For her Autumn Winter 2019 ready-to-wear show, ‘Radiation,’ French designer Marine Serre sent models down a subterranean runway on the outskirts of Paris. Reminiscent of cyberpunk fictions of the 1980s, the neon-hued post-apocalyptic collection juxtaposed full body spandex suits and pollution-deterring facemasks with faux fur and colourful tartan outfits. A wacky culmination of sci-fi wear and excessive tailoring made all the more fantastic by the dark, bunker-like setting it was shown in.
‘It’s a positive message that there is something after [the apocalypse],’ Marine Serre mused in an interview before the show. ‘We should stop being such pessimists.’1
Never mind global pandemics, refugee crises, and melting ice caps. According to Serre, when the apocalypse occurs we’ll need protection from the elements, but we won’t have to forgo luxury altogether. There will still be fashion after the nuclear dust settles.
In an era when inequality is on the rise and climate collapse seems all but inevitable, the fashion industry is rife with luxury brands, like Stella McCartney, preaching the power of ethical production. But along with the promise of sweatshop-free labour and vegan leather shoes, there’s another trend emerging. It’s an alternative type of virtue signalling that enables brands to appeal to consumers’ existential anxieties without changing their production practices. I call it doomsday marketing.
Today’s most savvy cultural producers know that we’ve begun to feel helpless in the face of climate catastrophe, rising fascism and, more recently, global pandemics, and are capitalising on that vulnerability. Along with post-apocalyptic garb and water-soaked catwalks there has been a rise in prepper-focused startups (Judy), nihilistic memes, and pop albums (Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell) that play with our collective sense of impending doom. All of these things represent a new kind of fetishisation for end days, a feeling of safety in knowing that although there is little hope for the future, we can consume things that will make us feel better when the earth begins to implode. But along with Yeezy-branded hazmat hoods and tactical vests at Louis Vuitton, come new questions of what we are dressing for, and who, if anyone, will benefit from buying into the apocalypse.
For their Spring Summer 2020 campaign, Balenciaga collaborated with artist Will Benedict to create an eerie, post-apocalyptic news reel showcasing the label’s latest clothes.2 In it, AI-like news anchors in exaggerated suit jackets silently mouth the nightly news while eerily calm depictions of traffic-free streets and mysterious sinkholes flash behind them. A planetary eclipse showcases the brand’s most recent iteration of matrix-esque blackout sunglasses, while more cheerfully patterned dresses are displayed on pedestrians crossing a road. In this post-apocalyptic near-future, everyone is either dressed as a corporate overlord (in heavy suiting and earrings with credit card motifs), or as wealthy plebeian consumers mesmerised by obvious capitalist symbols, like handbags in the shape of Hello Kitty.
Balenciaga uses nostalgic silhouettes to demonstrate how we can dress for a future that may not exist, but it also plays to our current anxieties surrounding surveillance and climate change. Along with headlines that promise youth voter turnout and self-driving cars, there is an underlying feeling of cynicism — an understanding that even if we build a techno-utopia, we won’t regain our privacy. It may be too late to control the fate of the planet but we can still wear glamorous, Eighties-inspired clothes.
Of course fashion campaigns have tried to tackle societal issues in the past, with more or less successful results. In the 1990s Diesel released a series of ads that critiqued inequality, segregation, and gun violence. And in 2010, Karl Lagerfeld addressed the looming climate crisis with a Chanel ready-to-wear Autumn Winter runway show that featured a giant hand-carved iceberg sculpture and models adorned with an excess of neutrally-coloured furs.
Today’s apocalyptic-inspired brands have seemed to forgo the criticism waged on their forebears — perhaps because of their popularity in the art world3 or a rise in what meme-makers call ‘doomer culture,’ a desire to acquiesce to, or accelerate global collapse. This trend has been visible in pop star Grimes’ marketing for her latest record, Miss Anthropocene, a play on words to conceptualise humanity’s impact on the globe, and the potential benefit of our own, self-inflicted extinction.
To promote the album Grimes collaborated with artist Ryder Ripps on a series of billboards that read ‘CLIMATE CHANGE IS GOOD,’ and conceptualised WarNymph, a child-like digital avatar in her image, with her brother Mac Boucher. To accompany a recent interview in The Fader, a hairless WarNymph was portrayed by 3D artist Dylan Kowalksi in a series of Balenciaga gowns from the brand’s Spring Summer 2020 ready-to-wear collection. The dresses, a futuristic take on the house’s most notorious silhouettes, included bounce-y ballroom gowns in politician red and Facebook blue. Perfect formal wear for an evil alien overlord, at least when Grimes’ avatar was wearing them.
All this is to demonstrate the irony rife in the post-apocalyptic styles created by today’s most popular designers. The clothes may be a tongue-in-cheek critique of those who wield the most power in society, but when designers like Serre are selling gilet jaunes (made to mimic the vests worn by French protesters in 2019) for over $1000, and Balenciaga dresses are being worn by an avatar (who represents the girlfriend of billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk), dressing for the end of the world becomes an inside-joke, afforded only by the rich.
This fact becomes all the more obvious when we’re confronted by a real crisis. It’s easy to call Serre’s brightly coloured collections optimistic when facing a near-future, existential threat, but when millions are confronted with facemask shortages during a global pandemic, expensive, high fashion protective gear no longer looks cute. Today we have pop stars like Billie Eilish wearing Gucci monogram facemasks and models like Naomi Campbell posing in hazmat suits while the rest of us are left DIYing bras into protective wear.
Like ads for bulletproof backpacks and panic orange ‘go bags’ the commodification of terror is always disturbing, even when the result seems practical. Yet we cannot blame regular consumers for their desire to achieve the preparedness of the elite. Though we may not be able to afford panic rooms and off-grid bunkers, or even a two-week supply of food, a slime green gift-with-purchase mask along with Billie Eilish’s latest album may make us feel one step closer to emulating those who can. It’s the reason why people are stocking up on toilet paper during a pandemic that affects our lungs. In end-times we will buy anything to make us feel prepared for the inevitable, but only the rich will survive.
Taylore Scarabelli is a New York-based writer whose work focuses on fashion, feminism and technology. She is fond of Ed Hardy and fist-size hoops.