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Fredrik Tjærandsen
Image courtesy of Fredrik Tjærandsen

Inflatable fashion is blowing TF up

From the 2019 graduate shows to Louis Vuitton and Vetements – we explore the trend that’s (quite literally) engulfing the runways

In case you hadn’t noticed by now, inflatables are making their way out of the pool and onto our catwalks. Once synonymous with beach floats and festival dinosaur suits (you know the ones), balloon couture was seen across a whole heap of this year’s graduate shows: most visibly when CSM breakout star Fredrik Tjærandsen sent models strutting down the runway inside giant balloons that deflated into performative rubber dresses. Tjærandsen’s final collection quite literally blew up Instagram stories worldwide – with Erykah Badu, Billy Porter, and Lindsay Lohan reportedly among his fans – while his very own IG account grew by 25,000 followers in less than 24 hours. 

Once solely appropriated by avant-gardists including Leigh Bowery and Lady Gaga (or drag queens impersonating Lady Gaga – Shangela, we’re looking at you) if the recent grad shows are anything to go by we’re currently teetering on the brink of a mainstream moment for blown-up fashion. Along with Tjærandsen, both Westminster grad San Kim and RCA student Yang Niu explored the format too, encasing their models in transparent, ballooning bodysuits or kitting them out with parachute-like backpacks which expanded into Michelin Man masses on the runway respectively. 

While graduate shows have long been the place to witness the wildest, most experimental fashion being born, this year’s emerging students aren’t the only ones blowing things up: bubbles are bursting forth across the industry as a whole right now. Craig Green’s 2018 ‘human lifeboat’ collection for Moncler featured bulbous and sculptural silhouettes filled with air, as the London designer laid claim to inspiration found in flotation devices and armbands (any resemblance to poodles or anal beads was unintentional Green assures us, whatever it may look like). Even fashion’s resident hypebeast Virgil Abloh got in on the act just a few weeks ago, sending models carrying red balloons and what appeared to be inflatable bags down the catwalk for SS20. Clearly, it’s a thing.

Where some seem to think the recent explosion in popularity of balloon couture is a classic case of millennial nostalgia as the latest in a long line of 90s and 00s crazes being dragged back to life (s/o The Gadget Shop), to reduce it to such a trope is to disregard its long-standing position within popular culture. Sure, the last few years have seen inflatables blow up the IG feed, with huge, air-filled avocados and faux glazed donuts becoming synonymous with the suntanned influencers that straddle them – but look closer and you’ll see that they’ve been creeping in at the edges for decades.

A good place to start is with Japanese designer Michiko Koshino, whose experimental approach to fabric and construction in 1980s London birthed a series of air-filled coats and dresses that became hot tickets for any club kid looking to make their mark on the capital’s art scene. The cult garments have been worn by the likes of David Bowie and Stella McCartney, with her most famous piece – a silver PVC puffer with cat-like ears and a tail – intended to be blown up or deflated according to the wearer's personal preference, all thanks to 19 different air-pump points. 

Issey Miyake also flirted with the idea of blow-up clothing, with his 1987 air-filled rubber jacket and its highly stylised, puffed up shoulders and ribbed detailing one of the first instances of inflatables on the haute fashion stage. Then there was Gareth Pugh, who got in on the act when he landed on the fashion scene back in 2003. The radical designer’s graduate collection featured a blow-up bodysuit made up of red and white striped ‘balloons’, with the amorphously shaped garment not only catapulting the young designer to notoriety, but also cementing his reputation as one of London’s most boundary-breaking creative forces (in fact, we even put it on the cover of Dazed).

But why has the concept so suddenly blown up in such a big way in 2019? Much of the aesthetic builds on what are already established trends for all things kitsch and camp, as facilitated by the likes of Vetements and Balenciaga (the latter of which coincidentally put out its own inflatable life vest back in 2017). Meaning, with the fashion industry’s deep-rooted proclivity for elevating the banal to bonafide must-have territory showing no sign of dissipating any time soon, balloons are seemingly the next bizarre step. Where three years ago Crocs were an unthinkable sartorial choice, in the hands of a certain Georgian designer, the unlikely style has secured itself as an (admittedly surprising) cult item – it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine all things inflatable might be headed in the same direction. 

The Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition could have played its own part, too, and in fact has a number of inflatable pieces on show (most notably a see-through jacket with blow-up muscles, as created by Belgian iconoclast Walter van Beirendonck). If Susan Sontag defines camp as “A love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”, what could epitomise that more than a gigantic, air-filled bodysuit completely devoid of function?  

A prime example of this can be found in standout CSM designer Edwin Mohney’s final collection, from which he sent a giant, blow-up paddling pool (bought from Argos, no less) bopping down the runway. Offering an ironic commentary on how absurd the fashion system can be and with more than a whiff of late-capitalism about it, Mohney’s work is post-aestheticism taken to its logical conclusion. Is it impractical? Yes. Are we obsessed? Definitely.

Injecting air into their practice also forces creatives to reconsider and reassess the body’s form and the physical standards long upheld by the fashion industry. “I think many designers are beginning to question this,” explains Westminster’s San Kim. “Showing inflatables on the runway rails against the existing body ideals within fashion and provides a challenge that continues beyond the standard frame.” Pierre-Louis Auvrey – otherwise known as @forbiddenknowledge – seemingly also had this in mind when he sent a series of muscular looks down the runway as part of his own graduate collection in 2018, with models wearing blown-up suits that were equal parts bodybuilder and superhero

Another idea to consider is that all this hot air is a response to a world upturned. As what's going on IRL becomes more and more disconcerting, with governments stripping away women’s reproductive rights, hate crime on the rise, and the earth headed towards an environmental doomsday, even the simple mention of balloons is enough to spur childhood memories of happier, simpler times: an idea Matty Bovan elaborated on with his AW18 helium balloon headpieces, which he explained were representative of a generation carrying the weight of the world on its shoulders. In these dark times, when it comes down to it, inflatable fashion is an irresistible flash of soft, shiny, tactile fun, and where squares might tell you it’s the theoretical endpoint of clothes, realistically it’s just the beginning of a new chapter. Just make sure to avoid any confined spaces.