If the world is feeling terrible right now, one can take some comfort from the long cultural history of dystopia. From George Orwell’s 1984 to cinema franchises like Mad Max, fiction has questioned what it would be like if we ever reached that point of dystopia or a frontier to present the apocalypse. This idea of “the end of life as we know it” has long influenced the cultural zeitgeist, including fashion.
One example is the recent launch of Kanye West’s Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga collection. Company of fashion credited Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga with bringing a dystopian shopping experience to stores. Instead of the traditional well-merchanized, well-sized, highly uncluttered approach to visual merchandising Gap takes, the Yeezy collection was available… in garbage bags.
Has this deterred many customers from shopping? Not at all. Shoppers waited hours in line to shop for T-shirts and hoodies, many of which are now sold out in most sizes. The shopping area for the collection consisted of limited space with black floors and black walls, and customers mimicking the scene of dumpster diving. It was dystopia at its most capitalistic.
Despite the Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga collection being nearly sold out, some aren’t quite as happy with this dystopian concept as you might think. Mike Grillo, a customer who recently shopped at Gap after the launch of Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga, said, “We need to stop pretending that Yeezy Gap is something. They are literally garbage bags full of black hoodies that flopped in the middle of your average hole [products.] Spare us. I also heard a sales associate say Yeezy Gap is the same stuff Balenciaga uses, and I bet my pension fund isn’t.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, Gap said Yeezy Gap and Balenciaga are “bringing their shared vision of brick-and-mortar retail to select Gap locations across the United States.” Gap did not respond to further comment regarding the visual merchandising of their physical stores for their partnership with Balenciaga.
“There is a lot of political turmoil, people feel economic uncertainty, they see industrial decline and we have fear and anxiety about the COVID-19 virus,” said Shawn Grain Carter, a professor of fashion business management at FIT and a luxury brand consultant. “Between all that, climate change, and the WHO just declaring monkeypox a global health emergency. The masses feel they cannot trust traditional institutions, no matter what nation state they are in. We have mass shootings; the January 6 uprising marked the end of smooth transitions of power. People feel in a dystopian world.”
“The masses feel that the covenant has been broken, and fashion reflects that.”
— Shawn Grain Carter
Grain Carter added: “Social media has increased our anxiety. Once upon a time, we would not have seen China in lockdown during COVID-19 with security guards on their doors to the extent that we would before social media. Social media is how many of us consume our news right now. The masses feel the covenant has been broken, and fashion reflects that.”
Grain Carter broke down the three subdystopian trends she saw as follows: pandemic cyberpunk, pandemic apocalyptic dressing, and pandemic goth revival. “Contemporary brands such as Siskatank, Acronym and Hexagon are all capitalizing on the dystopian aesthetic. At the same time, you have luxury brands like Balenciaga, Rick Owens and Khaite mixing these dark colors and playing cyberpunk with surrealism. Combine that with the pandemic fear that’s going on, there’s a sense of dread, and that’s what this dystopian fashion look shows.” (Siskatank, Acronym and Hexagon did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
Balenciaga is also no stranger to the idea of dystopian fashion. The 2021 brand’s fall collection had a proudly dystopian theme and even debuted in the Afterworld: the era of tomorrow video game.
Describing the collection as eerie, dystopian and futuristic, fashion critics were creative director Demna Gvasalia’s idea of how we would dress high fashion in a pseudo-apocalyptic world, ranging from head-to-toe Matrix-style black to asymmetric trench coats. Clothing is our armor, and we all can’t think of military gear, and these are not the days when we dress like gladiators. (Balenciaga did not respond to further comment on their 2021 dystopian collection.)
Prior to Balenciaga’s 2021 show, fashion designer Rick Owens’ Spring/Summer 2019 menswear show was a dystopian fantasy. The Palais de Tokyo was the stage for the show, with multicolored smoke billowing from the towers above the fountain. It was a scene befitting a post-apocalyptic world. The clothing included chopped muscle shirts, chaps, patchwork pants and safari jackets. It was Owens’ take on what would happen if a dystopian dandy went hunting, and it was done with confidence. (Rick Owens did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
One of the most famous dystopian themed collections was Karl Lagerfeld’s fall 2011 Chanel collection titled “apocalypse wow.” The show was in line with Lagerfeld’s larger-than-life runway productions for Chanel, with a set that resembled a science fiction movie. The deflection of the usual pretty pastel tweeds and the expected luxury of the brand fascinated the fashion industry. Instead, punk-inspired pantsuits, baggy jackets and dark tweeds dominated this runway. Instead, punk-inspired pantsuits, baggy jackets and dark tweeds dominated this runway.
Fashion historian Jane Tynan said at the time that COVID and its consequences were looming large, adding: “The fashion industry has had to think about its part in the climate crisis, so there is now a sense of loss, but also a suspicion that we are facing a period of profound changes. Everything is up for debate right now, and dystopian fashion reflects that sense of fear and crisis.”
Tynan’s latest book, Trenchcoat: Object Lessons, discusses how the trench coat came into fashion after WWI, because instead of turning away from the dystopian landscape of the trenches of war, people sought a garment that was reminiscent of the war as if they were still fighting. The popularity of the trench coats only grew after the Second World War.
Tynan also pointed out how fashion designer Coco Chanel brought black into the fashion exicon and fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli played with military styling. Schiaparelli created a jacket with bullet jacket buttons in 1933, which resembled the trench coat. Later in 1938, her Skeleton dress was a dark, ghostly design that reflected the sense of crisis of the time—the Great Depression and the threat of another war may have inspired such dystopian fashion creations. Schiaparelli was also influenced by Surrealism, bringing artful introspection and dark themes into fashion for the first time.
Regarding the Balenciaga and Rick Owen aesthetic, Tynan said:[Balenciaga’s creative director]Demna Gvasalia’s work has an anti-luxury approach, a kind of anti-fashion that may seem dystopian to some. Recently, a technical aesthetic has been incorporated into this. More recently, Rick Owens has opted for streetwear in colors and styles that match the dystopian label, but with a cheerful whimsy and absurdity.
“The more recent examples of dystopian fashion tend towards a sort of Mad Max feeling, which may bring us back to the pandemic, the sense of hopelessness it brings, but also the realization that governments are unable to find answers to the most pressing questions of our time. Post-apocalyptic visions are an aesthetic response to government inaction on the climate crisis, racial injustice and global economic inequality. Clothes are not a refuge from the various threats we face, but they are a symbolic defense and when we feel insecure, our bodies feel it sharply.”
Gap wasn’t the first to launch a dystopian-themed store. In 2021, Beijing-based beauty brand Harmay unveiled its new retail concept in downtown Beijing, titled “Chaos and Disorder,” based on themes such as dystopia. The idea behind the store’s visual merchandising was a hollowed-out apocalyptic spaceship and was a major change from Harmay’s past, more traditionally glamorous beauty stores.
“People feel like we’re leaving in dystopia, so people are obsessed with trying to get perspective on it.”
— Maurice Carlos Ruffin
The color scheme was black and white and parts of it resembled an abandoned factory. While retail is thought to be something that looks nice and invites people to shop, it was the opposite of what you would expect from a beauty brand in particular. (Harmay did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
Maurice Carlos Ruffin, the author of the dystopian fiction novel We cast a shadow, said: “Writers writing dystopia always look at current problems and extrapolate them to current and future problems. People often miss the essence of these books, but when society starts to fray and people feel stressed, they fall back on dystopian writers and novels. Dystopia is forever. Going back to the 1930s and looking at books like Black no more by George Schuyler, writers have always delved into dystopian themes when they feel like things in the world aren’t quite right.”
Ruffin added: “People feel like we’re leaving in dystopia, so people are obsessed with trying to get perspective on it. Dystopia has more permanence in our cultural zeitgeist because in the past things were speculative, but now between all the technology we have, the impact of the technology we have, and our living in a world where we could potentially destroy ourselves with climate change, the obsession with dystopia will continue.”
Ruffin said the reason dystopia is seeping beyond just books, movies, and television shows, and into artistic media, such as fashion, now is because “people are tired of how homogenized culture is and how much of it is created by corporate entities. Dystopian creativity has a certain authenticity to it, whether it’s a strange jacket with sharp, angular shoulders that glow in the dark, people want something unique that they can’t find on the shelf or rack of a megastore.”