What is the craze of fashion designers for esotericism a sign of?

Article publié le 4 octobre 2020

Text : Henri Delebarre. Article taken from Antidote Karma Issue Winter 2021-2022.

The plethora of astrological motifs referring to the divinatory arts; the dissemination of mysterious symbols requiring initiation to be decoded; the use of “protective” crystals, or New Age incantations… More and more fashion designers are inspired by esotericism, sometimes even going so far as to embrace some of its related practices. Reinforced by the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the successive lockdowns it engendered, this cabalistic surge speaks to a need to reconnect to the other, to the world, and to nature, while enabling fashion to uphold its own mythology and designers to assert their status as a medium.

While it initially referred to a form of philosophical training reserved for a circle of initiates, the term “esotericism” has now moved away from its original meaning to include a set of practices ranging from astrology to witchcraft, lithotherapy, numerology, cartomancy, and even shamanism. This shift in meaning is not insignificant. According to Saveria Mendella, a fashion discourse specialist and doctoral student in linguistic anthropology and philosophy of language at EHESS, “while the meaning of the word ‘esotericism’ has changed, it nevertheless persists. Which means that society continues to depend on it.” Once considered ridiculous because they had evolved on the margins of scientific rationality, esoteric disciplines are now arousing quite some interest – especially among younger generations, who promote them on social media, where communities of neo-sorceresses proliferate and where there is democratic access to various rituals aimed at fostering peace and well-being despite the current maelstrom.
Operating halfway between self-help – from which it derives – and spirituality, contemporary esotericism, which sociologist and historian of religion Damien Karbovnik refers to as “mainstream” esotericism, reflects a quest for meaning, a need for holistic care and for answers to existential questions that animate us and persist despite our society’s gradual move away from traditional religions. The secularization of the world has led us to seek out spirituality once again,” notes Serge Carreira, a fashion and luxury specialist and lecturer at Sciences Po. Fashion historian Xavier Chaumette adds: “When it was founded, the secular Republic waged a battle against superstitions and popular beliefs through the school system and its Black Hussars. But these beliefs persisted amongst the working class, and thus in the world of fashion, which many people were employed in. Life was very hard. You had to cling to superstition.” In sewing, dropping your scissors or pricking your finger with a needle are omens of misfortune, while embroidering a strand of hair in a wedding dress is supposed to be a way to achieve happiness.
Xavier Chaumette has also identified another historical cause for this perseverance of esotericism. “Fashion is largely a women’s world. But until the 1950s and 1960s, women were kept in the dark, made to be gullible. Sewing or embroidery was often the only thing they knew how to do. If they came from a working-class background, they had the choice between working as seamstresses and becoming maids. But it was very hard to make a career. The ones who succeeded Gabrielle Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin were almost all from working-class backgrounds.I think superstition helped them to hold on, to have hope,” he continues.

Constructing Contemporary Myths

The current craze for esotericism in fashion is far from being a new phenomenon: many contemporary fashion designers appeal to this legacy, like Boramy Viguier, who regularly scatters mystical motifs on his pieces. Notoriously superstitious and deeply affected by her religious education in a convent, Gabrielle Chanel, who surrounded herself by good-luck charms and crystal balls, was a great adept of numerology and astrology. Her astrological sign, Leo, is the fifth in the zodiac, and the number five runs through all of her fashion house. Karl Lagerfeld and later on, Virginie Viard, have frequently reactivated these codes. Take the 2022 Cruise show, organized at the Carrières de Lumières in les Baux-de-Provence, where Jean Cocteau, a friend of Chanel’s, shot one of the masterpieces of esoteric cinema (Testament of Orpheus, 1960). These codes participate in the construction of a myth around the brand and its founder, whom consumers are particularly fond of. The millions of views generated by the “Inside Chanel” videos, available to stream on the company’s YouTube channel and exploring subjects like lions, the number five, or camelias, attest to this interest and serve as introductions to the Chanel language.

Serge Carreira : “Using these esoteric motifs is a way of reaching one’s community, of engaging with it. These values, these beliefs, are familiar to and recognized by the consumer to whom the brand is addressed, and they strengthen the sense of belonging to a community and being an insider.”

“Esotericism contributes to establishing the mythic figure of the artist as a being who perceives things differently and draws from a source of inspiration that the common mortal cannot see, thus endowing them with the talent to create. These practices also allow fashion to conserve its edginess,” remarks Saveria Mendella. Proof of this is the legend according to which the brand Louis Vuitton would have called upon a shaman to stop the rain before the 2019 Cruise fashion show, an outdoor event in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
At Dior, esoteric references have also contributed to the origin myth of the fashion house, which was supposedly founded following the prediction of a fortune-teller, Madame Delahaye. In his autobiography, Christian Dior & Moi [Christian Dior & I], Dior recounts that she “ordered” him to create his own fashion house during a consultation. Since the appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri – a fan of the Tarot – to the role of creative director, the brand has increased its references to stars and divinatory arts, which the founding couturier embraced; not only did he trust his fortune-teller completely, he also made the number eight his lucky one and sewed sprigs of lily of the valley into his models’ hems, variously naming them “Horoscope,” “Fortune-Teller,” and “Good Star.” The Castle of Tarot, a film presenting Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Haute Couture summer 2021 line in which each look embodied a Tarot card, resurrected this predilection for esotericism encoded in Dior’s DNA. A few hours before presenting the collection, the fashion house even went so far as to unveil three videos in which the workshop seamstresses, members of the creative studio, and Maria Grazia Chiuri consulted a fortune-teller, whose first question was: “What is your astrological sign?” These esoteric motifs could then be found on some pieces in the collection.

For Serge Carreira, “using these esoteric motifs is a way of reaching one’s community, of engaging with it. These values, these beliefs, are familiar to and recognized by the consumer to whom the brand is addressed, and they strengthen the sense of belonging to a community and being an insider.” Saveria Mendella shares this analysis and remarks, “building connections between a garment and symbols that speak to our individuality, such as the signs of the zodiac, allows brands to tailor themselves morally, rather than physically, so to speak.”
Eager to unite people and to produce that feeling of belonging within a community of initiates in order to give customers the impression that they share a privileged bond, brands are diving into the breach of esotericism. For the past few seasons, there has been an avalanche of astrological motifs, so much so that Saveria Mendella wonders about “a possible loss of their meaning, due to their overuse.” Fendi summer 1993, GmbH winter 2020-2021, Dries Van Noten winter 2021-2022, and even medals in jewelry collections: these are a few among the innumerable examples of the appearance of astrological signs on clothing and other fashion accessories over the years. As early as winter 1938, Elsa Schiaparelli explicitly referenced them in her aptly named “Astrological” collection, which
included a midnight blue jacket embroidered with astrological motifs, including the 12 zodiac signs, a planet, and the Great Bear. The latter was a nod to the nickname given to the dressmaker – a friend of the surrealists, themselves fond of esotericism – by her uncle, a famous astronomer who compared the moles on his niece’s left cheek to that constellation.

In Search of a Connection to Nature and the Cosmos

This analogy between the human being and the cosmos is omnipresent in contemporary fashion, which employs esoteric symbols as metaphors for our desire to reconnect with the world after the Covid-19 pandemic and the successive lockdowns it engendered. This form of connectivity first appeared in Antiquity and was later illustrated throughout the Middle Ages – in manuscripts such as The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry – as the Zodiac Man, a figure that established correspondences between the stars and parts of the human body. Today, this connection can be found in Kiko Kostadinov’s women’s summer 2021 collection, for example. Having drawn inspiration from the Greek muse of astronomy and astrology, Urania, for their summer 2020 collection, the designer-philosophers Laura and Deanna Fanning – both great adepts of esotericism – developed an entire collection around the star during lockdown: it serves as a symbol of hope and good fortune which, beyond the celestial vault, also symbolizes the human being as a microcosm through its pentagrammic form. In their press release, the two designers explained that they were partly inspired by Wicca, a New Age religious movement that centers the pentacle, with its five branches representing both the five elements and the five extremities of the human body. Worshipping the goddess of nature, Gaia – an inspiration for Dior’s 2022 Cruise collection presented last June in Athens – and Hecate, the goddess of magic and the moon, the Wiccans glorify Mother Earth. Many recent esoteric collections echo this celebration. Consider, for instance, the mysterious prologue to the film presenting Burberry’s winter 2021-2022 collection, which also featured pieces studded with stars. Embodying Mother Nature, the rapper Shygirl recites an ode thanking the Earth for its offerings.
As an amalgam of different belief systems popularized in the West in the 1960s and 1970s within a climate of generalized disenchantment not unlike our own today, New Age – and other currents such as the “Gaia hypothesis” expressing a similar desire to reconnect with the Earth – is making a comeback in fashion. Mantras like “Lose Yourself” or “Meditate,” for example, have recently appeared on T-shirts by Paco Rabanne and Ashley Williams. Reinforced during and in the wake of the global health crisis, as well as in response to solastalgia – a term designating the collective distress experienced in the face of climate change – the return of New Age is reflected in a proliferation of esoteric references, which do not always portray the zeitgeist in a positive way. Sankuanz, for example, has represented the shock of the pandemic as a kind of punishment, nature’s retribution against humanity, in a collection that features burnt clothes and garments covered with spikes that are potentially dangerous to their wearers, who occasionally bear the trace of a scar in the shape of an Othala rune on their foreheads. Prized by the designer and used throughout its fall-winter 2021-2022 collection, this esoteric sign used in neo-pagan practices before it was hijacked by white supremacists symbolizes the notion of the human being belonging to a structure that exceeds it, as well as referencing ancestral heritage and family. Elsewhere, inverted pentagrams appear, as in Vetements’ line or on the Nike Air Max 97s – which took a satanic turn (without the brand’s agreement) through Lil Nas X’s collaboration with MSCHF, an artists’ collective, that caused controversy with their transparent soles containing blood. These pentagrams no longer symbolize the human figure and its relation to the cosmos; rather, they represent Baphomet, the devil in the form of a Sabbatic Goat.   
Nevertheless, the majority of these esoteric, New Age references are positive rather than somber, and often paired with ecological messages. Gabriela Hearst, an adept of eco-design, followed in the footsteps of her predecessor Natacha Ramsay-Levi and played the naturopath in her first collection for Chloé. Relying on lithotherapy, she placed necklaces made of citrine or quartz around some of her models’ necks – natural crystals that are supposed to protect or heal by acting on the chakras. “We need to go back to making respectful products (…) but we can’t do that if we don’t respect the source that has offered them to us first,” she confided in May 2021 in an interview for WWD, explaining why she had decided to publish only close-up photos of plants or animals on the brand’s Instagram account, accompanied by philosophical captions as invitations to reflection.
Gabriela Hearst is far from being the only designer committed to sustainable fashion to espouse esoteric references in her discourse. At GmbH, summer 2020 prints featured the Nazar boncuk, a Turkish amulet said to protect against the evil eye, while in summer 2021, the Berlin label adorned its organic cotton T-shirts with ancient esoteric motifs such as a sun or a hand of Fatma, said to protect against misfortune and disease. For her part, the designer Marine Serre – who designated the Moon as her logo, drawing on this symbol of femininity embraced by “neo-witches” and eco-feminists (according to whom the menstrual cycle corresponds to the cycle of the Earth’s natural satellite) that combine, spirituality, feminism, and ecology – proposed a winter 2021 collection largely composed of upcycled pieces and recycled fibers. Titled “Core,” a term that means “heart,” “soul” and “essence,” the collection drew a focus on essentials: it included a series of second-skin pieces in which the moon intermingled with many other highly symbolic motifs such as the labyrinth, the sun, or the salamander – the label’s totem animal, and a metaphor for “upcycling,” since it has the power to self-regenerate. Eager to give fabrics or clothing a second life, Marine Serre has made reincarnation one of the cornerstones of her label. “Today, references to the esoteric are mainly used to turn the designer into a mediator who raises questions and suggests other ways of seeing the world, other ways of thinking,” explains Saveria Mendella.

Establishing the Figure of the Medium-Designer

The link between esotericism and healing, both for humans and for the planet, has been brought to a fever pitch through the concept of the “healing garment,” which considers macrocosmic forms of care via eco-responsible processes, as well as the microcosm of the consumer. For the evocatively named “Another World” collection, which marked his London Fashion Week debut in June 2021 and was inspired by the invisible fairy creatures that are prominent in his native country’s lore, the Welsh designer Paolo Carzana took advantage of the constraints of lockdown to turn to local resources offered up by the Earth. Made out of reused fabrics and plaids, his creations, often open at the chest, owe their colors entirely to natural pigments made from logwood, turmeric, or madder root. The designer hopes that the medicinal properties of these plants will be passed on to the wearer.

Apart from Marine Serre and Paolo Carzana, heart symbolism was also everywhere to be found in the “Gucci Aria” collection, which celebrated the centenary of a fashion house that now sells its own “Esotericum” scented incense sticks and hired the actress Tippi Hedren to play the role of a medium in a 2018 ad campaign. A veritable philosophical and esoteric manifesto devised by Alessandro Michele, who recounted in 2016 that he thought of his father as a “shaman,” the “Gucci Aria” (“air”, in Italian) collection delivers an ode to the breath of life and the numerous reincarnations of the brand over the years. “inhaling, that is letting the world get inside us, and exhaling, that is projecting ourselves in the world that we are,” explains philosopher Emanuele Coccia, whom Michele quotes in a press release that might read as hermetic to anyone who doesn’t speak the language of Gucci’s artistic director. A champion of fashion-thinking, the designer spins the metaphor of reincarnation, speaks of “cosmogony,” and paraphrases Walter Benjamin. At the end of the film introducing the collection, in a scene set in a Garden of Eden where Vitalic’s celestial incantation “waiting for the stars to align” resounds, a model throws a human heart-shaped minaudiere into the air, as if to “give it back to the universe,” Alessandro Michele explained to The Business of Fashion. “Gucci Aria” thus synthesizes all the reasons why fashion resorts to esoteric symbols, a nearly inexhaustible source of inspiration for designers: to mythologize the history of a brand, with its own codes and followers; to initiate a return to nature and reconnect the human being to the cosmos; and to establish the figure of the designer as a medium. For, as Vitalic intones, fashion’s recourse to esotericism reminds us that fashion “cannot escape the need to know / What the future holds.” And while the very principle of fashion is to die in order to better be reborn by announcing the future, season after season, esoteric symbols have remained seductive to designers, whose brands are constantly reincarnated and whose collections are like a compilation of swan songs. “Fashion lives constantly in the future, it must predict what will be worn in 2022, 2023… But it has never been so difficult to “predict.” So, fashion has naturally chosen to rely on the stars,” concludes Xavier Chaumette. 

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