Extreme times call for extreme clothes: and the current era is driving designers towards the dressing-up box as costume becomes everyday wear. 

It’s been brewing for a while, honestly, with volume pumping up, embroideries piling on, colours saturating. The shows in September – supposedly for spring/summer but involving an awful lot of latex, velvet and flowing, floor-length stuff for warmer climes – were a new zenith. Alongside the usual show-offy likes of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Jeremy Scott at Moschino or Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood, a host of new designers decided to play dress-up. The often dour and gothic Rick Owens used swathes of chartreuse sequins and created trailing gowns that recalled 18th-century panniers; Demna Gvasalia closed his Balenciaga show with Scarlett O’Hara-scale crinolines after a 101 Dalmatians dog-print faux-fur coat. Marc Jacobs’ catwalk played out like a Broadway show of characters, including one veiled top-hatted look in a fetching shade of beige that was a dead ringer for a costume Barbra Streisand wore for her My Name Is Barbra television appearance in 1965.

It gets weirder. A talent no less cerebral than Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo – who created collections entirely in black for most of the 1980s and recently explored the idea of “Not Making Clothes” in a series of abstract shows – decided to go all in for costume drama. She titled her men’s show in June “Act I”, and her women’s collection in September “Act II”. Act III will take place in December at the Vienna State Opera, for the world premiere of Orlando by composer Olga Neuwirth, with costumes by the Japanese house. The idea of transformation and traversing time was evoked through clothes that looked like costume: men’s frock-coats dripping with flounces, women’s jackets seemingly made of tasselled theatre curtains or enormous, marshmallowy Flumps of flowers. 

Karen Elson and Irina Shayk in Tomo Koizumi ruffled dresses
Karen Elson and Irina Shayk in Tomo Koizumi ruffled dresses © Jason Lloyd-Evans

Big dresses made of big flowers are, incidentally, big: London designers Richard Quinn and Mary Katrantzou, alongside Valentino and the Comme des Garçons-backed Kei Ninomiya, who designs a label named Noir, have all shown clothes this year that resemble a hyacinth bouquet. And women seem to adore them.

And that’s the interesting bit. Because designers – especially male designers, and most of the above are men – have a propensity for proposing unwearable, costume-y clothes on their catwalks. In the past, women have nodded and smiled, then bought the watered-down versions that eventually make it to stores. Today, they are buying into the extreme dream.

Perhaps this frenzy to dress up is a reaction to the saturation of social media’s endless image feeds; over the past decade, celebrities have seized on more outré fashion choices to differentiate themselves from the herd. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute gala, dubbed the Oscars of the East Coast and a fashion high point of the year, has encouraged increasingly grandiose sartorial statements – see Lupita Nyong’o in a chlorophyll-green chandelier crystal flapper dress by Prada in 2014, or Lana Del Rey sporting a feathered Gucci halo in 2018. They’re taking risks – which don’t always pay off, but are fun to watch even when they’re a car crash. And when they work, they’re glorious. 

Lily Aldridge’s Richard Quinn outfit at the 2019 Met Gala
Lily Aldridge’s Richard Quinn outfit at the 2019 Met Gala © Getty

Fashion is frequently akin to costume. And plenty of designers have been called in to create clothes for dance, theatrical productions or operas – Gianni Versace collaborated with French choreographer Maurice Béjart on no fewer than 12 ballets, while Christian Lacroix has segued into opera design since leaving his eponymous house in 2009. “Costume is my favourite thing,” Lacroix once told me, “not fashion.” Considering Lacroix reinvented the pouf skirt and put women back into corsets and bonnets – 1880s in the 1980s – it makes sense. Incidentally, he made a return to fashion in collaboration with Dries Van Noten for spring/summer, and his costume-y style has had a major influence across the season as a whole.

And fashion filters into costume too. Since 2012 the New York City Ballet has worked with fashion figures on costumes for its gala performances each autumn, a scheme that was the brainchild of clothes horse, NYCB vice-chairman and Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker. The designers have included Thom Browne, Carolina Herrera, Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen and Valentino. 

A corseted design at Alexander McQueen a/w 2019
A corseted design at Alexander McQueen a/w 2019

But designers have tended to keep their costume and clothing worlds apart – indeed, after Gabrielle Chanel was recruited in 1931 to create costumes for the Hollywood stars of United Artists, at the behest of Samuel Goldwyn, she was quickly dropped when the studio realised her pared-down, sophisticated fashion didn’t have the pizzazz audiences needed on the big screen.

When Marc Jacobs talks about the extremes of his looks over the past few seasons, he doesn’t talk of costume – rather “runway”. Perhaps he means the theatre of fashion – and how the heightened atmosphere of a show requires more outrageous, outlandish clothes. Certainly, his look has evolved from the simpler, street look with which he was once synonymous to something more mannered, more theatrical. He has also redesigned the very label in the clothes so they now bear the name “Runway”. “Runway, runway, runway,” he says. “I just kept saying it over and over. When runway models had their hands on their hips. When there was attitude.”

Mary Katrantzou’s show at the Temple of Poseidon near Athens
Mary Katrantzou’s show at the Temple of Poseidon near Athens © Jason Lloyd-Evans

The London designer Mary Katrantzou has long created extreme clothes – she has dressed women as lampshades, as postage stamps and crystal banknotes, as perfume bottles and Fabergé eggs. Last month, she showed in the Temple of Poseidon near Athens, presenting a collection of vast gowns and gilded capes grander than anything she’s done before. They won’t be on shop rails – Katrantzou has a commercially derived collection, but only sells these pieces to order, for tens of thousands apiece. Even so, she still had a dozen women contact her the day after the show; one bought two dresses still warm off the back of the models. 

Beyoncé’s sequinned Mary Katrantzou bodysuit at the 2018 Global Citizen festival
Beyoncé’s sequinned Mary Katrantzou bodysuit at the 2018 Global Citizen festival © Rex Shutterstock

Celebrities have often approached Katrantzou to request outlandish one-off pieces. She created the sequinned cape and bodysuit Beyoncé wore for her performance at the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg last December. It was embroidered with the different countries of Africa – a detail that subsequently inspired Katrantzou’s Athens show, which closed with a series of cartography-embellished gowns. And Cate Blanchett chose dresses from Katrantzou’s spring 2018 show to amalgamate into the gown she wore as president of the Cannes Film Festival last year. It was a bold move – the dress was flamboyant and costume-y. It was also bold for Blanchett to endorse a still-young designer (Katrantzou’s business has turned 10 this year). Katrantzou recalls the conversation: “Cate said, ‘I am wearing Armani for the opening of Cannes, but I will wear a piece that I’ve worn before. I want to shine a spotlight on what you’ve done.’ When a celebrity connects to a piece, to a designer, they want to show that they’re embracing an independent brand, a piece that’s unique, a piece they see as something designed specially for them.”

Cate Blanchett in Mary Katrantzou at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival
Cate Blanchett in Mary Katrantzou at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival © Getty

Often, when looking for more theatrical creations, celebrities and their stylists will seek out lesser-known names – and why wouldn’t they? It’s among these designers that they will find something unique and, importantly, often unseen. London designer Molly Goddard was chosen by the former costume designer of Killing Eve, Phoebe de Gaye, to outfit Villanelle to stroll across the Place Vendôme. The scene wasn’t so pivotal, but her dress – a Chernobylic mushroom-cloud of cerise tulle – garnered masses of attention for itself and for the designer. There are other designers similarly benefiting from that kind of exposure: there’s Edwin Mohney, a Buffalo-based graduate of Central Saint Martins who makes shoes from rubber chickens and has also made tour clothes for Beyoncé; David Laport, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, who makes Ziegfeld Follies-ish feather dresses worn by Rihanna; and Tomo Koizumi, a Japanese costume designer who exploded on the New York fashion scene this year with a debut collection of densely ruffled dresses resembling something between a loofah and an It’s a Knockout fat suit. The collection was modelled by a starry roster of supermodels such as Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Joan Smalls and Karen Elson. “I decided to be a fashion designer when I was 14, when I saw Galliano’s Dior haute couture in a fashion magazine,” says Koizumi, on the phone from Tokyo. “That’s why I’m still making theatrical dresses. There are too many clothes on this planet now. I believe people want to see more ‘fashion’ than ‘clothes’.” His pieces, like many others of their kind, are available made-to-order only.

Molly Goddard a/w 2019
Molly Goddard a/w 2019 © Jason Lloyd-Evans

There are other important reasons why some stars work with smaller brands. Many celebrities now have lucrative and wide-ranging contracts with major fashion brands – Jennifer Lawrence’s multi-year, multimillion-pound deal with Dior is one of the most evident on the red carpet. It means they cannot wear conflicting labels. Independent designers offer variety without contractual clashes. Hence Blanchett’s decision to wear Mary Katrantzou’s wild style – the opposite of Giorgio Armani’s pared-down chic. 

“I think it was also a reaction to wearing all black for the #TimesUp movement,” Katrantzou says, of Blanchett’s choice of dress. “She wanted something incredibly bold but exuding positivity.” Bigger, bolder, braver. Maybe this taste for costume as armour is the antidote to a political climate that’s a drama of its own: those OTT shows in September came as impeachment loomed in America, as Britain braced itself for Brexit and as Paris boarded up boutiques in the midst of the Gilets Jaunes. 

Drama demands costume, right? I posit that question to Giles Deacon. “It could,” he says. “I think there’s always some kind of social mirroring like that, isn’t there? There’s got to be. It does happen at every level.” Deacon would know – his work has been among some of the most theatrical over the past 20 years or so: “The Blackadder vibe,” he laughs, of his propensity for gowns, corsets and ruffs. 

Gwendoline Christie in Gucci at the 2019 Emmys
Gwendoline Christie in Gucci at the 2019 Emmys © Getty Images

He long ago eschewed fashion week shows to cater to a loyal cadre of private clients who pay for his specialist dresses of intricate craft. “It’s all about expression,” he says. “That’s what people are being encouraged to do in every part of their life. To wear what they want rather than be told, ‘That’s appropriate for that and that’s not.’ Those constructs have gone.” 

Deacon also dresses his partner, the actress Gwendoline Christie, in custom couture. And he designed her costumes for her performance in this year’s reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nicholas Hytner. “Any costume, it’s all about trying to find a new conversation and beauty relating to that character and that production,” says Deacon of his Titania. He could, of course, just as easily be talking about working with a client.

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