internet when he unveiled his see-now-buy-now spring/summer 2021 collection for Mugler in March. His fashion film had stars such as Dominique Jackson, Bella Hadid, Irina Shayk and Hunter Schafer striding down a runway in his now instantly recognisable bodysuits and catsuits, with their curved seams and sheer panelling that leave almost nothing to the imagination. But instead of looking exposed, these women looked empowered. Since taking over the reins at Mugler, Cadwallader has dialled down the theatrics of the House’s founder, Thierry Mugler (saving it for his bombastic custom work with celebrities such as Beyoncé, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion), but kept his unapologetic badass attitude and penchant for provocation. 

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His approach is in line with a new sentiment bubbling up in fashion and society at large at the moment: A desire for dressing in a way that hints at the tantalising possibility of undressing. Yes, sex is back. After a decade that was bookended by minimalism and then maximalism, and defined by the rise of body-concealing streetwear, athleisure and gender-fluid aesthetics, the body is firmly back in the spotlight. It has been a year and a half now since the ways in which our physical bodies exist and connect with others in this world have been so incredibly altered—mediated and separated by cold, hard screens. The touch of skin on skin, once taken for granted, took on a sinister note. Nightlife disappeared, taking away with it the chance encounters that so often turn into physical ones. Now, with hopes high for getting the pandemic under control, it is time to reclaim  all that and rejoice in it again. Libby Page, Senior Market Editor at Net-a-Porter, says: “Designers know that we’re all ready to have fun and dress up again while feeling feminine and confident, and they’re channelling this in many ways.” As to how to get the look, Page offers: “There’s a multitude of ideas that correlate to sexy, but no one signature look—the rule book has been broken; it’s more about a renewed focus on optimism and opulence, and wearing your outfit with confidence.” Next season’s fashions offer a few key takeaways. 

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Schiaparelli fall/winter 2021

Schiaparelli is another Parisian house that has been recently revived, with Daniel Roseberry injecting striking modernity into Elsa Schiaparelli’s brand of surrealism. For fall/winter 2021, he put the female form front and centre literally—with suits and dresses emblazoned with golden breasts and nipples. Roseberry says these embellishments stem from a “fascination with body parts”. He adds: “Sometimes, as in the pair of gold, quilted breasts on a cream-coloured knit, they’re pliable and soft. Other times, as in the moulded leather bralets, they’re harder, a kind of protection, In both cases, they pay tribute to the body itself—its beautiful sculptural quality, its wondrous shapes. Elsa believed that anatomy was not just a point of inspiration, but a playground—I believe that as well.” This bold, irreverent take on surrealism and female sexuality has won Roseberry high-profile fans the likes of Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian.

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Another designer that has been winning with celebrities and Gen Z alike is Matthew Williams, freshly installed at Givenchy. There, he has made a sharp pivot away from the vision of his predecessor, Clare Waight Keller, who focused on Hubert de Givenchy’s legacy of aristocratic elegance and feminine sophistication. William’s take on the brand is closer to Riccardo Tisci’s gothic glamour and hard-edged sex appeal, though he has ladened it with the hardware and elevation of modern streetwear codes he perfected at his own label, 1017 ALYX 9SM.

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For fall/winter 2021, his first proper show for the brand, he had his models stomping fiercely down a water-slicked runway in a cavernous darkened arena. Some of them had their nipples out in bras with the triangles cut out, though the overall effect looked less like seduction and more like rebellion—a commentary perhaps on all the conversation around and censorship of women’s bodies that usually exclude them from those very same conversations. Sex may be back, but in 2021, the lens through which it is viewed is markedly different.

Even the designers who have previously not explored the issue are delving into it. From the beginning, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci has been defined by his break away from his predecessors. His vision is soft, romantic, heavy on the Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite references that are worlds away from Tom Ford and Frida Giannini’s visions of sleek, lithe, glossy glamazons. But for his new collection, which arrives in the brand’s centennial year, Michele wanted it to be like a “lab” where “explosive reactions happen; a permanent generator of sparkles and unpredictable desires”. To achieve that, Michele says, “I’ve plundered the sexual tension of Tom Ford; celebrated the equestrian world of Gucci, transfiguring it into a fetish cosmogony; sublimated Marilyn Monroe’s silhouette and old Hollywood’s glamour.” The result is heavy on the kink and sensuality—whips and harnesses that geniusly subvert the House’s equestrian heritage, bejewelled bustiers, plunging silk blouses, sheer lace dresses, and piercings and tassels in all the right places.

At Saint Laurent, Anthony Vaccarello also looked to the more provocative inclinations of its founder, Yves Saint Laurent. After last season’s detour to more comfort-chic territory, Vaccarello is back in the mode of hjgh-voltage, sexed-up glamour. His fall/winter 2021 collection is built on metallic bodysuits that cling to the body like second skin, the tiniest of short shorts and miniskirts, underwear as outerwear, jackets with nothing else underneath, and barely there dresses—all in searing colours to make them utterly unmissable.

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Seductive as these clothes may be, what makes them different from those in the early- to mid-2000s—the last time sexy reigned supreme—is that they are less about the pleasure of the straight male gaze, and more about how the woman wearing them feels and looks—she feels empowered and therefore, she looks powerful. The Schiaparelli armour; Mugler’s futuristic goddesses; Givenchy’s subversive take on sexy replete with clomping shoes and heavy hardware; Saint Laurent’s sizzling silhouettes in off-kilter colours; and Gucci’s overt take on BDSM-but-make-it-fashion—they are all about the woman’s body and female sexuality, but they might not necessarily be pleasing to the eye of the typical straight male; some might even call it intimidating. And that, in a nutshell, is fashion and female sexual power at its most potent.