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The surrealist Moment Currently Sweeping Fashion 

fashion beauty runway the surrealist moment currently sweeping fashion
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Just as Prada’s ugly chic completely changed the face of fashion in the 90s with mismatched prints, clunky sandals, and dowdy greens and browns, there is a taste for wackiness currently seeping into the most coveted clothing and accessories for the style cognoscenti. And it definitely has a strong surrealist streak to it. 

Exactly one hundred years ago, André Breton, one of the leading figures of the surrealist movement, wrote ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ in 1924, although the word ‘surrealist’ was first coined by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, appearing for the very first time in the prologue of a play in 1917. ‘This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass,’ went on to wax poetic Breton, with the aim of counterbalancing the rational viewpoint of life by bringing to the surface the power of the unconscious. The artists of the movement drew magic and found striking beauty in the unexpected, the despised, and the unconventional. 

At the core of these artists’ and creators’ quest was the search for freedom and the willingness to question imposed values and rules. Doesn’t that sound strikingly familiar with what we’re living, at the moment? 

The true definition of a surrealist object is something made from the conjunction of items not normally associated with each other, resulting in something either playful or menacing. Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian fashion designer from an aristocratic background, was the first to include surrealist touches in the 1920s. Her collections were famous for unconventional and artistic themes like the human body, insects, or trompe l’œil, and for the use of bright colours like her “shocking pink.”

Schiaparelli famously collaborated with visual artists Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent European figures in fashion between the two World Wars.

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Since 2022, we’ve seen the bizarre, the absurd, and the weird unabashedly  displayed on catwalks and red carpets. Labels that spring immediately to mind are, of course, Schiaparelli (which was re-established in 2014) under the guidance of the brilliant Daniel Roseberry; Jonathan Anderson at Loewe; Glenn Martens at Diesel, and Demna at Balenciaga, one of the first high-end legacy labels to shake the foundations of fashion with exaggerated, cartoonish,  shapes five years ago, a surefire trailblazer to the surrealist era. 

These names are reimagining the aesthetic boundaries of fashion today in different ways, and their creations are lauded across different platforms because they speak through irony and creativity. We are living in a chaotic world and the best way to deal with uncertainty and anxiety is sometimes to totally embrace it. Whatever will be, will be. 

A core pillar of the surrealist movement was that true creativity should be exempt from aesthetic or moral concerns. The realm of dreams was also a crucial reservoir for inspiration. As much as these elements inspired the artists of the last century, they are still present today, whether it is through the dystopian lens of Rick Owens, 3D garments from Loewe inspired by pixelated elements IRL borrowed from Minecraft world and the metaverse, or the romantic vision of Belle Époque women with John Galliano at Maison Margiela. 

Although the motions toward outlandishness in fashion started to rumble around 2010, the year Spanish designer Isabel Mastache send down the runway a pair of “penis pants” featuring fabric male genitalia sewn onto the crotch (some compared the moment to the second coming of Martin Margiela), it would take another six years for the state of mind of the absurd to blossom. 

In 2016, the pendulum quietly began to swing back toward surrealism, the same year the Merriam-Webster dictionary named ‘surreal’ as its Word of the Year. Two years later, Virgil Abloh, who was named Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of menswear, showcased his collection on a set with white clouds scudding across a blue sky in homage to surrealist painter Magritte.

That’s how the ball got rolling… 

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A Fracture with Quiet Luxury 

According to luxury consultant Eric Briones, author of “Luxury and Digital: The New Frontiers of Luxury,” surrealism can help brands affirm their cultural currency and make a mark, at a time when the trend for quiet luxury is erasing ostentatious logos while focusing on classic silhouettes and subdued palettes. “The advantage of Surrealism is that it breaks through quiet luxury’s uniform idea of style,” he told WWD. “It contributes toward brand elevation because it allows you to make a splash, so it differentiates the brand.”

Quiet luxury is fine if you or your brand are completely content with a discreet existence in the antechamber of fashion — meaning nobody’s really paying any attention to you. But who would really want that in the fickle and fantastic world of style and beauty? Change is the fuel this audience craves. 

According to trend forecasting agency WGSN, “in the current moment of attention recession, where it’s getting harder and harder to get and keep consumers’ focus, brands should make it a point to appeal to these absurd, striking aesthetics to not only get their attention but also their engagement.” And in particular when it comes to Gen Zs.  

Having grown up in a global scenario of deep disruptions (hello pandemic, eroding consumer power, wars) and climate change crisis, Gen Z’s values have continuously been rattled, and part of this generation cohort (there is no such thing as a monolithic demographic) seems to be very open to greet the absurd and the outlandish in its fashion choices. 

Enter the rise of weird aesthetics such as #WeirdGirlcore and #Clowncore, which are quickly walking to the surrealist beat with many brands showcasing fashion shows with prosthetic animal masks (Collina Strada, for example), and even super commercial label SKIMS, which featured ‘alien models’ in a 2023 campaign.

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At times, like the lobster telephone of Dalí in the 1930s, the current crop of surrealist fashion items completely leaves out the functionality of products. A great example is Astro Boy’s Big Red Boots, created by Brooklyn-based art studio MSCHF, who also made the smallest Louis Vuitton purse in the world, literally microscopic at 657 micrometres high and 700 micrometres long (said to be a critique of luxury fashion). 

Some attribute the success of MSCHF on the fact that they are an art collective and not a brand. But whatever the case, they are still producing fashion-themed objects that sell out almost the second they’re dropped. 

From the golden anatomical details at Schiaparelli that have trickled down to every price point of garments of late, to unexpected layerings and pairings, fashion is loving double takes. Optical illusion attire has been all the rage on the runways, as designers have taken everyday silhouettes—hoodies, coats, heels—and given them a surreal twist.

Will the surrealist trick succeed in bringing some much-needed magic into the world of fashion — and, by extension, into everyday life? We’ll have to see how consumers react in the different echo chambers where fashion conversations happen. It will be difficult to assess from a distance, since silo mentalities are the norm and algorithms are designed to keep tastes well divided. 

But one thing is for sure, if you crave kookiness and what’s uplifting and want to walk away from anything too serious, it’s your time to shine with surrealist-inspired clothing and accessories. That’s the plan to have some fun. And fun is where fashion starts. 

PHOTOS: 

Artistic Direction and hair: Anna Pacitto 

Team:
Isabelle Lachance
Daniel Benoit
Richard St Laurent
MJ Medeiros
Nik Morel
Cynthia Vieilledent
Dax Anderson

Makeup: Ekaterina Ulyanoff and Alexandra Deslauriers 

Fashion styling: Florence O. Durand

Couture: Maria Arciero

Model: Coco Labbee 

Photos: John Rawson, assisted by Paul Gill

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