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Fashion

Apocalyptic Fashion

Before masks became a common sight on our streets, fashion designers were presenting garments and collections that address global crises, aiming to encourage positive change.

If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that our day-to-day reality can be upended faster than we could ever have imagined by forces beyond our control. Which is why it’s more important than ever to reflect on the things we can control, and how we can contribute to making the world a better, safer place. This idea is central to the practice of a growing number of fashion designers, who are not just striving to create ethical, sustainably produced garments, but who have taken this one step further: imagining how clothing might look in a post-apocalyptic future in an effort to invoke individual mindfulness and broader systemic change. 

Marine Serre's fall/winter 2020 collection envisioned a world devastated by climate change, and was made using upcycled garments.

“People think I’m dystopian, but I’m actually just realistic,” famously futuristic French designer Marine Serre told British Vogue in a recent interview about her fall/winter 2020 collection, which envisaged a world devastated by climate change and mass extinction, upon which only a few survivors roamed.

The collection – 50 percent of which was made from upcycled garments – featured plastic raincoats, sharply tailored suits designed for navigating extreme terrain, and pieces emblazoned with Serre’s signature crescent moon logo, this time scorched as if by fire (the recent forest fires around the globe were a key influence on the designs). Accessories ranged from Serre’s trademark gas masks to infrared light necklaces and reusable water canister holders. The message, although undeniably stylish, was clear: if we don’t take drastic action, this could soon be our reality.

Nicholas Bennett designed waterproof footwear for commuters dealing with extreme flooding. Photos by Jack Walker Heppell.

Last year, young British designer Nicholas Bennett, a student at Goldsmiths University in London, looked a little closer to home when he devised a pair of waterproof footwear for commuters in a not-so-distant future where navigating floods could become part of our daily routine. The simple but effective design sees rubber rain boots overlaid with a smart pair of brogues, while a set of neon orange waders tuck neatly into the hem, ready to be unraveled to waist height to safeguard your suit pants. It was inspired by the series of flash floods in early 2019 that wreaked havoc in his native North Yorkshire region.

“As a fashion designer, it isn’t right to make things that are either brand new or isolated from the social and environmental state of our world,” Bennett told The Journal of the mindset behind the footwear, which saw him scoop first prize at #CreateCOP25, Art Partner’s 2019 contest calling for artistic responses to the climate crisis. “I’m interested in design that makes practical sense in the world we live in, that tackles problems that we already have and incorporates what we already own. Design isn't just for objects to have and hold, but for what we have and need currently.”

Bennett used second-hand materials to create his flood-ready designs, which are intended to provoke discussion about this potential scenario. Photos by Jack Walker Heppell.

As such, Bennett used only second-hand materials in his design, purchasing the brogues from a thrift store and creating the waders from an old survival bag, judging it to be both protective and bright enough to draw attention in an emergency. He showcased the footwear (and an accompanying umbrella that collects rainwater for tea) in a darkly comic video featuring an office worker subduedly donning the pieces and trudging through knee-deep water to his job.

“Warning signs are usually expressed in words and case studies but with fashion you can offer a more invisible message,” Bennett explained. “I wanted to explore how a portrait of one's fashion can express an underlying narrative, leading people to think about how they might interact or respond to the sight of such a person in their world.”

The Unfortunately Ready to Wear collection by Milk Studios, Luka Sabbat and NRDC targeted Gen Z with a warning about environmental destruction.

A similar concept underscored a recent collaboration between New York’s Milk Studios and rising creative director and designer Luka Sabbat, in partnership with The Natural Resources Defense Council: a distinctly post-apocalyptic collection titled Unfortunately Ready to Wear, which debuted at New York Fashion Week for fall/winter 2019.

“We haven't even begun to understand the impact climate change will have on our future, be it the fires in California, the flooding in Venice, Italy or the melting polar caps,” Milk Studios explained to The Journal. “So we wanted to create an immersive experience that would show Gen Z, (people 24 years old and younger, who represent 25% of the US population), what they can actively do today to stem the tide of environmental destruction – and what might happen if they don’t.”

The collection includes items that respond to five major threats faced by the world today.

The “future-facing” collection centered on five major threats – heat waves, extreme storms, infectious diseases, air pollution, and the plight of environmental refugees – resulting in corresponding designs that “artfully blended utility and fashion.” These included a pair of solar-powered headphones for use in extreme weather conditions (featuring viewing screens, a flashlight and camera); a fire-proof, UV ray-resistant jacket of adjustable length, with a in-built mosquito net; a bandana with vents to clean and filter air; and a backpack replete with sleeping bag, solar panels and a water filtration system. 

The designs, although sleek in appearance, are deliberately provocative and unsettling, Milk Studios said, their aim to drive home the immediacy of the crisis. “(We wanted to prove) that a tangible experience built around an abstract threat of climate change can serve as a call to action.”

Protests in Istanbul influenced Irene Luft's spring/summer 2014 collection.

It’s not just utilitarian designers who are keen to tackle dystopian themes in their work. German couturier Irene Luft caused a stir at Berlin Fashion Week spring/summer 2014 with an eerily beautiful collection that looked to a contemporary example of civil unrest – the notorious Gezi Park protests against an urban development plan in Istanbul, Turkey in 2013 – to consider, with otherworldly splendor, the threats we may face in the future. 

“People (decked in masks to protect themselves from police tear gas) were standing up and fighting for their beliefs,” she told The Journal, explaining how this drew her attention to the ways in which humanity’s quest for freedom could end up costing us our security, and vice versa. The resulting collection sought to embody this contradiction, featuring an array of burnt-edged ensembles, intricately rendered in white and gold, and topped by amazingly sculptural gas masks, serving up a strange combination of beauty and destruction. “I always want to motivate people to discuss relevant societal and political matters in an open and civilized way,” she said, “and to form their own opinion – not one dictated by the masses and convenience.

Luft used gas masks and burnt edges against delicate white and gold fabrics to embody the dichotomy of freedom and security.

That so many of these collections featured masks – Serre in particular has been including “anti-pollution masks” in her collections for seasons – before they became a global symbol of the coronavirus pandemic, only adds weight to Serre’s statement that such dystopian designs could, at any moment, become our reality.

Indeed, whatever forms their garments take, and whatever imagined scenarios they choose to present us with, the overall message to be gleaned from this post-apocalyptic trend among fashion designers seems to be the same: the future is happening now, and it’s up to designers and buyers alike to combat the adversities we’re facing post haste. “If you look at what is going on in the world right now, it’s really dark and we are condemned to that unless we change things,” Serre said pertinently. And that “unless” is both hopeful and vital: we haven’t reached such levels of crisis yet and – as these designers are imploring us to remember – it’s not too late to rethink our behavior and make impactful changes going forward.

This article forms part of a series on Warning!, one of four curatorial themes that A/D/O is exploring in 2020.

Text by Daisy Woodward.

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