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From pandemic to pandemonium, this is the fashion year in review

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Mapping the peaks, pitfalls, and Patrizias, here’s our definitive guide to WTF actually happened in 2021

Over and over this year we’ve heard the refrain of the ‘the return’. Of the red carpet. Of the in-person runway. Of fashion season street style. Of glamour. Of wearing absolutely any other clothes than dirty, overdue-a-wash joggers. But what did the year in fashion actually look like as we emerged bleary-eyed from isolation? 

There was logomania at Fendi, Balenciaga, Gucci and Versace, who spliced, diced and cross-pollinated their unmistakable monikers, and the chaos of Paris, Milan, New York, and London’s fashion weeks reigned again. Kim Kardashian entered her Balenciaga era, as Demna Gva – well, just Demna now, actually – took over creative direction of her wardrobe following her split from Ye. Trend tip: mononyms are hot for 2022, as are goth boyfriends, if PDA-heavy PR stunts from Kourtney K, Travis Barker, Megan Fox, and Machine Gun Kelly are anything to go by.

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Elsewhere, Billie Eilish cast off the baggy layers and squeezed into a corset, Lil Nas X won the red carpet, and fashion took a deep dive into the metaverse, as NFTs, VR, and deep fakes infiltrated the industry. The year was also bookended by two enormous losses, as Alber Elbaz died from COVID-19 in April, and Virgil Abloh passed away from a rare heart cancer in November. Both leave their own indelible mark on the industry, and proved – as sickly as it sounds – that kindness really can be cool. 

Here, we’ve rounded up some of this year’s most memorable fashion moments, taking you through the last 12 months bit by digestible bit. 

JANUARY

The year began with a casualty: Big Topshop, the 90,000 square-foot Oxford Circus flagship, closed in the first week of January, symbolic of a year spent watching TikTok teens lambast millennials for their fast fashion habits, while plenty slip into a new Shein dress for every video. 

As one massive glass door closes, another one opens. Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration unexpectedly launched two fashion faces in the form of Kamala Harris’ stepdaughter Ella Emhoff, and poet Amanda Gorman, who wore pearl-encrusted Miu Miu and yellow Prada, respectively. Both were signed to IMG Models before the month was out. And speaking of Prada, Raf Simons made his long-awaited menswear debut with a bunch of geometric long-johns and a very cute student roundtable, live-Zoomed from around the world. 

A few matches were made in heaven. Harry Styles borrowed Phoebe Waller-Bridge for his “Treat People With Kindness” music video where the duo danced in sparkling Gucci suits with matching vests and flared trousers. Kate Moss and her daughter, Lila Moss, walked the runway together for the first time at Fendi – a very “I thought you were sisters!” moment for Madame Moss. Then, Reebok designed hand-painted Maison Margiela Tabis, the latest in camel-toe collabs.

FEBRUARY

The first gender-fluid London Fashion Week in history was kicked off by Harris Reed, the 25-year-old Central Saint Martins graduate favoured by Miley Cyrus and Harry Styles. The collection, titled For Now, Unexplained, deconstructed the irrelevant lines of masculine and feminine. It was also the first LFW post-Brexit, which saw designers like Richard Quinn and Bethany Williams speak out on how the decision to leave the EU had impacted their brands. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t good news.

The pandemic has also forced hard decisions; less than two years after Rihanna and LVMH linked up to launch Fenty, the project paused due to profit losses and the singer’s inability to travel to France and Italy to work on designs. Savage x Fenty and Fenty Beauty aren’t going anywhere fast, though, so fans need not panic.

MARCH

The year’s award circuit kicked off with The Golden Globes, as Sarah Paulson slipped into a custom Prada arm cast to match her custom Prada gown. Molly Goddard’s pouffy creations were also a hit, as Rosamund Pike and Derry Girls’ Nicola Coughlan both went for voluminous tulle looks. 

At the Grammys, Phoebe Bridgers elevated her signature skeleton look with a beaded Thom Browne dress, Doja Cat performed in latex Jean Paul Gaultier, and Kaytranada accepted the Best Dance Album in a silver Louis Vuitton suit designed by Virgil Abloh. 

The bona fide star of the night, however, was Harry Styles (yes, him again) and his green and purple Gucci feather boa moment. Reports from global shopping platforms suggested page views on the accessory shot up by 1,500 per cent. Another luxury accessory was also all over the timeline, as Hermès got busy experimenting with a mushroom-based leather substitute for its “Victoria” bag, indicative of the increasing demand for ethical options and the rebranding of “faux leather” to “vegan leather”. 

Don’t think for a minute that leather is out, though. Heralding the boundary-pushing label’s return to the limelight, Naomi Campbell wore puffed-up leather jackets in Hood By Air’s first ready-to-wear campaign since Shayne Oliver put it on ice in 2017. Moto jackets, on the other hand, were deemed “cheugy” by Gen Z. On March 30, a 24-year-old Los Angeleno coined the word on TikTok to describe a style that is basic, off-trend, and girlboss-adjacent. Cheugy is best understood by way of example, though, of which there are many, but none more so than the inventor hawking the word as an NFT (it’s still on sale).

APRIL

This was the month when Gucci ripped off Balenciaga, intentionally. Not a collaboration but a “hack” project, Alessandro Michele and Demna layered references, silhouettes, and logos in the ultimate fashion mindgame. Critics were polarised but unified in the knowledge that we will talk about this show for years to come.

We won’t remember every fit from the 2021 Oscars, though, where there was no consistent post-pandemic dress code. While Colman Domingo’s hot-pink Versace suit featured 4,500 Swarovski crystals and sequins, Frances McDormand was in a black Valentino t-shirt dress. Cutout details were seen on Zendaya and Carey Mulligan in Valentino, and Andra Day in gold lamé Vera Wang – Day was nominated for her role as Billie Holiday, where she wore almost head-to-toe archive Prada. Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix wore the same Stella McCartney suit for the entire awards circuit in the name of sustainability. 

Phoenix would likely be a fan of Priya Ahluwalia, who launched her first womenswear collection in mid-April using deadstock Ganni fabrics from 2020. Better still, the line was influenced by the UK garage scene. On April 26, a pair of Nike Air Yeezy 1 prototype sneakers set the new record for the highest-priced sneakers ever: $1.8 million. 

Amid the milestones was the news that Alber Elbaz, creative director of Lanvin from 2001 until 2015, died of COVID-19 at age 59. There wasn’t a mid-00s red carpet event that didn’t see Chloë Sevigny, Natalia Vodianova, or Natalie Portman wearing one of his gowns, and we mourned with slideshows of his best.

MAY

Singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo released her album Sour on May 21, solidifying the Y2K revival. In the “Brutal” music video, directed by Petra Collins, Rodrigo went heavy on nostalgia with a plaid miniskirt, newsboy caps, butterfly hair clips, and a Vivienne Westwood choker. The 18-year-old wore a custom red sequin look from Dior to perform “Driver’s License” at the BRITs while Dua Lipa paid homage to Ginger Spice’s Union Jack dress. Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards and Leigh-Anne Pinnock sported matching baby bumps, in wet-look Margiela no less.

It was Eurovision that satiated a global desire for glitter and glamour after a year of sweats. Italy’s Måneskin, who rose up to become 2021’s winners (and categorically did not sniff a line of coke on live TV), wore studded burgundy leather by Etro and conjured up ideas of a glam rock resurgence. It wasn’t long before they were starring in their very own Gucci campaign, either.

For those of us still on the couch, Netflix dropped the Ryan Murphy miniseries Halston, starring Ewan McGregor as the designer who dressed everyone from Andy Warhol to Jackie Kennedy. But his family said it was an inaccurate portrayal, and Variety wrote that “the show just shrugs”. In good news for iconic 90s classique Clueless, Rodarte declared Alicia Silverstone aka Cher Horowitz their new muse.

JUNE

Billie Eilish used the June cover of British Vogue to debut a look very different from her trackies and knee-length t-shirts – a vampy Alexander McQueen corset dress. Not everyone was a fan, with some women claiming they felt betrayed by her “conformity”. Ultimately, the 19-year-old inspired a conversation about the aesthetic expectations for young women and the entitlement that the public feel towards famous women’s bodies.

Victoria’s Secret also began to think about some of those issues, with their Angels hanging up their wings after a self-inflicted rough few years. The once-untouchable lingerie mega-label announced a rebrand that’s set to tout inclusivity and diversity, with the fantasy finally expanding to envelop a new line-up, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Paloma Elsesser, Adut Akech, and more. Obviously, it’s about fucking time – welcome to 2021, Vicky!

On the runway, Marc Jacobs triumphantly returned with his first collection since the pandemic started. Simple, dramatic, oversized, and, yes, full of logos. Off the runway, the designer entered his mall goth era in a formidable pair of wide-legged jeans. Also experimenting heavily with fashion, Kid Cudi called up Virgil Abloh and got him to kit him out in an Off-White prom dress for an appearance on SNL. But no one experimented harder than Central Saint Martins’ Class of 2021, who also made it back onto the catwalk with their brilliantly berserk final year show. 

Special shout-out also goes to Zendaya, who recreated Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” look at the BET Awards. 2021 belonged to the Dune star.

JULY

At Paris Couture Week, Pyer Moss became the first Black American fashion house ever invited to show, and designer Kerby Jean-Raymond did not disappoint; a bottle-cap skirt embroidered with “Delicious and Refreshing” is an apt summary. Balenciaga returned to haute couture for the first time since 1968. Demna Gvasalia paid homage to Cristóbal Balenciaga – the collection was presented in silence, per tradition – while re-energising the atelier with wild colours and proportions. Distressed denim, in a couture show? Sure, why not. 

Telfar Clemens took his designs all the way to the Olympics, as he dressed the Liberian team in his signature sportswear. Though they weren’t competing, Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner clasped their carabiners on tight to clamber through the mountains in Jacquemus’ latest, while Ashley Olsen slashed her way through the woods clutching a beer and a machete – chic. The cutest fashion sports moment, however, was when Tom Daley was spotted killing time with the knitting needles on the sidelines, as he got crafty creating a homespun Team GB cardigan. 

Rounding off the month came BIG news from the belly of fashion. Rumbling up and exploding out across social media, Phoebe Philo announced she was back, baby, and getting ready to launch her own ready-to-wear and accessories line. Fans of her cloaking minimalism were left pining for 2022.

AUGUST

Copenhagen Fashion Week epitomised the new hybrid IRL/URL model, wherein runway shows give way to short films, lectures, and virtual experiences. Stine Goya, Cecilie Bahnsen, and Ganni all toed the line of tradition and modernity. In-person in Los Angeles, Demna Gvasalia directed the look and feel of Kanye West’s second Donda listening event, which included performers praying to Ye, the scent of smoke machines and marijuana, and a pared-down recreation of West’s bedroom onstage: mattress, blanket, coat, shoes, stereo, candle. The whole ordeal could have done without a cameo from Marilyn Manson however.

Shein, perhaps the most evil of the fast-fashion giants, created a “philanthropic” reality TV show where independent designers competed for a $100,000 prize and capsule collection. It’s extremely awkward given the numerous allegations of plagiarism from boutique brands leveraged against the Chinese company. 

Meanwhile, someone doing it right was GmbH; after a summer of continuous human rights atrocities in Gaza, the German label paired with Palestinian label tRASHY CLOTHING to produce a graphic arts-inspired Free Palestine capsule.

SEPTEMBER

Lil Nas X won the weekend that bedraggled New York’s fashion reporters. At the VMAs, the “Video of the Year” winner donned a lilac one-shoulder suit-cum-gown designed by Versace. Less than 24 hours later, he wore three more Versace fits to the Met: a royal cape torn away to reveal a gold suit of armour that concealed a shimmering catsuit.

The 2021 Met Gala theme, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, spawned an array of interpretations. Among the looks that became Halloween costumes were Kim K’s total-coverage Balenciaga and Frank Ocean and his weird little robot baby. We wondered, was Kim trolling us or making a statement about the nature of celebrity and sexuality in American culture? Cara Delevigne left nothing to interpretation with a Dior-designed bullet-proof vest that read, “PEG THE PATRIARCHY”; nor did US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in an ivory Brother Vellies jacket dress with “Tax the Rich” emblazoned in red. 

In their first public appearance as a couple, Rihanna and A$AP Rocky showed up late, looking like they’d literally just rolled out of bed. And they still looked better than everyone else – though not as good as Ri looked when she became a giant blunt courtesy of Jawara Alleyne on the cover of Dazed’s 30th anniversary issue. It was also going well for another CSM grad at this point in the year, as Nensi Dojaka of Albania took home the 2021 LVMH prize for young designers. Zendaya, Jourdan Dunn, and Dua Lipa have all been spotted in her sexy, deconstructed, sheer creations. 

Fashion Week swirled around buzzy designers’ announcements – unless you were plugging your ears in the front row like Larry David. Telfar launched Telfar TV, a public-access station for limited “drips” and fan-generated content, in line with the brand’s message that “it’s not for you, it’s for everyone.” The Row launched a sumptuous kids’ collection, so you can pick out the most stylish (and moneyed) toddlers around. For the adults, rumours about Fendace (Versace x Fendi) were confirmed at a secret Milan show. 2021 was undoubtedly the year of monster mash-ups. 

Meanwhile, Marni marked itself out as a major show of the SS22 season with its ‘happening.’ With all attendees kitted out in custom looks, the reconciliatory moment caused even some of the most cynical of editors to shed a tear of joy at IRL shows being back.

OCTOBER

On October 1, Balenciaga’s collection for SS22 debuted as if it were a film premiere, with celebrities like Cardi B, Elliot Page, and Bella Hadid walking a red carpet before taking their seats in a Paris theatre. The film was in fact an episode of The Simpsons where Demna Gvasalia invited the town of Springfield to walk in his show. The designer watched the show growing up amid the civil war in Georgia and the break-up of the USSR, and the collab epitomises his interest in reworking aesthetics of post-Cold War culture. 

In an alternate universe, Maggie Simpson could also wear Rick Owens, who released miniature versions of his trademark Geobasket high-tops for goth offspring this month. Kanye was not quite kid-friendly with multiple terrifying masks, including a smokey-eyed Caucasian mask at JFK airport a few days after he appeared as a pale blue alien in Venice. Masked villains took over TV screens as Squid Game became Netflix’s most-watched series in history. And then, the K-drama’s star, HoYeon Jung, was declared a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton.

SS22 officially came to a close in early October, but just as editors had settled back in at home and gotten through a fortnight’s worth of laundry, Sarah Burton debuted her latest collection for McQueen on top of a towering car park on the Thames – with Naomi Campbell making her return to the house’s runway for the first time since Lee himself was at the helm. Gillian Anderson scored a Loewe campaign and Miu Miu menswear made a hint at a (possible) comeback. Similarly turning the clock back to the mid-00s was TikTok trend forecaster Mandy Lee, who heralded the comeback of Indie Sleaze, a Tumblr-indebted movement that gave rise to Erol Alkan et al. Dust off your disco pants, because bloghaus is back. 

NOVEMBER

November was the month for fashion in film. House of Gucci premiered, featuring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver in 80s suits, mink furs, and Dior ski goggles. Costume designer Janty Yates created 500 outfits for the film because “(Gaga) refused to repeat anything. Even earrings.” Real-life Chanel ambassador Kristen Stewart took on the mighty task of playing Princess Diana in Spencer. The film’s pièce de résistance was a strapless gown from Chanel’s spring 1988 haute couture collection. Virtual film festival GucciFest called on Gus Van Sant to capture Silvia Calderoni ambling around Rome, bumping into artists like Jeremy O. Harris and Florence Welch. The platform also served as a space for fresher faces like Ahluwalia, Rave Review, Gui Rosa, and Bianca Saunders to debut collections.

The fashion world’s collective jaw dropped from the announcement that Daniel Lee was leaving Bottega Veneta after just three years as creative director. Lee reinvented the luxury house, winning designer and brand of the year at the 2019 British Fashion Awards. Jaws of non-fashion people dropped when Kim Kardashian made a reported $1 million in one minute from the first drop of Fendi x SKIMS. Her friend Cardi B hosted the American Music Awards and naturally changed outfits eight times. On the red carpet, she donned a surreal golden mask, veil, and dangly fingernail earrings, all by Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry. After winning “Favorite Hip Hop Song”, Cardi went angelic in a shell-inspired capelet by Miss Sohee.

The month ended with the tragic news that Virgil Abloh died at age 41 after battling cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of heart cancer. Abloh literally changed the course of fashion with Off-White, where he bridged hypebeast streetwear desires and luxury label sensibility. “There are people around this room who look like me,” he told The New York Times in 2018. “You never saw that before in fashion. The people have changed, and so fashion had to.” As the Times wrote in their obituary, “He made it so.” Abloh’s final collection for Louis Vuitton SS22 (where he was the label’s first Black artistic director) went down the runway at Miami’s Art Basel two days later. The words “VIRGL WAS HERE” lit up the sky as friends like Pharrell Williams and Kid Cudi mourned what we’ll never see from the visionary designer.

DECEMBER

Christmas came early for the haters. Chanel was scorned on social media when a TikTok user revealed what was inside the fashion house’s $825 advent calendar, including a plastic bracelet that resembled a gift tag, a tiny dust bag, and a keychain. “This has to be a joke. Stickers? Stickers?” will haunt the brand, which has since apologised. But the label does get a cameo in the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That, which premiered with plenty of Easter eggs. Carrie wore the blue satin buckle Manolo Blahnik Hangisi pumps from her wedding, and a massive floral Chanel brooch like the ones she wore while dating Aidan in season three.

News for the very online: Calvin Klein bagged Pete Davidson and Machine Gun Kelly for an underwear campaign, or so it seems based on cryptic Instagram hijinks. MGK also followed in the footsteps of Harry Styles and launched a genderless nail polish line, UN/DN LAQR, that has him coordinating manicures with Megan Fox and has others pointing out that nail polish is already genderless. Lana Del Rey appeared to wear an $18 Shein dress to accept Variety magazine’s artist of the decade award. BLACKPINK’s Lisa Manobal walked her first runway at Celine, an apt way to end a year of the K-Pop idols’ aesthetic influence.

Fashion ended 2021 by officially entering the metaverse. JW Anderson and digital auctioneer Xydrobe turned a viral patchwork cardigan worn by Harry Styles into an NFT to fundraise for an LGBTQ+ youth homelessness charity. The “hyper-realistic digital copy” took 300+ hours to make, as every piece of yarn was built in 3D before it was woven together in six different knit patterns. The CEO of Balenciaga announced that the label had established a meta-department manned by a hundred engineers, and the Institute of Digital Fashion and The Dematerialised launched a set of NFTs on LUKSO, an energy efficient blockchain. Even Nike was getting in on the act, as it invested in virtual sneaker label RTFKT.

The very idea of NFTs is apt for fashion’s year on the whole: an unhinged beast of a thing that, no matter anyone’s polarised opinions, will live in the digital realm – mothball-free – forever.