Saint-Laurent's models walk the Sahara duneTWITTER / JOINADARKSIDE

If ever in a moment of hand-sanitising, Panopto-bingeing or edging away from a stranger in the supermarket, you find yourself forgetting what life before the pandemic was like, a quick browse of the Spring/Summer 2020 runways should bring the memories flooding back. Months before even the first reports of ‘pneumonia’ in Wuhan, Yves Saint-Laurent’s Paris Fashion Week showcase was all sparkling black evening gowns, sharply-tailored workwear and boho dresses for every summer festival need. But when Spring 2020 rolled around, festivals and functions were cancelled and blazers gave way to dressing gowns. No one predicted that the most common fashion dilemma of 2020 would be finding the most Zoom-appropriate top to be worn over pyjama bottoms. Yet trend forecasters predict that with the rise of working from home, luxe loungewear is here to stay.

“A decadent reimagining of the emotional journey of the pandemic”

And so, a rethink was in order. Anthony Vaccarello, Saint-Laurent’s creative director, deviated from the traditional Fashion Week schedule to showcase the SS21 summer collection in the Sahara Desert in mid-December. A few weeks later, he released the accompanying short film Summer of ’21, collaborating once again with Gaspar Noé (who you may remember from Lux Aeterna (2019)). Together, the short film and the 10-minute collection capsule are an elegant nod towards the 2020 we never saw coming and the 2021 we hope will replace it; not wildly optimistic, but subtly appreciative of the unique emotional experience of lockdown, and holding out hope for a better future.

An impractical styling for the desert climateTWITTER / DRESSWITHSTYLE

The capsule title alone – “I Wish You Were Here” – is a clear and immediate allusion to the emotional realities of lockdown. Reading it reminded me of a song I heard in the summer which I felt really zoomed in on the fundamental longing for companionship that characterised our Spring 2020 in confinement. Indeed, the vast expanse of the desert, with its unchanging backdrop of rolling sand dunes and pale, cloud-flecked sky, created a setting for the SS21 collection that was at once peaceful and somewhat lonely. Models were mostly dressed in darker tones, with minimalist lines and Saharienne-style jackets. A noticeable contrast from SS20 was a general departure from fitted clothing; flowy tops, breathable silk, chiffon and loose, comfortable trousers paid tribute to the continuing rise of chic loungewear. The more muted clothing and calming scenery, for Vaccarello, symbolised “that yearn for serenity, open space, a slower rhythm.” This atmosphere represents the 2020 of quiet sitting-room nights and half-empty 9am trains – a year where our days at home were perhaps slow, perhaps unexciting, yet also a welcome respite from urban chaos.

“The goal was not sensuality”

Despite the presence of more intimate pieces in both the capsule and the short film – think daring lace and the shortest shorts – the goal was not sensuality. Across the sands of the Sahara and the luxurious stalls of Noé’s theatre, the black-clad models were socially distanced. The Summer of ’21 film is set in a sumptuous mansion, with deep red and gold furnishings – yet amidst all the glamour of their surroundings, the models tread cautiously through the corridors and eye each other with suspicion from their velveteen posts. There is a sense of trepidation, of deliberate distance, which makes the setting less romantic and more haunting. This maintains the level of tension created in the opening shots, where a sharply-dressed Aylah-Mae Peterson runs, screaming in blind terror of an unknown pursuer, through dark woods towards the mansion.

'Daring lace and the shortest shorts'TWITTER / DRESSWITHSTYLE

To me, this felt like a decadent reimagining of the emotional journey of the pandemic; a historic event through the eyes of the people living through it, and through the eyes of a luxury French fashion house. The unbridled panic in the face of an unknown, invisible threat at the start of the film was the mad scramble for toilet paper, hand sanitiser and hasty lockdowns in March. This yielded to a quieter feeling of constant caution, which we are all familiar with after several months of the perpetual risk-assessment accompanying most everyday interactions in the pandemic. The models’ apparent suspicion is the expression they wear as they endlessly calculate risks, threats, dangers. The velvet, red, opulent surroundings and the fear running through them are inspired by the giallo film genre, a subtype of Italian thrillers with emphasis on lurid visuals and psychosexual themes, whose bold and exaggerated settings add to their atmosphere of horror and/or discomfort – just as Noé and Vaccarello’s outlandishly luxurious mansion and the striking beauty of its occupants heighten the tension within it.


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Yet with all the fear, anxiety and sinister premonitions lurking in the air, the models find themselves drawn towards the figure of Charlotte Rampling, who is shown preparing for a performance in yet another lavish, red room. At the end of the film, with a theatre of socially distanced spectators gazing up at her, she emerges onto the stage, as if to announce “the show must go on.” For artists and performers who saw their livelihoods trampled by the pandemic, this message takes on a rather literal meaning; 2021 will be the year they too re-emerge onto the stage, and we can hope for a cultural revival as in-person appreciation of the arts becomes possible again. For everyone else, we are the spectators. We stare, transfixed, at the light, and at the figure holding up her arms in a gesture of triumph. And at the end, we applaud in relief – because hope has won out.