Have you been feeling the need for a little intimacy? Some skin on skin contact, or at least some skin-skimming fabric to re-ignite your basic instincts?
Well, fashion designers around the world have been feeling exactly the same way, and have you (un)covered with new collections that celebrate a return
“After being cooped up alone during lockdown and restrictions, we’re craving tactility, feelings and emotions,” says Sydney-based Michael Lo Sordo. “There is an itch people need to scratch and they want to get back out there and marry the night.”
Sex is finally back in fashion and all it took was a pandemic.
For a while there it was touch and go whether sensual dressing would survive the night, having evolved from negligees to sweatpants and T-shirts during the day time. With many pursuing relationships online rather than in clubs and bars, the requisite body-skimming dress and heels fell by the wayside in favour of the more modest Zoom blouse, worn again with those aforementioned sweats.
But here we are, having had time to consider our futures, time to swipe our phones with thrice-washed hands and a new desire to show off our bodies once again or at the very least a slice of them.
A fresh era of flaunting has arrived. “There’s a new desire for sensuality that has come from the isolation we all experienced,” says Christopher Esber from Sydney. “People want to feel sexy again and to dress in a way that expresses that.”
And amorous brands everywhere are itching to engage in a ménage à deux, betting that tapping into customers’ base urges will lead to a much-needed sales bump after a year-plus slump under lockdown.
“Designers know we are all ready to have fun and dress up again and are channelling this in a multitude of ways with trending sexy pieces, including Etro’s open back and low-cut floral gown, Petar Petrov’s ribbed body-con dress and Mugler’s fitted cut-out black skirt,” says Net-a-Porter senior market editor Libby Page.
They’re all part of what Matches Fashion head of womenswear Liane Wiggins calls “the new sexy”, with designers “balancing elegance with alluring details in a modern interpretation of power dressing”.
Think tactile and luxe fabrics like silk, cashmere and velvet, cut-outs and lingerie details and soft, fitted knits that cling to the figure in all the right places.
“Sexiness in fashion this season is less overt and more sensual,” agrees David Jones general manager of womenswear, footwear and accessories Bridget Veals. “We have seen an increase in strategic cut-out detailing at the midriff, sides or back, the popularity of silk and cashmere bralettes has risen and the knit dressing trend offers both comfort and desirability with its figure-hugging silhouette.”
Take the debut of Pieter Mulier at Alaïa the house founded by Azzedine Alaïa, which literally defined body-con dressing during couture fashion week in Paris in July. A roll call of body-sculpting knits, multi-strap corset belts and tops cut away to reveal a triangle of solar plexus, it comes at a time when Hot Girl Style is being made newly relevant by a generation of upcoming stars in the latest season of Gossip Girl and the upcoming Sex and the City reboot.
Nor are the delights of sexual encounters and shiny things reserved for young singles in Manhattan, with the runaway popularity of the new Netflix series Sex/Life chronicling a married mother's daring sexual past colliding with her present life in the 'burbs. When the bad-boy ex she can't stop fantasising about re-enters her life, the resultant love triangle with her husband leads to all kinds of steamy situations, with all the outfits to match.
Equally erotic garments featured heavily in the 2021 autumn/winter international collections, ranging from Matthew Williams’ low-rise looks with built-in G-strings at Givenchy, Dior’s sensual Hellenic gowns and Gucci’s feathered skirts, fetish harnesses and black and silver bustiers, which were worn by models carrying whips in the brand’s April 2021 show, just in case you missed the bondage memo.
Closer to home, Esber’s tie and cut-out dresses show plenty of skin while remaining elegant, Paris Georgia’s slippery twist-tops and slip dresses feature seductive cut-outs and Jimmy D and Beka Moore are both fans of sheer garments that cling to the body.
“It’s natural to look forward to an element of hedonism and sensuality after what has been a very isolating time for many,” says Moore. “Pleasures we took for granted are now on the horizon again.”
Men are in the mood for (body) love too, with i-D magazine observing the spring/summer 2022 menswear season "is all about one thing: S-E-X. Skimpy, slutty, scant clothes for vaxxed boys".
You could see them in Riccardo Tisci’s show for Burberry in June, flashing multiple piercings and cut-outs in sheer fabrics and harnesses designed to ignite libidos and sales to the club-starved and horny. “All I want to do is to go to a nightclub and play really loud music,” said Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of menswear, Virgil Abloh, ahead of unveiling his collection in Paris.
Jonathan Anderson of fellow LVMH brand Loewe also cited clubbing as a key experience denied to his clientele over the past year, and both designers delivered collections heavy on look-at-me bright colours, body-con cuts and leather.
Abloh’s gender-bending models wore pleated skirts, miniskirts and tiered puff dresses as part of the designer’s call for an end to ideas of male and female in favour of a “human” approach to dressing. “Antiquated ideals like dress codes and gender fade away in favour of a universal call for peace and love,” he wrote.
Many have drawn parallels between the Covid pandemic and a century ago, during the 1918 Spanish flu. After World War I and one of history’s deadliest pandemics, we had a decade of social and sexual freedom and a creative and economic boom with the clothing to match.
"Fashion stood nearly still from the fall of 1918 to the fall of 1920 with almost no changes in silhouette or novelty," Jonathan Walford, curatorial director at Canada's Fashion History Museum, told The Guardian. He said that in the era that followed the Roaring 20s fashion reflected a society driven by hedonism and a desire to look youthful.
Instead of suits men began wearing “sports clothes [with] caps, plus fours [trousers] and argyle sweaters” and women “the beaded, waistless, sleeveless dresses [which] made them look like they were playing dress up in their mother’s gowns”.
In the new “roaring 20s” Knuefermann designer Turet Knuefermann predicts fashion will once again be used to express a sense of freedom and empowerment.
“The joy of making conscious choices about how we want to look has been reignited, with it now feeling more like a privilege to be able to socialise again,” she says. “To be able to use clothing to enhance and flatter has a powerful effect on how we feel and allows us to be ourselves at our best.”
Knuefermann is offering up delicate sequinned and silk camisoles, buttery soft leather and suede pencil skirts and her best-selling Senna top, that shows off collarbones and shoulders, or can be tweaked to expose décolletage in a more suggestive yet still feminine fashion. At Gloria you’ll find luxe fabrics like velvet and satin, leopard print for those who want to make a statement, and low-cut, sheer and draped options for everything from the bar to the bedroom.
“Maybe everyone spent more time being sensual and getting it on over lockdown,” says Gloria designer Kristine Crabb. “As one of the joys of life, especially in unstable times, we probably just want to keep that going. Looking and feeling sexy is powerful it’s the best you there is.”
Add to this the fact we’ve spent the past year living our lives online, with Instagram, TikTok and OnlyFans offering up endless options encouraging us all to be more experimental, outrageous and eye-catching when it comes to getting dressed.
“Many [in Gen-Z] feel they can be a lot bolder and daring, wearing something that perhaps wouldn’t do IRL (in real life) or to go out,” Sara Maggioni, head of womenswear at WGSN, told Business of Fashion.
Knuefermann says the Instagram effect has trickled down to women of all ages and to the outside world as well as Zoom dance parties.
“Browsing online removes the inhibitions and critical way we tend to look at ourselves as women, rather looking at the overall effect that a garment can have to others when they look at us,” says Knuefermann. “Shopping online can be beneficial in the sense that we are more likely to wear a piece out that we may have been timid to buy prior.”
Crabb concurs, adding we’ve also had plenty of time to play dress-ups with what’s already in our wardrobes. “Online provides plenty of access to fresh inspiration, but also being at home in general is the best incubator for new style, energy and confidence.”
All that time spent scrolling for inspiration is now paying off for retailers reaping the rewards of our desire to re-engage with the outside world with added va-va-voom.
Edited, a retail marketing intelligence firm, found that new products described as “sexy” increased 30 per cent in the three months from February this year compared to the prior three months. Edited tracked a 240 per cent rise in retailers’ offerings of exposed thong pants, while it found less explicit choices like dresses and tops with cut-out details were also becoming more prevalent.
After a year where consumers seemed to want nothing but sweatpants and leggings, it found cocktail dresses, high heels and body-con dresses were selling out at a far faster rate, and Antipodean designers are now also seeing a sales uptick.
“Our best-sellers are anything with a thigh-high split and diamantes,” says Lo Sordo, while Esber reports “cut-out pieces and luxe, sensual fabrics that work with the body have also seen a surge in sales”.
For Crabb, it’s “low-cut and revealing things” and Moore says “some of the more sheer pieces or mesh styles, which in the past have been typically pegged for the braver and bolder customer” are experiencing increased demand.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s a profound shift after a stretch where many designers steered clear of high-octane sexiness. But this time around sexy is different. It’s more inclusive, more gender-fluid and more real.
Consider Jacquemus’ spring 2021 L’Amour collection campaign, featuring same-sex, mixed-race and plus-size couples locking lips in next-to-no clothing, or Diesel’s When Together campaign, featuring real couples straddling each other atop washing machines and in car backseats.
The imagery couldn’t be more different than a picture by Terry Richardson, whose overtly stylised and sexualised photography, where celebrities posed suggestively against a stark white backdrop with bright flash, was emblematic of the last wave of sex-driven marketing.
Richardson has been accused of sexual misconduct by several of his subjects over the past two decades, and many brands stopped working with him after new allegations surfaced in 2017.
The industry is now taking pains to show it’s modernised its views on sexuality, with post-pandemic campaigns far more likely to feature queer and gender-nonconforming models.
And in the post-#MeToo era, many images are shot by photographers who say their goal is to portray sex beyond straight, white, thin, young people and independent of the straight, male gaze.
Add to this a more mainstream de-gendering of fashion with musicians like Harry Styles, Lil Nas X and Troye Sivan pushing the envelope with their fashion choices and, in the case of Sivan and Lil Nas X, choosing to not shy away from sexualising their queerness. The new sexy is looking like something we can all buy into.
“The de-gendering of fashion in terms of mainstream pop culture is pretty ground-breaking,” says Jimmy D designer James Dobson. “From my own perspective, I took lockdown as a reset and an opportunity to re-evaluate my style. I felt empowered by people I discovered on social media that have a fearless sense of style or an inspiring approach to body positivity."
"While I may not be an Adonis, I felt okay wearing a sheer shirt over a mesh bustier, a floor-length latex skirt, or a suit jacket with nothing underneath. The personal is political in this situation, and it feels almost like a form of activism to reclaim your own sexuality and gender identity. It feels like an important catalyst for change.”
Across the world, Net-a-Porter’s Page agrees “sexiness isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s taken on a new meaning it’s all about confidence, regardless of who is wearing it or whether it is a spaghetti 90s dress, a body-con maxi dress with a cut-out back, or a strong power suit with sneakers. The rule book has been broken and we’re backing all iterations.”
Originally published in Viva Magazine – Volume Five