The power of fashion in dark times

As the world battles war and natural disasters, it’s easy to dismiss fashion in dark times. But what about the stories fashion connects us to?

Article by Christopher Riley

Photography by Max Anderson.Photography by Max Anderson.

When I think of my father, I think of his Gucci loafers. He had two pairs: one black leather and one brown suede, both with a gold buckle that, in my mind, was a keyhole to a whole other world to which I was desperate to gain access. I knew nothing about style, about who on earth this Gucci fellow was, or why my dad needed two pairs of the same shoe, but one thing I did know was whenever he put them on his feet, he transformed from a reinsurance broker to a certified rockstar.

To this day, no one has ever looked cooler to me than my dad in his Gucci loafers. He was the first person I ever saw wear dress shoes with no socks. The combination didn’t seem to make sense, which of course made it all the more appealing. When he was at work, I would sneak into this bedroom and slip my bare feet into a pair – the black leather was my favourite – and pose in front of the mirror. I didn’t know what my future looked like, but one thing was for certain: it was going to involve a pair, or two, of Gucci loafers. 

There’s a reason I’ve recently been overcome by these nostalgic flashbacks. As the world battles floods, fires and wars, people all over the world have been forced to leave behind objects like my dad’s loafers; objects that held deep personal significance destroyed or left behind as their owners were forced to choose their lives over their belongings. It’s easy to make the conclusion that in the face of such catastrophes, things like fashion don’t matter. And in many ways, that’s absolutely true. That cashmere sweater you love will do little for you when you’re fleeing a war zone; just as your favourite cardigan you picked up at a flea market in Berlin will be the last thing on your mind when your house floods with water. 

But I’d offer an alternative conclusion. Because fashion is at its best when it takes on the transformative powers that exceed the mere function of the item itself. The British designer Alexander McQueen was motivated to create dresses in order to empower women, to make them fearless. I’ve never worn a McQueen dress myself but, in all their shocking beauty, I can see how that would be the case. Meanwhile, Virgil Abloh’s clothes have the power to make us feel like a mischievous rebel. He challenged conventions, making fashion fun again – a sensibility that was transferred from the designer to the wearer. These are more than just clothes; they’re the stories that we use to define ourselves.

Ever since I started buying my own clothes, I’ve been looking for my version of my dad’s loafers. Items that make me feel like a kid in my parents’ bedroom again, filled with ambition and innocence who wanted nothing more than to have his feet grow to a size 10 so they’d fit. Things, they come and go. But stories last forever.