As designers sprinkle on the sartorial space dust, Phoebe Watt finds that futuristic fashion is no alien concept.
In early January, Virgin Galactic aircraft VSS Unity completed its seventh successful test flight above California’s Mojave Desert, safely gliding to Earth from an altitude of 40,000 feet in conditions designed to simulate suborbital travel. It was a milestone that brought the Richard Branson-owned company one step closer to its goal of offering civilian space flights by April 2018 — a move the billionaire entrepreneur believes will “democratise space travel”. With seats aboard the proposed maiden launch going for around $380,000, and a passenger list including New Zealand entrepreneur Derek Handley and actors Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher, such a claim is a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, with 700 tickets presold to date, it seems that the concept is very much taking off.
This isn’t a one-horse space race, either. A small handful of US tech-tycoons-turned-space-enthusiasts, including Elon Musk (PayPal), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Paul Allen (Microsoft), are all currently competing with Branson to be the first to offer commercial space voyages. Unlike the Space Race of the mid-20th century — which saw Cold War rivals the US and the Soviet Union both attempt to assert their technological and ideological dominance via their spaceflight capabilities — there’s something decidedly less sinister about this new era of ‘space tourism’ and the infinite possibilities it entails. The one common thread is that now — as was the case in the 1960s — the pushing of physical frontiers is paving the way for new frontiers of fashion.
The focus the first time around was on forward-thinking fits and fabrications that mirrored (even preceded) the small steps and giant leaps being made in the science and technology sphere. Who could forget Pierre Cardin’s space helmets, André Courrèges’ daring, geometric cuts and Paco Rabanne’s revolutionary use of materials including metal, plastic, Plexiglas and fibre optics? Certainly not the slew of designers who last year went back to the future with collections featuring metallic finishes (Prabal Gurung, Thierry Mugler), spacey silhouettes (Proenza Schouler, Comme des Garçons), alien accents (Iris van Herpen), and galaxy motifs (Dolce & Gabbana, Christopher Kane, Moschino, Mary Katrantzou, Mara Hoffman).
The astronomical references weren’t just confined to the garments themselves. UFO prints from Gucci’s recent runways were brought to life in its extra-terrestrial-themed fall 2017 campaign entitled ‘Gucci and Beyond’, which it teased with a series of short films centred around an alien invasion. Meanwhile, at Nick Graham’s New York Fashion Week show, 87-year-old Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin made a catwalk cameo, and in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld went all out for Chanel, transforming the Grand Palais into a space station complete with a mock rocket launch finale (Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ was the soundtrack).
Watch Chanel’s futuristic rocket launch at their Fall Winter Ready-to-Wear show:
Interestingly, fashion’s newfound focus on astronomy comes hot on the heels of its earlier obsession with astrology, which throughout 2016 saw countless designers take their cues from the cosmos. It spoke to a theory long-purported by fashion historians concerning the necessity of escapist fantasies in socially turbulent times. Of course, much like in the Cold War era, if the political apocalypse we’ve watched play out over the past year has shown us anything it’s that in the midst of such turbulence, there’s only so much solace to be found in the stars — unless we are talking a practical application of the trend. Rather than leaving our futures up to fate, in other words, we are being told to ditch the divination imagery, pull up our Courrèges-inspired Balenciaga go-go boots, and prepare to mission to a galaxy far, far away.
That the fashion industry wants to transform us from passive stargazers into active Stormtroopers is possibly no coincidence. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was the biggest box office release of 2017, and fashion power players from Rag & Bone to Christian Louboutin rode the hype with utilitarian-cum-otherworldly collections that celebrated the strength and femininity of the film’s female protagonists. Speaking about his five-piece capsule collection to Vanity Fair in December, Louboutin explained, “A heel, for a woman, is also a type of weapon.” He went on to detail each engineering-driven design and the collection’s references to adventuring, armor and ‘the Force’ — interpreted most literally in the lightsaber-esque blue spiked heel of the shoe inspired by Daisy Ridley’s character, Rey. “I put the power in the heel,” says Louboutin. “Rey is the one with the Force — she is the Jedi and a very physical and reactive person.” It’s fittingly reminiscent of an interview Paco Rabanne gave in 2002, in which he spoke of the influence that the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s had on his designs — including those worn by Jane Fonda in cult ’60s sci-fi film, Barbarella. “Women emerged to be warriors because they needed to affirm their desire of emancipation, freedom and liberty,” he said. “The armour was almost necessary.”
“Women emerged to be warriors because they needed to affirm their desire of emancipation, freedom and liberty.”
In a 12-month period that’s seen some extremely disheartening activity (or inactivity) around women’s rights, no wonder we are gearing up for another battle. At the 2018 Golden Globes, this took the form of an unofficial yet almost unanimous adherence to a black dress-code. A way for attendees to show their support for the high-profile #timesup campaign, the solemn sartorial protest was designed to drive conversation around sexual harassment, assault and abuse in the workplace, largely in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal that shook the entertainment industry in late 2017. Citing the literal and figurative prevalence of ‘manspreading’, some critics argued that this blackout simply played into a history of female oppression, submission and marginalisation. True, to ‘take up space’ is the new feminist mantra. In the case of the Globes, would an expanse of glitzy, galaxy-emblazoned gowns have better served the cause than a sea of subtle black ensembles? If you think yes, perhaps consider a pair of Saint Laurent’s glitter-encrusted moon boots for your next women’s rally. The $14,000 price-tag might seem prohibitive, but compared to a Virgin Galactic flight — soon to be the ultimate status signifier — it’s hardly out of this world.