From left: JW Anderson, Viktor&Rolf, Bottega Veneta, Chanel, AREA, Alexander McQueen

One year on, the impact of the pandemic on how designers approach their work has fully crystallised. Apart from the obvious conundrum of how to show their collections (which has bright about magnificent displays of creativity), what they choose to create speaks volumes about the why—and what they think fashion should be in a time of crisis. Should fashion be rooted in realism, reflecting a difficult moment and equipping us with sartorial solutions for our new normal? Or should fashion be pure fantasy, flying in the face of doom and gloom to transport us away?

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This dichotomy was most apparent at  the last round of haute couture shows for spring/summer 2021. At Valentino, usually so celebrated for its extravagant volumes, opulent details and glorious colours, Pierpaolo Piccioli decided to strip things back—silhouettes were streamlined and the palette was quieter. They were still clothes for the one percent, but they were less about showy statements and more about stylish living. There was a similar restraint at Chanel, where Virginie Viard dialled down the spectacle for something more intimate, sending out variations of charmingly simple tweed sets—no grand concepts, just beautiful clothes. 

Photos (from left): Stella McCartney pre-fall 2021, Valentino haute couture spring/summer 2021, Sacai pre-fall 2021 and Proenza Schouler pre-fall 2021.

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Then there are those who went in the opposite direction. At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri delved into the mysticism of tarot cards, turning out gowns ornately gilded, pleated and embroidered. Practical? Not quite, but very, very pretty. The designers at Viktor&Rolf, too, had escapism on their minds— defiantly flavouring their couture with the spirit of rave. Newcomer AREA continued the party vibes; Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk have already made a splash in ready-to-wear with their maximalist crystal confections and their couture debut was showgirl flamboyance taken to the next level. These were clothes you dream of wearing the moment we can become creatures of the night again. 

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Photo: JW Anderson pre-fall 2021

This polarity carried over into the pre-fall 2021 collections. In the realist camp: Valentino continued its more muted approach to wardrobing; Proenza Schouler showed elevated, softly tailored knits and loungewear; and there were distinct militaristic undertones at Alexander McQueen, Sacai and Givenchy that keyed into the toughness that this moment in time demands. On the other hand, there were joyful froth and feathers at Bottega Veneta, JW Anderson and Balmain, while Stella McCartney pivoted from her usual quiet sophistication to pumped-up brights and acidic florals.

Photo: Balmain pre-fall 2021

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Fast forward to the next season though, and  it seems that the scales are tipped in favour of uplifting fashion—not so much escapism as hopefulness for a new Roaring Twenties. As vaccinations gradually roll out and lockdowns slowly lift, there seems to be a collective yearning for the joy of dressing way, way up. Prada, Miu Miu, Paco Rabanne and Lanvin all showed party-ready collections for fall/winter 2021, which are high on shine, colour and texture. At Louis Vuitton and Loewe, volumes are blown up into fantastical shapes. Already, the world’s biggest retailers  are starting to feel the shift.

Alexander McQueen fall/winter 2021 (Photo: Paolo Roversi)

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Natalie Kingham, Global Fashion Officer at, says: “We have invested in what I term the ‘new sexy’ for fall/winter 2021. Designers are in tune with the fact that we will want to dress up and feel feminine, but versatility is important—combining these silhouettes with softer fabrics, styling them with more relaxed pieces. Our  customer is ready to dress up and feel glamorous again, while still being effortless. It’s all about embracing colour this upcoming season. Joyful, bright occasion dresses are seeing an uplift, with Emilia Wickstead, Alexander McQueen and Giambattista Valli being highlights.” 

Net-a-Porter’s Senior Market Editor Libby  Page adds: “We’ve noticed a rise in popularity of the ‘matching separate’ from the likes of Bottega Veneta, Proenza Schouler, Nanushka and Frankie Shop as an easy way for our customer to transition away from loungewear. As some parts of the world slowly emerge from restrictions, we’re also seeing more of an interest towards elevated dresses in bold colours and  prints, from brands such as Saint Laurent, Chloé, Jacquemus and ZIMMERMANN. We’ve adapted our buys to reflect the new normal, without losing sight of the fact that our customers still love fantasy fashion—it’s about getting the balance right.” In times like these, it seems  that a little fantasy goes a long way.