2021; it’s been a year, hasn’t it? At the very least, we can all agree on that. In many ways it’s felt like everything has been moving at the kind of pace likely to stir up motion sickness in even the most iron-gutted of travelers and adrenaline junkies. On the other hand, it often seemed as though nothing was moving at all – an overbearing cloud of humid stagnation looming over everything and everyone.
In terms of the fashion world, that’s definitely been the case. There have been changes for the better, for the worse and, of course, changes yet to be determined – and there have been things that perhaps ought to have changed that didn’t.
It may seem dour to start with “the worst,” but it also seems wrong to begin this article talking about anything other than Virgil Abloh. We began this year with a definitive vision of what Abloh’s Louis Vuitton could be – a statement of intent, really, and a call to arms of sorts. In January, he showed us what a major fashion house could do with the right direction: how it could look outward, enter into dialogue with urgent present-day issues and conversations on race and accessibility, create a roadmap for the future and – in doing all that – still never lose touch with or disrespect its history. And, of course, the whole thing was on another level aesthetically.
And yet here we are – some 11 months later, looking back at those events through the lens of the Off-White™ founder’s untimely and unexpected passing. We are all mourning his loss and will be for some time yet to come; that’s only natural. But we should also be grateful for what he left behind – the platform he created for others, the doors he so deliberately left open, and the blueprint he so meticulously put together in his time on this Earth.
With such a monumental loss, it’s hard to remember clearly what else happened this year: everything is colored by that news. But perhaps rather than a distortion, that’s actually the right way of looking at things. A kind of context.
With this in mind, let’s talk about digital fashion presentations and the concept of digital fashion weeks. Naturally, these were divisive: in 2021, they felt almost like a relic of 2020 – a reminder of all the things we couldn’t do in light of you know what – and you could tell that media and industry alike were frustrated by the feeling of alienation that apparently comes with not being flown out to sit front row.
But some, rather than seeing these parameters as a detraction, saw them for what they were – or at least what they could be: a challenge and a chance to engage with the possibilities of structural change in an evermore archaic-seeming system.
Chief among these creative thinkers, unsurprisingly, was Abloh. His work on the Louis Vuitton FW21 digital presentation took things to unimaginable places and reminded other designers that how things have been done, historically speaking, isn’t necessarily how they should be done going forward. At fellow LVMH brand Fendi, unconstrained by the peculiarities of social distancing, Silvia Venturini's Fendi SS22 men’s collection used the entire city (as well as the sun, the sky, and the mountains) as a runway from atop the Palazzo della Civillità, while Kim Jones constructed elaborate architectural sets for presenting womenswear that would have been impossible in regular times.
Elsewhere, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons felt like they were switching between dimensions, oscillating from the scenic landscape of the coast and the confines of a nondescript interior walkway painted in bright red. Even Rick Owens, the eternal misanthrope, got in on the action – using Venice as his canvas; albeit a canvas on which he painted another dystopian vision of our collective future. Nice.
Speaking of structural changes, 2021 was also the year that resale – in terms of both sneakers and capital “F” Fashion – experienced something of a sonic boom, taking off noisily with high-profile investments and the kind of sales figures that would make your eyes water. (Or, if you were looking to invest, your mouth.)
Writing this now, it’s not that I want to tie every single thing back to the pandemic – these are connections which, obviously, I’d rather not be making – just that it’s kind of impossible not to: you have to ask yourself, would so many people have spent so much money on resale if stores were open as usual, production was operating at its usual levels, and people weren’t spending all their time at home? Well, no. Probably not.
That’s not to say that resale wouldn’t have seen some growth: naturally, concerns around sustainability were already pushing people toward pre-owned products and the scarcity mindset of drop culture – wherein, well before the pandemic, the price of Off-White™ x Nike sneaker resale was already worth analyzing – created added value on the secondary market. But Covid undoubtedly compounded that, speeding up the process exponentially. It’s hard to imagine Vestiaire Collective raising $216 million in funding or Artemis bagging a stake in GOAT after the company’s mind-boggling $1.75 billion valuation back in September 2020.
Even now, with IRL stores and supply chains operating on more normal levels, resell is still in ascendancy, with hundreds of articles online popping up to point out that the pre-loved marketplace is taking a huge stake in holiday gifting this year. With that in mind – much like with the presentations – necessity has once again given birth to possibility, with the things we had to do showing us what we could continue doing to change things for the better.
And, while we’re on the business of URL shopping and the kind of future it points to, it makes sense to take a look at something else that has come into its own this year: the business of Metaverse, NFTs, and blockchain.
Given there was much derision when it game to Gucci’s $17.99 virtual sneakers as recently as March – which it’s worth noting, in terms of how little the concept of blockchain was understood within the fashion industry at even this point, were not NFTs – the whole thing has now come full circle in the intervening months. adidas made their play for Metaverse glory in partnership with Bored Ape Yacht Club, Balenciaga released in-game skins for Fortnite, and we capped off the year with Nike’s acquisition of NFT studio RTFKT, a company known for its non-fungible sneakers.
And, of course, unsurprisingly, we’re just learning now that Virgil Abloh had been working not only on a selection of NFTs in collaboration with Paradigm co-founder Fred Ehrsam, but also investigating the possibilities of launching a DAO – a “decentralized, autonomous organization,” which is more or less the blockchain version of a creative collective. Leave it to Virgil to have been pursuing further modes of radical collaboration in an industry that works so hard to hide its exclusionary practices and limitations.
Given all of that, it’s safe to say that this once niche concept has now made a drastic move into mainstream culture, and — moving at that speed — it's near-impossible to predict where that technology might take us. But it is very much the doing leading.
Still, no matter how meta things get, we are – for now at least – firmly rooted in the real world, and thus we have to come back to the tragic and visceral loss of a creative visionary, mentor, innovator and friend. On both personal and industry-wide levels, it's a pain that will last; the shockwaves it sent out will keep on rippling for who knows how long.
It may seem like little comfort, but the foundations have been put in place, Now we just have to keep building.