Fashion’s New Maximalism Isn’t (Just) About Instagram

What’s really behind Vetements, Gucci and Balenciaga’s more-is-more aesthetic?

Balenciaga AW18, courtesy of Balenciaga

We see more stuff than ever, we want more stuff than ever. When the hottest new accessory is blowing upon the ‘gram, be it Margiela’s new ‘ugly’ sneaker or a pair of those tiny shades we’ve been seeing all over this season, our instinctive response is to desire it. Faced with more and more content to scroll through, days feel shorter even as we try to cram more in. And so we’re seeing more soles, more logos and, most notably more layers than ever in our silhouettes.

This continued movement toward maximalism and accessorising to the point of absurdity showed no signs of slowing down for AW18. In fact, designers are pushing more volume than ever, not only in terms of sales (LVMH saw 29% growth in 2017), but also in terms of the silhouettes themselves. While Marc Jacobs has, for the past couple collections, been experimenting with more volume, this season the bigger is better philosophy was wholeheartedly embraced with wide brim hats, exaggerated shoulders, cinched waists and fluid layering. Models arrived draped and trussed up and, despite this highly experimental collection, the omnipresent it-accessory made itself known in the form of luxed out bumbags with matching lanyards, both styled in the same look, of course.

How far we’ve come. In two short years the dominant Stan Smith which was once the epitome of dressed-down chic (thanks to Phoebe Philo) has now been firmly replaced with the omnipresent and absurdly ‘gramable chunky sneaker. The Balenciaga Triple-S, as the defacto crown jewel, epitomises our current maximalist attitude to fashion where bigger equals better.

So, how did we get to the extreme layering, accessories and oversized silhouettes we’re currently seeing? The Vetements show this season has half of the answer. Vetements has always taken quotidian dress and magnified its proportions into “fashion”-level mutations. This season, taking place in Paris’s famous flea markets, escalated this principle: the clothes looked worn in and the models arrived dishevelled and fabulous, draped and layered to the nines. The show was entitled “The Elephant in the Room” and paid reverence to Martin Margiela, the giant upon whose shoulders Demna Gvasalia stands.

Vetements AW18, courtesy of Vetements

Gvasalia took this idea and applied it to his vision of Balenciaga, in his first collection combining mens and womenswear. Both men and women wore signature tailoring with sculptural hips that were Balenciaga all over. But, crucially, layering was again the mot-du-jour and the show notes literally announced, “the progressive adding of layer on layer, beginning with close-to-body shapes and finishing with volumes, which are fused together from up to nine pieces of outerwear.” So it was a collection that, in moving from bodycon dresses and skintight turtlenecks to the exaggerated volumes Gvasalia is most known for, articulated a modern vision for Balenciaga that uses layering to focus on the house’s storied relationship to silhouette.

In an age where copy catting is always called out (hi @dietprada!), to wear your heart on your sleeve as such and openly proclaim your allusions is a bold move indeed. But, as Gvasalia explained after the show, “Everything is an appropriation … References are there to feed us, but not in order to copy. They feed us in order to create something new.”

Taking the idea of reference head-on was Alessandro Michele for Gucci. Last year, according to analysis by the Business of Fashion, Gucci emerged as not only the ‘hottest’ brand of the year, but Michele as the designer with the highest instagram engagement; an empire built on covetable accessories, sneakers and Instagram moments.

Balenciaga AW18, courtesy of Balenciaga

The show can only be described as a melting pot of cultural appropriation. We saw turbans, pagoda shaped hats, Peruvian headdresses, monobrows and balaclavas. This explains the ‘explicit content’ warning on the show’s invitation: Michele must have known that the knee jerk reaction from the press would be to take offense. While he should, quite rightly, be criticised for the lack of diversity in his casting, I do believe he had a larger point to make.

Take this look for example, the headscarf and shoulder flaps resemble something a Russian granny or babushka would wear but, emblazoned with the new york logo, Michele forces his cultural references into daring juxtapositions. Subtlety was lacking in Michele’s frankly crass and heavy handed approach, but that was never the point. By appropriating all cultures, the show takes maximalism to its absurd extreme with cheerful irreverence. It proposes a globalised vision of fashion in which all cultures have become hybridised or “cyborg.” In its attempt to cram in all references – sci-fi, historical, real or fantastical – the show turns in on itself and begins to criticise its own cultural and consumptive excesses.

Gucci AW18, courtesy of Gucci

But let’s not give Michele or Gucci too much credit. They are, after all, still here to sell us things that we’re convinced we need and there was plenty here to whet the bloggers’ appetites. From knitted balaclavas to it-bags, from brooches to pearl necklaces, sometimes it seems like a case of throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks to the hype train. So, how deliciously apt that the selfie-loving, Instagram-curating masses chose Gucci’s severed head as the most ‘gramable accessory of the season, in a literal reflection of ourselves. We carry around our phones which help us construct our digital identities as we pick and choose bits of our lives, bits of culture and snippets of time to share with others. As Michele stated after his show, “we are all Doctor Frankenstein of our lives”.

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