Originally printed in the April 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Of all the trends making their way from the runway into our wardrobes, transparent plastic was perhaps the hardest to see coming. Bad puns aside, though, polyurethane is having a moment. The SS18 catwalks were awash with see-through shoes, coats, hats, and bags in thick, shiny plastic. Even the show invitations featured a healthy helping: Givenchy’s came in an oversized transparent envelope clutch. Chanel underscored the trend’s practicality by sending its models down a runway set that featured six waterfalls. Their transparent hooded capes, hats, and even trademark toecap boots all got the plastic treatment. Philipp Plein went full tilt with clear coats layered over faux fur and metallics. Fashion search engine Lyst reports that searches for plastic items have increased exponentially over the last fashion month, with Staud’s Shirley bag, the Off-White x Jimmy Choo pumps, and Calvin Klein 205W39NYC’s coat being favorites.
Plastic can be a wardrobe workhorse – it only needs a wipe-down and can last forever. While vinyl and PVC finishes have long since crossed over from the counterculture goth and punk music scenes and onto the high street, it’s the more challenging transparent iteration that’s leading SS18. How, exactly, do you pull off a see-through handbag? With the daily debris of lip gloss, pens, hair ties, keys, and phones, keeping a clear bag stylishly visible becomes a tightrope walk. Street style stars have sussed this out, Filling their see-through bags with cool phone covers, pouches, and sunglasses. As for clothing – think Burberry’s laminated trench coats and Calvin Klein’s plastic-layered oral slip dresses – the transparent look is best worn one item at a time. Styling it with an unembellished outfit will prevent you from looking like Paddington Bear setting off on an adventure. “We’ve seen this trend before but it’s one I don’t think I would get tired of,” says It girl Dana Hourani, owner of a Burberry clear plastic shopper, with a handy vintage check pouch inside. “Plastics, if worn in the right way, add an edge to a simple outfit. A fun statement piece portrays a futuristic outlook on fashion, and if it’s layered over a classic look, it embraces past fashion influences. That’s what I’m drawn to most about this trend – the combination of history and the future of fashion coming together.”
Ease into it with a translucent bag, Maison Margiela or Tibi wide buckle belt, or a pair of Off-White x Jimmy Choo pumps. While plastic still manages to look futuristic in every new iteration – from designers in the Sixties enamored with this newfangled material to the Off -White x Jimmy Choo collab – it was Elsa Schiaparelli who first started experimenting with synthetic materials in the 1930s. She created a floating insect necklace from rhodophane, a clear plastic cousin of cellophane, as well as a cape that had the rather impractical distinction of shattering like glass if handled incorrectly. Ever the renegade, Schiaparelli believed creativeness and outrageousness to be more important than good taste, and that women should dare to be different. One of her suppliers, a young architecture student who designed jewelry and buttons with his mother on the side, picked up this visionary thread in 1966 when he launched his debut show, “Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials.” His name? Paco Rabanne, and he sent dresses made of plastic and metal down the runway. Peggy Guggenheim, Françoise Hardy, and Brigitte Bardot were instant fans – but Coco Chanel dismissed him as “the metallurgist.” Nevertheless, the Sixties was an era besotted with innovation, and PVC was the material of the moment.
Its durability and longevity is, of course, the darker side of the plastic coin. PVC – polyvinyl chloride – is particularly beloved by fashion, but it is also one of the most difficult to handle petroleum-based synthetics. Its production necessitates huge amounts of hazardous waste, and disposing of it by incineration releases toxic chemicals. Its discovery in 1872 was an accident, like so many scientific breakthroughs, when a German chemist left a flask of vinyl chloride gas in the sun. The resultant material was brittle and difficult to work with, but in 1926 scientists figured out a way to plasticize PVC into a more flexible form, opening the door for its many commercial uses. More than 8 billion tons of plastic have been produced since its mass commercialization in the 50s. It’s being made at such an alarming rate that recycling systems can’t keep up, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimating that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Of all the plastic waste accumulated since the 50s, only 9% has been recycled – 79% ended up on land fills or fragile ecosystems, like the ocean.
It’s noteworthy that fashion’s interest in plastic is rising in tandem with society’s awareness of the perils of this synthetic fabric. While some brands are investing in such a proven unsustainable material, others, like Gucci and Stella McCartney, have committed to making sustainability part of their businesses. Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly sustainable, mass-produced, environmentally sound material – even wool and hemp fibers need proper provenance to ensure its ethical credentials. A wardrobe, then, is a balancing act. If you can’t resist those Yeezy thigh-high vinyl boots or Burberry laminated trench coat, perhaps restore some equilibrium to your environmental mojo with a reusable coffee mug and proper recycling bins for your home and office.