Pin It

Unpicking fashion’s neo-nostalgia

From Destiny’s Child to Sailor Moon, SS15 saw designers put on their rose-tinted glasses and embrace the not-so-distant past

Taken from the spring 2015 issue of Dazed:

During an interview last year, Tina Knowles was asked to rate her costume back catalogue for Destiny’s Child. Brilliantly serious, she declared nearly all her creations “timeless”, including a symphony of red strappy tops and embroidered rhinestone denim (with the waistbands cut off for extra elegance) that the trio wore at a Hyde Park concert 15 years ago. If Ms Knowles saw the SS15 MM6 Maison Margiela show, she will no doubt have nodded approvingly when Beyoncé’s red bandana top from the gig made a reappearance in industrial rubber, paired with light-wash jeans – a moment that prompted us to ask whether this season, fashion had grown Tumblr-hungry. It certainly had all of the trademark Margiela irony, and its deliberate bad taste felt like the sartorial embodiment of a #TBT accompanied by a smirking emoji and sincere red heart.

In a season where blasts from the relatively recent past are sweeping through collections, the Destiny’s Child shout-out was apt. Of course, fashion has always obsessed over what was, forever caught in a weird maelstrom of trawling through the decades for things that will help make sense of the present and invoke the shock of the new, and its key players have long re-proposed the once-icky. But where fashion’s reminiscing can sometimes feel superficial – a silhouette, a styling gimmick – SS15’s neo-nostalgia feels different.

“Nostalgia sells more than sex these days,” says Benjamin Kirchhoff, one half of Meadham Kirchhoff, who presented one of the most significant collections of the new season. Their emotionally raw show looked not to the 00s but instead to punk – the movement that shaped Edward Meadham’s youth – in a revolt against what they see as an increasingly misogynistic, homophobic and intolerant culture. It was ultimately about proposing an alternative to the reality of today’s world, and that seems to be what’s driving much of fashion’s current affinity for various forms of nostalgia. We want to escape into Calvin Klein’s #mycalvins reboot of its 90s logo underwear or Marques’Almeida’s angsty handkerchief hemlines and low-slung miniskirts. We’re revisiting a shared millennial youth, and it’s both a comforting and slightly cringey exercise.

But is it too early for us to be disappearing down the millennial rabbit hole? Not according to Ryan Lo, whose hyper-girly universe centres on an adoration of things like Bridget Jones, Sailor Moon and Sex and the City. His dreamy, rainbow-hued mermaid collection channelled Carrie Bradshaw in her various guises, and was rooted in a genuine love of the show as well as a knowing wink to its cheesier qualities. “My generation still references those four women quite a lot on just about every occasion, so it’s still happening and totally current. I see no difference between referencing 90s grunge and doing a Bake Off-inspired collection,” says Lo, who came of age around the turn of the millennium. “I don’t consider my work as nostalgia. I see it as reintroducing the then-cool stuff through the eyes of an Asian to the western world and putting my own girly spin on them. I guess I’m just lonely and extremely homesick!”

A return to teen obsessions lies at the heart of this season’s brand of nostalgia. As Lo notes: “Adolescence is so inspiring. I like the idea of brave teenage girls. Queen Amidala from Star Wars was only 14 years old when she was first elected as queen of Naboo! The teenager has endless possibilities and potential.” It seems there is unparalleled power and magnetism in something you desperately yearn for but can never really truly recreate – and few things have more potent magic than our adolescence.

For Faustine Steinmetz, whose debut presentation at London Fashion Week riffed on adolescent awkward-cool with its 90s-style shibori and distressed double denim, there is a “thin line between nostalgic and reactionary. What’s attractive about nostalgia is not the romance, but the irony. My references to the past are there because I like to mock it, in a way.” This is what makes neo-nostalgia and millennial fashion 2.0 so intriguing: the seesaw between adoration and taking the piss. “It makes things kinkier,” says Lo.

“I just can’t help but disagree with everything about today’s culture and values,” says Steinmetz. “To me, a garment is a piece of culture. My passion for clothes has little to do with fashion.” Spinning, dyeing and weaving all her fabrics on traditional looms, the designer’s work is based on the idea of reproducing everyday, classic pieces in highly artisanal ways – another facet of the nostalgia wave. Craft holds sentiment, something that Miuccia Prada also explored this season. Backstage, she spoke of the magical powers of the artisanal after showing a collection bricolaged by more than 30 different antique brocade fabrics, which had been painstakingly reproduced.

Living in a fragmented reality where things change around us at breakneck speed, it seems fitting that we long for authenticity. There is a strong element of escapism to the season’s nostalgia, which is how Dries Van Noten’s SS15 hippy happening (which saw models lie down on a plush meadow-like runway) felt. It was an Instagram moment, but also an unplugged experience; a rejection of all the bad stuff that surrounds us. As Tim Blanks observed, the collection felt “critical to our mental health”.

Popular consensus tends to view nostalgia as a regressive force that stops us from moving forward. The word was coined in 1688 by medical student Johannes Hofer to describe extreme homesickness, first thought of as “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” and later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, as a mental disorder. But as it turns out, unless you’re a serious habitual worrier, nostalgia is actually mentally beneficial and can help with feelings of meaninglessness.

According to Dr Wing Yee Cheung, research fellow at the University of Southampton’s school of psychology, nostalgia makes you feel optimistic about the future by drawing on past feel-good moments. “It happens when people experience major life transitions, which push them to reflect on the previous stage. So, in a way, it’s a growth in life,” she says. This might well shed some light on why young designers like Ryan Lo are looking to the not-so-distant past for inspiration.

For many of us, our teen years will have had their share of traumatic, painful and awkward moments, but the magic of nostalgia means that we can reconstruct them with a positive ending to rewrite the narrative. In fashion, that could mean adding a witty layer of postmodern irony or applying a pair of rose-tinted glasses.

In academia, many thinkers are looking at the way we construct a false past through our obsession with reliving it, and fashion is especially fond of adding to this stylised, artificial sense of history. “Kinderwhore didn’t happen,” says Edward Meadham. “It was Courtney (Love)’s way of describing what she and Kat Bjelland wore, it wasn’t a subculture. There weren’t girls in the 90s talking about being ‘kinderwhore’ as there are now. They’re doing it for the first time, and they’re misinterpreting everything that was really happening back then. But it’s natural, it’s normal. We’re forced to look back, because there’s nothing to look to.” Meadham’s contempt for today’s world led him back to his teenage “punk education”, and subsequently to dream up the incredible, angry and beautiful collection that was Meadham Kirchhoff SS15, with its exquisitely worked punk pieces and feminist message that played out on a backdrop of trees strung with bloodied tampons.

“I learned about fashion via punk, via Westwood, and it was the first time I’ve really directly referenced that,” says Meadham. “I spent six months before the show re-reading about the period, thinking how the mid-70s in England were so bleak, so brown, so conservative, and punk came from that.

I drew connections between that and the time we live in now. Everybody thinks we live in this amazing, liberal environment, which is absolutely not true. Nothing has actually improved. I think we’ve devolved and deluded ourselves into feeling like the world is a better place because people can assimilate. I think we should reject everything – we should get rid of this fucking shit culture we live in and create our own alternative. The collection wasn’t really about nostalgia, it was more about (getting people to) just fucking wake up.”

“Nostalgia sells more than sex these days.” Benjamin Kirchhoff

“I think we look towards something we’ve already experienced because the alternative is celebrity culture,” adds Kirchhoff. “That’s what seems to be the prominent force at the moment and that’s fine, it’s fun – if it means something to somebody, if they can extract something positive out of it, then that’s great. But I don’t really know what it’s actually contributing.” For him, looking back to the punk era was “really to remind the world that the last time something radically different happened in culture was then.” In its defiant roar, the Meadham Kirchhoff SS15 collection stirred up many of the feelings punk originally created. “The fact that this collection seems to have upset so many people when I’m referencing something that upset people 35 years ago (makes me feel like) it was a good point to make,” says Meadham.

The show was also a love letter to fashion, despite what some people might think. “No one believes in fashion’s power or importance any more. It’s very, very depressing. I think often I’ve given this impression that I’m really anti-fashion. I’m so not. I love fashion,” Meadham stresses. “But I hate that it is dead and that everybody wants it to be dead, even the people that like it most. I don’t understand why in this day and age it’s a dirty word to have an idea. People tell me I’m so creative, but they don’t really mean it in a nice way. It’s just their way of saying that what I do is hideous and unfathomable, you know? I think it’s ridiculous that there seems to be no room for anything other than homogenous shit, basically.”

Whether designers are looking back in order to challenge the world we live in or reclaim their heady teenage days, it all plays into a wider search for meaning. Perhaps it’s not actually bygone looks fashion wants to relive, but rather, an elusive time: to make an emotional connection with a lost moment, with youth. This begs the question: are we in fact becoming more nostalgic? “Maybe not our generation, but the post-internet generation, for sure,” says Ryan Lo. “They have nothing which is completely new. I mean, at least our generation went from cassette tape to DVD to The Pirate Bay. Their newness is the latest iPhone model. So uninspiring.”

In an interview with Dazed Digital last year, BuzzFeed’s Rewind editor Leonora Epstein noted how “it’s not that people are more nostalgic, it’s just that we have more modes of communicating”, referring to the constant rehashing of yesteryear online. We’re obsessed with documenting and recycling the past, turning Instagram and Tumblr into fragmented museums. In a digital age, our sense of time becomes more warped, and it gets harder for us to establish a grounded sense of the present: even last Friday is ripe for a flashback moment. It feels safe to retreat to teendom – a place that some of us never really left. “I am in so many ways the same creature I was when I was a teenager,” says Meadham. “My taste hasn’t really evolved. Anything which has affected me in my life came along by the time I was 17, and nothing has really interested or affected me particularly since then, not in a lasting way at least. I just feel like I’ve never stopped being a teenager.”

Lead image: Madison Stubbington (IMG) wears silk t-shirt and quilted blanket worn as skirt by MM6. Photography Johnny Dufort; styling Celestine Cooney; hair Kota Suizu at Caren; make-up Thomas de Kluyver at D+V Management using Chanel SS15 and Chanel Body Excellence; model Madison Stubbington at IMG; set design Georgina Pragnell at Webber Represents; photographic assistant Alex Hudson; styling assistant Poppie Clinch; make-up assistant Oonah Anderson; casting Noah Shelley

Subscribe to Dazed magazine here or pick up your copy from newsstands now