Innovation or Reiteration?

Donatella Versace’s Spring 2018 collection served as an homage to her late brother and creative genius, Gianni Versace, on the 20th anniversary of his death. While many Gen Zers are familiar with the atelier and “American Crime Story” series documenting Gianni’s assassination (which the Versace family repudiated as a “work of fiction”), few are privy to the intricacies and cultural wealth the late designer brought to the industry—including but not limited to baroque mania, the butterfly print and Catholic iconography. In the show, contemporary It girls like Yasmin Wijnaldum and the Hadids were interspersed with “the greats,” including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, whose careers Gianni helped catapult; it was him, after all, who essentially created the supermodel in the ‘90s. The show was met with high acclaim, its audience crying in visceral awe as the retired models made their surprise appearance.

This is not the only reimagined Versace show in recent times. Two years later, Jennifer Lopez would walk in the Spring 2020 show as its closer, donning the famous jungle dress that birthed Google Images twenty years earlier. Notice a trend? This twenty-year resurfacing is not unique to the Versace brand, or even haute couture, to say the least; Skims, the shapewear brand founded by Kim Kardashian West recently launched a velour tracksuit collection with none other than former mentor Paris Hilton in a debut that capitalized on Y2K Juicy Couture nostalgia.

This accompanies an increasing affinity for 2000s-era trends in a semi-ironic, kitschy interpretation. Campy graphic tees, exposed thongs and Von Dutch hats have all re-emerged amongst influencers, especially on TikTok as the app has democratized fashion and instant social media stardom (think Shy Smith and Caroline Ricke).

Why is this? Is it because of an authoritative shift granting more cultural leverage to today’s teenagers and their nostalgia for that era? Is it because of some unexplained yearning for Nokias and denim on denim? While all of us enjoy romanticizing the seemingly simpler decade, this shift is actually due to something industry analysts have dubbed the 20-year rule, a concept expressing the cyclical nature of fashion. What is in style now will inevitably go out of vogue until it becomes stylish two decades down the line.

This is not a new phenomenon; the ‘90s witnessed the re-emergence of grunge from the proto-grunge just like the ‘70s witnessed the re-emergence of leather jackets and greased hair from the ‘50s. One social commentator—James Laver—actually detailed a 12-step chronology of fashion cyclicity in 1937, predicting that it would take around 160 years for a trend to fall out of fashion and eventually be considered beautiful again. However, this analysis had no way to account for the impact of the Internet and social media, tools that enable us to have an unrestricted digital lexicon of every style from every decade and more. The internet has expedited a fashion cycle that deviates only slightly from its consistent 20-year timeline.

As such, it makes sense that designers and brands alike look back to create the future, picking and choosing from the old and adapting it to a modern zeitgeist–overlapping works harmoniously with the new decade. Given new sustainability efforts and secondhand initiatives essential to mitigating an industry that produces a yearly 12.8 million tons of discarded post-consumer clothing in America, we must incorporate former pieces into our modern wardrobes even more than we have previously.

The motives for this are clear. Y2K is back in full as the 20-year rule has forecasted, and, coupled with a nascent sustainability movement, the reuse and innovation of such fashion will be essential in our evolving understanding of the industry. However, this balance forces a binary that creatives must awkwardly balance in the pandemic-induced hiatus: when does an homage to past moments overshadow the creative potential of a brand?

Donatella Versace has proven adroit at the reins of her late brother’s company. No one disputes that. What raises concern is when a house’s latest collections feature near-identical silhouettes of shows made twenty years before, or when the social relevance of a brand rests on the reiteration of one garment or juncture.

This conundrum raises even more questions. Does catering to nostalgic sentiments erode the historical significance of the pieces that brands take advantage of? The jungle dress, for example, is not as architecturally or artistically significant as was the uproar and technological consequences surrounding its appearance at the 42nd Grammys — literally creating Google Images. Does pandering to such nostalgia stifle artistic progress? When does 2000s schmaltz become exploitation for a mere cash-grab? Does it act as a gatekeeper for those not privy to or co-opted by previous trends — namely BIPOC and emerging designers — from gaining traction today?

The nuances of inspiration versus duplication, nostalgia versus immobility, all present a delicate line to traverse when navigating the 20-year rule, especially when fashions become so inextricably connected with one person or brand. This association has troubled other houses as new creative directors must dexterously innovate new looks while tying in historical aspects of their ateliers. Maria Grazia Chiuri and her reinvention of the 1947 bar suit, Virginie Viard’s Karl-inspired silhouettes and Oliver Rousteing’s fully recycled Balmain collection are a few examples of shows that walk a fine line between historical allusion and sartorial sobriety. 

If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic, institutional racism and climate crises have cast a scarlet letter A on the fashion world: anachronistic. Change is long overdue, and that goes for all aspects of the industry; the need for democratization, for new talent, for talent of color, for green talent. As we enthusiastically bring fashion trends from the same era, why not take advantage of the broader spirit of the 2000s—the decade of hope, the decade in which we elected our first Black president—as a catalyst for change? There will not be another jungle dress or another Juicy Couture launch; those moments are inimitable. But the next industry trailblazers are right around the corner, and we must utilize this time of pause and reflection to elevate their talents for change in a society that needs it now more than ever.


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