Couture without Masks: Is Fashion in Denial?

Large bows, exquisite embroidery, rich fabrics and breathtaking silhouettes – 2020 Couture Fashion Week is on as usual. But there’s something different this year. Very different.

dior-mythical-garden-tree 2020 Couture Fashion
Couture without masks: Is fashion in denial?

The First-Ever Online Fashion Week: 2020 Couture Fashion

Instead of walking the runway in front of the fashion’s elite, models are now showcasing the designs in indoor studios, posing against stage props, in garden sets or walking in front of colored paper making up makeshift runways. In many cases, the same model is showcasing the whole collection, walking the virtual show for each look. The fashion week presentations are all virtual and presented either on YouTube or Instagram Live.

Every brand chose to present their 2020 couture fashion collections differently. Dior premiered a short film, Chanel presented their collection through a music video, while Schiaparelli created a vlog with their creative director Daniel Roseberry just sketching the designs.

The same model poses for different looks for Chanel Fall-Winter 2020/21 Haute Couture collection

Guo Pei, Viktor&Rolf and Alexis Mabille created virtual fashion shows. Giambattista Valli created editorial videos that looked like fashion campaigns. Ulyana Sergeenko created a behind-the-scenes mixed with 80s music video style choreography. Ralph & Russo even created a digital model for a virtual photo-shoot, much like my cartoon Audrey O., but 3D and digitized.

Digital model Hauli poses for Ralph & Russo couture fashion collection AW2021

While some of the virtual presentations tried to mimic the regular fashion shows, the others embraced the new way of presenting. They used storytelling techniques to showcase the creative process of the ateliers. Almost all presentations blended showing the creative process, design details while trying to inspire the viewer through art and showmanship, just like fashion shows try to do. For me personally, this season felt no different. My team and I have always watched shows online on a large-screen TV in our conference room.

But where are all the Masks in the Couture Collections?

This is the first-ever online fashion week. And I was very excited to see how fashion will showcase the changes in the world brought about by the Coronavirus. But I was surprised by the one common thing among all collections – there were no masks. Despite these extraordinary times of change, fashion in and of itself hasn’t changed – only its presentation did. Is it enough?

Dior Autumn-Winter 2020-2021 Haute Couture collection by Maria Grazia Chiuri, showcased in a film directed by Matteo Garrone

It’s as if the world’s top fashion designers are deliberately trying not to document the pandemic through the language of fashion. It’s as if they don’t want our future generations to look back at this year’s collections and notice that there was even anything different across the world at all.

Couture without masks: Models pose side-by-side in Guo Pei Couture FW 2020 virtual show

Even their fashion show descriptions barely touched the subject. Some houses, like Dior, Chanel ignored mentioning the pandemic completely. While some others mentioned it (only a bit).

The only masks we saw were in backstage shots, though not in all of them.  (Featured: Screenshot from R&R couture campaign video)

Just two of the fashion houses actually talked about how the pandemic had impacted their work. Ralph & Russo’s Creative Director Tamara Ralph said, “We’ve had to adapt a lot to a new way of working. All of the creators have been working remotely.”

We’re Seeing the Impact of the Pandemic on Fashion Industry

The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the fashion industry hard, as I already predicted in March this year. Many (if not all) fashion capitals have some of the highest Covid-19 cases in the world, such as New York, Milan, Mumbai. And thanks to the world-wide lockdowns, ateliers can’t function normally.

Whether or not fashion wants to show this, but we’re seeing these changes. Many of the collections featured lesser number of looks than usual. Giambattista Valli, in fact, did have a couple of ruffled oversized eye-masks somewhat reminiscent of Dior Spring 2018 couture collection, which can double as face-mask alternatives.

giambattista valli--couture-fashion-collection-2020
Giambattista Valli couture fashion collection FW20/21 showcases eye masks

But the concept of fashion in itself has changed in the last few months. No galas, no large weddings to attend, no colleges, restaurants or offices to go to – there are barely any reasons left to buy new clothes and accessories. And with plummeting business revenues and pink slips, many can’t even afford them.

Couture is as beautiful as ever, it makes me as excited as ever, it makes me aspire to see it, wear it, like it always has. But this year, these aspirations beg the question – where will we wear it to? Will we just wear it against a white paper background, trapped in a digital box, posing for the digital world – just like these models? Perhaps. Very Matrix.

Can Couture be Relevant During Covid-19 & Beyond?

With the absence of masks, couture seems to be in denial. Fashion’s pretense that everything is just like it always was says a lot about the state of the industry today. For the past many decades, couture has been the trendsetter, worn by the fashion royalty, the riches. It inspires the premium brands, and then trends finally trickle down to the high street brands.

Take gloves for instance. Gloves are considered a high fashion accessory, but they came in fashion for a purpose. The royalty wanted to keep their hands clean and germ-free as the commoners shook and kissed them. The 2020 couture fashion collections were supposed to do the same for masks – reintroduce them as a high fashion statement. I expected them to introduce designer masks as an accessory that completes a high fashion outfit, rather than being a mismatched afterthought.

In this case, however, they failed to do so, even as small online fashion brands and tiny shops have been selling masks in fun-prints and designs for months now. For the first time in decades, couture is lagging behind fast fashion, losing its relevance.

Is 2020 Couture Fashion Afraid to Show Covid’s Cultural Shift?

couture fashion 2020 review Audrey-O

Fashion inspires. It makes people happy. It makes dreams come true, and it even creates more dreams. But it also has a responsibility beyond all this – to be functional, to be relevant. Fashion design, like any other type of design, is a problem solving exercise.

We expect fashion to be bold, we expect it to lead the way. The purpose of fashion is to be a commentary of the culture, society and behavior of its time. But in case of these couture collections, it seems afraid to speak the truth. This failure makes fashion as a language seem dishonest and vain – the two things people often fear it already is.

Couture without masks: Models pose side-by-side in Ralph & Russo Couture FW 2020 campaign

Unless couture finds a way to be relevant in this fast-changing world, it’s the beginning of the end of couture as we know it, as many like me are questioning functionality over form. At least in the meanwhile, perhaps we need pajamas, not couture.

Read next:
Impact of Coronavirus on the Fashion Industry
Androgynous Clothing & Power Dressing are Runway’s Latest Obsession

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