year in review

How the Apocalypse Came to Fashion

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images, Netflix, Balenciaga

In the past twelve months, usually pristine runways have been transformed into something out of a doomsday movie. There was the post-human “mudway” at Balenciaga’s latest show (the same fashion house that spent the month at the center of an ad-campaign scandal) and the snowstorm at the Thom Browne show. Models walked down the catwalks with botched lip-filler makeup, while celebrities like Doja Cat sat front row at Paris Fashion Week with a faux black eye. And throughout it all, there was Julia Fox — always dressed as some bizarre futuristic gladiator. Appearing to descend into chaotic madness, 2022 fashion visualized how we’ve felt over the last few years amid a pandemic and relentless climate disasters, then sold it back to us.

But even before the year actually began, existential and dystopian fashion had been on the rise. Marine Serre’s fall 2020 show, for example, tackled the theme of death, and cult favorite Online Ceramics released its viral “we’re all gonna die” tee at the end of that same year. While the aesthetic was nothing new to smaller labels like vegan footwear brand Rombaut, which has explored world-ending campaign imagery and climate-crisis content for years, it was 2022 that saw several bigger-name designer brands make their own attempts at tapping into the increasingly eco-anxious market. This, says Mats Rombaut, creative director of brands Rombaut and Víron, is ironic considering the role the industry plays in impending climate doom.

“Fashion contributes a lot to pollution and climate change,” Rombaut says, “so being such a big part of the problem, it feels quite natural to think about this sad ending and to portray models living in this postapocalyptic and barely habitable world like we did for spring and summer 2022.” Of course, not all fashion brands are this self-aware — some just think it looks good. As Rombaut puts it, apocalyptic fashion trends can be a reaction to mainstream beauty. “I guess people are bored with the standard,” he says, “and the algorithm always looks for something new that catches our attention and keeps us looking at our screens.”

And the algorithm has found the ruin it’s looking for — from rotting memes and AI death predictions on TikTok to entire (and popular) Instagram accounts dedicated to abandoned houses and Twitter’s painful death march. The Oxford English Dictionary made goblin mode it’s 2022 word of the year. Trend forecaster Agustina Panzoni says that worsening climate conditions, revocation of women’s rights, and economic instability “all point toward the fact that we are living during times of decay.” Panzoni thinks of this fashion moment as an evolution of the “subversive basics” trend that dominated the runways in 2021 — seen from designers like Dion Lee, Ruve, and Clarissa Larrazabal — which was all about basics that rebel up to the point of losing their utility. Just as that trend spoke to a collective desire for hedonism after spending 2020 indoors, this year’s apocalyptic campaigns reference the “changing societal priorities toward community, creativity, and rebellion,” Panzoni says.

While wearing our feelings of the world collapsing on itself might seem gloomy and hopeless, Panzoni believes it can actually be a good thing — an opportunity for growth. For the fashion industry, this could look like a shift away from endless micro-trends and fast-fashion houses and toward building sustainable personal style. “We’ve seen many fashion personalities engage in what I coined as ‘sculptural styling’ this year,” Panzoni says. This can look like TikTok creators experimenting with the “creative positioning” of pieces they already own — shifting from dopamine shopping to dopamine repurposing. “It takes the rebellious sentiment of apocalyptic fashion,” Panzoni says, “by questioning what makes a fashion silhouette while responding to the ubiquity of fast fashion’s designs — giving style enthusiasts an exclusive alternative.” In other words, who needs to buy more fast fashion when you can try wearing your sweater as a slouchy skirt?

As for 2023, Panzoni says to expect absolute chaos. “We’ll see the popular aesthetics of 2022 take a darker twist, ballet-core will incorporate grunge elements, twee will go sleazy, and Barbie-core will go goth,” she says, as we express “our interest for fashion that looks as crude as our reality.” This shift already feels underway after many people spent Thanksgiving turning in to Netflix’s Wednesday for clothing and makeup inspiration. It may signal the end of the constantly rotating aesthetic-core culture online (RIP coastal-grandma-core), because if everything is trending at once, is anything trending? “As aesthetics become deconstructed, distorted, and melted together, we’ll see a cultural theme of chaos emerge from the ashes,” says Panzoni. That may look like more anti-aesthetic aesthetic trends like Adam Sandler–core or something else entirely — which may temporarily relieve the burden of performative perfectionism online but, like any trend, it’ll come at a price.

The reality is, though, that designer brands will do anything to be relevant enough to sell even when the world does come crumbling down beneath us. This is something that smaller brands like Solitude Studios have always known. And when it comes to staying relevant, there’s no easier way than by tapping into online culture. “The relationship between memes and culture — and, in this instance, fashion — can be seen in the same light as humans and nature,” says Jonas Sayed Gammal Bruun, founder and a creative director of Solitude Studios.

“Culture is dependent on itself — much like nature,” adds Sophia Martinussen, the brand’s other creative director. So if the internet has become rotten food disintegrating into soil, the culture that feeds off of it is becoming fertilizer. When asked what comes after apocalyptic fashion trends and the deconstruction of clothing, the designer duo agrees: “an apocalypse, hopefully.”

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How the Apocalypse Came to Fashion