In mid-December in Paris, I braved my first socially distanced fashion appointment in many months to see Minuit, an exciting debut launched in September by two thirtysomething French women, Laurie Arbellot and Marion Anais Forand. The pair of Proenza Schouler alumnae showed a collection featuring dresses in whisper-thin organza that caressed the figure; slinky fine-knit styles that slipped on and off effortlessly; and tailored suits paired with a bustier to show off the waist or décolletage. Bars and clubs may be shut, but this looked like the ideal wardrobe for an evening of drinking and dancing and a long-after-midnight walk home under the Paris street lamps. As a fit model turned the room in a plunging black silk-crepe dress with gold chain shoulder straps, an unfamiliar feeling ignited inside me. I wanted to put the dress on. And go out out. I wanted… to feel sexy again.
For months I had happily been hiding away in layer upon layer of comfort wear. If my wardrobe in the first lockdown resembled that of a hungover teen in pyjamas, the second confinement, in autumn, was given far greater consideration. I was like a Loro Piana campaign on steroids, or a smug, cashmere-clad housecat shuffling around in my furry Birkenstock slides. But then the news of the vaccine’s arrival made the reality of going to a bar or restaurant, one day at least, a real possibility. Paris by night. God, how I miss you.
The Minuit debut is pure catnip for this. “We wanted something that would make us feel beautiful and desirable and sexy,” says Arbellot of the brand’s aesthetic, which is very much informed by the 1990s – think Glen Luchford’s sensually moody Prada campaigns as well as the va-va-voom figures of the supermodels of this era. Though the Minuit silhouettes are fitted (their pattern-maker is ex-Alaïa), the confident allure is achieved with comfort in mind. “The fluidity is important. It has to feel effortless,” Forand says. “Much of that has been about us feeling really good in our bodies.”
In that respect, it might just be that the sensual comfort offered by knitwear of late has been a gateway drug to this sexier moment waiting in the wings. “Spring/summer 2021 is a softer version of sexy than the almost fetish-like edge of autumn/winter,” says Heather Gramston, head of womenswear buying at Browns Fashion. She cites the upcoming Khaite collection, which features body-skimming ruched dresses that have thigh-high slits or are overlaid with harness tops, as an example. “When you wear something close to the skin, you have to feel good.” Gramston is also betting on skin-revealing shrunken knitwear from Jacquemus, cut-out pieces from London-based Maximilian, and knitted bodycon looks from Israeli designer Dodo Bar Or this season. “I am chomping at the bit to dress up again,” she adds.
Moda Operandi has dubbed the ultra-seductive black bodycon harness dress by Khaite – along with a similar cotton-blend cut-out slip dress by Jacquemus from spring/summer 2021 – as the “naked dress”. Its appeal has hints of Cult Gaia’s sell-out style, the Serita dress, a barely there maxi photographed on Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley that spurred a 1,000-plus-person waiting list. Skin, when the weather allows us to reveal it again, is back in. (Moda Operandi has seen the popularity for bra tops triple in the pre-sale period.)
This skin-showing aesthetic has been a mainstay for London-based designer Nensi Dojaka since her debut in 2019. Working with sheer fabrics such as jersey and organza, she manipulates garments so they appear to sit weightlessly, sometimes as if they are hanging by a thread, with cut-outs and flashes of skin. At once delicate and daring, the play with proportions subverts traditional ideas of sexy via a female gaze, and Dojaka’s approach has garnered her a cult of confident women.
“It’s not about showing skin; it’s about being daring,” she says. “The distortion takes it away from sexualisation and makes it more interesting.” Like the women from Minuit, Dojaka is also informed by the ’90s, and is an admirer of Helmut Lang and Ann Demeulemeester – designers who embraced a more subliminal approach to sexiness. “The way of doing sexy was intellectual then, it was minimalism, and there was an interesting way of exposing skin,” she says.
There has to be something in the fact that a league of female designers is creating collections that feel ripe for female fantasy. It’s personal – women are dressing up for themselves, and there is an emotional charge behind it. For my part, I realise I’m not only fed up with “off-duty” clothing, but also the domesticity of our situation. We’re stuck inside, homeschooling, with little to embrace but decluttering or baking sourdough. Betty Friedan would have much to say about this chapter for women. There was bound to be a backlash. “We will see a boom like the roaring ’20s and a renewed interest in getting out there – socialising, networking, dining out and generally having the great, glamorous time that we’ve all missed terribly in lockdown,” bets Farfetch senior womenswear editor Celenie Seidel.
It didn’t take British-Indian designer Supriya Lele long to rebel against the uniform of tracksuits and oversized items she pilfered from her boyfriend during the first confinement. “As soon as my all-female team started back in the studio, the joy of dressing-up started to creep back in,” she says. “We wanted to look hot, to feel good again.”
Such emotions were fodder for her spring/summer 2021 collection, which she crafted by draping, twisting and turning silk chiffon or lightweight jersey on the body. Her bodices, skirts and dresses reveal the shoulder, a hint of cleavage, the nip of the upper waist, but she’s given great thought to movement and comfort to ensure the silhouettes are inclusive and flattering. “It’s important to me to present a woman who is confident, powerful and sexy,” she says, “but it has to be comfortable.”
To achieve that, she would have her whole team try things on before gauging their emotional responses to how the garments felt to wear. Arbellot, Forand and their team, too, spent days trying on samples. They were looking for a very particular feeling, one you don’t seek out when you spend most of your time stuck at home. “We wanted to have this ‘wow’ moment each time,” Forand says. This was their barometer for every garment, a way to remain tuned into what they had set out to do. “I knew it was right when I would try something on and think, ‘I look goooood’,” says Arbellot with a laugh.