The Indiscreet Charm of the Luxury Bizarro

Loewe and The Row point to a new surrealist turn in luxury fashion.

the row loewe fall 2022
Courtesy of The Row and Loewe.

Whether you like what Jonathan Anderson is doing at Loewe or not, it’s probably the most important thing happening in luxury fashion right now. Last season, you may recall, the designer took an abrupt turn and made jersey dresses fronted with enormous round metal plates, gowns that pointed outward at nutjob angles, pumps with smashed eggs on the heel, and a swooping shoulder cape over draped tumbles of fabric, like a slutty pope was charging through some temple of ideas. Since he joined Loewe in 2013, Anderson has been lovingly recasting luxury as something handmade, championing the artisanal and slightly aloof but always charming, and suddenly he was gallivanting through the plastic, the distasteful, the absurdist and slightly offensive (aesthetically, anyway).

This season was a bit more pleasing to the eye, though no less out-there. A bustier was made of odd-colored lips. Arms with jaunty, German expressionist angles spindled around a column dress. The show’s recurring grounding silhouette was a smock minidress, made of a thick fabric like something industrial or raw, even crude. Nicely tailored pants puddinged out at the waist into flaps of furs. High-heeled shoes were squeezed into the scrim-like bodice of a tight dress the color of glue; another look began as a strapless little black dress and morphed at the hips into a car.

These clothes are meant as much to offer inspiration as they are intended to lovingly, gently repulse.

For someone who has been so obsessive, even tortured about the meaning of what he does, and pretty respectful of the mystique attached to the word “luxury,” it is a significant turn. And that, along with a handful of other shows this season, has made me think we’re entering a new phase of luxury: the luxury bizarro.

Luxury may mean something different to us all, but we can all agree, at least generally, that over the past few years it’s meant clothing that is staid, refined, understated. Think the blandness of the wardrobes on Succession, on the one hand, or the staples that have trickled down to brands like Everlane, Uniqlo, and Cos, where simple cashmere sweaters and respectable trousers abound. Beautiful fabrics, simple cuts, the occasionally well-placed logo. Neutral colors, of course.

But now, as the writer Dal Chodha recently pointed out to me, that style of clothing “is meaningless if it cannot be elevated by the wearer. You have to be really interesting to wear boring clothes.” The materials may not be the same, but the look is basically indistinguishable.

So what’s a designer to do? Go hard. Make it weird. Even inscrutable.

It also seems as though the customer is there for it. Let’s take a look at The Row, which moved its show to Paris this season after disseminating their collections in a series of lookbooks that seemed to go minorly viral on Twitter every few months. Maybe a casual observer, who came across the brand’s lovely sweaters and simple trousers in a department store, thinks of it as a wealthy woman’s luxury basics, something clean and restrained. But the last few collections–presumably due to the styling finesse of Brian Molloy and designers Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen themselves, who have an enviably odd way with wearing clothes–have gotten stranger and stranger, with alien-like shoes, a belt made of pantyhose, nude tights, jumbo suiting, and other inexplicable details like a folded over waistband in place of a belt.

The collection that Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen showed on Wednesday was downright weird: skinny sweaters with the impossibly long sleeves of a recluse; shirting with enormous collars; and old lady handbags with little napkins (or sweaters?) draped overtop. As at Loewe, the classic bustier dress–maybe the most conservative silhouette in all of menswear, reducing a woman to a sort of busty but sexless mermaid–got the supernatural treatment, with a stormy cloud of fabric at the bust. A number of models wore little pillbox hats, a look not remotely trendy but more like an eccentric’s dubious styling escapade, wearing whatever she fished out of a vintage store trunk. There’s an assertion of personality, which we haven’t seen in tasteful, bourgeois clothes for a while, and a sense that these clothes are meant as much to offer inspiration as they are intended to lovingly, gently repulse.

The Row are among the fashion world’s most commercially-minded designers; when the designers talk, they are mostly focused on their customers and what they are responding to. Their most unusual pieces, particularly the enormous pleated Igor trouser first introduced in Spring 2021, sell out across the internet almost instantly. More than most other designers, they are speaking to a consumer need.

There are a few more things at play inspiring this new direction, I think, in addition to the affordability of the old school rich person uniform. One is the imminent return of Phoebe Philo, who helped suher in the decade’s quiet luxury trend; she is soon to launch her own brand under LVMH, which is pushing designers who have been serving her old customers to be their most extreme. But I also think the past two years have pushed us to put a premium on self-expression, and the old sense of comfort, even if the sweatpants are cashmere, just isn’t doing it anymore. As Chodha told me, The Row and Loewe (and I’d count this week’s Dries Van Noten and Rick Owens shows in here, too), “seem to suggest that the designers (and their customers) have a sense of humor, sure, but are also incredibly schooled in contemporary art, dance, theater, film, music. This is the time of scholarly kookiness.”

The fractured nature of social media’s algorithms, which have made things more and more personalized, means there are very few real “trends” anymore, just a lot of similar products that percolate to the surface for a few moments and disappear, plus a bounty of appealingly all-over-the-place niches like cottagecore and dark academia. Maybe having authentic interests, or demonstrating connoisseurship through clothes, is appealing too. But surrealism seems to be an authentic trend: the desire to show what is not quite normal, or just to the left of it. Things that make us wonder whether we have seen them before–or did we just dream that we did? Fashion designers have spoken a lot about fantasy since the onset of the pandemic, and how it is part of their job to inspire people to dream. But a dream, Anderson in particular seems to realize, is not always a sweet and pleasant thing. It can be confounding, disturbing, and fabulously revelatory.

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