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Fashion

The Fashion Industry's Obsession With The Sci-Fi Trend

The runways are awash with sci-fi influences this season and next. Keng Yang Shuen, self-proclaimed geek of the genre, wonders what this new frontier in space age fashion means for the times.
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Models at Gucci’s F/W ’17 show walked to the soundtrack of hit sci-fi series The OA, and on a clinical glass chamber-turned-runway.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the 35m-tall, hydraulic-fuelled, double “C”-flanked rocket that Chanel sent throttling up the dome of Paris’ Grand Palais for its F/W ’17 show in March. For those who didn’t, well, it stopped short of breaking through the glass roof. Nonetheless, it still made for one of the brand’s (and season’s) most spectacular finales, closing a soaring display that saw models circle down the runway in mod-style minis, glitter boots, metallic quilted wraps and Barbarella-esque blowouts to the tune of – what else – Rocket Man.

A week and a half before that, Italian mammoth Gucci staged its own cosmic parade for Fall/Winter: a trippy set that reimagined a mad scientist’s laboratory (mirrored pyramid centrepiece in tow) with models channelling the style of alien princes and princesses (cue bug-covered biker vests and shiny mesh gimp masks). And while you’re waiting for next season’s looks to drop in stores, why not stop by Coach, which pays tribute to American space missions with the Nasa logo and galaxy prints on tees and outerwear as part of its Pre-fall collection?

Fashion’s fascination with science fiction and its various sub-genres and imagery is far from new, but it’s hard to ignore how it now seems to be expanding and stepping up on its efforts to join the space race (however symbolically). Indeed, a look at the designers who have previously planted their flag in this futuristic realm would mostly compute as novelties, niche or one-of-a-kind iconic.

In the first category, you’ll find Paco Rabanne’s futuristic (at the time) chain mail costumes for Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968). In the second, ’90s and 2000s vanguards like Hussein Chalayan and Iris Van Herpen, whose art has always been more about technological inventiveness than commercial viability. And in the last, the likes of ’60s Rabanne (with his disc-linked dresses – the Barbarella looks were a spin-off), Pierre Cardin and Andre Courreges, and their kitschy Space Age wardrobes (space “helmets”, cut-outs, and the use of industrial materials such as PVC, metal and plastic dominated) – inspired by space exploration that was at the time just turning into a reality. (Russian Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into outer space in 1961.)

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From left: Christopher Kane and Undercover

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From left: Chanel and Roksanda Ilincic

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Our kind of space jam from Pre-fall: Salvatore Ferragamo’s sculptural
booties and Coach 1941’s Nasa logo-emblazoned sweater

Fast forward to Pre-fall and Fall/Winter 2017, however, and science fiction isn’t so much a singular obsession for a handful of brands, but a major theme, with both conceptual and more down-to-earth interpretations. Chanel’s collection, for example, also included a bevy of pretty, billowy silk dresses with astronaut prints. And however weird Gucci gets under Alessandro Michele, those masks and tricked-out jackets are guaranteed for object-of-desire status. There are also an array of looks that appear to be made of liquid metal (Roksanda Ilincic, Christopher Kane).

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There’s a sci-fi renaissance in pop culture now, with cult favourites like Blade Runner (above) and TV shows like The OA (top) gaining popularity.

Uncannily, it’s a cultural revival that’s also taking hold in the world of TV and film. Exactly four decades after Star Wars debuted and helped catapult science fantasy productions into the blockbuster zone, we’re seeing a silver – albeit more sophisticated – age in the genre. This year alone has brought a non-stop run of movie sequels (Alien: Covenant, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), remakes (the controversial Ghost in the Shell), and refreshing new productions (box-office marvel Wonder Woman). Coming soon: even more highly anticipated releases like Star Wars: Episode VIII and Blade Runner 2049, the follow-up to the 1982 Ridley Scott film that remains one of the most stylish and influential in the field.

Meanwhile, Netflix series such as Stranger Things and The OA have captured legions of fans known to binge-watch the equally arresting dramas. (The former revolves around a group of kids dealing with the abduction of their friend by otherworldly creatures, while the latter is about a blind woman who mysteriously resurfaces – sight intact – after being missing for seven years.) Both have also made fashion darlings out of their stars, Millie Bobby Brown and Brit Marling respectively.

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The world’s first cyborg (yep, that’s an antenna implanted in his head), the artist Neil Harbisson, was recently in town for the opening of the Artscience Museum’s Human+ exhibition.

Honor Harger, executive director of the Artscience Museum, which is currently hosting the Human+: The Future Of Our Species exhibition that looks at life in a world of AI, points out that many tend to think that science fiction “gives a window into how the future might play out”. The truth, she says though, is that it’s a way to help us better understand the present.

The sci-fi fever in the ’70s, for example, was a response to the era’s technological advances, according to Nanyang Technological University film lecturer Eternality Tan. That and the fallout from the Vietnam War and economic recession would explain why the most acclaimed shows then tended to be darkly beautiful, dystopian tales.

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Recent Lasalle College of the Arts graduate Jamela Law takes a futuristic approach to fashion by experimenting with 3-D printing to create couture-like designs.

So what to make of today’s cosmic craze, be it sartorially or in pop culture? It can’t be pure coincidence that we’re scaling new heights in aeronautics, with Virgin Galactic announcing at press time that it had successfully performed a flight test, inching one step nearer to its goal of sending tourists into space by 2018. And of course, to paraphrase Karl Lagerfeld’s interview with website The Business of Fashion after that rocket-fuelled Chanel show: Things aren’t exactly great on earth at the moment. If there’s one thing we can count on fashion to do no matter the times, it’s to help us escape the every day.

Coordination Keng Yang Shuen Blade Runner Film Still 

This story first appeared in Female’s July 2017 issue.

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