Photography Sophia Aerts

All images Isa Arfen FALL/WINTER 2018


Picture this: at the dinner table, a teenager denounces the ideals of his parents, wondering how their thinking could be so alien from his own, then slinks off to rifle through their record collection. Elsewhere, a woman in her early twenties sighs, bored at her parents’ rose-tinted recollections, but finds herself longing - as they leaf through pages of glossy, over-saturated photographs - for a time when a picture could actually mean something, not just attract ‘likes’ on Instagram.


These scenes are familiar ones, yet look deeper and they betray a generation’s curious predilection for the past; a generation constantly torn between the condemnation of its ancestors and an inescapable intrigue in their every move. Admittedly, this is by no means anything new - David Lynch’s work is littered with 50s memorabilia and Golden Age sensibilities, and that ‘revolutionary’ aesthetic of late 70s punk would undoubtedly have been quite different without visual styles borrowed from decades-earlier Dada - but, with the immeasurable growth of archival access fueled by the internet and mass media, our relationship with the past is becoming ever more ubiquitous. Fittingly, then, the nature of this relationship seemed a common preoccupation of designers this season.

The past was particularly in-focus at Xiao Li, whose faux-fur outerwear paired with pyjama-style graphic prints and chunky silicone accessories playfully evoked the brash visuals of retro Americana, whilst the colour palette of pastels and deep reds conjured up the sunset hues of the early LA skate scene. Her models would not have looked out of place stood smoking on the balcony of a neon-lit motel, but looked equally at-ease in this more glamorous setting, showing how a specific moment in the past might be reinvented for our modern times.


Isa Arfen


Isa Arfen’s A/W 18 collection similarly took inspiration from 1970s California, featuring a plethora of distinct styles - floral velvets; modern, architectural taffeta; debut denim with punkish tartan patches; more formal outerwear - layered to create unique, individual looks inspired by Joel D. Levinson’s photographs of flea markets in the era. “The Isa Arfen woman wears things her own way,” read the show notes, and it was made clear that she is not afraid to cross historical boundaries to do so.


Isa Arfen


At Mimi Wade the past was similarly reimagined: off-the-shoulder leather dresses with raw hemlines were juxtaposed with lace-trimmed busts and velvet ribbon ties; screen-printed graphics representing the gothic flamboyance of Argento’s Suspiria and pulp novels in the same vein were warped and distorted, overlaid with the designer’s own signature in block lettering. Like the teenager with his parents’ record collection, Mimi Wade seemed to take pleasure in the appropriation of the past along with its flaws, savouring the crackles of surface static.

Molly Goddard took a slightly different approach to the traditions of past, warping classic gingham patterns to create disorientating, pop-art-style prints that - along with characteristically bouffant skirts and ruched bodycon dresses in more reserved khakis and blacks - conjured the scene of a quintessential English picnic gone awry in a strong wind. 

“A Shrimp is a Shrimp is a Shrimp is a Shrimp,” was the legend borne by Shrimps’ delicate floor-length dresses and backdrop at the ICA: another appropriation, this time of Gertrude Stein’s famous, “A Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose”. Weiland looked to the 20th Century art patron’s contemporaries Otto Dix and Jean Cocteau for inspiration for her flora and fauna prints, which were woven amongst luxuriant faux furs and elegant embroidery with a bold primary palette to exude an oh-so-modern sense of sophistication.

Even the more modern takes presented at UNDERAGE - whose unconventional shapes and colour-scheme of blacks, whites, and reds, with “a nod to a unisex attitude”, were undeniably forward-thinking - still could not not resist a retrospective glance with the James Dean era screen-printed slogan ‘Live Fast Die Young’ and nods to a long-passed underground punk movement scattered throughout.

How do we interact with the past? Where might those before us have succeeded, where did they fail? How can we inform today with a culture long-gone? These were the questions on everyone’s lips this season, an overarching obsession. But, paradoxically, these are exactly questions that need to be asked if we are to progress. The best way to move forward, the designers suggest, is to look back.