A crop of designers and fashion houses have long turned to surrealism as a method to question the monotonous. Today, the pathway for free expression continues to captivate the dream seekers of the world.
Dramatic, unrestricted, and ambitious. For decades, fashion and surrealism have been sharing the longest waltz, often leaning into each other, inviting people to color outside the lines. The term was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire during the First World War, and surrealism made its grand entrance in the 20th century through the works of Salvador Dalí, Roberto Matt a, Luis Buñuel, Federico García Lorca, Edwin A Bergman, and Samuel Beckett. Simultaneously, it made a great impact on several designers, starting with the grand Elsa Schiaparelli, the woman who paved the route for multiple generations of fashion creatives. Most notably Thierry Mugler, who made massive waves with his designs, including his SS97 “insects motif.” Hussein Chalayan also made surreal history with his FW00 “table skirt.” Equally, Marc Jacobs’ 2008 Backwards collection was designed to proceed in reverse with accessories that played witty pranks, such as hats featuring eyes as well as dissected and patched bags. The topic of surrealism can never be alluded to without a mention of Alexander McQueen, whose illustrious fashion career was characterized by his tendency to evoke drama through his roaring aesthetic. Sending models down the runway with feathers, shells, birds, and butterflies for one of his earliest collections in 1997, McQueen’s La Poupée teaches future generations about the beauty that results when fashion collides with surrealism. Couturier Guo Pei is credited with reshaping Chinese fashion, and surrealism was her main tool to do so. Her panniered gown fit for two and porcelain-inspired designs challenge traditional fashion concepts, emphasize architectural structure, and question the range of modern garments.
In a post-pandemic world, surrealism is naturally rising as an imposing fashion statement. Between fashion houses that have always integrated surrealism into their DNA and those that only made the leap recently, here are a handful of maisons challenging all that is conventional.
This is where it all started, and continues to lead by example. Elsa Schiaparelli launched her full-fledged rebellion against traditional silhouettes and concepts in 1927, guided by her unleashed creativity. From sportswear to haute couture, art, fragrance, and everything in between – the designer’s revolutionary creations laid the foundation for a maison that knows no boundaries. Schiaparelli was also keen on collaborating with other visionaries who defined surrealism. Dalí, Cocteau, Man Ray, Giacometti, and Marcel Vertès are among her legendary creative contemporaries. It was in 1937 that surreal fashion received an adequate moment of birth, when Schiaparelli’s lobster dress, featuring Dalí’s depiction of the marine crustacean on off-white silk, was worn by socialite Wallis Simpson. The designer’s most iconic designs also include the trompe l’oeil sweater – which arguably launched her career in 1927 – the tears dress from the Spring 1938 Circus collection, and the skeleton dress from the same year. Today, the luxury house is still synonymous with surreal fashion. Despite going through a creative hiatus, the maison’s awakening arrived in 2019, led by American artistic director Daniel Roseberry. His smart approach aims to continuously pay homage to Schiaparelli’s rich heritage and signature motifs, while also connecting with the fashion world of today. For spring 2023 ready-to-wear, Roseberry honored the founder’s skeleton dress by embellishing ribs on a jacket, as well as gave the younger generation a distinguished pair of jeans with gold sequins that playfully give the impression of sand on the bum. Schiaparelli’s latest collections remain conversation starters and social media hot topics. Gold ears dubbed as statement earrings, mini bags with facial features, tops with gold nipples, and most recently Kylie Jenner’s polarizing ultra-realistic lion’s headdress at Paris Couture Week – the maison undoubtedly aims to build on its legacy of surrealism.
Launching out of Italy, Act N°1 is a melting pot for unexpected combinations. Starting from the founders’ multicultural backgrounds, ranging from China’s antique fine art to Azerbaijan’s craftsmanship, Galib Gassanoff and Luca Lin are masterful at artfully bridging the gaps between opposites. With the brand’s name being an eloquent synonym of the designers’ main source of inspiration, the duo’s childhood, Act N°1 is widely known for its unique take on east meets west. From shirts patched with T-shirts to skirts that also double up as pants and dresses colliding with jackets, hybrid garments and bold landscape prints embody the brand’s unique vantage point. “Act N°1 is very much about realism in fashion and not surrealism. Yes, we take to the catwalk with some very theatrical dresses and, as we experienced, celebrities also love big tulle pieces. But we always love to mix real clothes – shirts, sweaters, masculine pants, and raincoats – with big puffy colorful outfits in tulle ruffles. Without compromising our realism in fashion,” say the founders.
Standing at an equal distance from art and fashion, Panconesi cherishes both tradition and disruption. The Italian jewelry brand utilizes generational experience to offer unexpected miniature sculptures that also serve as profound jewelry pieces. Guided by Marco Panconesi’s upbringing in Florence surrounded by art and history, the brand borrows inspiration from parallel worlds. Recognizable for its fluid shapes and unexpected silhouettes, Panconesi refuses to be limited by time, trends, and conviction. The brand’s creations step outside the traditional timeline by depending on the classic charm and unforgettable impression of surrealism. From necklaces that curl and swirl, smooth like a masterful symphony, to bulky and bold rings that insist on being heard, seen, and acknowledged – its true specialty is fine art that celebrates boundless imagination.
A lack of formal training did not stop Tokyo-based Tomo Koizumi from becoming a master of surreal fashion. His whimsical take on clothing was honed through the years as he grew up creating custom-made garments for his friends. Koizumi is a firm believer that more is always more, often using Japanese polyester to create dreamy, voluminous dresses with statement, larger-than-life ruffles. The designer’s fondness for origami can be seen distinctly in his creations. Borrowing the craft’s keenness on preciseness and ability to see beyond what meets the eye, Koizumi embodies the designer’s creative reinterpretation and artistic manipulation of fabrics to tap into their unrealized full potential. Koizumi’s extraordinary vision and ability to turn mere garments into a state of colorful fantasy paved his way towards an esteemed inclusion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition in 2019.
For four decades, Moschino boldly celebrated the need to stand out and shout in the face of monotony, without uttering even a single word. The Italian luxury fashion house is well known for its over-the-top aesthetic that blurs the line between what is expected and what has never been thought about previously. To track down Moshcino’s history with surrealism is almost impossible, because despite the constant changes of trends, the fashion house has always been an avid advocate of remaining controversially valorous. Over the past decade, creative director Jeremy Scott has managed to remain a patron of uncanny fashion. From his McDonald’s-themed designs in Fall 2014, to Madonna’s black Swarovski stage outfit in 2015, and more recently Katy Perry’s chandelier Met Gala look in 2019 – in the world of Scott’s Moschino anything can serve as a source of inspiration, everything can be turned into a wearable garment. Naturally, today, Moschino is not only recognized as a top-class luxury brand, but it is also widely intertwined with pop culture, something that directly contributed to the success of the brand’s collaboration with H&M in 2018. Between the Mickey Mouse sweaters and miniature leather-jacket bags, the collection sold out across the world in mere hours.
Creatively balancing the past and the future, Kevin Germanier’s eponymous label based in Paris has rapidly carved its status on the fashion world’s frontier of coveted brands in a matter of five years. Recycling the most unexpected materials that had an eventful past life to embody his depiction of the puzzling future, Germanier makes upcycling his brand’s not-so-secret success factor. “Fashion for me is an opportunity to evoke fantasy and create silhouettes. Sometimes I try to turn my dreams into tangible shapes. We also aim to push the limits of identity and proportions through garments.” Adds Kévin Germanier, founder, president, and creative director of Germanier, “I am really drawn to video games and technology, I am a geek myself, I play a lot of games. Naturally, I am really interested in surrealism from a digital point of view. I believe it is easy to do a digital version of a dress behind your computer, but in real life it is hard to give shape to a virtual version, so I really enjoy that.” Worn by several A-list celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Kristen Stewart among others, whether it be Germanier’s bold use of feathers or nontraditional color combinations – the designer is a seasoned expert of sculptural silhouettes, heavily-embellished details, and rich textures.
Iris Van Herpen
Whimsical, dreamy, and often otherworldly – Iris Van Herpen’s haute couture creations put the basic rules of physics to the test. Since its launch in 2007, the brand has boasted a sustainable approach to fashion with steady biannual shows during Paris Haute Couture Week. Utilizing multi-disciplinary technologies, artisanal craftsmanship, and the Dutch designer’s admiration of surrealism, the brand has managed to redefine the possibilities that can be attained by garments. “The IvH designs bend the perceptions of femininity,” says Van Herpen. “In our design process we experiment with tech innovation as well as with different materials, manipulating fabrics to create surrealist movements. The innovative materials and textures often dance surrealistically with the wearer’s body, playing with our perception, sometimes even extending the awareness of the skin.” Continuously pushing the envelope further, the brand aims to explore the future of fashion by making it more conscious, cohesive, and diverse.
Big florals and maximalist gowns, Richard Quinn the brand and the designer are true fashion industry mavericks that have become an international success story in a handful of years. Between the excessive use of all-over color and never shying away from a print, Richard Quinn is widely known for unwaveringly nailing the beauty of an intricately matched outfit, from head to toe. While florals continue to make their frequent comebacks into the trends forecast, for Richard Quinn, florals are a lifestyle – leveraged, dramatized, and blown out of proportion. In parallel, the romantic 1950s are also a brand favorite as the designer repeatedly tends to borrow the decade’s illustrious silhouettes and sense of undisputed glamour. With that in mind, Quinn’s not-so-subtle appreciation of surrealism often comes out through his choice of styling and accessories, whether it is communicated through black latex stockings, unexpected face masks, or dramatic large hats.
LVMH’s oldest luxury fashion house, Loewe is one of the current season’s biggest fashion sensations – thanks to a surreal footwear collection and futuristic pixelated 2D designs. Instigating a new chapter for the seasoned fashion house, Jonathan Anderson is a modern-day knight of surrealism, always keen on evoking feelings and reactions. What is real and what is not, are irrelevant questions for Loewe’s creative director. Starting off in time for SS22, the designer’s fondness of the unexpected and uncanny has been growing steadily – attracting praise from fashion experts and demand from the house’s clientele. Questioning the nature of fashion in the digital age and the necessity of a show in a post-pandemic world, the designer is on a steady route to establish the future of a renowned house that is best known for craftsmanship and quality. Two-dimensional garments, exaggerated proportions, and unorthodox accessories are all rapidly becoming Loewe hall-of-fame designs. For the brand’s spring 2023 ready-to-wear collection, models walked a vast runway with a massive anthurium flower marking its center. The plant found its way to a number of the collection’s main looks, wrapped around the torso and covering the models’ tops. While the concept of florals for spring is far from avant-garde, the anthurium’s poisonous nature made the collection both smartly suggestive and metaphorically empowering.
Reduced, modular, and timeless – Marine Serre is a brand that serves as a love letter to statement prints with unforeseen fabric combinations. Whether it is a traditional tablecloth or a vintage silk scarf, Serre refuses to let anything go to waste. Boasting an oriental flair, as evident in the label’s signature crescent pattern and juxtaposed geometric shapes, the designer intends to broaden the boundaries of today’s fashion. Collaged, pinned, and stitched – the label’s creations are soulful and liberated. The Marine Serre perspective of surrealism is far from subtle, yet effortlessly captivating. A rebellion against all that is common, the designer is keen on rapidly cementing her trademarks through maintaining a strong narrative.
Championing the feminine form, the Parisian-Lebanese maison aims to integrate technology, science, art, fashion, and philanthropy to create garments that speak volumes. Juggling bold and intricate cuts, designer Souraya Chalhoub’s deep understanding of fabrics and compositions makes the label’s creations malfunction-proof. While the graphic shapes bring in a sensual factor, the artfully constructed fits give a tattoo-like effect. “Fashion is an expression of your imagination. When people get dressed, they are in fact choosing the second skin they wish to show to the world.” Adds Chalhoub, “My infatuation with the world of Tim Burton as a child stayed with me as I grew older. I felt I would be more understood in his world than my own, and that is where all the fun began. I created my world – with my rules – as I see it, from surrealism to reality.” Playing an unexpected game of hide-and-seek, Maison Souraya is quickly becoming known for its precise and dramatic dresses, imitating unexpected references such as an eclipse, a raging fire, and a cursive swirl.
Always on the forefront of conversations around activism, gender fluidity, and inclusion, Harris Reed is the perfect example of a fashion brand that has managed to tackle current political and social dialogues. Gender neutral, empowering, and made to last, Reed’s demi-couture designs are fluent narrators of the recent changes overtaking the concepts of identity and liberation. According to the British-American designer, dramatic volumes, powerful patterns, and high-octane collars are best described as “romanticism gone nonbinary.” Reed’s colors are vibrant, his structure exaggerated, and his accessories oversized. While maintaining the regality of traditional tailoring, he is also notorious for experimenting with the unexpected. Reed was chosen to dress British singer and actor Harry Styles for his iconic Vogue cover in December 2020, when he became the first man to be featured on the publication’s cover. Styles’ suit with hoopskirt dress sparked multiple conversations, boosting Reed’s career. Among the designer’s various victory points is also dressing supermodel Iman for the 2021 Met Gala in a look that made her resemble an other-worldly dazzling queen.
Originally published in the February 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Ellen Mirck
Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Makeup: Simone Gammino
Hair: Giovanni Iovino
Nails: Elena Greco
Creative production: Anaïs Isabelle
Casting director: Reinard Grevin Casting
Photography assistants: Mario Capozzoli, Kevin Yu
Style assistants: Gijs Taher, Maria Teresa Strippoli, Nicole Giorgi, Sofia Piras
Makeup assistant: Valeria Iovino
Hair assistant: Manuel Sunda
Model: Ola Rudnicka at Next Model Management
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