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Roberto Cavalli

2024 has seen the death of 80s fashion legends Claude Montana and Roberto Cavalli. Both were known for their influence on fashion with their own take on flamboyance and ostentatious elegance. Montana helped define the power-woman dressing movement of the 1980s while Cavalli shaped his era-defining glamour through his signature mix of loud animal prints. These fashion behemoths were the creative geniuses of their era because they understood how to translate what luxury meant to a woman — or rather what that era of luxury meant to women of the time, through nuanced sartorial choices.

Claude Montana

The 80s were a time of contention. The world was going through growing tensions and power struggles of the Cold War, the AIDS epidemic, a rise in conservatism, and neoliberal economic ideology brought on by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the fight against apartheid in South Africa alongside the rise of feminism and the women’s rights movement. These social issues were subliminally reflected the collections seen on the runways at the time.

Claude Montana

Big-shouldered jackets, sculpted silhouettes, androgynous-chic models were the embodiment of the 80s-camp femme fatale whose exaggerated ideals of feminism were displayed by Claude Montana and his peer at the time, the late Theirry Mugler. The “working woman” took on a different persona; she was eroticised, hyper-sensual and dominant. Dubbed “glamazons” by the media at the time, these women were no longer subservient to external influences and social issues that were out of their control. Thus, luxury formed a different meaning to the women at the time. An ostentatious display of wealth was equated with her status, reflecting the “more is more” sense of abundance that was welcomed in the era.

Claude Montana

However, as trends come and go, so did the star of Claude Montana’s once supreme Maison. Perhaps due to the death of his wife, his ongoing battle with drugs, or perhaps the inability to adapt to the changing trends, as deconstructed silhouettes and minimalism began making their way onto the runway, “retailers started to drop his line and in 1997, the House of Montana went bankrupt and he was forced to sell it”, states The New York Times. Roberto Cavalli on the other hand, made a more successful transition from the 90s to the 2000s.

Roberto Cavalli

Perhaps it was the use of his distinctive animal prints or his experimentation with patchwork and textiles but the the end of the late nineties and the new millennium was dominated by Roberto Cavalli’s signature sex appeal and penchant for wild animal patterns. Cavalli understood the high-octane nature of fashion at the time and thigh-high slits and ample cleavage dominated the red carpet.

While luxurious furs and leathers are a representation of wealth in itself, Roberto Cavalli’s designs also harkened to the primitive nature of wearing the skin of animals to absorb and embody its powers thus, his designs of the time were seen on Sharon Stone, Victoria Beckham and Beyoncé showcasing a generation of powerful women who were in control of their own power and sexuality. However, as the changing tides of fate would have it, preferences and tastes evolved and so the house of Roberto Cavalli faced a period of financial difficulties that led to its bankruptcy in 2019.

Audacious Appeal vs Quiet Luxury

The Row

Loud prints and big silhouettes are fading into oblivion as the decadence of the 90s and 00s shifted towards the increasing demand for “quiet luxury” of the 2020s. Bottega Veneta, Céline, Victoria Beckham, The Row, Jil Sander, Loro Piana, Phoebe Philo, and even fashion giants Hermès and Prada-owned Miu Miu are but a few fashion houses whose collections speak volumes without being conventionally “glamorous”. The demand speaks for itself, the launch of Phoebe Philo’s eponymous brand nearly sold out within 24 hours despite its high price point (and with no ads or shows). As for The Row, Mary-Kate, the current creative director, and Ashley, the CEO shared in an interview with the Financial Times in 2023 that the company had been growing “at around 20 percent to 30 percent each year”. Miu Miu saw retail sales increase by 58 percent in 2023 and accelerated by 82 percent in the fourth quarter of the financial year resulting in the net revenue of the Prada Group rising by 17 percent.

Pheobe Philo

At the same time, brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci who highlight their signature monogram patterns and logo-ed motifs find their sales hit by a luxury spending slowdown. According to Bloomberg, LVMH sales growth slowed at the start of the year as wealthy consumers reined in spending on pricey Louis Vuitton handbags while last month Kering-owned Gucci reported that “forecast group sales would decline by about 10 percent for the first three months of the year, significantly worse than consensus expectations for 3 percent drop”.

High Concept vs Commercial Success

It is evident that men and women have different approaches when it comes to designing, specifically for women. Two prime examples are John Galliano for Christian Dior (1996-2011) and the late Alexander McQueen for his namesake label (1992-2010). Like the aforementioned Theirry Mugler and Claude Montana, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen had a longstanding history as famed peers (and rivals) going back to their time as design students at Central Saint Martins. They both were at the helm of notable luxury fashion houses and were instrumental in defining the trends of women’s dressing from the late 90s to the end of the 2010s. Their houses would also later be headed by women — Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Sarah Burton at McQueen.

John Galliano for Christian Dior

To put it simply, Christian Dior Haute Couture shows were wild. As wild as the shows were, the collections were also conceptual fantasies, featuring Egyptian princesses, BDSM brides, Japanese romanticism, and the juxtaposition of a bourgeois fantasy with raunchy French maids.

Alexander McQueen Spring 1998 show

Alexander McQueen on the other hand, went down a darker more controversial route from his Highland Rape Autumn/Winter 1995/96 collection to his Spring 1998 Golden Shower show (later renamed to Untitled). Mcqueen merged political prowess with fashion as he referenced his Scottish roots with tartan suits for the former while he examined sexuality with lavish snakeskin dresses, tailored intarsia suits, and transparent white gowns for the latter. Galliano and McQueen often faced criticism that they were (at times) sexualising the female body, degrading women while also alienating an audience who did not see themselves represented by the women walking down the runway.

This changed when Maria Grazia Chiuri and Sarah Burton took over, ushering in a new era for the brand that saw a contemporary and “democratic” approach. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s take on luxury was subdued and elegant. Take Dior’s recent Fall 2024 collection showcased wardrobe staples and pieces unique for their construction, cut, material, and creativity. There was an element of restraint as jackets were paired with wide-leg pants or below-the-knee pencil skirts alongside 40s-style dresses in hammered satin, crushed velvet and crepe.

Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen

Similarly, Sarah Burton went against her predecessor’s avant-grade aesthetic opting for a feminine “wearable edginess” that focused on traditional workmanship and the technical construction of clothing while displaying her signature ethereal gowns and floral motifs. For both Maria Grazia Chiuri and Sarah Burton it was clear that the collections were designed by women for women in mind. After all, one cannot take away the fact that female designers ultimately understand proportions and fit better than a man would for the simple reason that they are more likely to wear the clothes they create.

Alessandro Michele brought a successful reign during his time at Gucci with his signature showcase of androgynous maximalist designs, therefore his departure in 2022 could sign of the shifting tides to how brands approach luxury. This begs the question, which idea of luxury is more profitable — creatively conceptual or classically commercial? Brands are coming under increasing pressure to see profits which could come at the cost of more conceptual runway collections.

The Rebranding of “Old Money”

Quiet luxury: The trend that took over social media feeds has made its way onto the runway. Gone are the days of loud monogram prints, logo belts, and shiny emblems. Today’s consumers are opting for quality over quantity, as opposed to flashy patterns and flamboyant trends. The old money aesthetic, a term coined by Tiktok creators, references the styles of wealthy individuals—well-made garments crafted from luxurious materials that stand the test of time.

While we’re in the golden age of technology where fashion of every kind is accessible from our smartphones, we’re also on the precipice of experiencing a global recession. There are ongoing tensions regarding how socioeconomically perceptions of wealth are perceived. The notion of old vs new money “hits a nerve” with younger generations of consumers who could view open displays of excess as greed rather than something to be faulted with pride, particularly at a time of social and economic issues and ongoing international crises. Governments are taking notice and are starting to crack down on tax evasion issues among the rich, facilitated by concealing wealth offshore. This is what makes the timing of this trend so interesting.

At a time when individuals are more sensitive to the hardship of others, wealth and luxury have become only for the wearer to appreciate. An intrinsic value of luxury and craft that only the wearer is privy to. Much like how the monogram and “logomania” sees a continual popularity cycle of death and rebirth, so does the visualisation of wealth in our clothing.

Could this phenomenon of less is more be also attributed to the fact that people have less disposable income? Perhaps. Regardless, trends translated from the runways have set the tone for “quiet luxury” while marketing messaging perpetuates the narrative of craftsmanship. Suffice to say, the extravagant display of wealth in fashion has been relegated to ironic memes on social media these days.

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