Why Fashion (And Hollywood) Are Obsessed With The Future

Designers, buyers and influencers talk about the appeal of a sci-fi alternative universe in an age of very real, real world angst.

Consider, for a moment, the impossibly sexy allure of a 'what if?'

As in: with the present, and all its boring, predictably unpredictable disruption, what if you could imagine a different, more perfect-looking future?

There is something inherently optimistic about fashion's long-held soft spot for the futuristic, from the Sixties-era conceptual designs of Courrèges and Paco Rabanne to Hussein Chalayan's wearable tech of the Nineties and the immersive, space-age utopia Alexander McQueen created for his final show, Plato's Atlantis, in 2009. And, this year, the love for sci-fi is growing.

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For proof, just take a scroll through the AW17 runway photo galleries online. There were bulbous 'creatures', scooting down the runway like foil-covered Teletubbies, at Comme des Garçons. While at Gucci, Alessandro Michele covered models in face-to-toe glitter bodysuits, like disco diamanté versions of the robot Maria from Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi film, Metropolis. And at Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld created high-fashion takes on space suits, with a life-size rocket ship as a backdrop. Space is big.

Balenciaga AW17

On a more nuanced note, sci-fi metallics were also in abundance, appearing at Paco Rabanne, J.W. Anderson and Balenciaga, while Christopher Kane mixed them with holographic knits. And on the couture side, Iris van Herpen, known for her avant-garde sartorial science experiments, took her creativity to new levels by turning her models into aquatic extraterrestrials in dresses made of laser-cut metal lace.

Usually, when one thinks of futuristic fashion, it's the fabrics and textiles that come to mind. A little PVC here, some Perspex there, and possibly a little neoprene mixed in. But fashion's latest space age – at ELLE, we're calling it the 'New Future' – is less of a nod (although you can pull it off in small doses, too) and more a bold statement. For examples, see the dress made of slinky, techy chainmail at Paco Rabanne, dramatic metallic dolman sleeves at Loewe and the spacey, silver skirt made from a car mat at Balenciaga.

This is the polar opposite of the understated ease of last year's sportswear. And it's a look that requires the commitment of a stormtrooper.

Gucci Fall 17

The New Future is also a state of mind.

As fashion grapples with what lies ahead (How will the industry look? Are fashion weeks still relevant? Do brick and mortar shops still matter? Will millennials spend on luxury? Will Vetements still be a thing?), there's a school of designers who are reimagining a different kind of future altogether – one that refreshingly ignores all the usual anxieties and debates in favour of a different space and era.

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'Maybe, in this digital time, futurism is a way to express a certain aspect of modernity and address the question of what will happen next in these fast times,' says Julien Dossena, who has spent his past four years as the creative director of Paco Rabanne grappling with the subject. 'We are living in an extreme existence, which is already a futuristic life.'

This is all happening in the same cultural cosmos that gave us the current boom in sci-fi films. In 2017 alone, we've watched a space crew travel to a different galaxy in search of a new planet in the long-awaited prequel Alien: Covenant, and saw astronaut Jake Gyllenhaal try to document life on Mars in Life.

Later this year, big-budget blockbusters, Blade Runner 2049 and Geostorm, hit theatres, followed by the latest from the franchise that birthed them all, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, in December. Speaking of Jedis, last year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens had the biggest opening weekend in movie history*. And next February's Afrofuturistic superhero film from Marvel, Black Panther, is predicted to be one of the year's biggest releases.

Fashion doesn't happen in a vacuum. And as the world inches closer to the fantastical future we once read about in old novels, it's bound to impact the clothes. Just like in the film world, space and futurism have always had a place in fashion, an industry that prides itself on looking forward.

'We [designers] are already one year ahead when we are sketching collections; it comes instinctively,' says Dossena.

Paco Rabanne AW17

But lately, the references seem to have taken on a new escapist tenor.

'In this age of global uncertainty, "feel-good fashion" is on the rise,' says Ida Petersson, buying director at Browns. 'We've seen lots of iterations of this theme for AW17, as designers look to inspire a sense of fun and adventure. What better way to find escapism in fashion than with galactic prints and modern metallics?'

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It's about daring to dream at a time when the future really does feel like it's equally at stake and up for grabs in the midst of global debates around climate change and rapid technological innovation. Nothing illustrates this idea more than the existential slogans that accompanied Alessandro Michele's diamanté disco-bots at Gucci: 'What are we going to do with all this future?' and 'Tomorrow is now yesterday'.

Adam Roberts, Royal Holloway University of London professor and author of The History of Science Fiction, says the idea generally tends to boom during periods of turbulence: 'Many critics date the rise of science fiction either to the time of the French Revolution – Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818 is seen by many as the first distinctly science-fiction novel – or the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, with Jules Verne, H G Wells and Pulp magazine, during another period of upheaval: the first world war.

Saint Laurent AW17

'[Uncertain times] make people anxious about the future, and science fiction is a way of extrapolating current trends into that future.' Dossena agrees: 'It feels like we're experiencing a turning point in our civilisation. Space references can feel like an escape, a projection of what we could be living like in the future, a chance to correct or improve what we are doing now.'

Futurism and space require a different level of imagination because so much of it is unknown and unseen. With that comes a visual bombast that Roberts says is appealing right now: 'Science fiction provides resonant stories for the modern condition. Special effects have become so sophisticated and beautiful, they're almost an art form in their own right. And science-fiction film and television provides us with the most impressive, mind-blowing and "sense of wonder" visual special effects of any mode.'

One could say the same idea applies to fashion, where futurism usually goes hand in hand with cutting-edge, technical feats that can't easily be knocked off. When Paco Rabanne began creating space-age dresses out of aluminium chainmail in the Sixties, it was revolutionary, just as it was when Iris van Herpen showed dresses made from 3D printers in 2009.

Dresses from Alexander McQueen's Plato's Atlantis collection

Lydia King, director of womenswear at Selfridges, says: 'We saw a return to the futuristic aesthetic highlighted in the increase in metallic finishes and dramatic, structural shapes on the runways. Toni Maticevski and Mugler are great examples of designers doing this.'

King sees the idea having the biggest appeal in the evening wear category: 'Our customers' demand for beautiful, unusual occasion wear has increased in the past seasons.' Petersson chalks it up to the mood: 'Space-age fabrics and modern finishes can provide just the uplift we need when the world around us has gone a little bit mad.' After seeing the collections, she counts Sprwmn's second-skin silver, leather trousers and 'those divine crystal Saint Laurent boots' among her big retail buys for AW17.

Ultimately, though, it's the ideas that translate to the day-to-day that will stick and have longevity.

'At the end of the day, it's always about expressing the idea of innovation by being technical, but at the same time trying to ground it in the occurrences of a woman's life now', Dossena says. 'It's about what feels desirable in terms of comfort, lightness and style.'

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