2021 was a year of big moves, devastating losses and cautious but optimistic steps towards a return to life as we knew it — which were, more often than not, met with jarring reminders that we're still in the middle of a global pandemic and that maybe there's no such thing as a "return to normal."
A new political administration in the U.S. had immediate implications on the fashion industry, from introducing us to new faces that would become ubiquitous to a return to using clothing as a messaging tool in D.C. Then, brands began reacquainting themselves with the IRL event, growing in scale and head count as the year progressed. Meanwhile, a global supply chain crisis had an impact on companies big and small — and likely will continue to be an issue in 2022 — and the industry mourned the loss of some of their own.
Ahead, we run through the biggest fashion news stories that shaped 2021.
The supply chain crisis
Even as people returned to work and stores opened up, the effects of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic continued to be felt in the fashion industry, which relies on a complex global supply chain. In 2021, around half of global businesses suffered from disruptions to that supply chain. Travel restrictions, inventory shortages, lack of labor, rising shipping costs and other complications meant that many brands and retailers struggled to meet demand, resulting in significant hits to their profit margins. For shoppers, "out of stock" notifications were at an all-time high, prices were higher and deliveries were delayed. Despite federal efforts to address these issues, they will probably be felt well into 2022, and may drive prices up permanently, according to experts. We'll also likely see many companies streamlining and/or localizing their supply chains, which could dovetail with the ethics-related push for brands to make their supply chains more transparent and less exploitative.
A movement to #StopAAPIHate
In light of the rise in reported crimes targeting the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community throughout the year — and since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic — fashion and beauty professionals sought to raise awareness and combat misinformation, while speaking out about how these issues have long existed within their industries. Many dedicated themselves to the work: Phillip Lim helped organize GoFundMe's #StopAsianHate fundraiser and led a Running for Protest event in New York City; Prabal Gurung consistently used his platform to speak out on these topics; many others lent their time and product towards the cause, and launched projects aimed at addressing anti-Asian racism and hate.
The (short) return of fashion week and IRL events
Once Covid-19 vaccines became more widely available in the U.S. and before more new variants loomed, many in the industry were hopeful that industry gatherings would be a possibility again. There had been a handful of socially-distant, limited-audience outdoor events here and there, but by the summer, we saw more brands testing the waters with more traditional, familiar formats, such as runways and parties. The September fashion weeks did get much closer to feeling “back to normal” — only with proof of vaccination and more masks — though some hesitancy lingered. Now, this will-they-won’t-they of whether or not IRL fashion week will come back may be put on ice, with Omicron and an ongoing issue of vaccine equity globally. (The British Fashion Council already canceled its previously-announced January London Fashion Week.)
Worker's rights amid a global pandemic
The pandemic held a magnifying glass to ingrained exploitation of garment workers globally. This year and last, many already-underpaid workers were laid off without severance, and others became victims of wage theft and diminishing working conditions resulting from price cuts and cancelled and unpaid orders from cash-strapped brands. There have also been reports of union busting and harassment, not to mention health risks. As facilities hastily reopened, many companies saw surges in infection rates before vaccines were readily available or as new variants took over.
This only further motivated workers-rights advocates and organizations to campaign for brands to "#PayUp" and for legislation that protects workers. Retailers agreed in August to extend the Bangladesh Accord (now the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry), which holds them legally accountable for labor violations. In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the Garment Worker Protection Act (or SB62), which similarly holds brands accountable and sets fairer payment practices in the state, which is home to the largest concentration of garment workers in the United States.
Virgil Abloh's life and legacy
The life of one of fashion's most prolific, influential, beloved and promising figures was cut short on Nov. 28, when Virgil Abloh lost a secret, two-year battle with cancer. His sudden passing left the industry bereft as evidenced by countless heartfelt tributes on social media (and a beautiful one at his final runway show), but what became clear in the aftermath is how much the Off-White founder, Louis Vuitton artistic director and DJ left us with: countless products and collections, a plethora of new design ideas, an entirely new blueprint for industry success and a scholarship fund designed to make it easier for people like him to get into fashion.
Paving the way for future generations, he achieved more in his 41 years than many achieve in their lifetimes, but it's still hard not to consider what he could have done with more time. In July, LVMH acquired a majority stake in Off-White and gave him a powerful new role at the conglomerate in which he'd help launch new brands and collaborations inside and outside of fashion. Abloh will no doubt live on through the scholarship fund, the countless people he touched and inspired and the institutions he helmed.
Remembering Alber Elbaz
Just months after unveiling his latest venture in fashion — his biggest move since leaving Lanvin in 2015 — Alber Elbaz died from Covid-19. The entire industry went into mourning, with many reflecting on the ways Elbaz had an impact on them, whether through his work or through his kindness. Designers came together months later, during Paris Fashion Week, to pay tribute to Elbaz in the form of a runway presentation featuring looks inspired by his most iconic collections and his likeness. That collection is set to go on display as part of a special exhibition at Paris' Palais Galliera next year, from March 5 to July 10.
A focus on political fashion
In January, fashion's presence loomed large throughout the events surrounding the Inauguration of President Joe Biden, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both displaying a considered, meaningful approach to their wardrobes, with an emphasis on independent, value-driven American designers: Pyer Moss, Jonathan Cohen, Markarian, Christopher John Rogers and Gabriela Hearst. Though both Dr. Biden and Vice President Harris have declined to comment directly on their sartorial choices — for the Inauguration and even since — their wardrobes speak for themselves, as both have continued to champion diverse talent in public appearances and repeated looks they've loved, time and time again.
Introducing Ella Emhoff
This year began not only with a new Presidential administration, but also with new It girl: Vice President Harris' stepdaughter (aka "Second Daughter") Ella Emhoff stepped onto the inauguration stage wearing Miu Miu and Batsheva, and a style star was born.
Within a week, she had an IMG Models contract, and gigs quickly followed with the coolest brands including a Stella McCartney x Adidas campaign and runways for Proenza Schouler, Miu Miu, Lacoste and Balenciaga. McCartney also dressed her for her first Met Gala. Unofficially — or to those paying extra close attention — she was also the queen of It-neighborhood Dimes Square, and one half of fashion's coolest young power couples. Meanwhile, the Parsons student has been working on her own knitwear line, and amassed a big online audience to sell it to.
Big moves in haute couture
Kerby Jean-Raymond made history as the first Black American designer to present a collection during Paris' Haute Couture Fashion Week, with an inaugural Pyer Moss couture show that celebrated Black innovation. Each look in the show, held at Irvington's Villa Lewaro, corresponded to a product invented by a Black person, including an automated traffic signal, a folding chair, a SuperSoaker and an air conditioning unit. (As Jean-Raymond wrote in the show notes, "Black imagination is this world's greatest technology.")
Though a summer rainstorm forced the original show to be postponed after guests had already arrived Villa Lewaro — and had to be re-planned almost from scratch — many came back days later to witness the history-making runway. "I'm always reversing the erasure of Black people in the larger conversation around the African diaspora. But we need to evolve that conversation every time," the designer told WWD's Booth Moore. "I wanted this to be new, imperfect and fun. And some of the pieces are super hilarious to me."
That wasn't the only highly-anticipated debut on the Haute Couture calendar: Balenciaga also reintroduced its couture collection this summer, following a 53-year hiatus. The Demna Gvasalia-designed line was widely praised by the industry, and has been embraced on the red carpet by the likes of Tracee Ellis Ross, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and Isabelle Huppert.
Change-ups at Bottega Veneta
It felt as though Bottega Veneta was always in the news, for one reason or another. In January, it was because it wiped its presence off social media. In February, it was because it launched a new campaign; in March, a zine. In April, a secret in-person show amid lockdowns raised eyebrows. All the while, shoppers continued to buy into the brand's buzz, under the creative direction of Daniel Lee. Then, in what felt like a surprise twist to many, Bottega Veneta announced that Lee would be leaving, only weeks after he had presented a new collection in Detroit. Less than a week later, his replacement was confirmed, with Matthieu Blazy assuming the top creative job at the brand. (He'd been working on the ready-to-wear team since 2020.) So, yes, a lot happened — but with a new era debuting in February, Bottega Veneta doesn't seem to be leaving the zeitgest any time soon.
Victoria's Secret rebrand attempt
Surely hoping to hold onto some of the market share Savage X Fenty is after, Victoria's Secret spent much of 2021 trying to rehabilitate its business and image after a slew of PR disasters, a spinoff from former parent company L Brands and changes in leadership in 2020. The most noteworthy shift this year was the elimination of its famous "Angels" and the narrow, homogenous, male-focused idea of beauty they represented. In their place is a group called the VS Collective, "an ever-growing group of accomplished women who share a common passion to drive positive change." It includes models like Bella Hadid (who spoke about "taking her power back" in the new role), Hailey Bieber, Adut Akech, Valentina Sampaio and Paloma Elsesser, as well as other figures like athletes Megan Rapinoe and Naomi Osaka. Stores are also being revamped, removing all Angel imagery and adding curvy mannequins. Still, many feel that the rebrand is too little too late; others say that Victoria's Secret is still too big to fail. We'll definitely still be talking about it in 2022, especially with a forthcoming book and docu series chronicling its rise, fall and future.
Rihanna's billionaire status
Rihanna's 2021 began with an ending, or at least a pause: LVMH announced in February that her designer ready-to-wear line Fenty would be "put on hold…pending better conditions." The stakeholders opted to instead focus on growing Rihanna's cosmetics, skin-care and lingerie businesses, and that decision paid off: In August, Forbes announced she was officially a billionaire, estimating her net worth to be $1.7 billion, making her the world's richest female musician and second-richest female entertainer after Oprah. Most of her fortune — about $1.4 billion — so far has come from Fenty Beauty; Savage X Fenty is worth an estimated $270 million. Both of those numbers are likely to go up as she moves forward with expansion plans, including retail stores.
Phoebe Philo's confirmed comeback
Former Céline and Chloé creative director Phoebe Philo still hasn't launched her new LVMH-backed namesake label, but the mere announcement that it was confirmed sent the fashion industry into a tizzy this July. The designer has one of the most loyal fanbases in fashion; the years since her 2017 departure from Céline were filled with speculation as to what she'd do next. Expectations are high.
The year of unexpected collaborations
2021 might go down as the year of the unexpected fashion link-up. There were the ones we saw coming (Yeezy and Gap, announced in 2020 and dropped somewhat sporadically throughout the year), and those that got us scratching our heads (Balenciaga and Gucci "hacking" each other, Skims' Fendi-fied shapewear). Still, the hype wheels went right into motion with all of them: Yeezy x Gap products sold out in record time, crashing Gap's site and getting marked up by resellers; Balenciaga x Gucci's The Hacker Project Hourglass GG Supreme bag became a 9th-inning contender for "It" accessory of the year; and Fendi x Skims was rumored to have raked in $1 million in minutes. So, that formula seems to be working — bodes well for Fendace.
In terms of style, nothing was more omnipresent or influential this year than Y2K, 2000s, early aughts — whatever you want to call it. We saw starlets hitting the red carpet in 2000s-era Versace, Gucci, Betsey Johnson and more, and we saw those brands reference their own Y2K designs (hello, Miu Miu and ultra-low-rise mini skirts in its Spring 2022 collection). The hip New York brands also embraced things like handkerchief tops, low-rise pants, micro minis and visible G-strings. Year-end reports by Google and Lyst confirmed consumer desire for this aesthetic: Searches for "Y2K" were up significantly on both platforms.
The attention-grabbing era was also hot on the luxury resale market. Demand skyrocketed for Fendi baguettes, Balenciaga city bags and Louis Vuitton pochettes, as well as ready-to-wear from that era's Gucci, Blumarine, Chloé and Jean Paul Gaultier collections. If the longevity of the '90s resurgence is anything to go by, we haven't seen the last of this.
Pop-punk fashion reigns supreme
The Y2K resurgence has been so strong that it seems to have conjured the return of pop-punk as a microtrend in both music and style. Leading this movement in 2021 were stars like Machine Gun Kelly, Olivia Rodrigo and Willow Smith, as well as Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, who emerged as a popular music collaborator and very visible boyfriend-turned-fiancé of Kourtney Kardashian. Avril Lavigne even got a Nylon digital cover.
Fashion-wise, studs, spikes, safety pins, plaid skirts, fishnets, ironic neckties, heavy eyeliner and Doc Marten boots were everywhere, from TikTok to the Chanel Cruise runway. Experts say this trend is symbolic of an era defined by nostalgia and anti-establishment ethos, and the promise of more live music in 2022 could give it even more fuel.