While many of us are still shaking off the remnants of lockdown slobbishness, recent runways have been rife with futuristic and weaponised visions of femininity, heroic fantasy fashion that feels designed to drag us out of the doldrums. This is a mood that strikes a particularly personal chord for me, in terms of my own creative journey and what drew me to fashion in the first place.
For AW22 we’re talking dramatic bursts of “look at me” power-dressing in various new forms, from the biggest and boldest of shoulders and biker-inspired separates to head-to-toe jumpsuits and body shield-style corsetry. And while the full hilt of this approach won’t be embraced for IRL occasions by everybody, it can still act as a reminder of something I like to call Super Suit Theory: my belief in the identity-affirming and often totally transformative power of slipping on that special look that’s guaranteed to supercharge you with some main character energy.
Super Suit Theory is what first got me looking at fashion magazines in my teens. The lightning bolt trigger for some strange osmosis that saw my childhood ambitions shift from wannabe comic book artist to aspiring fashion editor. I had discovered the parallels that exist within these two mediums through hero and model, the costumes and fashions they put on, and the power they in turn possess.
I’m far from being the first person to recognise these connections. In fact, the two industries have had a somewhat symbiotic relationship, with pinnacle examples including the work of Charles Dana Gibson and Nell Brinkley in the first decades of the 1900s, whose single-cell comics featured fictitious It Girls that directly influenced mainstream beauty standards. And similarly, Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl, which came to personify the punkish anti-fashion of the mid-1990s, resulting in ready-to-wear merchandise and even an appearance on the cover of i-D.
However, it’s the superhero genre of comics that’s most intertwined with fashion’s often equally fantastical language. So much so that in 2008 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York launched the exhibition Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. It’s a subject that’s probably deserving of a new chapter given Marvel and DC’s stronghold over the biggest-earning Hollywood movies in the following decade or so.
My lifelong love of female fantasy heroes started with a She-Ra toy. One of my most vivid childhood memories is the rough grip of my father’s hand dragging me away from tables at a local car boot sale, where I’d loudly asked him to buy me said toy alongside her trusty flying steed Swift Wind, both prettily presented in a bright pink box. “No, you can’t have a bloody Barbie,” he spat, visibly embarrassed.
Despite the scolding, if you tell a child they can’t have or do something, their desire for it often increases; in this instance, his refusal crystallised my pretty specific penchant for women wielding weaponry and/or special powers. This quickly progressed from the Saturday morning cartoon type to a range of comic books and graphic novels that were definitely too mature for me, but apparently more appropriate under the guise of their hyper-masculine casual violence.
Bought in bulk second-hand or on occasional trips to a local comic book mecca, or via the medium of plastic-wrapped US imports and memories of a selection of awkward types sifting through them, the sharply rendered characters of my childhood collection have stayed with me indelibly. In essence, they protected me from the looming sense I was somehow different, but also armed me with the confidence of possible talent, as I set about creating my own.
Looking back, it’s little surprise that as a gay kid who loved fancy dress, I was so drawn to these elaborately attired pen-and-ink idols, whose whole motivations were often rooted in their harbouring a secret identity. In fact, comics were the perfect place for me to first begin recognising my queerness.
Aside from the strange excitement I found in the spandex-clad muscles of most male characters, my love of female heroes perfectly aligns with gay men’s tendency to iconise strong female leads. A fact so rooted in queer culture that the famous “friend of Dorothy” slang stems from the community’s diehard love of Judy Garland.
Discovered through ’90s American comics, my own personal Dorothys were a little less rosy-cheeked, with “strong female lead” taking on a double meaning given their bodybuilder-meets-supermodel physiques and snarling attitudes. Stand-out examples include Chaos! Comics’ Lady Death, a white-haired goddess of the underworld whose black-and-gold costume seems straight out of Versace’s playbook of the same era, minus the Medusa emblems, swapped out for gilt skulls. Malibu Comics’ Mantra, an immortal male god placed in the body of a beautiful young woman, which today can easily be re-read as some kind of LGBTQ+ allegory, albeit with a few problematic details such as the name itself, an abbreviation for “man transformed”. And finally, Image Comics’ Void Trip, a silver-dipped teleporting beauty that I never really followed story-wise but was immediately drawn to thanks to its holographic debut cover. A character that bears more than a passing resemblance to Thierry Mugler’s famous metal and plexiglass Cyborg, created in collaboration with Jean-Jacques Urcun for his AW95 show.
Through adult eyes I can of course see that these scantily-clad pneumatic-looking heroes were crafted from a hypersexualised straight male gaze, but my deepest takeaways centred on their subversive slant on femininity. The fact that their “super” abilities were on a par with male counterparts was a given, the bonus being a kind of souped-up feminine energy that existed as their crowning glory, tipping the coolness scales in their favour.
As a gay kid, one special power readily possessed was the ability to read microaggressions, and one of my personal red flags – or should I say the thing that caused my cheeks to burn the same colour – was any use of the word “feminine” around me. Thus, through comics, the source of my greatest fear was transformed and presented as something triumphant.
Returning to Mugler, there is perhaps no designer in history who has presented a stronger vision of that souped-up femininity I so loved. Discovering the existence of his work pretty much sealed the deal in my wanting a career in fashion, the equation being: why bother drawing these characters, when you just might meet the real deal? In fact, the designer himself appeared to become a character straight out of Marvel after retiring from the spotlight in the early ’00s. Reverting to his birth name, Manfred, he became a reclusive and somewhat mythological figure, embarking on a radical physical transformation through bodybuilding and surgery.
With the famed couturier’s sudden passing this January came a sea of Instagram tribute flashbacks to his out-of-this-world runway spectacles from the ’80s and ’90s, which featured a range of fetishistic, robotic and anthropomorphic imaginings. And whether it was the effects of too much box-set escapism during lockdown or the boredom of watching many brands stutter in a post-pandemic play-it-safe phase, the relevance of these images was collectively agreed upon. In fact, looking further, they revealed a golden thread of influence, through which we can begin to chart the re-emergence of heroic fantasy fashion.
Mugler, the house that Thierry founded and retired from in 2002, which is currently led by creative director Casey Cadwallader, naturally carries many of the late designer’s hallmarks, though remixed for a Gen Z audience via clubby body-conscious shapes and athleisure fabrications. Cadwallader’s most notable signatures are his mesh-panelled and laser-cut styles that trace and emphasise the body’s contours, to superhuman effect.
In a different way, Mugler’s baton is also carried by Schiaparelli’s creative director Daniel Roseberry, who in the two short years since his appointment has pulled the brand out of the history books and into the forefront of red-carpet headlines, creating instantly legendary editorial. The main similarities lie in Roseberry’s regal warrior woman aesthetic, which sees outfits become stand-alone body sculptures, as in AW22, where torsos rippled with moulded six packs and busts became violently jutting shields.
While the influence is less direct, parallels between Mugler and the work of Balenciaga’s creative director Demna can also be drawn. Firstly, there’s the brand’s trademark bold-shouldered silhouette, which arguably carries the essence of Mugler’s extreme shoulder pad heyday. Not to mention the fact that Mugler’s last muse, Kim Kardashian, is now Demna’s most important one. And finally, there’s the way in which Balenciaga is consistently upping the ante with the staging of its seasonal presentations, demonstrating an old-school level of showmanship almost akin to Mugler’s stadium-scale extravaganzas.
For its AW ’22 presentation, the house depicted heroes front and centre. Beyond the real-world kind that Demna touched on through several statements of support for the plight of Ukraine, the fantasy type were also very much present. Appearing in an “on with the show” act of theatrical resistance, models trudged out into an encased snowstorm. An awe-inspiring setup that exaggerated the already science fiction quality of body-hugging Lycra and super extended hemlines that dramatically billowed in gale force winds.
A heroic aesthetic was also found front row where Kardashian appeared bound in logo’d gaffa tape, a subversively scrappy piece of fetish clothing that recalls the homespun-looking costume of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Far more exciting than Zoe Kravitz’s latest appearance as the character.
It’s little surprise that Kardashian, who is, let’s face it, oftentimes a living, breathing barometer of the style zeitgeist, has taken on the fantasy hero look so deftly. In fact, she appears to have wholeheartedly ascended to a superhero version of herself through her apparently endless Balenciaga-curated wardrobe of skin-tight bodysuits, matching gloves and mask-like shades. It’s a look that feels like the logical progression for her Instagram-fuelled celebritydom, one that’s spawned the now standardised projection of an amplified persona through serialised stories, often reaching avatar-like extremes through filters and make-up contouring.
The fantasy hero look also extends beyond the influence of Mugler’s golden thread, existing as a generalised “of the moment” mood, even permeating a range of less likely brands.
At Gucci, the artful eccentricity of Alessandro Michele’s vintage feel ensembles received a distinct dose of severity through tailoring that was sharper than before and lingerie-inspired pieces paired with leather boots and berets that felt distinctly femme fatale. A centrepiece collaboration with Adidas also brought a new dynamism, reaching its pinnacle in a PVC number that featured the brand’s famous three-stripe motif with a zippered, bullet-proof-looking bodice.
And at Dior, where Maria Grazia Chiuri’s solid undercurrent of female empowerment typically takes a softer form, a distinctly futurist spirit took hold from look one: a black bodysuit laden with coils of embellishment that resembled circuitry. It was a mood echoed by a subsequent series of outfits that featured biker body panelling, graphic corsetry and spaceman-style gauntlet gloves.
Browsing all of these collections on Vogue.com and compiling a selection of my favourite Super Suits for styling my own take on the suddenly-relevant-again notion of heroic fantasy fashion, I’m struck by a full-circle moment. In essence, I’m that same kid wearing out endless packs of felt tips in the pursuit of conjuring my own heroes. A habit that was so extreme my mum gave up on buying me sketchpads in favour of more economical office supply reams of computer paper. I’m also struck by how lucky I’ve been to find an industry which, despite its many flaws, has been a safe space that finds no issue in a boy preferring his heroes to be female, or expressing his queer identity in any other way for that matter.
Top image: Yuki wears jumpsuit by BLUMARINE. Taken from Issue 69 of 10 Magazine – PEACE, COURAGE, FREEDOM – out now. Purchase here.
Photographer CLARK FRANKLYN
Fashion Editor, Concept and Text VINCENT LEVY
Hair KOTA SUIZU at CLM
Make-up BEA SWEET at CLM
Model YUKI VAN GOG at Select Model Management
Photographer’s assistants NEIL PAYNE and MARIJA VAINILAVICIUTE
Fashion assistants ELVIJA VITOLA and KEELEY DAWSON
Casting IKKI CASTING
Special thanks to JAMIE HEWLETT and TODD MCFARLANE