This has been, as many critics and observers have noted, one of the strangest fashion months in memory. The industry’s traveling circus put on shows with the Coronavirus outbreak as a background. And with that situation as a roiling backdrop, it seemed to put into clearer focus than ever the messages of fashion – running the gamut from poignant to insipid – against the very real possibility of economic and political downturns that might significantly shift our lives, and the way we dress, in the years to come. Here are the big takeaway thoughts from the Fall/Winter 2020 season. 

Quiet power

The question of power – for women, at least – has always been one of the central issues to watch for in fashion. The clothes interplay in a cultural predict-and-react tete-a-tete that makes sense of where we’re at and where we’re headed. Power dressing – which got its distinct look in the ’80s via big shoulders and severe, tailored lines – is coming to a new head in this decade. 

One of the most significant ways this is being examined is through the suit, and how that masculine emblem of authority is being redefined for a woman’s wardrobe. Somewhat unanimously, the industry seemed to zoom in this season on the work of Yohji Yamamoto in the 1980s. Specifically, a somber all-black aesthetic that denounces trends and frivolity. 

At houses like Bottega Veneta and Givenchy, there was a focus on that vein of quiet, assured tailoring. Those brands, under fairly new creative leadership, are inching to the top of the fashion industry’s ladder of thought leaders. It was even present in younger labels like Gauchere, where the strong tailoring got an even more confident look, grounded in the ideals of classicism. 

A sense of history

This year’s blockbuster exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute is titled “About Time: Fashion and Duration”. Naturally, that means an exploration of time and its effects on fashion design and the clothes we wear. It’s a topic that’s been coming to a boil in fashion, started very clearly perhaps in the work of Jonathan Anderson at Loewe, where he’s put pin-sharp focus on interpreting time-honoured crafts. 

It was clear, too, when Nicolas Ghesquiere presented his collection, backed by a chorus of singers in period dresses and outfits. Ghesquiere is a designer whose work is often described as futuristic, but as with all innovation and change, the future builds on what’s come before. Increasingly, designers seem to be looking to elements of historical dress – corsetry, crinolines, lingerie – and ripping them apart for the present. We saw that sense at Olivier Theyskens’ and Sarah Burton’s Alexander McQueen collections most clearly, and it seems those designers’ romanticism and penchant for the past are getting a wider mainstream moment.

Heightened present

Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga is turning out to be one of fashion’s most able speakers on current events. The industry, which has navel gazed, hemmed and hawed around the topic of climate change, was given a shock when he showed an apocalyptic collection. In a flooded show venue, with a dramatically projected ceiling of the Earth, its sky, and hellfire, he sent out a collection precisely encapsulating the cultural anxiety around impending environmental doom. 

It’s one nihilist’s way of dealing with the present, but it was also very much the topic at hand for young talents like Marine Serre, who are putting environmental sustainability at the heart of their brands. Almost half of her collections use upcycled fabrics and materials, and the look of it is a post-postmodern version of helter skelter haute couture. It’s got a currency and urgency to it that speaks to this generation of fashion’s consumers – of a demand for more responsibility and thoughtfulness. Fashion can be fickle with what it thinks about, but what’s clear is that the environmental emergencies of today are more than a passing trend, something serious to keep in mind.