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Free the Nipple: How the NSFW Runway Trend Translates to Retail

"Something has happened where people are really hungry for dressing up; they want to celebrate their bodies."
A look from Saint Laurent's Spring 2017 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

A look from Saint Laurent's Spring 2017 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

Following Saint Laurent's Spring 2017 show this past September, the Fashionista staff had quite a bit of fun brainstorming headlines for a goofy, delirious post about nipple pasties. The pasty in question was entirely comprised of silver glitter and worn with an asymmetrical dress that exposed the entirety of Binx Walton's left breast. We settled on "Amidst Many Exposed Nipples at Saint Laurent, One Glitter Nipple Dared to Be Different," and felt it was a fitting way to describe a collection that had 25 bare nipples on display.

Saint Laurent hasn't been the only house to present female nipples as a focal point to both debut and sell clothes. We spotted them all throughout the Fall 2017 shows, for brands like 3.1 Phillip Lim and in ad campaigns for houses like Balmain. The all-important Instagirls have adopted nipples as their platform, too, with Kendall Jenner leading the charge; she told W in October that she loves "[her] tits being out," as evidenced by her nipple piercing that has spawned a thousand copycats.

Nipple exposure and fashion are not, of course, a new pairing, nor should they be treated as such. In the most basic sense, nipples are a functional appendage of the female body, and to regard them as any sort of novelty undermines the basis of the Free the Nipple movement, which argues that women should be allowed to show their nipples in public on the grounds of gender equality. Not to mention, body parts should and will never quality as a trend, a subject Fashionista's own Alyssa Vingan Klein has discussed personally and at length.

While the Free the Nipple campaign only launched in 2012, its political ties are decades-old and closely associated with the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s. But it wasn't until the 1990s that nipples first became wholly associated with fashion, thanks to design juggernauts that included Jean Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana and Liza Bruce, and supermodels like Kate Moss.

"In the '90s, we saw a lot of this," trend forecaster Robbie Sinclair, WGSN's Womenswear Editor, tells me over the phone from Barcelona. "In pretty much every image you saw of Kate Moss, she would be topless or had her nipples showing."

Candice Fragis, the buying and merchandising director for Farfetch, offers that while nipple exposure has always been prevalent on the runway, this season it was much more obvious. And the rationale behind it is no small coincidence. Comprising a famously open-minded business, the fashion community has struggled to process the current political climate and what that means in terms of sexuality, gender identification, race and more. "Social media campaigns and trends with the general zeitgeist about sexuality, gender neutrality and feminism have certainly amplified the messaging this season," says Fragis.

Celebrities and erstwhile influencers are as crucial a player in the zeitgeist as any, and Gerard Maione, who co-founded the luxury vintage retailer What Goes Around Comes Around (WGACA) and counts any number of Instagirls as clients, has seen a corresponding uptick in retail requests for pieces that offer nipple exposure; he even just recently bought into a collection of 25 Liza Bruce pieces from the '90s.

"A lot of our tastemakers are asking for it right now," says Maione. "I think there's an array of things that are bringing it to the forefront." The tastemakers Maione mentions — Jenners, Hadids, Richies, Baldwins and Kardashians, all of whom have incalculable sway over retail — are bringing the exposed nipple from the high-fashion runways to a wider audience. "In general, I feel like there's an acceptance out there," he says. "The new generation is feeling confident, feeling comfortable [about] putting it out there."

The exposed nipple is well on its way to trickling down to mega-retail (which is to say, fast fashion), but Sinclair expresses concern that it's lost its meaning on its way to becoming a capital-T Trend.

"I haven't had any designers speak about why they've chosen to do it — or maybe it's a trend — but I hope that it's about the bigger message, and it's about that celebration of womanhood," says Sinclair. "In the media right now, we're seeing people talk about those things that are taboo and really shouldn't be taboo, like menstrual cycles and mental health and nipples. It's absurd when you think about it."

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Sinclair goes on to discuss how he's not quite sure at what point exposed nipples started out as a message and then became a trend. Though he notes that even as a trend, the messaging remains intact — which, under ordinary circumstances is quite rare, but in this instances proves its impact. "People aren't questioning why nipples are exposed more than we've seen in awhile," he says. "I think that's what's interesting."

Alas, it won't likely transition to retail fully, at least in the Saint Laurent-style, nipples-blazing sense. "I don't think it will be a commercial proposition as a literal trend, but there will be more, and is more, attention to the breast area," says Fragis, who references the 1950s-era cone bra.

"I'd love it if it did happen in a really literal way. But I don't think it will. I don't think the world is ready for girls to walk down the street with their nipples exposed," adds Sinclair. "I think people are afraid to be themselves. We still live in a world where everybody wants to be accepted, so they dress how society expects them to dress. In terms of reality, I don't think it will be a trend that will take off and be commercial."

Off-the-Shoulder Guipere Lace Top, $39.90, available at Zara.

Off-the-Shoulder Guipere Lace Top, $39.90, available at Zara.

But where there are societal norms, there is also momentum. Sinclair cites a Zara top — ballerina pink with an off-the-shoulder neckline — for which the model was braless underneath. There's no visible nipple, but you know that, were it not for Photoshop, there would be. "It's quite interesting to see brands, really commercial brands like Zara, doing that kind of thing because it's saying this is a trend, but then it's not gratuitous," he says. "I don't think it will offend people."

For fast fashion retailers like Zara, being able to identify such momentum is the very basis of its business;, which releases up to 300 new products a day, can identify a "trend" and turn around its own version within two weeks. At many retailers, Zara included, the option is there.

At WGACA, Maione sees this firsthand, but more in a stylistic sense. "There's elements out there that you see — [if] it's a T-shirt where you're not wearing a bra — and it's more like there's nipple protrusions. You know what I mean?" he asks. "This is that happy medium." 

Much of this can be attributed to the recent turbulence within the lingerie market. For a recent Business of Fashion feature, writer Chantal Fernandez honed in on how niche brands such as Lively, Naja, Negative Underwear and Third Love are invading a space once run by traditionally sexy corporations like Victoria's Secret; Victoria's Secret has, in turn, created its own line of nipple-protruding bralettes — a staple for those smaller lingerie labels — for which consumers are fiending. "All these smaller companies are doing them in beautiful ways," says Maione. "And there's clearly a market or they wouldn't be doing that."

Sinclair tells me that in his role as a trend forecaster, he always looks for the deeper meaning of a pattern before it arises. "I always ask, 'What does this mean? Why is it here? Where does it come from?'" he says. "We're living in a world now where people aren't just settling for what we're told and we search for a bigger meaning." And while wearing his trend forecaster hat, Sinclair sees the breast as part of a shift in how women dress now — or how they will soon.

"We're going to start seeing a celebration of the female form," he says. "I believe that we're going to see, maybe, the return of the cleavage. We haven't seen really low cut tops for a long time. At some point it became trashy, and we've had minimalism, and then this activewear thing, for so long now."

What comes next won't be maximalism, exactly, but something with a bit more intention than the normcore styles that have dominated the last several years — until Alessandro Michele. "When we look at our data and see how people are shopping, occasionwear-dressing is really ramped up now," says Sinclair. "I don't know if it's from that Gucci effect, but something has happened where people are really hungry for dressing up; they want to feel good and they want to feel beautiful; they want to celebrate their bodies. That's something that's really going to rise. And I think that this exposed nipple thing is part of that."

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